How to Move From Fragile to Strong in Popular Songwriting

Moving from fragile elements to strong ones is an important contributor to the contrast principle of songwriting.

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Guitarist - Band concertMost songwriters are at least somewhat acquainted with the concept of verses being where we hear the basics of a song’s story, and then choruses being where we hear the emotional reaction to that story. You should also know that when it comes to chords, you’ll get the more interesting “fragile” progressions accompanying the verse, and then the stronger ones appearing in the chorus.

That moving from “fragile” to “strong” is a concept that applies to all elements in a song, not just the chords and lyrics.

To call something “fragile” in music is not a criticism. It’s an important structural characteristic. An element is considered fragile if it is in any way ambiguous in nature. In the arts, ambiguity is usually a positive attribute, something that stimulates our imagination and gets our attention.

In most cases (not just music, by the way – all the arts are like this), it’s usually most satisfying to start with the ambiguities up front, and then move to stronger, move obvious and less ambiguous structures.

In songs that are in verse-chorus format (including optional sections like the pre-chorus and bridge), you’ll usually find that the verse is the fragile element, and the chorus is the strong one. In songs that are in one of the many verse-only designs, the start of a verse will be fragile, and the end will strengthen.

Here’s a closer look at various components of a song, and how fragility and strength happens.

  1. Chord Progressions: A fragile chord progression will be any sequence of chords that, on its own, sounds interesting even if it doesn’t point in an obvious way to the key of the song. A strong progression will make the key much more obvious. An example of a fragile progression from C major: Dm  Em  Am  F  Dm  Em  F  Am… An example of a strong progression from C major:  C  F  Dm  G  Am  F  G  C.
  2. Lyrics: A fragile lyric simply means that the story could go in almost any direction, and we’re willing to get pulled along with that story line. Every line of lyric adds to the situation. A strong lyric tends to centre in on our emotional response to the story. So a chorus lyric doesn’t add much, if anything, to the story. It prompts an emotional reaction, and the strong chord progressions that go along with it aid in that concept.
  3. Melody: A fragile melody, like a fragile chord progression, will consist of shapes and ideas that move in a wandering kind of way. The melody will move up and down as the lyric and situations dictate. And like our reaction to a good lyric, we love being pulled around by that captivating melody. A strong melody will tighten up, use more repetition, and its structure will simplify, which means we’ll find it easier to sing and easier to remember.
  4. Instrumentation. A fragile instrumentation simply refers to its transparency. A verse’s instrumentation will often be lighter than what you’d find in the chorus. A strong instrumentation will give you close to everything the song is going to give you. Often the arrangement will add something to the final chorus repeats, but you get the idea: instrumentation generally moves from lighter to fuller as a song moves from verse to chorus.

Moving from fragile to strong and then back again is a crucial feature of music, even if the differences are subtle. But even subtle changes are an important contributor to the contrast principle of music, and a very important part of what makes music interesting and memorable.

 

How Imagery Empowers Song Lyrics

Properly applied, imagery will make your lyrics more powerful and more memorable. Here’s how.

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Singer Lyrical imageryImagery means to use words and phrases that appeal to, and perhaps stimulate, our physical senses. Imagery, when used correctly in the writing of song lyrics, has several immediate benefits, each one of which naturally progresses to the next benefit:

  1. It clarifies and deepens meaning by partnering meaning with emotional relevance.
  2. It then intensifies emotions.
  3. It then makes lyrics (and by extension, songs) more easily remembered.

Imagery is often thought of as a synonym for metaphor and simile, but it is more all-encompassing than that (though it does include metaphor and simile). In its most basic usage, imagery means creating whatever words and phrases necessary to stimulate a response from our physical senses.

It’s an important part of writing good lyrics, because imagery allows you to hear the voices of the song’s characters more clearly, and feel the emotional content of what they’re saying more intensely. Imagery allows the listener to place him/herself inside the song: to see the picture, hear the sounds, feel their effects, and so on.

Sometimes, imagery intensifies emotions by using a simple metaphor, as in the third line of this Cole Porter classic, “So In Love“:

Strange, dear, but true, dear,
When I’m close to you dear,
The stars fill the sky,
So in love with you am I.

 In that lyric, even though it’s the third line that provides a clear picture for the listener to relate to, you can also pick up other aspects of the style of writing that qualify as imagery. In particular, the constant use of the word “dear”, which offers a feeling of tenderness and warmth.

Sometimes, lyricists will attempt to intensify emotion even though the specific meaning of what they’re writing is left up for debate. In other words, powerful imagery can deepen the emotional power of a song, while leaving the meaning ambiguous. A great example of powerful imagery used in this way is the Lennon-McCartney tune “Come Together” from the Abbey Road album:

Here come old flattop, he come grooving up slowly
He got joo-joo eyeball, he one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker he just do what he please

We’re not sure who he’s writing about, or why (and by Lennon’s admission, it’s “gobbledygook”), but there is no denying the effect of the words. The emotional power of the images is clear, even if (paradoxically) the meaning isn’t.

Imagery is not something you want to consider an afterthought in the writing of lyrics. They need to be considered at the front end of the creation of your song’s text. Try this:

  1. Write your song topic across the top of a page.
  2. Write a brief paragraph that centres in on the point of your song: what is it really all about?
  3. Create two lists of words: one which contains words and phrases that pertain directly to your topic, the other which contains words and phrases that describe emotional reactions/feelings pertaining to your topic.
  4. In both lists, create words and phrases that conjure up images and otherwise stimulate the senses. They may apply directly or indirectly to your song topic.

That final step taps into imagery, and gives you a vocabulary of interesting combinations of words that will empower your lyric. If, for example your song topic is: Helping the Homeless, you might create a paragraph of how a homeless person ended up being the person who somehow helped you, giving you a dollar when you were digging for change at the bus stop.

Next, your first word list might include words like: homeless, rags, staring, sitting, sleeping, tatters… Your emotional word list might include: angry, sneering, look away, pity, helpless, why, hope…

For your imagery list, you might come up with phrases like “dirty life”, “fallen between the cracks”, “daughter of despair,” “cloudy eyes” “would do anything for change”, “wind-swept gaze”. Keep in mind that you won’t use all of these phrases, but it’s good to have a vocabulary of ideas that can stimulate your imagination, and get you creating better, more powerful lyrics.

It’s amazing how much simple imagery can empower your writing style, and make your lyrics a thing of beauty. It doesn’t take much, and results in your audience feeling what you’re writing in the most poignant way possible.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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How Working Backwards Through a Song Strengthens Its Structure

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Songwriting music paperWhen you plan a traveling vacation for yourself, it’s normal to think first of what your trip’s most significant event or day or city is going to be. From there, you plan out the rest of the trip, both forward and backward in time, using that significant event as a focal point. In particular, you’ll probably think about how you’re going to get to that city — what’s going to lead up to it.

By establishing the climactic moment of your trip first, you can make it even more eventful, even if it’s just one memorable happening in a trip-full of memorable happenings. Once you know, for example, that viewing the Eiffel Tower is your dream, you can now plan the days that lead up to it, making that day all the more special.

Songs are not much different. Most of them will have a climactic moment, and most of the time, that moment will be somewhere in the chorus. So now you know why many songwriters start the process by creating a chorus hook, something that represents the song’s catchiest moment. From there, it’s possible to create all the moments that lead up to it, and that strengthens its structure.

In that way, you work backwards, and then test how things sound by checking forwards. Here are some specific suggestions:

Lyrics: A chorus lyric will tell the world exactly what the song is about, because identifying the emotion of the moment (something a chorus does quite naturally) identifies exactly why a listener is going to engage with your song. Once you know that much, you can create a verse lyric that builds properly, making the chorus lyric more poignant and powerful. You have an opportunity to write a verse that knows already exactly where it’s going.

Melody: Part of what makes a climactic moment powerful is that it is usually the highest note of your melody. So once you know where that is, you can construct melodic shapes that lead into it from below. It will set up the climactic moment in the chorus perfectly.

Chord Progressions: The sense of randomness that comes from many weak chord progressions is often made worse by the feeling that the progression has no specific aim: no obvious tonic chord. This can work to your advantage in a verse, but if you really want a chorus progression that works well, try working backwards. Play the tonic chord (the one representing the key of your song), then add a chord in front of it. Once you’ve got two that sound good, place another in front, and so on. By working backwards, then checking forwards, you create strong progressions that work really well in a chorus.

Good songwriting is often a case of working backwards and checking forwards. When it’s done well, the listener never gets any idea that many of the song’s important elements were composed specifically to make a later event sound better. As far as the audience is concerned, songs only work in a forward direction. But that shouldn’t prevent you from exploring the benefits of working backwards.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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Pairing Up a Minor Verse With a Major Chorus

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Piano keyboardYou’re likely aware that moving from a minor key verse to a major key chorus is a very popular characteristic of pop music. A classic example is James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend”, for which the verse is F minor, then switching to Ab major for the chorus. In music theory terms, that’s called moving from minor to the relative major. That term, “relative”, tells us that the two keys (F minor and Ab major) are related by virtue of the fact that they use the same key signature.

That minor-to-relative-major feature works well because it has a way of brightening the overall musical sound. And because both keys are “related”, they both use the same set of chords; it’s just the sense of tonic that shifts:

F minor: Fm Gdim Ab Bbm Cm Db Eb

Ab major: Ab Bbm Cm Db Eb Fm Gdim

So the two keys move back and forth quite easily, and rarely startles the listener to do so. Listen to Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” for another example of a song that moves from minor to relative major between the verse and chorus.

But there are other ways to move from minor to major. Try this:

  1. Build the chord list for C major: C Dm Em F G Am Bdim
  2. Now create a chord progression that focuses on the ii-chord (Dm) as a kind of tonic. This will work well as a verse progression (Example: Dm  Am7  G  Dm  Am7  G |F  Am  Dm  C/E  F  G) [LISTEN]
  3. Now using the same list of seven chords, create a progression that focuses on the I-chord as a tonic. This will pair up well as a chorus (Example: C  F  G  C  F  G  Am  Em  F  C  Dm  F  G) [LISTEN]

As you can see, in this kind of plan, it’s fine to use major chords in a primarily minor progression, and vice versa. That’s why you’ll see G, F and so on, in your verse progression, and Am and Em in your chorus.

The end of the chorus example (G) will move well into another verse progression: Dm Am7… etc.

You get the same kind of benefits by focusing on the ii-chord for the verse as you would if you focused on the more common vi-chord relative minor: mainly that same brightening effect as you move from verse to chorus.

You can also try using the iii-chord as your tonal focus, with something like this for a verse:  Em  F  Dm  Em, etc.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. $95.70 $37.00 (and you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

Deliberately Sounding Like Your Songwriting Hero

Always afraid you’re copying other songwriters? Why not try it as a songwriting technique?

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Singer-SongwriterBack when I was a composition student, my favourite composers were Maurice Ravel and Charles Ives. Many are familiar with Ravel’s music, with Bolero probably being his most popular piece. You may not have ever encountered the amazing music of American Charles Ives, but I found his compositions beyond incredible, decades ahead of his time. His “The Unanswered Question” was composed in 1906, only a little more than a decade after the death of Tchaikovsky, but their music sounds a century apart.

One day, at my weekly composition lesson, my prof laughed as he listened to the piece I was currently working on, and said that it sounded a bit like a mixture of Ravel and Ives. I was a bit horrified, because I really just wanted to sound like myself, and I wondered if I was inadvertently plagiarizing something Ravel and/or Ives had composed, something I had heard before.

My prof put my mind at ease, and said that no, he wasn’t accusing me of anything, but that I had created my own unique blend of their compositional techniques.

What about you? Do you ever fear that you are accidentally plagiarizing the music of your favourite songwriters? The good news is that you likely aren’t. Unless you purposely try to copy melodic or lyrical bits you’ve heard, you’re probably not in danger of being accused of plagiarizing. It does happen accidentally, but not as often as you might think.

And in fact, I might suggest copying your favourite songwriter’s style deliberately, as a songwriting technique. Yes,  intentionally try to sound like your musical hero, whoever he/she may be.

The suggestion isn’t as daft as you might think. In fact, most great artists have spent a great deal of time as students of their genre, copying the works of great masters. There’s something powerfully instructional about watching your own “Mona Lisa” appear beneath your paintbrush. In a sense, it’s like learning as an apprentice might.

In much the same way, writing a song in the style of Springsteen is like using him as your own master, with you as the willing student. You aren’t copying an already-existing Springsteen tune, of course, but it forces you to think like him, and make the kind of decisions you think he’d make. The Beatles made no secret about the fact that they tried to copy the sound and style of Bob Dylan, The Byrds, and other influential contemporaries.

In the end, you’ll finish up with a song that will most likely sound uniquely yours, and not like your hero at all. That’s because when it comes down to it, only Springsteen sounds like Springsteen.

It’s not easy to say specifically what deliberately copying a songwriter’s style does for you. It may look like a simple matter of trying to copy the success of a greater musician, but there’s more than that happening. Trying to sound like your hero encourages you to think constantly of the end product. You’ll find that that skill will transfer to all the music you try writing – where you constantly think of the end product.

So if you live in constant fear of sounding too much like other writers, why not try doing it purposely as a songwriting technique. You’ll know if you’ve come too close for comfort, but even if you do, the benefits to your own songwriting technique make it a worthwhile exercise.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. $95.70 $37.00 (and you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

Song Intros: Making them Relevant and Enticing

Your song’s intro might be a wasted opportunity to build an audience for your song.

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Band - Song introThe job of a song intro is a pretty simple and obvious one: introduce the song. Don’t confuse the simplicity of the job with the level of importance, however. A good song intro does a lot more than say, “I’m about to start a song.” It often gets left to the recording stage to come up with something good, but there is no reason that an intro can’t be composed and honed as part of the songwriting process itself.

A song intro does several things:

  1. Establish the tempo and basic rhythmic structure.
  2. Establish the key.
  3. Establish the mood.

Beyond those three, intros can optionally do other things: set up an intro hook, introduce the full instrumentation that the listener can expect, and offer a melody that differs from the verse and chorus, also acting as a connector that brings a chorus back to the next verse.

What makes an intro especially important is that it’s the first thing a listener encounters when they hear your song, and so making it both relevant and enticing is crucial. In a very real way, an intro can be as important as a hook, and so it’s important to get it right.

An intro that doesn’t entice your listener means that within seconds they can be clicking or tapping their way to some other song that isn’t yours, and that’s a problem. Your intro allows your song to stand up and demand attention.

Here are three basic ideas for what your intro can be doing for you:

  1. Give the listener the expectation that something great is about to happen. It’s why many song intros are based on an enticing rhythm, and why often a simple strummed chord can work. That rhythmic groove gets the listeners’ musical imagination working. The danger of a simple strum is that listeners will dismiss its musical value pretty quickly, so don’t let a strummed guitar chord go on for more than 10 seconds, tops.
  2. Make the intro relevant to the rest of the song. There needs to be something about that intro that sounds material to the main sound and message of the song. In Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” from his “So” album, the intro is about 40 seconds long, long enough to give most producers a few sleepless nights. But it works because it’s interesting, rhythmically captivating, with a fascinating instrumentation. And, most importantly, it’s relevant to the sound and mood of the rest of the song.
  3. Consider an intro melody. By this I mean a melody that differs from the verse and chorus melodies, but is interesting in its own right. This melody can then be used to help take the end of a chorus to the beginning of the next verse, or serve as an outro. (Chicago does this with their 1970s hit “Call On Me”).

I can’t think of any song for which I thought the intro was too short, but there are many songs that suffer from an intro that’s too long. Songs with no intro at all can be exciting, as the main message of the song starts to get communicated to the listener immediately. No intro can definitely be an attention-grabber.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. $95.70 $37.00 (and you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

Simplifying Lead Vocal Rhythm in a Chorus

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Brian May (Queen)What does Queen’s “Sweet Lady” (Brian May), John Legend’s “All Of Me” (John Stephens, Toby Gad), and Lorde’s “Royals” (Lorde, Joel Little) all have in common? They all demonstrate a common principle in pop song construction where the vocal line of the chorus uses longer note values than in other parts of the song. In other words, the verses (and bridge, if applicable), use quicker, shorter notes, switching to longer notes when the title gets sung.

There is a logic to this that’s pretty clear when you stop to think about it. The chorus is where the most strongly emotive text occurs, and the song title specifically is usually the most passionate part of that text. By elongating the song title, you draw the most emotion you can out of those words.

That doesn’t often apply, by the way, to the instrumental backing rhythms of the chorus, and you can hear that fairly demonstrated in “Sweet Lady,” where the guitar and drums in the chorus play an intensely syncopated accompaniment even while the vocal long relies on basic “on-the-beat” rhythms:

Sweet Lady (Queen) chorus rhythms

It’s not just an issue of the vocal line rhythms elongating; there is a general sense of simplification when it comes to chorus rhythms. So not only do most song choruses revert to longer note values, you also see far less syncopation or other rhythmic devices. Chorus rhythms in general are more likely to resort to simple quarter note/eighth note rhythms, with less rhythmic gymnastics involved.

The difference is often not dramatic, but enough to allow lyrical emotions to rise:

John Legend: All of Me (rhythms)

Most song hooks are a catchy combination of melodic shape and rhythm that gets repeated over and over again. In chorus hooks, like the three songs we’re talking about here, the simplifying of the chorus rhythms has several positive effects when compared to the verse: it makes the hook easier to sing, easier to remember, and most likely to tap into the emotional brain of the listener.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. $95.70 $37.00 (and you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

Choosing a Song Key That Makes Best Use of Your Vocal Range

Don’t always assume that you should be singing your songs in your most comfortable range. There are other important considerations.

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Singer-songwriterThe key you choose for your song is not usually a songwriting issue. Give the same song to ten different performers, and you’ll find that the  key is always adjusted to consider the vocal range of each particular singer. Vocal range can become a songwriting issue if the interval between the lowest and highest note is large: the larger that interval, the fewer choices for moving the key around. So assuming that others might sing your song, a large range will limit the possibilities for certain singers.

These days, especially if you’re an up and coming singer-songwriter, it’s quite likely that you’ll be producing your own recording, and then choosing the key does become a concern. How do you know you’ve chosen a good key?

Musical instincts tell you that a song should ideally be placed in the middle of a singer’s range, making it possible to reach the lowest and highest notes with relative ease. But that’s not always the case:

  1. For songs that display intense emotions: nudge the key higher. It may take you into a range that makes your highest notes a bit scream-ish, but as long as it’s not excessive or long-lasting, the higher key will match the subject matter a bit better.
  2. For songs that are quietly introspective: nudge the key lower. Your lowest notes may be a bit foggy, but it will work better for those quietly thoughtful lyrics.

As a voice moves up and down, the singer uses different vocal techniques to reach the required notes. For male singers, the three basic registers are:

  • Chest voice: The lowest range, easiest to sing.
  • Head voice: The highest range using a normal vocal technique.
  • Falsetto voice: Beyond “the break”, where the vocal sound changes to become breathy and often lacking in normal resonance. (John Legend, chorus of “All of Me“)

For women, the three registers are usually described as:

  • Chest voice: As with men, the singer’s lowest range. (Fiona Apple: “Criminal“)
  • Middle register: From the midrange of the voice up to the point where the voice production changes to a lighter, breathier tone.
  • Head voice: Highest range, where resonance is limited, and the voice sounds wispy and light. (Listen to the final vocal line in Regina Spektor’s “You’ve Got Time“.)

When it comes to choosing key, it’s best to experiment. Singers will move from one kind of voice to another usually as their own limitations require it.

As a singer, you may spend a lot of time trying to make the switch from one voice type to the others seamless and smooth within the same song. But some singers switch within the same line of music, and don’t attempt to disguise the change in vocal quality as it happens. It’s a hallmark of their vocal style. Imogen Heap, for example, demonstrates moving from chest voice to middle register to head voice all within the first 10 seconds or so of “Run Time.”

The advantage to pushing your own vocal boundaries is that you add the human element to your song lyric. A lyric that expresses the pain of losing a friend may gain new meaning, for example, if its highest notes are belted out, sacrificing quality for emotive power.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

How a Good Lyric Makes You Want to Listen

It’s not just emotion that makes a lyric connect. It’s alternating emotions that really do the trick.

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Writing song lyricsWhen a lyric is good, it makes you want to listen to a song over and over again in much the same way that a good painting makes you want to keep looking at it time and time again. You usually don’t tire of a well-written lyric. There’s something about it that touches all the right nerve endings in our musical brain. How does it do that?

For any lyric that we think of as good, we can often point to one or two lines that really work well for us, but it usually takes more than that to make it ultimately enticing. A good lyric pulls us along relentlessly, changing as it goes, and it’s how  it changes that makes it so successful.

How do lyrics change? Here are the main song sections, and what each section in a verse-chorus-bridge song needs to do:

  1. Verse lyric. It needs to set up situations quickly, describing the people and related circumstances in imaginative ways. It’s not a problem to resort to some emotional descriptions, but remember that setting the stage is the primary goal. The stage, more than your emotional reaction to it, is key.
  2. Chorus lyric. It needs to describe your own personal emotional response to the plot. It needs to do that in a way that allows the listeners to place themselves in the story, as if they could or would be the ones to sing those words.
  3. Bridge lyric. In most cases, the bridge lyric will be the last new lyric that gets sung, so this is where a storyline gets completed. Most bridge lyrics will heighten the emotional level of a song, often alternating back and forth quickly between narrative-style and emotive-style.

What makes bridge lyrics interesting — and in fact why they often intensify the emotional level of a song — is that they do what the verse and chorus lyric does in combination. Songs usually have at least two verses, and two run-throughs of a chorus. That’s a kind of “machine”: low-level emotion in a verse, then high-level emotion in the chorus, moving immediately back to the verse. It’s a bit like an emotion pump, where there is an intensification of emotion followed by a lessening of emotion. Then the bridge does the same thing, but more intensely, often line-by-line rather than section-by-section.

And that’s what makes audiences want to listen. It’s not so much that they need to hear another love song. What audiences crave is that narrative-emotion pump, that moving back and forth between descriptive lyrics and emotional lyrics. That’s what makes you want to keep listening to them.

If you find that your song lyric is saying everything you want it to say, but can’t put your finger on why it lacks the ability to entice, try the following two simple steps:

  1. Write your lyric out.
  2. For each line of lyric, assign a number that represents the level of emotion you think an audience would feel from that line. 1= practically none (“I looked at her and said…“), 10= every emotive (“You’re the love of my life…“).

You should see lower numbers in a verse than in a chorus. You can still use this method for songs that are verse only: You want to see an alternating between more and less emotion by seeing higher numbers toward the end of a verse, reverting to lower numbers for the start of the next verse.

 

Using a Minor I-Chord in a Major Key Song

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Songwriter working at a piano keyboardA modal mixture chord (also called a borrowed chord) is a chord that normally belongs to the opposite mode. For example,  if your song is in C major and you use an Fm in a progression, you’ve just used a modal mixture. That’s because the form of F chord that you normally use in the key of C major is F. Fm belongs to the key of C minor.

Modal mixtures are very useful so-called “colour chords.” A modal mixture chord will usually have the same function (purpose) as the native chord that it is replacing. For example, you might take this progression: C  F  G  C [LISTEN], and replace the F with an Fm, giving you this: C  Fm  G  C [LISTEN]. The Fm serves the same purpose as F, simply adding a bit of moody colour to the progression. They’re fun to experiment with.

One of the trickier modal mixtures to use is a minor I-chord. Because the I-chord so strongly defines our song as being in a major or minor key, it can be a startling substitution to try:

C  F  G  Cm [LISTEN]
I  IV  V  i

Here’s a more interesting and musically satisfying way to use a minor I-chord. In the progression, an uppercase ‘I’ refers to a major version of the I-chord, and a lowercase ‘i’ refers to a minor version (i):

C  F  C/E  Cm/Eb  Dm  G  C [LISTEN]
I  IV I6   i6     ii  V  I

First, an explanation of the Roman numerals. An inverted chord with the 3rd in the bass — like C/E — is shown by placing a number 6 after the Roman numeral. So C/E is notated as I6. The fourth chord of that progression is the minor i-chord, also inverted: Cm/Eb (i6).

When you listen to the second progression, you’ll notice that the Cm/Eb chord sounds more natural and less startling than the Cm in the previous progression. It’s the bass line that makes it easier on the ears.

The bass jumps up from C to F when you play the first two chords. Then, as the progression moves from F to C/E, to Cm/Eb and then to Dm, the bass line is: F-E-Eb-D. That chromatic line is very easy for the ear to follow, and makes the progression easier to understand.

Normally, a minor i-chord in a major key sounds odd, as if you’re trying to pull the entire song into a minor key. But by inverting the minor i, and then placing it in the middle of a progression rather than using it as an endpoint, the minor i-chord can be a very useful passing chord that adds some interesting flavour to an otherwise rather ordinary progression.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)

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