What Makes a Melody Resonate With an Audience?

Repetition, along with a carefully-placed climactic moment, allows melodies to make a strong connection to listeners.

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Singer-SongwriterIf you look at some of pop music’s greatest melodies — and by “pop” I mean the broader definition of anything written in the past century that was meant to appeal to the masses — you’ll find that repetition of ideas appears to be the most important feature.

When repetition is rampant within a melody, we might call it an earworm melody – something that gets in our heads and stays there, repeating itself in (often) an annoying sort of way. But even for melodies that we consider effective but not necessarily earworms, repetition is often a crucial component.

That’s true to varying degrees. A classic melody such as Arlen & Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow,” written in 1939, shows how repetition works beautifully if the musical ideas are repeated approximately — not exactly. The main feature is an octave leap that then steps downward. That octave keeps getting modified to something smaller, such that when you look at a line drawing of it, it appears to be a large ripple, with little “echoes” that happen afterward:

Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Melodic shape

The repetition of melodic cells makes melodies memorable, but also makes them attractive to us as listeners. We like the musical security that comes from hearing things that we think we’ve heard before, even if (some might say especially if) the repetition is only approximate.

But what are we to make of a beautiful melody such as the one Paul McCartney wrote for “Michelle“, from The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” album? A line drawing of that melody reveals a mostly wandering tune, where repetition is a much subtler characteristic:

Michelle melodic shape

In fact, comparing the melodies for “Over the Rainbow” and “Michelle”, you reveal the two most important characteristics that allows melodies to resonate strongly with listeners:

  1. short melodic cells that are constantly repeated in various ways, and/or
  2. melodies that feature a prominent climactic moment.

“Over the Rainbow” features the first characteristic, while “Michelle” demonstrates the second. The climactic moment that occurs in the middle of the verse is subtle. What makes us want to keep listening beyond the verse is the progression that ends it: Bdim – C; we feel “forced” to keep listening.

It’s in the bridge that follows where we get a strong climactic moment, on the note G. All taken together, that gives “Michelle” the following melodic shape:

Michelle melodic shape 2

So the melodic shape gives us a climactic moment that happens near the beginning of the bridge section. We get pulled along by the chord progression which provides an open cadence — one that needs some kind of resolution — at the end of the verse, and so we keep listening. Once the climactic moment happens, the melody begins a gradual descent until it’s back to the range we hear at the start of the verse. It’s beautifully done, musical symmetry at its best.

To create beautiful melodies that are going to resonate with listeners, you’ll find that you either have to make good use of repeated elements, or provide a strong climactic moment somewhere in the second half of the melody, or possibly both, as we hear with Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill“, Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now“, and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.”

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Written by Gary Ewer – Follow Gary on Twitter 

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Music Criticism: The Good and the Bad

The following is an excerpt from Gary Ewer’s “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music

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Beating Songwriter's Block - Jump Start Your Words and MusicChapter 4: Thinking Like a Songwriter

from pp. 75-76: The Good and the Bad of Criticism

Criticism is hard to take for most people, even if it is well intentioned. Though you may say you write for yourself, it is more than just a bonus if others like your music. If you are trying to be a professional or achieve popular success, pleasing others is crucial. Additionally, it is an important aspect of the motivation to be a songwriter. If you want to improve, you need to develop a positive attitude to constructive criticism from knowledgeable musicians. However, if you’ve posted your songs online, you will find that some people can be unspeakably cruel in attacking your music. It may simply be that your songs don’t happen to “speak” to them. Expecting your music to appeal to everyone is unrealistic. The problem is that it’s incredibly easy for people to express any opinion they wish and post it for all, including you, to see. Online comments about something you have put your heart and soul into creating can make the blood drain from your face and completely sap your confidence.

Don’t let it happen. Stop reading destructive criticism. The comment area on sites that feature videos is meant to drive traffic to the host site, and is usually unmoderated. “Flame wars,” as they are called, draw larger and larger numbers of people into the fray, driving visits up, potentially providing advertising dollars for the host. Most of the time the comments on these sites are of no use to a serious songwriter. Even so, it is enticing to know the comments are there, and completely demoralizing to see your music savaged by people who have probably not even listened to a whole song. Constructive criticism is always welcome, but you will find precious little of that on an online video site. Yes, post your songs on these sites; it is the best way to build a fan base for your music. But don’t let online bullies tear down your artistic efforts. The greatest singer-songwriters in the profession at any one time have their lovers and haters. It has always been that way.

It is normal to feel a bit of apprehension at the thought of performing a new set of songs for the first time. For some, the stress of that situation will be exhilarating; for others, the anxiety over how your new music will be received can be debilitating, and harm the songwriting process. In his article, ‘Learning From Evidence in a Complex World,’ John Sterman, Ph.D, states that “the fear of failure, of appearing to have made a mistake, often stifles innovation.” While it usually helps to think positively in those situations, you might benefit from trying a somewhat opposite approach: tell yourself that your audience expects you to fail.

This does not work for everyone, and you will know immediately if you are the kind of songwriter who will benefit from this kind of negative point of view. But for some, there is an ego boost that comes from reminding yourself that others expect you to fail. After all, they have never really understood your music anyway, have they? They have low expectations for your accomplishments, but what do they know? You’ll show them! That is how it works. You hear the negative reinforcement in your mind, and almost immediately you feel your ego – your songwriter’s resolve – begin to grow. You feel a healthy arrogance appear as you determine to show everyone your artistic mettle. Bolstering your ego by imagining the dismissive attitudes of others can help snap you out of a creative block and supply you with the confidence you need to get back on track.

Purchase “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music” (hardcopy) on Amazon, or most other online and bricks-&-mortar bookstores.

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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.“)

Musical Momentum, and How to Create It

You’ve got a great song if listeners can hear contrasting elements throughout. Here’s how to do that.

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ConcertIn almost every blog article I write, I make reference to song energy or momentum. But what is it? How important is it? Does it occur naturally, or is it something you can control as a songwriter?

You’re usually more aware of the effect of musical momentum more than the cause: you want to keep listening. What’s trickier to define is how to create it.

Momentum is closely linked to the contrast principle. In music, the contrast principle is in play when we place opposites in close proximity. For example, you’re experiencing the contrast principle when:

  1. you like how the long, wandering verse of Paul Simon’s “My Little Town” switches to a chorus that uses a short, thigh chord progression and melodic idea;
  2. you like how the low-pitched verse of Train’s “This Ain’t Goodbye” switches to a high-pitched chorus;
  3. you like how the instrumentation and volume builds throughout “Stairway to Heaven;”

The contrast principle is also the reason why you like key changes, chords that switch from minor to major, and long crescendos that take the music from soft to loud.

Musical momentum is generated not just when contrast happens; it’s created even when we think something different is going to happen, however subtle that something is going to be. For example, if you suddenly drop all instruments from a mix for one of your chorus repeats, listeners expect those instruments to be brought back in at some point, and it creates a spark of energy that keeps the listener hooked.

Many of the things I’m talking about here are production-level decisions, but there are things you can do to ensure that your songs generate momentum, and keep the listener listening. These days, when you’re possibly writing, producing and recording your own music, you’ll want to keep the following in mind:

  1. Keep verse melodies low in pitch relative to the chorus, then allow the melody to rise as it meets the chorus.
  2. Allow instruments to become busier (rhythmically) in the chorus than in the verse.
  3. Allow the vocal rhythms to elongate in the chorus relative to the verse.
  4. Use backing vocals more in choruses than in verses.
  5. Change the focus of the key when comparing the verse and the chorus (e.g., switch from a mainly minor verse to a mainly major chorus).
  6. Use a good variety of volumes throughout your song. Let the listener experience a complete range from soft to loud.
  7. Make use of rhythmic devices such as syncopation, double-time, etc., as a way of generating and maintaining musical interest.

In short, you want to use a variety of techniques for creating a sense within the listener that something different is about to happen. This always needs to be balanced carefully with the comfort that comes from repetition and predictability. When balanced well, you’ve generated momentum and energy that will keep your audience from turning away.

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Written by Gary Ewer – Follow Gary on Twitter 

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 E-book BundleGet “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle (PDF format) and you’ll learn much, much more about how to write great melodies, chord progressions, and every other aspect of songwriting. Now with a  free 7th eBook. Read more..

Readable on laptop/desktop, iPad, Kindle, and any other PDF-reading device.

How to Make a Downward Key Change Work

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Songwriting BundleGet the songwriting ebook package that thousands of songwriters are now using to take their music to its highest level of excellence. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle comes with a 7th free eBook, “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro“. Read more..

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3 Doors Down - Here Without YouRegarding the changing of key within the same song (called modulation), the songs that start in minor for the verses and switch to major for the chorus are the most common kind.

Here’s how that usually works: a song might start by using the following chord progression for the verse: Cm Bb  Cm  Ab, repeated over and over. When it gets to the chorus, you might then get something like this: Eb  Ab  Eb  Bb. Depending on how those chords are used, it’s likely (or at least possible) that the verses are in the key of C minor, switching to the key of Eb major for the chorus. That’s called switching from a minor key to its relative major.

The American rock band 3 Doors Down demonstrate this with their song “Here Without You.” The verse is in Bb minor, switching to the relative major key of Db major for the chorus.

But I want now to talk about changing key so that there isn’t that kind of very close relationship. In other words, modulations where the two keys aren’t so closely related, at least from a music theory point of view. A classic example is The Who’s “My Generation”, which starts in G major, moves up to A major, then again to Bb major.

Those keys (G major, A major, and Bb major) don’t have a lot to do with each other, at least on paper. The Who used those key changes for two main reasons:

  1. to mask the fact that the song consists of a very short musical idea, repeated incessantly; and
  2. to generate musical energy by moving the melody higher.

Speaking of that second point, most modulations you encounter in music will be upward ones, for that very reason: it tends to boost musical momentum. But that’s not to say that a downward modulation can’t work, but it comes with an inherent problem: if an upward modulation boosts energy, how can you get a downward one to work (assuming you want to keep building energy throughout your song)?

A great example is The Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” the verse for which is in B major, while the chorus descends to A major. Why does it work so well? And even despite the descending key, you definitely get the feeling that the musical energy gets a bump upward in the chorus.

The reason it works so well is because of the design of the melody. The verse melody consists of short melodic ideas that are mainly downward, strung together. At the chorus, the first two short cells are upward moving ideas, giving us the highest notes of the song:

 

Verse-chorus melodic direction: Penny Lane

The chorus melody makes the new lower key work for the following reasons:

  1. The listener perceives a higher energy level that comes from the melody that starts in an upward direction.
  2. Higher vocal energy is created by placing the highest notes of the song at the start of the chorus.
  3. The chords that accompany the melody in the chorus provide a bass line that moves in the opposite direction (upward) to that of the verse (downward).
  4. The new key offers a “clean slate” — a new musical landscape.

Of all those, you’ll make a downward modulation work best if you have it happen at the same time as 1) the melody is moving upward, and 2) giving the audience the highest notes of the song.

Another example to look at is The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice“, which gives an intro in A major, and then immediately descends to F major for the first verse. That downward key change is startling, but works because the verse starts on such a high note.

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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.“)

Interview with Singer-Songwriter Eric Leva- “I Should Know” Released Today

The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 e-Book Bundle is being used by thousands of songwriters to solve their songwriting dilemmas. Comes with a 7th free eBook, “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.”  Read More..

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Eric Leva - SongwriterLast week I had a Skype conversation with singer-songwriter Eric Leva, from Boston but now living in New York City. Eric’s got a new single that’s out today, “I Should Know.” It’s a fantastic tune, co-written by Leva and Katie Costello, produced by Elliot Jacobson (drummer for Ingrid Michaelson) and Jerry Fuentes.

We recorded our conversation, where Eric talks about his musical background, as well as his songwriting process, and gave me a look at the way “I Should Know” came about.

I’ve posted the interview below, (with my apologies for the sound quality in spots), as well as a written transcription. Also, check out the other links. (All links open in a new browser window or tab)

-LISTEN to the interview-

-Interview transcript (PDF)-

-Listen to “I Should Know”-

-Purchase from iTunes-

- Visit Eric Leva Music-

-Follow Eric Leva on Twitter-


GE: Eric Leva, I’m delighted to be speaking with you, and I’m looking forward to learning a bit about who you are, and maybe something about your musical influences, and particularly about your songwriting process. I’ve listened to your new single, called “I Should Know,” many times since you sent me the link, and I really love it. Congratulations.

EL: Thanks so much.

GE: What’s the release date for that single?

EL: That is coming out on Monday, August 25, which is also my birthday, so it’s a very exciting day.

 GE: That’s great. I really enjoyed listening to it. Could you describe your musical background for me – maybe your musical influences, and what’s got you to this point in your musical life.

 EL: Yeah, sure. I was a self-taught pianist. I taught myself to play when I was very young. And then I auditioned for the New England Conservatory of Music as a classical pianist when I was in fourth grade, and I took lessons all throughout high school. I was also in the marching band and the jazz band. Somewhere in high school I started to sing as well, and I was in the musicals and I did the chorus and all that kind of stuff. Then I went to the Berklee College of Music, and I just graduated this past spring (2014), and there I entered the school kind of with the intention that I would be studying music education…

 GE: Right.

EL: …’cause I do teach lessons, and I do work with small groups and large groups at the high school age, teaching music and things like that. But somewhere along the way I decided to basically make my hobby, which was songwriting at the time, become more of the centre of what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

GE: So is it fair to say that a career in music business is what you’re hoping for?

EL: Music business…

GE: As in, you know, as a performing singer-songwriter, more so than the classical end of things?

EL: Yeah, totally, and I think Berklee was a great place for that, because it kind of gave me the confidence to break away from, you know, the traditional styles that I’d been studying all my life, and find the merit and credibility in popular songs. I think it was in high school that I started listening to, like, Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson and people like that. They were doing a piano-based songwriting thing…

GE: Right…

EL: And so that’s kind of the connection that I drew. You know, they’re great pianists, but they’re also doing… they’re writing pop music, and so that’s kind of when I began writing songs.

GE: So do you think your classical training has had an influence on the way you write?

EL: Yeah, totally, I feel like my vocabulary is pretty sound, you know, I feel very free to just kind of be creative.

GE: Right, yeah. So could you describe your songwriting process? Are you a pen & paper kind of writer, or do you use technology when you’re putting your ideas together?

EL: It definitely varies. There’s obviously something to be said about sitting in a natural space that isn’t cluttered with technology, and writing pen-to-paper. I’m totally inspired by that, you know, natural way of going about it. But I also think, on the other hand, it’s great to stretch yourself as a songwriter, to put yourself in a place where you’re coming at a song from starting with a track, or starting with a drum loop, or something like that. That’s a great way to change it up and make sure that you’re not writing the same kind of song over and over again.

GE: Right. Yeah, so sometimes you’ll start with a rhythm loop or a set of chords you might play over and over and sort of see what happens after that.

EL: Yeah, definitely. Whatever way I can get my idea out faster is usually the best way.

GE: I remember reading an interview with Paul Simon where he said, you know, when he writes music – or when he writes songs, it’s the music first, and then as he listens to the music, it’s almost kind of like it’s speaking to him, and he can sort of tell what the song’s going to be about just from the sound of the music.

EL: Yeah, I totally relate to that, but on the other hand, I definitely have many times come at it from starting with either a full sheet of lyrics, or a lot of times it’ll be a concept or a title that is what starts me. I like finding a great concept for a song, like, lyrically speaking, is when I’m most inspired to begin. I feel more comfortable if I feel more prepared with a title, at least, or a concept, or like I said, a lot of lyrics.

GE: In the song, “I Should Know,” do you recall how that started – what kind of a germ of an idea you had at the beginning there?

EL: That was the first time that Katie Costello and I had written together ever, and it was really a great day. Basically, we just kind of hung out for two hours before we started even thinking about songwriting. I feel like a lot of co-writing is just hanging out and, you know, talking about what’s going on in each other’s lives, things like that. And sure enough, after two hours of walking around, talking and drinking coffee, or whatever it was we were doing, we were like, “OK, let’s write this thing!”

It was a great process… I mean, we wrote the music and the lyrics at the same time, and I find that those are the songs that usually have that extra-special something, if both parts are coming together at once.

GE: Did you sort of feel like you were working mainly on the chorus before your got to the verses, or…

EL: We started with what I thought was the chorus, but then that ended up being the pre-chorus.

GE: Right.

EL: And then I was like, “OK Katie, what do you want to do for the verses?” And she was like, “Wait, what about the chorus?” And I said, “Oh, I thought that was the chorus…” And that was one of those great moments where we could say that since we’re not completely sold on it, why don’t we try to beat this and then come up with an even better chorus. And so we wrote the pre-chorus, and then the chorus, and then we kind of took a step back and said, “All right, we’ve got something great here.

GE: I think it’s going to resonate with people.

EL: Thanks. I mean, that’s obviously the goal, and I mean… I’ve also worked with younger songwriters who are kind of just starting out, and I always ask, “What’s your goal as a songwriter?” And for some people, people do really write for themselves, but I know that I’m definitely the kind of person who, at the end of the day, the goal is to always connect with somebody else.

GE: Is your collaboration with [producer] Elliot Jacobson something that you see as ongoing, and I’m thinking more of up-&-coming singer-songwriters here: How important do you think it is to get a producer and other professional people involved in your projects?

EL: For me, it has changed pretty much everything. I used to record my songs by myself. And you know, I’m not like a producer or anything, but I could get pretty good sounding recordings on my own, and then have someone else mix and do the mastering and all that kind of thing, and I basically did that for a long time. When I finally realized like, OK, I think that the next thing for me is going to be to get into a real studio with a real producer. We are not always the best critics of our own work, and so…

GE: Yeah, true enough.

EL: …to work closely with someone who also has the goal of creating something that sounds really good, and getting the songs to be as good as they possibly can be, and getting the recordings to sound right. And for me, it was also kind of like, I was going to Berklee… I definitely struggled with figuring out what kind of songwriter I even felt I wanted to be. There’s a lot of different kinds of music happening in such close quarters, and you can kind of lose yourself. So working with Elliot was definitely something that helped me kind of carve out a sound that I felt was natural for me, but also unique and still exciting and fresh and pushing boundaries for me. And it didn’t feel forced, but it also helped me get over my identity crisis with this genre.

GE: Beyond this new single, what does the coming year look like for you?

EL: I have this single, and then the plan is to release another single in a couple of months or so, and then there’s a full E.P. on its way, and then I hope to do as many shows as possible.

GE: Well, I really want to thank you for taking the time to speak to me about your music, Eric, and I wish you great success with all your future projects.

EL: Thanks so much, yeah, this is great.


-Purchase “I Should Know” from iTunes-

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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.“)

Creating Chords That Work In Any Song Style

Thousands of songwriters are using Gary Ewer’s “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 e-Book Bundle to solve their songwriting dilemmas. Now with a 7th free eBook, “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.”  Read More..

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Piano keyboardIt’s possible to write really fantastic music with very few chords. Most songs in the pop genres use only four or five separate chords:

  • “Royals” (Lorde): D, C and G.
  • “Girls Chase Boys” (Ingrid Michaelson): Ab, Db, Fm and Eb.
  • “Rude” (Magic!): Gb, Ab, Bbm and Db

The question asked by many up-and-coming songwriters is: How do you find those chords, and how do you get them in the right order?

There are lots of ways to do it, thankfully, which keeps music interesting and songwriting fun. But if you’re really stuck, and would like to have a few hints, check out the following chord progression chart:

Chord Progression Formula suggestion

Here’s how it works:

  1. Song Form. This has been calculated for a verse-pre-chorus-chorus kind of song form, but it will also work if you decide to not use a pre-chorus.
  2. Creating Verse Progressions. In this formula, your verse will focus on the key of A minor. To create your progression, improvise by playing Am, then jump upward anywhere in the stack, and then make your way down as indicated by the arrows. That will give you lots of possible progressions: Am  Em  Am; Am  Dm  Em  Am; Am  F  G  Am, and so on. The chart ensures that Am remains a focus for your verse.
  3. Creating Pre-Chorus Progressions. Because in this plan your song chorus is going to wind up in C major, you’ll want your pre-chorus to target C major by focusing on its dominant chord: G. So that’s why G is placed prominently at the bottom, and will give you these possibilities: Dm  G; F  G;  C/E  F  G; etc.
  4. Creating Chorus Progressions. Now improvise your chorus progressions in the same way, using C as your tonic chord.

This chart is not meant, of course, to imply that it’s the only way to create chords for a song. It’s just one suggested way of working that should yield some useful results. Feel free to experiment as much as possible, and don’t feel that you must follow the dictates of the chart.

The best use of this chart is as a starting point, getting you going in the right direction. As you generate chord ideas, you’ll probably find that your musical imagination will start filling in the blanks, and you can happily abandon the chart at that point.

Don’t forget that the chart is transposable to any key. I haven’t taken the time to use Roman numerals here, but if you want a refresher on how to transpose using Roman numerals, read this post.

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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.“)

Songs Are the Best Teachers

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Songwriting Bundle “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle covers every aspect of songwriting, from chords to melodies to lyrics. Includes sound files and a complete glossary of musical terms. Also, receive a free eBook “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.” Read more

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Keyboard & ear phonesHow do you study songwriting? You might think that it’s not really one of those topics where studying works. Frankly, you’d rather just pick up your pen, grab your guitar, and start writing.

But songwriting can be effectively studied, and you will become better at it if you remember this, something that Berklee College of Music professor Pat Pattison has said: “Songs are your best teachers. I try to learn something from every song I hear”

On this blog I constantly make reference to actual songs when I describe some of the basic principles of good songwriting. The principles of musical composition must be rooted in practice – in actual music.

In that respect, the best songwriters out there are (and have always been):

  1. the ones who listen to music on a daily basis;
  2. the ones who ask themselves why something sounds good;
  3. the ones who can hear the good in music no matter what the genre;
  4. the ones who write daily; and
  5. the ones who know that songwriting can and should be studied.

So if songs are our best teachers, how do we study songwriting? Try the following suggestions:

  1. Listen to a song and pinpoint the best moment. Why is that spot so good? What did they (the songwriter, band, producer, etc) do to make it sound so good?
  2. Analyze a song. Do up a simple plot of the form of the song (i.e., figure out where verses, choruses and bridge happen), then take each component (melody, chords, lyrics, etc.), and find something interesting about each one.
  3. Choose a songwriter you never knew before, and get familiar with 5-10 songs they’ve written. With the internet, this is easy to research and do. Get familiar with their style of writing. Figure out what makes them unique, and what makes them successful.

It comes down to basic curiosity. Curiosity will drive you. It’s what causes you to want to know why something sounds good. If you’re a songwriter, it’s not enough to simply acknowledge that a song is great. You need to dig into it, to learn why.

And then, using your own style and your own way of writing and working, take the lessons you learn from great songs and make your music better.

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Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter 

Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-e-Book Bundle today, and polish your songwriting technique. Readable on Gary Eweryour laptop/desktop, iPhone, iPad, Kindle, or any other PDF-reading device. Now with a 7th FREE eBook. Read more..

Gary is also the author of “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music“, published in hardcopy by Backbeat Books, and available from Amazon and any other online bookseller.

The Main Difference Between Good Lyrics and Good Poetry

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Gary EwerSometimes a poem will make a good song lyric, but don’t be surprised to find that your lyric makes a bad poem. It all has to do with the difference between words that are meant to be spoken (or sung) and words meant to be read.

In fact, the website Omniglot, “the online encyclopedia of writing systems & languages”, offers seven main differences between written and spoken English, four of which you’ll find to be accurate representations of the differences between song lyrics and poetry.

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To paraphrase Omniglot’s description of the differences and apply them to poetry and song lyrics:

  1. Poetry uses complex wordings and representations, while song lyrics makes more use of repetitions, incomplete sentences, and other devices to make the language come across as more natural and relaxed.
  2. Writers of published poetry don’t receive immediate feedback from their audiences, while a song lyric’s strength is its ability to immediately affect the listener and partner with other song components.
  3. Poems can make use of layout, colour and other graphic-based techniques to inject further meaning to their words. While lyricists can also do this, listeners to lyrics are often unaware of the graphical layout.
  4. Most poems will make use of the rules proper grammar, only using slang for effect. Song lyrics will tend to use words and phrases that include a mix of improper grammar, slang, and other things that make the lyric appear casual and familiar.

For songwriters that are known for their poetic lyrics, such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and others, you’ll find that their lyrics are thought-provoking and stimulating. But you will also find:

  1. Their lyrics use mainly common, everyday words that a 6th grader would likely know.
  2. Their lyrics rely on the immediacy of the effect of those words. There’s generally no need to go back over the words (even though doing so can yield deeper secrets).
  3.  Their lyrics will usually alternate between observational, narrative-style words and emotional words, even without the song being in a standard verse-chorus format.

Most problems with song lyrics can be solved by simply reading the lyric aloud, making sure that each line sounds effortless to read and shows a common sense approach to the pattern of pulses and rhythms. Forcing rhymes and being negligent of a word’s inherent inner rhythm will also be problems to avoid.

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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 Analysis: Chicago’s “More Will Be Revealed”

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Robert Lamm - ChicagoFor up-&-coming songwriters, it’s a great idea to check out what veteran songwriters are doing these days. Their years of experience and musical know-how make practically every song they write a songwriter’s workshop. Master songwriter Robert Lamm, one of the founding members of Chicago, has co-written (with Phil Galdston) a really great song, “More Will Be Revealed“. You’ll find it on their latest studio album, ‘”Now”: Chicago XXXVI.’

The elements of “More Will Be Revealed” that are really worth examining are: melodic structure, lyrics, harmonic design, and musical arrangement. And no matter what genre you call your own, the compositional techniques employed in this tune can be applied to practically any musical style.

FORM

First, let’s take a look at the formal design:

  1. Intro: 0’00”
  2. Verse 1: 0’41”
  3. Chorus: 1’19”
  4. Verse 2: 1’53”
  5. Chorus: 2’31”
  6. Bridge (Vocal): 3’15”
  7. Bridge (Instrumental): 3’39”
  8. Chorus: 3’58”
  9. Coda: 4’36”

It’s a standard verse-chorus-bridge design with extra time on the intro (really interesting rhythmic layering with some intriguing sax and brass writing), and a double-length bridge that features a 3-part-vocal and guitar solo.

MELODIC STRUCTURE

Melodies will capture a listener if they feature contrast, contour, and a climactic moment. The verse melody displays the kind of contrast that’s common in pop/rock genres: a downward moving motif to start, contrasted with an upward moving answer:

Melodic contrast, "More Will Be Revealed"

As you’d expect, melodies move up through the verse to connect to the generally higher range of the chorus; a higher voice entices listeners because emotion is more easily heard. The climactic moment happens right at the end of the chorus melody. There’s more to say about melody in this tune, but requires us to look closer at the lyric.

LYRIC

Melody and lyric act as exceptional partners throughout the entire song. The very first word “So” is a curious way to begin, but not unlike Paul McCartney’s choice of “And” in “And I Love Her.” In McCartney’s case, he said that by starting with the word “And,” the listener was “up to speed” right away.

By starting with “So”, not only is the listener up to speed, but there’s also a sense of emotional exhaustion in that word, an almost “are we still talking about this” feeling that gets transmitted right away. With that one word “So”, we get a complete picture of the emotional situation that would normally take an entire verse to explain.

The lyrics reveal a complicated relationship between two individuals: “she” wants and needs things to get moving, while “he’s” still filled with doubt and feeling a bit pressured. The compelling moment in their relationship happens at the end of verse 2, when her mood finally becomes more conciliatory: “There are lives and miles between us/ And a sacrifice or two…” He finally feels free to say what he really feels: “Right now I just want you.” So as is so common in great lyrics, subtlety speaks volumes.

HARMONIC DESIGN

In the pop/rock genres, you’ll often find that verses use complex, “fragile” progressions that wander a bit, sometimes not feeling settled in any particular key. At the arrival of the chorus, chords tighten up and the key becomes clear, serving as a perfect vehicle for the opening up of emotions.

In this song, you get a verse that feels like E minor, but using mainly chords from C major: unable to commit:

Em  D  F  Am  C | Em  D  Am  Fmaj9

The Am and F chords are reversed in the second half of the verse, making a stronger connection to C major, the key of the chorus:

C(add9)  Am  Dm  G11 (repeat) Fmaj9

The chords of the chorus are, as you expect, tonally strong, clearly pointing to C as the tonic chord. It’s a beautiful contrast to the verse, and partners well with melody and lyric. With the chorus chords, you hear and feel the singer’s disposition changing from confusion to a happier “just give me a chance” attitude.

MUSICAL ARRANGEMENT

What makes the song’s arrangement so interesting is, in part, the decision to highlight the background syncopations before settling in to the song’s main groove. So we hear the mainly dotted-8th keyboard, which gives a “false” impression of the tempo:

More Will Be Revealed - Syncopated keyboard

Then added to that, finger clicks on the offbeat, sounding a bit like someone trying to find the beat. It’s perfect. You get two competing elements, and (not to read too much into this, but) it’s not hard to imagine two people trying to get together, but struggling to find common ground.

That unsettled feeling continues with the sharper edges of the open fifths (both in the keyboard and the guitar’s power chords). The chorus arrangement becomes much warmer, with fuller triads and a more settled groove. It’s really nicely done.

LESSONS FOR SONGWRITERS

I’ve always believed that the best new songwriters emerging today are the ones who spend a good deal of time studying great songs from every era and many genres. But there’s more than that: songwriters who’ve been around for decades who are still writing (Lamm, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, etc.) are still showing us today that writing great music isn’t an accident of sounds. There is always a reason why good music is good, and the best newcomers are the ones who take the time to study and analyze great music.

From “More Will Be Revealed”, you can learn the following:

  1. Great music is a partnership of elements. No one song component stands on its own. Lyrics need a great melody, melodies need great chords, songs need to be designed well, etc. When done well, great songs are better than the sum of their parts.
  2. Great melodies usually exhibit a strong sense of contour, purposeful design, and a climactic moment. Most songs will have several climactic moments, with the most important one occurring in the chorus.
  3. Lyrics need to progress as much as chords do. Verse lyrics need to set up situations, describe circumstances and ask questions. Choruses need to reveal the emotions that get generated by those situations, and pull the audience along in that wave of emotion.
  4. Verse chords can wander, but chorus chords need to tighten up. As the story gets described, it’s good to allow chords to move in ambiguous ways, portraying the complexities of the storyline. But the chorus works best if the chords become less ambiguous, and point more strongly to one chord as the tonic.

The entire album, ‘”Now”: Chicago XXXVI,’ is available for sale on Chicago’s website. I believe that it’s one of the strongest albums they’ve put out in years. They are veteran musicians that play and write with incredibly imaginative prowess. It’s so great to hear something of this kind of quality still being produced by this legendary band.

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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.“)

Run Your Songs Through the “Songwriter’s Checklist”

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Songwriting Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle covers every aspect of songwriting, from chords to melodies to lyrics. Includes sound files and a complete glossary of musical terms. Also, receive a free eBook “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.” Read more

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Songwriter's Checklist by Gary EwerFrom time to time, I repost my free “Songwriter’s Checklist“, a list of items that describes the main characteristics of successful songs from the past 5 to 6 decades. It’s meant to be applied to songs that you’ve just written, as a way of trying to sort out potential problems.

This kind of checklist shouldn’t be used for songs that are working well. That’s because some songs sound great even though they might defy conventional wisdom. But if you find that your latest song just seems to be lacking something but you can’t put your finger on the cause, this checklist might help.

Before you use the Checklist, you might play your song for others, particularly for other songwriters; they can often identify problems that you might be unable to see, due to their objectivity.

And remember: no good song will exhibit every one of the characteristics mentioned in this checklist. But you will find that the good ones will often show a solid majority of them.

Click here to download your free copy of the Songwriter’s Checklist (PDF).

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Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter 

Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-e-Book Bundle today, and polish your songwriting technique. Readable on Gary Eweryour laptop/desktop, iPhone, iPad, Kindle, or any other PDF-reading device. Now with a 7th FREE eBook. Read more..

Gary is also the author of “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music“, published in hardcopy by Backbeat Books, and available from Amazon and any other online bookseller.

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