There’s not much difference between a song that works and one that doesn’t. You may be committing errors that are easily solved.
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Selling a song (whether literally or figuratively) is like selling a piece of real estate. A piece of flat, barren land with nothing of interest on it is not likely going to get anyone’s attention, and neither will a dull, featureless song. If you’re wanting to sell land, you hope that it has some interesting features: a hill, a brook, a few trees perhaps, and maybe a beautiful meadow. And not only that it has those features, but has them in balance. Similarly, songs need a good melody, a strong progression and lyric, and to have those things balancing each other well.
In the world of songwriting, you get 3-and-a-half to 4 minutes to captivate a listener. If they don’t “get” your song in that time, you’ve lost them. When you sell land, you’ve got a half hour or so to convince a buyer, and you can be verbally extolling the virtues of your real estate to a potential buyer for the entire while.
But in the world of songwriting, the song must speak for itself – must sell itself. No chance to “verbally extoll the virtues”.
There are lots of potential reasons why songs can fail. But in many cases, a song that fails is easy to fix, and may only have one or two small issues that need to be attended to.
What follows is a list of most common reasons for songs missing the mark. If you find that your music is not helping you build an audience base, check the following list and see if you’re committing any of these common errors:
- The form of the song is confusing. Listeners get confused and bored if they don’t perceive a clear sense of structure. So in most cases, the verse-chorus-optional bridge format is going to work well for you. And those sections should be balanced, with phrase lengths of 2, 4, 8, or 16 beats or measures. Any section that goes on too long throws that balance out, and results in listener fatigue and boredom.
- The melody shows no clear sense of shape or contour. Melodies need to have a goal. Especially in choruses, that goal tends to be the tonic note. In that sense, melodies and chord progressions work together. Melodies are more memorable and attractive to people if they have a discernible shape, and a high point somewhere, usually in the 2nd half.
- The chord progressions don’t really “progress.” Are you using chord progressions, or chord successions? If you simply have one nice chord following another, you’ve got problems. Progressions are called progressions for a reason. Like melodies, your chords need to have a goal, and that goal is usually the tonic (key) chord.
- Strong and fragile progressions are used with no sense of planning or structure. A strong progression is one that clearly points to one chord as being the tonic, while fragile ones are a bit more ambiguous. Both belong in good songs. But fragile progressions work better in verses and bridges, while choruses are the place to stick to strong progressions.
- Your lyrics are not partnering well with your song’s form. In most songs, lyrics are either mostly narrative (describing people and situations), or emotive (describing the singer’s emotional response to those people or situations.) So be careful to avoid highly emotive verses; high emotions work better in a chorus.
- You’ve got a good hook, but nothing else. Great hooks are great, but don’t assume that they’ll solve the other problems with your song. If your song has problems with the lyrics, melody, form or chord progression, no hook will save it. A great hook is exciting, but you need to learn to look at your music more objectively.
In a sense, there’s another problem that comes up in songwriting, and has more to do with you as a songwriter, more so than your song: You’re wasting time by waiting for inspiration. The world’s best composers know and understand that inspiration actually comes from the act of writing, not the other way around.
So even on those days when you don’t feel particularly inspired to write, do it anyway. You’ll find that the very act of composing inspires you. There are times when it’s best to divert your attention away from trying to write, particularly during times of tough writer’s block. But in most cases, composing is the cure.
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