What Songwriters Say About Writing Lyrics

Stuck for words? Here’s what the pros have had to say about how they write lyrics.

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Though it sounds strange to say, world-class songwriters are not always the best people to turn to to get good songwriting advice. Their high level of musical instinct often makes it difficult for them to describe exactly what they do to produce the magic.

But sometimes, when all else fails, it helps to simply read what other songwriters have to say about their creative process. This is particularly true when it comes to the writing of lyrics. If today is one of those days when it seems that the telephone book makes better reading than your own lyrics, put your pen down, and read what these top-level songwriters say about how they write lyrics.

For each quote, I encourage you to click on the linking article to read the full interview.

Sarah McLaughlinSarah McLaughlin

“I figure the first two lines usually tell the whole story of a song… The first two lines are what comes out first when I’m writing, and they basically tell which direction, for me lyrically, the song is going to go. Sometimes those two lines will sit for months by themselves, until they find a completion to the story, or a completion to the stage that I’m in of trying to work through something, until hopefully I’m somewhere near the other side of it, when I can be a little more objective and write it down. It’s the same with titling the songs. Most of the song titles come from the last word in the second line.”

From “Addicted to Songwriting” website,  by Dan Demain

Paul SimonPaul Simon

“I spend more time writing music than writing words. The music always precedes the words. The words often come from the sound of the music and eventually evolve into coherent thoughts. Or incoherent thoughts. Rhythm plays a crucial part in the lyric-making as well. It’s like a puzzle to find the right words to express what the music is saying.”

From “American Songwriter” website

James TaylorJames Taylor

[In response to the question “Have you discovered anything new about writing lately?]

“I’ve had some things confirmed that I already knew about it: You need to defend empty time. Inspiration for songs can happen in the middle of a lot of other kinds of activity, but to actually bring it home you have to have a place to go off and wait. That’s the nature of writing lyrics.”

From “Performing Songwriter” website (by Lydia Hutchinson)

Hal DavidHal David (From the Bacharach-David songwriting duo)

[In response to the question, “But say [if you were given] a complete melody first… Can you describe your first steps in approaching a lyric?]

“The first step is to listen to the music very closely, not so much to learn what the notes are, but to see what the music was saying to you. If you’re a lyric writer, you should hear the music talking to you. That’s what I’d be doing initially… I’d often write dummy lyrics, and I still do that. It helps me retain the melody, and particularly if the melody is a little complex.”

From “Performing Songwriter website (by Lydia Hutchinson)

David BowieDavid Bowie

[Describing his “cut-up’ lyric-writing technique]

“You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects, creating a kind of ‘story ingredients’ list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them.

“You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this,” he said. “You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”

From “Songwriting: The Hit Formula” website

______________Gary Ewer

Written 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.“)

Instinct and Instruction: The Unnecessary Battle

Valuing your musical instincts doesn’t mean you should avoid a bit of musical instruction.

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Songwriter-GuitaristHere’s a question for you to ponder. Which of your songs would you feel prouder of?

  1. The one that took 3 months of working and reworking to get it right? or…
  2. The one that came together in 15 minutes?

It’s not a trick question. And there is no right answer, of course. If you feel better about the one that took 3 months, it probably means that you feel good about your work ethic and your patience.

If you feel instinctively better about the song that came together quickly, within 15 minutes, it probably means that you feel a sense of pride (maybe even relief) that your musical instincts can create a work of musical art so quickly.

 

Songwriters love their instincts, often to the extent that they dispute the need for any kind of musical instruction. The notion, for example, that a knowledge of music theory will stunt one’s musical imagination is a myth that is common in the pop songwriting world.

But that battle between instinct and instruction is largely an unnecessary one. It is more the case that one’s instincts can and will be strengthened and enhanced by regular songwriting instruction.

No matter what genre of music you compose, you’ll find that “instruction” means any or all of the following:

  1. A basic ability to read and write musical notation. THE BENEFITS: You can easily communicate your musical ideas to others who can also read and write. It adds another way to experience the music you find captivating: not only can you hear it, but you can see it, and it provides an additional way to compare songs. It speeds up rehearsals with your band, especially if everyone has a basic ability to read the chart in front of them.
  2. A program of daily listening and analyzing of music. THE BENEFITS: You become more aware of current musical styles. It helps you write music that sounds current.
  3. Songwriting circles. THE BENEFITS: You perform your music for like-minded and supportive songwriters. They can give you a well-informed, respectful opinion of how your song is coming across, and propose changes for you to try, based on good songwriting rationale.
  4. Songwriting exercises and games. THE BENEFITS: You can target specific areas of weakness in your songwriting technique. The pressure to write a full, working song is removed as you simply attempt to write fragments of songs.

As you can see, musical instruction does not need to be stodgy or boring. And much of what a songwriter can learn can be self-taught.

So if you value your musical instincts, don’t change that. Instincts are what brought you into the world of songwriting in the first place.

But if you really want to get the most out of those instincts, you can enhance them with some basic musical instruction. Instinct and instruction need never be at odds with each other.

______________Gary Ewer

Written 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.“)

Speed Up Your Songwriting, and Minimize Your Inner Critic

Speedwriting is an activity that can give your creative mind a shot of confidence.

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Guitarist - SongwriterWriter’s block is common in any creative field. As long as it’s a mild case, you’re experiencing something that all composers face from time to time. Once it becomes a moderate or severe block (2-3 weeks or longer), you’ve got to think of ways to get the creative juices flowing again. You can’t afford to sit, waiting for inspiration to suddenly kick in.

Research shows that most causes of a creative block relate to a fear of failure. Once you experience a few failed ideas in a row (this is not uncommon in any artistic field), a little voice inside you starts to express doubt that you’ll find your groove again.

Once that voice kicks in, you’ve got the potential beginnings of a moderate or severe block. One of the best remedies for writer’s block is: GET WRITING!

It may feel difficult, and even counterproductive, but going through the motions of writing as if nothing’s wrong has a way of jump-starting the creative processes in your artistic mind, as long as you remember the following:

  1. Keep your musical tasks small. Do lots of writing that involves simply writing a short 1- or 2-bar hook, a line or two of lyric, a small melodic idea… that sort of thing. Avoid committing to writing full songs for the time being.
  2. Write quickly. Try some speedwriting exercises, like this one. You may not feel the benefits of this tremendously important exercise right away, but you’ll start to see how advantageous it can be to gently force your brain into a creative state of mind.
  3. Don’t be so critical. It’s a major problem with those who create works of art, whether they are songs, paintings, choreography, poetry or any other creative endeavour: you tend to be highly critical of what you’re doing, and that can make a creative block worse. So when speedwriting, just write quickly, and don’t stop to criticize your efforts.

All songwriters go through a block from time to time. If you feel that you just can’t get through it, and any effort to write is causing anxiety, take a few days off. A great idea for those who are really bogged down is to switch to a different form of artistic expression, such as instrumental performing, painting, writing short stories – anything that takes the pressure off.

You’ll be back to songwriting in no time at all!

______________ Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on TwitterDownload “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle$95.70 $37.00 (and get a copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro“ FREE.)

Moving a Chorus Melody Higher For a Shot of Energy

Moving a chorus higher will solve many a boring song.

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Michael Jackson - Dirty DianaWhen we talk about melodic range we’re talking about the number of notes between the lowest and highest notes. Some songs use a large range:

  • ballads
  • story songs
  • other melody-rich, slower songs.

Songs with a constricted range tend to be:

  • faster
  • more rhythmically energetic.
  • songs with lyrics that express a strong opinion or attitude.

Even if you write songs guided mainly by your musical instincts, you’ll notice that your song choruses tend to be higher in pitch than your verse melodies. And if that’s not the case — in other words, if your verse and chorus tend to sit in the same basic range — you may find that your songs sound flat, lethargic, and uninteresting.

Comparing verse and chorus range is the first item on the list to check if you’re struggling to generate musical excitement with your songs. There doesn’t need to be a significant difference, but it generally needs to be there.

One of the benefits of using higher notes in a chorus is the impression of creating a climactic moment within your song. Take a look at the following line diagram of a typical song in verse-chorus format:

Verse-Chorus Melodic Range

You’ll see that the verse sits lower in pitch, rises to meet the chorus, and then often descends slightly at the end. The highest notes often occur either at the start of the chorus, or (as in this diagram), nearer the end of the chorus melody. This plan describes a song like, for example, “Dirty Diana” (Michael Jackson)

That higher moment or two in the chorus creates what can be thought of as a climactic moment, a kind of musical “bull’s eye” that serves as a focus for the entire melodic design from verse to chorus. The listener feels energy increasing as the melody moves upward, and the highest note signals a kind of apex, down from which energy then dissipates, in time for the next verse.

Songwriters often look in the wrong direction when trying to solve the problem of boring songs. Sometimes the problem is with weak instrumentation (and weak playing), overly-repetitive melodic ideas or lyrics, or songs that don’t tap into any kind of universal message.

But more often than not, the biggest problems arise when melodies all sit in the same basic range, with no noticeable contour or design. Almost always, those kinds of problems can be solved by edging your chorus melody higher.

______________Gary Ewer

Written 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.“)

Songwriting: Getting a 2-Part Verse Working

Writing a song with a 2-part verse means creating a short musical journey that moves away from – then back toward – the tonic chord.

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The BeatlesA 2-part verse simply means that you’re writing an 8- or 16-bar verse that sounds to be clearly in two distinct sections. Think of The Beatles’ “In My Life” as a good example of this. The first 4 (or 8) bars are solidly in A major. The next 4 (or 8) bars make a short (very short) journey that visits other chords, including an altered chord on Flat-VII, before quickly sitting strongly back in A major.

Most songs in this format, therefore, follow this kind of plan:

Typical 2-Part Verse Structure

Since most songs are very short (“In My Life” is only 2-and-a-half minutes in length), giving the impression of having taken a musical journey is tricky. But it’s done with a combination of music, and of course the right lyric.

The verse of “In My Life” (key of A major) is followed with an instrumental bridge, and it’s certain that you’ll have to follow it with something, or your song will be either too short or too repetitious. By changing key at the end of the second verse, it’s possible to get the “freshness” required to do a 3rd and 4th verse without needing a bridge. Your ears will tell you if it’s working.

If you take “In My Life” apart and look at it from a chord progression point of view, you get this:

VERSE, PART 1:

A  F#m  A7  D  Dm  A

DESCRIPTION: A nice little journey around the A-major neighbourhood. The Dm is a so-called modal mixture chord, and in this context it tends to add a touch of melancholy to the music.

VERSE, PART 2:

F#m  Bm  G  A | F#m  B  D  Dm  A

DESCRIPTION: This progression is a bit longer than the one for Part 1. The inclusion of the B chord gives the feeling that the music has modulated (changed key) to F# dorian. The B chord makes it relatively easy to get to D, and the verse then ends the way that Part 1 ends, which gives a nice sense of symmetry.

And not just symmetry: it makes for a really nice, short, musical journey.

If you’re working on improving your abilities to write a good, captivating verse-without-chorus structure, here are the things to consider:

  1. Part 1 should be a short, self-contained melody that’s 4- or 8-bars in length. “Self-contained” means that it sounds largely musically complete, often starting and ending on the tonic chord with only 1 or perhaps 2 other chords. It’s often desirable to avoid overuse of the tonic note in the melody.
  2. Part 2 should feature a few more chords where the musical journey takes flight, moving away from the obviousness of the tonic chord. This section is often where you’ll find the song’s highest notes. It should end with a tonic chord, making Parts 1 and 2 a complete verse.

Once you’ve got that much, you then need to think about how you’re going to extend the song, since 2 verses isn’t much, and simply repeating the verses can get repetitive and boring. So you’ll then want to consider:

  1. An instrumental bridge.
  2. A sung bridge.
  3. An instrumental solo.
  4. A repeated verse in a higher key.

If you find it hard to work out the chords that might serve this kind of form well, here are a few to experiment with:

Part 1: C  F  Am  G|| Part 2: Am  Bb  F  Bb |Am  Bb  F  C

Part 1: C  Dm  Bb  C || Part 2: Dm  Em  D7  G  |Am  F  G  C

Part 1: C  G  Am  C || Part 2: Em  F  C  D  |Em  Dm  F  C

______________Gary Ewer

Written 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.“)

A Verse, a Chorus… And Then What?

Written by Gary Ewer, author of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-ebook Bundle.

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Piano player singer-songwriterOnce you’ve got a great idea for a song (which often means that you’ve got a great idea for a chorus), you’ll find that the next big challenge is to create a verse that partners well with it. If you’ve read my last blog post, you’ll know the characteristics of a good verse.

And so now you’ve got a verse and a chorus. For many songwriters, it’s what happens next that’s the tricky part. Do you often get stuck at this point? How do you proceed beyond verse 1?

For most, it’s dealing with the lyrics that presents the biggest problem when trying to extend your song idea beyond that initial verse-chorus partnership. This is especially tricky if your lyric isn’t specifically a story, but really more of a “this is the way things are for me right now” kind of song. What do you do about verse 2?

For developing a verse 2 lyric, here are some suggestions:

For songs that mainly tell a story (Example: “The Boxer”, Paul Simon)

Verse 2 is relatively easy, because you’ll want to simply keep telling the story. In doing so, try to find some way (through word choice, imagery and description of situations) to slightly heighten the emotional content of your lyric.

For songs that mainly describe relationship issues (Example: “Single Ladies”, Beyoncé, and others)

Verse 2 becomes tricky for these kinds of songs, because you’ll likely have the feeling that you’ve already done this in verse 1. To write a successful verse 2, describe other aspects of the relationship that heighten the emotional level of the song. If verse 1 spoke about how things used to be good, but aren’t so good anymore, use verse 2 to become more specific. Dig down into the situation to find words and phrases that pull the listeners into your situation. The key to a good verse 2 is intensifying the emotion.

For songs that mainly address social justice issues  (Example: “Peace Train”, Cat Stevens)

This is a type of song that you’ll want to work to get listeners feeling the way you do. That’s often best done by using verse 1 to describe what you’re talking about, using the chorus to express your overall emotions about that, and then using verse 2 to perhaps describe what’s going to happen if we don’t all fix this situation.

For songs that mainly describe emotions (Example: “Happy”, Pharrell Williams)

The trickiest part about a song for which the topic is an emotion is: how to contour the emotional content of your song in a typical verse-chorus format, where verses are less emotional than the chorus. In Pharrell’s song “Happy”, he uses verse 1 to describe how happy he is. The chorus is simply an ode to the word “happy.” Verse 2 changes the focus and targets negativity, explaining that it doesn’t matter how negative the people around him are, he plans to be… happy! As with any other song, it’s a matter of increasing the emotional content of the lyric as the song progresses from verse 1 to verse 2.

As you scan through the different kinds of song lyrics you can write, you start to see a commonality: emotional content needs to increase in verse 2. This goes hand in hand with the songwriting principle that says that basic song energy needs to increase as well.

That means that you’ll want to be sure that instrumentation builds when you compare verses 1 and 2. You may also want to consider adding some backing vocals, a busier percussion layer, and possibly move instrumental voicings higher in order to give the lyrics a boost.

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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.“)

Checklist: Is Your Verse Helping Or Hurting Your Song?

If you verse is dying and you can’t figure out why, try this checklist.

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Song Melody ChecklistIt’s easier to tell if a chorus is working well than if a verse is working well. That’s because most good choruses are based on a strong, catchy hook, and so to evaluate a chorus is usually a matter of making sure that the hook is doing its job.

But verses are trickier because they have a different — you could even say  more complicated — structure. Because they’re telling a story or describing a situation, a verse melody can meander and wander about more than a chorus melody usually does. And then that often means that it will tolerate a longer, more complex chord progression than what you’d normally find in a chorus.

What follows is a checklist you can use to evaluate the verse of your latest song. Use it only if you have concerns about it; some verses work really well, even though it may seemingly be “breaking the rules.”

If you find that your verse sounds boring, or is just not clicking somehow, check the following list. If you find that many or most of the statements don’t apply to your verse, it may be time to do some reworking.

VERSE CHECKLIST (You want the following statements to be generally true):

MELODY

  • The melody is generally lower in pitch than the chorus that follows it.
  • There is a nice sense of repetition in the melody: short melodic ideas that get exactly or approximately repeated.
  • The melody is comprised of mainly stepwise (one note to its adjacent one) motion, with a few leaps.
  • The melody tends to move higher as it moves toward the chorus.
  • If the melody is short, you may have included a pre-chorus to make for a better attachment to the chorus.

CHORD PROGRESSION

  • There is a nice mix of strong progressions and fragile ones — ones that wander a bit and avoid the tonic chord.
  • The tonic chord becomes more obvious as you approach the chorus.
  • There is a good sense of harmonic rhythm — a recognizable pattern to how frequently chords change (every 4 or 8 beats, for example).

LYRICS

  • The lyrics describe situations and people, and leave strong emotional responses for the chorus.
  • The lyrics present a compelling storyline that requires the listener to wonder, and to look for answers (either literally or metaphorically) that will be found in the chorus or bridge.
  • The lyrics use a good mix of various literary devices: metaphors, similes, imagery, alliteration, etc.
  • The rhythm of the verse lyrics tend to be busier than what you’d find in a chorus, and make more use of syncopation and other rhythmic complexities.
  •  The rhythms of the lyric fit the natural pulse of the words.

Remember to use this checklist (or any song checklist) only if you perceive problems with your song. Some songs succeed in spite of doing things that are not the norm in the chosen genre, and that’s to be expected in any art form.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer – Follow Gary on Twitter 

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Improvising Melodic Ideas By Changing the Starting Note

When trying to write a song that differs from your last one, don’t forget the importance of a new starting note.

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Singer - SongwriterIf you find that all of your song melodies sound uncomfortably similar, the problem is likely rooted in how you start them. If you get melodic ideas by improvising tunes over a chord progression, but everything comes up sounding like the song you’d just written last week, you’re likely doing one of the following:

  1. You’re using similar chord progressions from song to song. You might find yourself always resorting to a I-vi-ii-V-I (C-Am-Dm-G-C) progression, or something similar.
  2. You’re starting all your melodies on the same scale degree. For example, you might find that you tend to start your melodies on the 3rd note of the tonic chord.
  3. You’re using similar rhythmic ideas from song to song. In other words, you may find that you like to start melodies by lingering on the first note, then following it with rapid notes that move upward.
  4. You’re writing all your songs using a similar tempo.

The obvious solution here is to be sure to change your approach as much as possible from one song to the next. Use progressions that don’t bear much resemblance to the last song you wrote, develop a different backing rhythm, feel and tempo.

And don’t forget the importance of starting your new melody on a different first note from your previous song.

The best analogy here is to think about going for a walk. If you start all your walks from the same location, at least part of your walk will look the same. The best way to take a walk in which you see new things is to start from a new location.

It helps to come up with a chord progression that doesn’t simply mimic what you did in last week’s song. One great idea is to try starting on a non-tonic chord, something like: ii-V-I-vi-IV-V-I-V (Dm-G-C-Am-F-G-C-G), then try this:

  1. PLAY IT! Play through the progression several times to get familiar with it.
  2. CHANGE VOICINGS. Try playing through the progression using different chord voicings, both high and low. By moving the chords higher and lower, you’ll start to hear melodic ideas being implied by the upper notes of your voicings.
  3. HUM A STARTING NOTE. This should be either the 1st, 3rd or 5th note of your first chord. Play through your progression several times, improvising melodic shapes and ideas.
  4. IMPROVISE. Start the progression again, and improvise melodic shapes starting on a different note. Keep playing through your progression, improvising new ideas.

It’s important to record what you’re singing here. Don’t necessarily try to create entire melodies at this point. You’re simply trying to get a hooky idea that serves as a starting point for something that can grow into a larger melody.

And of course, the point here is that you’re trying to create something that doesn’t bear much resemblance to your most recent songs.

It can sometimes help, in this method, to concentrate on purposely trying to create something that goes in an entirely new direction. The obvious benefit to this is that you avoid being labeled. Everything you write has a new sound, a new feel, a new approach and a new mood.

And it can often start by simply determining to begin with a new note.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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6 Steps to a Good, Healthy Fan Base

It takes more than good music to build a fan base; it takes personality.

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Singer-SongwriterOne thing that technology has done for the songwriter is made it easier to create great music in the comfort of your own house. While big studios have all the bells and whistles you’ll ever need to get the job done, it’s amazing what you can do these days, the quality you can attain, and then the ease with which you can distribute your songs to the world, literally from your bedroom.

Creating great music from your bedroom can accentuate a problem, though: causing you to neglect the need of a good, healthy fan base. There you are, providing great tunes via your website, really nicely recorded, but no one’s buying.

If you look at any successful singer-songwriter/band, you’re looking at a person or group that’s:

  1. likeable, and
  2. good at what they do.

…And preferably in that order.

The best musicians out there started their careers by building up a following of people that didn’t just love their music — they loved them. Using humour, opinions, style and of course music, the world’s best musicians create a community of fans that love everything they do. You can’t do that without some good music, of course. But those first successes need to be used primarily to build your fan base.

Once you’ve got those fans loving you, your music becomes magical. They look for any information they can possibly find out about you. They want to see every interview, go to your concerts, hear more of your music, and then get others on board.

You might think that the likability of a musician is directly related to the quality of their music, and that writing and recording great music will naturally lead to a bigger fan base. But it is vital to remember that people connect emotionally to people, and rarely to music.

So if you’re wondering why the world hasn’t noticed the quality of your songs (both the writing and the recordings), you need to ask yourself what you’ve done lately to build your audience base.

Here’s what you need to do to be sure that your audience is growing daily:

  1. Make it easy for people to find and hear your music. Whether you do it professionally or on your own, the point is the same: be sure that others can hear your music. That’s going to involve social media and streaming.
  2. Develop your personality. Good music on its own has little longterm power to build an audience base. But partner it up with your face and your voice by way of online interviews, videos of you talking directly to fans, plus videos of you interacting with other people and musicians, and you’ll start to see the benefits that come from having a personality.
  3. Perform live music. Getting your music out and in front of people is one more way to show your personality to the world, and it’s such an important part of success.
  4. Improve your performance chops. Weak performances won’t impress. Work daily on getting your own instrumental abilities to shine, and then rehearse regularly with your band to get everything to click.
  5. Get professional advice on how to develop an online presence. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to pay a lot of money. But a weak web presence that looks as though it was thrown together by an amateur can kill your attempts to build your audience.
  6. Write and record songs regularly. Don’t sit on your laurels. Let your latest success be yesterday’s news, and get working on your next project.

______________Gary Ewer

Written 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.“)

5 Ways to Know If You’ve Accidentally Plagiarized Someone Else’s Song

Here’s a list of 5 easy things to try if you think you may have mistakenly copied someone else’s song.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle____________

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Accidental plagiarismYou’d think that plagiarizing would happen a lot more than it does. You’d think that with a limited number of notes that we’d be hearing about accidentally copying someone else’s tune all the time. But there are more than enough notes, chords, rhythms and melodies that await discovery. It’s not usually a concern.

But you may find that some songs come together so easily for you that you worry that you’ve accidentally plagiarized someone else’s song. Surely you can’t have thought up that song so easily!

If you’ve written a song and you have that nagging feeling that you’ve heard it somewhere before, there are things you can do that will confirm either that you’re the real author, or that you’ve innocently taken another writer’s song that’s been sitting on the back burner of your brain:

  1. Play the song for someone else. Hum the song with a simple guitar or keyboard backing. Humming allows the listener to judge the music without being distracted by the lyrics.
  2. Try the song at different tempos. You may have inadvertently “borrowed” someone else’s song, and changing the tempo to something faster or slower may reveal a bit more of the original song.
  3. Move the song’s key higher, and then lower. A song can sound dramatically different as you move it upward or downward in pitch (key). That’s because vocal energy changes the way the song comes across. In moving it around, you may eventually discover a different song suddenly popping into your mind.
  4. Try the song with a different time signature. Most of the time, pop songwriters will use 4/4 time, a time signature comprised of alternating strong and weak beats. If your song sounds uncomfortably familiar to you, you might try trying to fit it into a 3/4 time signature, which is usually a strong beat followed by two weak beats. (For example, here’s “Hey Jude“, reworked into 3/4 time.)
  5. Put the song away and take it out a few days later. Sometimes we get so close to the music we write that we can’t really “hear it” anymore. Putting a song away is a great idea not just to solve authorship issues like this, but can also help you come up with good alternate chords, fix a bit of lyric that’s not working, and to come up with new instrumental ideas. By putting the song away for a week or so, and then giving it another listen, you have the advantage of hearing it with fresh ears. Often, if accidental plagiarizing has happened, hearing your song again after a week-long absence may prod your memory.

Once you’ve done those things, if you still can’t identify a song that you fear you’ve accidentally copied, relax and claim it! You’ve probably written it, and it’s just a simple matter of the ease with which it came together was making you nervous.

Once you’ve performed the song a few times, if no one claims to have heard it before, you’re probably free and clear to do with it whatever you’d like.

______________Gary Ewer

Written 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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