Several factors will make music sound sweeter than you want it to, including chord choice, melodic shape and overall production.
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You’ll probably notice that when you sit down and listen to several of your own tracks in a row, you get a certain impression about your music that’s a bit unexpected. It’s not unusual to notice that even though you thought you were writing, for example, basic pop tunes, you’re picking up a bit of a country feel as well. Or you may notice that your songs have a retro sound, even though it’s accidental and unintentional. Making note of those unintentional nods to a different sound can be interesting, and part of what makes your music unique.
But once in a while, you’ll pick up a stylistic characteristic that’s not desired, something you don’t want – something you want to change. Probably the most common negative characteristic songwriters deal with is music that sounds too sweet.
Sweetness in music is hard to define, because it can be caused by several seemingly unrelated factors. Some of those factors come into play at the production stage, but others occur earlier than that, right at the beginning with how you actually write your music. There are things to do, and things to avoid if you’re trying to give your music a bit of an edge, and remove the sweetness.
Take a look at the following list. It’s important to note here that none of the items below are songwriting errors. They’re simply possible contributors to music sounding sweet. Not all of the ideas below will necessarily work for you, since every song is different. But you may find one of the suggestions will centre in on exactly what’s causing your problem.
- Avoid the V-chord. The chord built on the 5th note usually wants to move to the tonic chord. And that sense of predictability may be a bit too “simple” for your music. Depending on the melody note at the moment, a V-chord can be replaced by a ii, iii or flat-VII.
- Try turning major key music into mixolydian music. The mixolydian mode sounds like a major key with a lowered 7th note. I already mentioned in point #1 above that you might want to try avoiding the V-chord. By using the mixolydian mode, there is no B in your C major scale, so the V-chord automatically becomes a minor chord (G-Bb-D). So this rather sweet progression: [C G F C] becomes: [C Gm F C]. The Gm gives a bit of edge that can help rid your song of the sweetness.
- Try avoiding diminished and augmented chords. I really like those chords, and there is certainly a place for them in songs from all genres. But if you’ve used a lot of them in your songs, there is a certain sweet quality that happens.
MELODIES and LYRICS
- Avoid large upward leaps. An upward leap in a melody is meant to elicit a strong emotional response from the listener. So if you’re trying to tame down an overly-sweet song, too many upward leaps may be the problem. A good example of upward leaps done well is Queen’s “Love Of My Life”. (But that song, mixed in with other much-edgier tunes on their “A Night At The Opera” album, provides great balance.)
- Avoid on-the-beat rhythmic placement of melody notes. Adding a bit of rhythmic syncopation to your melody can give you the edge you’re looking for.
- Avoid the 4th and 7th notes of a major scale when writing melodies. Both those notes have a predictability associated with them: the 4th note likes to fall to the 3rd, and the 7th note likes to rise to the tonic. As mentioned earlier, predictability often adds to the sweetness of a song.
- Avoid lyrical clichés and forced rhymes. A cliché is an overused, predictable phrase that tends to soften the impact of a song, and often adds little to a song. So if you’re tempted to write something like, “You make me sigh/ Like when I eat apple pie…”, it’s time to stop and RETHINK.
In addition to these specific songwriting issues, much can be done at the production level to increase or decrease a song’s sweetness value. If it’s possible, speak to a producer about the issue you’re having. Some quick thoughts on production-level causes of too much sweetness:
- A lead vocal track that’s too loud.
- A lead vocal that’s sung too cleanly and precisely, with very clear diction. Try something different: a “lazier” style, or perhaps breathier.
- Instrumentation that’s too stereotypically sweet. So if your song is using orchestra bells (glockenspiel), harp, oboe, etc., it may come across as very sweet.
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