How to Create Chord Progressions That Grab an Audience’s Attention

The progressions that really connect with audiences are the ones that fluctuate between fragile and strong.

____________

Struggling to build an audience base? “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” shows you every aspect of what makes a great song great. Read more..

____________

Keyboard, ear phonesA few days ago I wrote a post that dealt with differences between verse and chorus progressions. In this post, I want to give you some precise examples of how that all works. If you find that coming up with a set of chord progressions that works feels more like hit-or-miss than anything else, try thinking of your chords this way:

THE SONG:

Most songs focus on one chord as the tonic, or “home” chord, and overall, most of the progressions point to that tonic chord as being the most important one, a kind of musical anchor. With that in mind, however, different sections of the song will vary as to how strongly it allows the tonic chord to play that role of anchor. The following examples give you an idea of how this all works, using the key of C major as an example.

VERSE:

Chords keep the tonic chord within its sights, but might wander off a bit, even to the point of treating some other chord as the tonic (like the vi-chord, for example). So you might create chords that only casually point to the tonic, being content to explore the musical neighbourhood around that tonic chord.

Example: vi  iii  IV  I (Am  Em  F  C)

You notice that the vi-chord (Am) acts almost like a tonic at first, making you think that this song is in a minor key, before it settles into C major.

PRE-CHORUS:

Not every song will have a pre-chorus. But the songs that do are usually ones that have a short verse progression. You’ll use this section to build up some musical tension, by moving toward the dominant chord (i.e., the chord built on the 5th note of your key.)

Example: ii  I6  IV  vi  ii  I6  IV  V (Dm  C/E  F  Am  Dm  C/E  F  G)

In this pre-chorus example, you’ll notice that the bass line will move upward from D to G, and that upward movement builds musical tension, a good thing as it leads to the chorus.

CHORUS:

Chorus progressions work best when they simplify, and when they hover around the tonic chord. You’ll find fewer altered chords, fewer ones that are borrowed from other keys, as everything becomes strong and basic.

Example: I IV V I vi IV V I (C  F  G  C  Am  F  G  C)

BRIDGE:

A bridge is an opportunity for your chord progression to really move away from the tonic, and take the listener on an interesting journey. Keep in mind that you don’t have long to do this, often just 8 bars. So think of those 8 bars as being a 4-bar journey away from the tonic, and then a 4-bar journey back again.

Example: vi bVII bIII bVI bVII IV vi V (Am  Bb  Eb  Ab  Bb  F  Am  G)

As you can see, you get a lot of chords that move away from C major, starting with the bVII (Bb). But by the time you get to the three final chords of the bridge section, C major is firmly restated.

By sticking to this kind of layout, you’ll wind up with a song that fluctuates back and forth between being strongly focused on the tonic, to being less-strongly focused:

Strong-Fragile Chords

 

That fluctuating back and forth is a critical part of keeping listeners entertained and locked into your musical plan. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that the “wandering”chord are the type I refer to as fragile, and the “focused” chords are the type I usually call strong.

________

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

________

Essential Chord Progressions - Gary Ewer

Are You Over-Analyzing Your Music?

Too much analyzing can get you stuck in a creative rut. Here’s how to make it work for you.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle

Songwriter-GuitaristAn important part of improving your songwriting skills is analyzing music. Analyzing, at least in a songwriter’s context, means listening to your music with a critical ear, and applying what you know about great songs to make improvements.

It’s something that should be done carefully, however. It’s happened many times that I’ve heard songs that defy the odds, sounding great even though they break away from the common principles of popular songwriting.

I like using an expression when it comes to this sort of thing, which is this:

Analyze other people’s successes, and your own failures.

Sticking to that simple directive means, in the first instance, that you’ll spend your time focusing in on the music you love, and discovering why you love it so much, and then applying what you learn to your own music.

Secondly, it helps you avoid the problem of over-analyzing — and possibly destroying — music you’ve written that might go against common principles. For example, you may have written a chorus melody that sits below your verse melody — not a common thing, but Genesis did it in “No Reply At All” — and you start to worry if you’ve done something wrong.

The indication in songwriting that you’ve done something wrong is that it sounds wrong. And that’s it. If you’ve written music that goes against all conventional norms, but you love it, don’t analyze it. Just enjoy it, move on.

And some day, when you’re far enough removed from having written it, you might go back and figure out why you love it. But for now, the only music you write that you should be spending any amount of time analyzing and applying the principles of music should be songs you’ve written that aren’t working.

By sticking to that simple prescription, songwriting becomes a very positive activity, where songs that aren’t working are an occasion to improve, and songs that are working are an opportunity to celebrate.

___________

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

How a Verse Properly Connects to a Chorus

Verses and choruses are usually completely different, but there are ways to make a successful connection between them.

____________

Struggling to build an audience base? “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” shows you every aspect of what makes a great song great. Read more..

____________

Pianist playing chordsIt’s common for a verse and chorus to be different in most respects. While key, tempo and basic rhythmic feel are usually the same, the melodies, chords and lyrics are typically different. And these days in the pop music world, it’s becoming more and more common to see verses and choruses use the same chord progression – a possible commentary on the lack of imagination in the genre.

Though a chorus may differ from a verse, that’s not to say that there’s no connection at all. Songs work best when there’s a relationship between those two sections, so that it doesn’t just sound like one section irrelevantly following another.

So what kind of relationship do verses have with choruses? Here are three that are probably the most important:

  1. Melodic motifs. Even though the melodies may be different, you can create a connection between the verse and chorus melodies by using similar motifs. Example: “Penny Lane.” The verse melody starts with a downward-moving melodic cell (“Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs…”), and then the chorus uses mainly upward-moving cells (“Penny Lane is in my ears…”) That’s a kind of idea that listeners won’t overtly notice, but it does its work mainly on a subconscious level (as most motifs do).
  2. Rhythmic motifs. You can take rhythmic ideas that happen in the verse and modify them to work in the chorus as well. Example: “Take It To the Limit” (Randy Meisner, Don Henley, Glenn Frey). Many lines in the verse start with a long note, followed by a couple of shorter, faster notes (“All alone at the end of the of the evening…”), and this is an important verse motif. In the chorus, they modify that rhythm (“So put me on a highway…”), and then ultimately once again (“And take it to the limit one more time.”) Each of those rhythmic modifications sounds similar enough to the opening of the verse that it acts like musical glue to pull all the ideas together.
  3. Lyrical interaction. Chorus lyrics interact with verse lyrics by serving as a kind of answer to the questions/situations we find in the verse. It’s important to note that these are emotional responses to a verse narrative. In other words, you can kill the effect of your song by using your chorus to simply give more verse-like information. A chorus needs to take what you’ve said in the verse, and offer an emotional commentary on it.

To that last point: this is one reason why it’s satisfying to repeat a chorus over and over, but repeating a verse is trickier. Repeating an emotional response is satisfying, but repeating the facts of a story sounds awkward. America’s “Sister Golden Hair” repeats a verse, but that verse is quite full of emotional release, and so repeating it seems to work fine.

And a point about verse and chorus key often being the same: Some songs will place the verse in the relative minor key of the chorus’s major key (e.g., a verse in A minor and a chorus in C major), and that can be a really effective way of creating a difference while at the same time connecting those sections successfully.

______________________

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle

Creating a Short Musical Idea: Best Way to Start a New Song

Starting a song by focusing on creating a short hook can keep you from feeling daunted by the prospect of writing an entire song.

__________

Gary Ewer’s “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle” covers every aspect of how to write great music. With a free copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro” Read more..

__________

Guitar songwritingDo you find that the notion of starting a new song fills you with every bit as much dread as it does joy? Songwriting, of course, is supposed to be fun, but what do you do if you experience feelings of frustration and anxiety, fearing that you won’t be able to get past the first step?

Climbing a mountain can fill you with dread if all you do is fixate on how high it is. And writing a song will similarly fill you with dread if you fixate on how to create something 3 to 4 minutes long that captivates the listener.

The best way to approach the starting of a new song is to simply focus on an initial idea. Don’t worry yet about what you’ll eventually do with the idea, and in fact, don’t even worry about where this idea might wind up in a song. Just get something short and interesting working for you.

It might only be a bar or two of something hook-like. If you can get a small musical hook working, you’ve got more than you think. Remember: repetition plays a big role in how songs are structured. So getting that first musical idea is a crucial step.

And then, if you can’t think of how to expand on your hook, simply put it away, and wait for another day. Meanwhile, start working on a new hook. Eventually you’ll have an entire catalogue of hooks that can all serve as starting points for new songs.

There’s nothing like the passage of time to help you expand on a musical idea. Setting a short musical idea aside may make you feel as though you’ve abandoned it, but that’s simply not true. Your musical, artistic mind sometimes needs time to process that idea. Letting it sit in the nether-regions of your mind is a great way to allow that idea to grow.

And you’ll find that the next time you play through the idea, new ideas will pop into your mind, and you’ll find yourself creating full song sections which will more easily expand into full songs.

Do you already work this way? Do most of your songs come from fragments that you’ve had in the back of your mind for weeks or months? Feel free to leave a comment below and describe your songwriting process.

___________

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Chord Progression Formulas

The Differences Between Verse and Chorus Chord Progressions

Chorus progressions focus on the tonic chord. Here’s how to make that happen.

____________

Struggling to build an audience base? “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” shows you every aspect of what makes a great song great. Read more..

____________

NirvanaIf you take an hour and study pop song chord progressions, you’d be forgiven for feeling that that’s an hour you’ll never get back. On their own, most chord progressions are nondescript, even mundane. And that’s not a criticism. For most songs, even the best ones, you want your chords to stay below the radar.

A mundane chord progression allows your melody and lyrics to take the lead, and that’s usually a good thing. To use a non-musical example, let’s say you’re buying a nice piece of land to build a house on. The spectacular house you plan to build is the most important part; the land needs only to be smooth enough and just interesting enough to allow that house to be everything it can be.

But if you are going to create a chord progression that’s more interesting, that takes more fascinating twists and turns, those kinds of progressions will work better in a verse than in a chorus.

The main reason for complex progressions working better in a verse than a chorus has to do more with the nature of a chorus. In most songs, when you compare the verse and the chorus, you’ll notice the following:

  1. Chorus melodies tend to be comprised of short, hooky, repetitive music ideas strung together. (Example: Nirvana: “Smells Like Teen Spirit“).
  2. Chorus rhythms simplify, becoming more predictable and groove-infused. (Example: Journey: “Don’t Stop Believing“)
  3. Choruses focus on the tonic chord (the chord representing the key of your song). (Example: practically every song ever written.)

Looking at that last point, you might think of a verse progression as one that wanders about, not straying too far from the tonic chord, but willing to look at other key areas. But once the chorus happens, you hear a different approach: the tonic chord becomes a magnet that draws the entire progression to itself.

Here’s an analogy that will help clear it up. First, a verse progression: imagine you’re taking your dog Rover for a walk on one of those retractable dog leashes. Rover pulls on the leash and the line gets pulled out and extended. As Rover gets more interested in things, he pulls more and more of the line. Of course, there’s a limit to how far he can go with this. The owner is always going to remain in sight.

When you feel that Rover has gone far enough, you typically push a button to prevent him from going further. You start retracting the leash, bringing him gradually in toward you.

In this analogy, you are the tonic chord. However much leash gets pulled out represents how far from the tonic chord the progression is allowed to go. That’s a verse progression. It’s all about “How far can I let Rover wander?”

Pushing the button and reeling him in is the chorus progression. It’s all about the tonic chord. Chord progressions aren’t going to wander very far, because it’s more about keeping chords focused on the tonic chord. Rover is now on a short leash, not wandering far from your heel.

When you structure your songs in this way, it usually results in a strong, attractive song. Verses wander, and that’s their nature. But as long as you switch to something concise and hook-based (i.e., the chorus, and usually before the 1-minute mark), you’ve got a great formula for a song that grabs attention and is easy to remember, something to which people want to return.

______________________

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

How to Harmonize a Melody eBook - Gary Ewer

How Symmetry Works in a Typical Song

Gary Ewer’s “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle” covers every aspect of how to write great music. With a free copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro” Read more..

__________

A view of a guitar's symmetryAs humans, we’re pattern-seekers. We like seeing things repeat, and we love when we see symmetry: mirror images. Bookends on a shelf are a good example of symmetry. But you don’t have to look any further than your own face to see symmetry. And in fact, because symmetry is part of how our own bodies are organized, we find ourselves looking for it everywhere, including in our music.

So symmetry is not just repetition; it’s the kind of repetition that involves framing something. So for instance, you might start a song with a finger-picked acoustic guitar, and then end it that way. That’s a kind of symmetry. People like it, because it gives the impression to the audience that they’ve just heard a complete musical journey.

You get that impression, for example, when you listen to Yes’s “Roundabout.” The song begins and ends with acoustic guitar, and that gives a feeling of musical satisfaction. There are many ways to end a song, but ending it with a similar instrumentation to the way you began it strengthens song structure.

There are lots of ways to incorporate symmetry in your songs. Here are some ideas that you can use or modify:

  1. Melody. Give Paul Simon’s song, “Kathy’s Song” a listen, and you’ll hear a kind of symmetry going on. Each line of music (i.e., each line of lyric) alternates between going up and going down. The first phrase, “I hear the drizzle of the rain” moves in a mainly upward direction. The next line, “Like a memory it falls” moves down, and so on.
  2. Lyrics. Symmetry in lyrics can happen in several ways. You might choose to end a song with the first verse again, like Chicago’s “Look Away” (written by Diane Warren). You can get the same effect by starting and ending verses or choruses the same way as well. Any time you frame a middle section with the same lyric, you’re using symmetry.
  3. Instrumentation. This is what Yes was doing when they chose to end their song “Roundabout” with the same instrumentation as the beginning. Many songs use a kind of symmetry when they go back and forth between a chosen instrumentation for the verse, and then a different one for the chorus. In your own songs, look for ways to begin and end a song section with the same set of instruments. One idea is to start a verse with something small and transparent, like keyboards and light percussion, then gradually build. As your verse reaches a kind of pinnacle, drop down to something small and transparent again just before the chorus. When the chorus comes in, bring in the full instrumentation.
  4. Formal design. You hear a kind of symmetry with the design of a song like The Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week“, when it ends similarly to the way it begins. It’s a variation on what “Roundabout” achieves.

You’ll find that if your songs tend to be complex in any way, symmetry helps the audience feel that they understand the music. When nothing repeats, and no symmetry is present, it’s a bit like taking a long walk where you’re not sure where you’re going, or when you’re going to get home.

Symmetry helps to dispel that feeling of discomfort. It makes your listeners feel as though they’ve been through something complicated, but they’ve returned home “safe and sound.”

The ideas in this post can be found in Gary Ewer’s book, “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music“, available from Amazon, or any other distributor.

__________

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle

When Song Melodies Fail: 5 Errors to Avoid

Struggling to build an audience base? “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” shows you every aspect of what makes a great song great. Read more..

______________

SingerA melody needs to partner well with the chords that support it, and the lyrics that get attached to it. For that reason, it’s difficult to be precise about what a good melody should be. But there are important characteristics that appear more often than not in many great song melodies, usually regardless of genre or style.

The next time you write a song for which the melody seems to be lacklustre, or simply not connecting well with your audience, check the following list and see which key features your tune might be missing:

Problem #1: There’s very little repetition.

The best melodies use repetition as an important organizing feature. Whether that repetition is exact or approximate, you’ll find that the best songs use repetition. When melodic ideas repeat, that gives the listener confidence that they understand the music, and it has the added benefit of making the song easier to remember.

Problem #2: The range of the melody is too wide.

The best songs need to stay more-or-less in a range that makes it relatively easy to sing. Also, melodies that span too great a range have a way of sounding disorganized or lacking in general form.

Problem #3: Verse and chorus melodies sit in the same basic range.

Let’s say your verse melody uses the notes that encompass a major 6th, from C up to A. If your chorus melody also sits in that same range, it’s hard to allow your chorus melody to grab attention. The solution is to rewrite your chorus melody to sit higher in basic range.

Problem #4: The chorus melody is missing a climactic moment.

The climactic moment is usually a melody’s highest notes, and it’s common to have that happen at the same time that the song title is sung. So in pop songs, you’ll often see a climactic moment happen at the beginning of a chorus for songs with a strong chorus hook. Different song sections can have their own climactic moment, but the one that happens in the chorus should be noticeably more poignant.

Problem #5: The rhythm of the melody doesn’t partner well with the lyric.

As you work through your melody, make sure that the rhythm of your words feels natural. Also, the innate up-and-down inflections of your words should be reflected in the up-and-down direction of your melody. One solution to an awkward-sounding lyric is to say the lyric without singing it, and get a feel for how the words like to flow. Use that to help you create a melody that stays true to the pulse and inflection of the lyric.

___________

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle

A Songwriting Game to Improve Your Lyric Writing

Gary Ewer’s “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle” covers every aspect of how to write great music. With a free copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro” Read more..

_______________

LyricsIf you find lyrics hard to write, it may simply be a matter of working on it separately from your main songwriting sessions. There are some that love writing lyrics and nothing else, and so one option for those who find lyrics difficult is to collaborate.

But a great reason to develop and build your own lyric-writing skills is that your songs can say exactly what you want them to say, without the need to partner up with someone else.

So here’s a quick lyric-writing “game” that’s fun to do, one that should gradually enhance your ability to write meaningful lyrics.

  1. On a sheet of paper in your songwriting note pad, write a general topic at the top. (“I’ve Met Someone New”, or “The Winter’s Been Too Long!”, or “Where Have All My Friends Gone?”… that sort of thing.)
  2. Fill the sheet with words and phrases that relate to your topic. Don’t try to make connections at this point. Consider this to be almost like a word association game, where one word makes you think of another.
  3. On a new page, create two columns. Label one “Verse” and the other “Chorus”.
  4. Categorize your words. Go to your original sheet and look at each word one by one. Categorize them by determining whether they are words that are mainly descriptive in nature, or mainly emotional. Words that seem to describe situations in an observational sort of way should go in the “Verse” list, and those that express an emotion should go in the “Chorus” list.
  5. Create random lines of verse lyrics. Look through your “Verse” list and try to create lines of lyrics. The purpose here is to write lines that are mainly observational, mainly describing situations, circumstances or people.
  6. Create random lines of chorus lyrics. Now check your “Chorus” list and create lines of lyrics that express mainly emotional thoughts.

It is liberating to try an exercise like this without feeling the need to connect one line to the next. With this exercise you aren’t trying to write a song; you’re simply developing an ability to understand the difference between writing a line that’s destined to be a verse line, and one that’s intended to be a chorus line.

As an example, let’s say your topic is “The Winter’s Been Too Long!” Under “Verse”, you might have written “cold”, “snowy hills”, “icy-like fingers”, “freezing”, “hard as steel”, “brown”, “white”, “frozen…” This might lead you to write lines of verse lyrics such as:

  • “The ground is frozen, hard as steel…”
  • “Wind like ice across my face…”
  • “Winter’s icy fingers refusing to let go…”

Under chorus, you might have written “help me”, “warm me up”, “will it ever stop?” “I feel the sun against my face”, “despair”, and so on. You might find yourself writing chorus lines like

  • “Help me, help me, warm me up!”
  • “Where’s the spring?”
  • “I don’t mind snow, but will it ever stop?”

As you work, you’ll start to notice that some of your chorus lines will serve as answers to something that’s come up in your verse lines. Also, you’ll find that word lists have a way of homing in on a more specific topic. For example , you may have thought you were writing about the winter, when in fact the song has become a metaphor for your relationship with a loved one.

You’ll also find that once your true topic becomes clearer in this way, you’ll put your word lists aside and start all over again, with a more specific topic in mind. That’s the beauty of word lists. They focus your mind, make metaphors easier to identify and develop, and allow you to explore potent imagery.

Remember that whenever you write lyrics, keep words simple. Complexity in lyrics almost always come from the ways in which words are combined, not in the complex nature of the words themselves. Once you’ve included words in your lists like “attitudinal” and “soporifically”, you may have gone too far. ;)

_______

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle

Becoming a Better Songwriter

Gary Ewer’s “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle” will reveal the secrets the pros have known for years!

_______________

Band rehearsalI’ve taught a lot of musicians, both young and old, and have hung around a lot of music teachers. And telling musicians that they must “practice” is as common a statement as telling kids to eat their vegetables.

I’m convinced that most musicians don’t know what the word practice means in any real sense. A lot of songwriting websites tell up & coming songwriters, “You must practice!” But what does that mean to a songwriter? How do you practice your songwriting?

It’s easy to know why instrumentalists need to practice scales, chords and arpeggios: eventually, those patterns are going to show up in the music they play.

And then, thinking outside the world of music… it’s easy to know why batters on a baseball team need to practice hitting balls: eventually, it’s going to directly relate to what they’ll be doing in an actual game.

But what should a songwriter be practicing?

Well, there is a lot to practice. Want some ideas?

  1. Improvise. Every time you sit and improvise with other musicians, you’re not only honing your playing chops, you’re also improvising songwriting ideas, and that’s a kind of practice.
  2. Do lyric-creating games. Try this one, “4 Fun Games to Hone Your Lyric-Writing Abilities,” or “Get Control of Your Lyrics – Try This Rewording Exercise.”
  3. Write small snippets of melody. Instead of writing full songs, concentrate on just short melodic bits, and do those exercises with the goal of improving aspects like melodic shape, climactic high point, and singability. Here’s a post that might help: “Practicing Verse and Chorus Melody Writing.”

And those are all great things that songwriters should be doing, if not daily, certainly weekly.

But I’ve got an additional thought about practicing, and it’s this: Sometimes, the best way forward is to not fixate on the word “practice,” but rather to just get busy and write.

I’m thinking of a quote by Ringo Starr in which he said, “I’ve never practiced drums unless there was another human being in the room… if I’m just playing by myself it gets boring pretty quick.”

I think Ringo has hit the issue right on the head. He’s found it unsatisfying, maybe even irrelevant, to do anything musical by himself. He’d far rather be learning his craft by sitting in a room with other musicians, listening, communicating, and reacting to the musical ideas he’s hearing.

And though he’s talking about drumming, which is almost by definition a group activity, I think a similar sentiment applies to songwriting. For sure, songwriters are people who do a lot of their work on their own, but songs themselves are the best teachers.

If you are really interested in improving your skills as a songwriter, using the same processes that you’d use to “do the real thing,” try this:

  1. Improvise musical ideas. Either solo or with your bandmates, set up an improvisation on a melodic idea. (A great example of this is listening to Paul McCartney working out the ideas for “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road“, from the Anthology 3 collection.)
  2. Always record what you’ve improvised. And do a bit of mixing to get a good result. Listen to what you’ve done, and try to figure out ways to improve the structure of your song.
  3. Don’t worry if your session doesn’t lead to a new song. You’d be surprised how much you learn simply by casually putting ideas together in this way.

This kind of “practicing” is one of the best ways to improve your songwriting skills, because it involves getting lyrics and chords off the page and getting them into a form that resembles a final product. And doing that is the best way to bring the words practice and practical together in a musically meaningful way.

_______

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Get “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle, and take your songwriting to a new level of excellence!

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle

Songwriting: Hooks Made of Motifs

From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro

All the Rowboats - Regina SpektorHere’s an interesting thought that Yuri, a reader of this blog, suggested to me. Is it possible to have a song hook that’s comprised of motifs? The answer is yes, and it provides a song that’s got a lot of structural integrity with the added benefit of being easy to remember.

First, a couple of definitions. We all know what a hook is: a short, catchy, memorable bit of music that gets repeated over and over throughout a song. It’s usually melodic with a noticeable rhythm attached. And it usually doesn’t change much as a song progresses. The hooky bit you hear in the first chorus is likely to be the last thing you hear, and the last thing you remember.

motif has some similarities. Like a hook, a motif is a short musical “idea” — a rhythm, a melodic shape, even a bit of lyric — that also gets used throughout a song. But the difference is that a motif does its work in the background.

For example, you might find that you use a particular rhythm: two short notes followed by a long one. Then at a different part of the song, you reverse that idea, using a long note followed by two short ones. That’s not something the average listener would notice. But it strengthens the structure of your music in very important ways.

Here’s a song that demonstrates the difference between hooks and motifs: “All the Rowboats” (Regina Spektor). What we’re going to see is that Spektor sets up a motif — a kind of melodic shape, and then uses that shape in different ways, culminating in the eventual establishing of the chorus hook.

The Intro

The song is in the key of  F minor. The intro gives us the main melodic/rhythmic idea that spawns most of the musical elements of this song: a short 5-note figure. There are two things about this figure that are important to the song, and their shown in the diagram below: 1) it spans an interval of a minor third (shown in the red bracket); and 2) it’s shaped like an inverted-U or inverted-V, with the highest note in the middle (shown in the blue curved line).

All the Rowboats - Spektor - Analysis

Verse

So we’ve got a motif that has a melodic component (the minor 3rd interval) and the shape (an inverted U). What we’re going to see happen now is that while the shape stays the same, the interval starts to gradually increase in size. First we get the motif presented in the same way as the intro, even if the rhythms are slightly altered:

All the Rowboats - Verse motif

As the verse melody progresses, you’ll then hear that minor-3rd interval increase to a major-3rd, still keeping that inverted-U shape:

All the Rowboats - Verse - structure

Chorus

And now we get to the chorus, with two new modifications to that original motif, and an understated chorus hook. First, the shape of the motif flips over so that it starts and end with higher notes, with the lower notes in the middle. Second, the interval of low-to-high note increases to a perfect 4th:

All the Rowboats - Chorus Hook

Instrumental Interlude

During this section we hear the motif further developed: The rhythms are elongated, which you can hear at 2’27”. At this point, you’ll hear the higher notes playing the moving-upward part of the melodic motif, while the bass notes play the moving-down component.

As I mentioned, the chorus hook is very understated, but in songs like this, where the idea of motif is a crucial part of the song’s construction, a hook is not as crucial to the viability of the song.

The question is: how much of this kind of motivic manipulation is calculated, and how much is purely instinct? The balance between calculation and instinct depends on the songwriter. Those with a strong classical background (like Spektor) will know all about the power of musical motifs, and know exactly what they’re doing when songs like this come together.

But even without a strong traditional training, songwriters who 1) listen daily to good music, and who 2) ask questions based on a strong sense of musical curiosity, are likely to understand the importance of relating one song section to another through the use of motifs.

In a very real sense, motivic development provides the strongest musical glue for your music, and helps even complicated music make sense to the audience.

________

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,504 other followers