How to Write a Song That Works
the 7 Basic Songwriting Errors
How to Write a Song That WorksIdentifying the 7 Basic Songwriting Errors
Gary Ewer, B.Mus
The information on this page is based on the songwriting principles and advice from Gary Ewer's songwriting e-books. Find out how to write great songs, lyrics, melodies, chords and more.
Are you a FRUSTRATED songwriter?
DID YOU KNOW that less than 1% of the songwriters out there are succeeding? Most of the songs being written today will never be heard by anyone except a few friends and family.
In other words, except for the love and support of loved ones, the vast majority of songs have serious problems, serious enough that no one else wants to listen to them. The melody is boring, the chord progressions don't work, the lyrics sound forced, and so on.
So What's the Problem?
So why is that? What's the problem? A quick online search will tell you that most people are looking for chord progressions. Unfortunately, while a good chord progression is important, this is not the only, or even the major, problem. Finding a chord progression that works is simply one of a series of problems that failing songs suffer from.
This page is going to show you that most bad music out there suffers from:
• A LACK OF FORM. STRUCTURING MUSIC will make sure that listeners remember your song and hum it all day long.
• TOO MUCH COMPLEXITY. SIMPLICITY is the key to successful music. And if you don't believe me, check out "Hound Dog", which uses only three chords, and barely more than three notes in its melody.
• TOO MUCH INNOVATION. A proper balance between INNOVATION and PREDICTABILITY is vital to getting your audience hooked than innovation.
Do Your Songs Generate EXCITEMENT?
But more, MUCH MORE than anything, there needs to be a general excitement about your song that transcends anything else you can say about it. Something that sets it apart from all the other songs being written. Without that excitement, you're just adding to the noise.
If your songwriting is suffering - if you can't seem to finish a song, and make it sizzle, you are definitely not alone. In fact, you're one of the 99% of songwriters out there who are just adding to the noise. But it doesn't need to be that way.
I want to show you:
Get Going in the Right Direction!
This website will get you going, finally, in the right direction.
You need to read this page, but more than that, you need to download the songwriting e-books that will finally make songwriting a joy!
The Seven Basic Songwriting Errors
For most of you, the problems you have with songwriting are likely to be one of seven basic errors. The exciting news is that there are solutions in this article to those errors that will make your songs work. I want to show you not just how to write good melodies, chord progressions or lyrics... I want to show you how to make them work together to produce killer songs.
KEEP READING, because this page contains valuable tips to help you become the songwriter you've always wanted to be.
The Mistakes, and Their SOLUTIONS
So are there only seven things you need to do to write good songs? In my experience as a teacher, the seven tips listed below address the seven most common errors committed by students of songwriting. Addressing these short-comings is essential to making your songs work.
ERROR #1: THE FORM OF THE SONG IS CONFUSING.
SOLUTION: Strengthen the form of your songs by carefully controlling the energy. Usually, an intro should have the same or more energy than a verse, not less. A chorus should have more energy than a verse. A bridge should have more energy than the chorus that came before it. This chart shows the general energy pattern that works for most songs:
ERROR #2: THE MELODY LACKS SHAPE.
SOLUTION: In a verse, the range of the melody should generally be higher immediately after the middle point, to help it gain momentum as it gets ready to connect to the chorus. The old standard, "Under the Boardwalk," by Resnick and Young, is a perfect example.
ERROR #3: CHORDS SEEM TO WANDER AIMLESSLY.
SOLUTION: The chord that represents the key your song is in (i.e., the "tonic" chord) should be featured more in the chorus than in the verse. (And the actual tonic note should also be used more in a chorus than in a verse.)
ERROR #4: STRONG AND FRAGILE CHORD PROGRESSIONS ARE USED HAPHAZARLY.
SOLUTION: Chord progressions that feature chords four notes away from each other (i.e., in the key of C major we're talking about G7 to C, C to F, Dm to G, as examples) form a strong progression, and should be featured in a chorus. Other chord progressions (let's say Dm to Em, F to Dm, G to Am, for example) form what are called "fragile" progressions, and can be featured more in a verse.
ERROR #5: LYRICS ARE NOT SUPPORTING THE FORM OF THE SONG.
SOLUTION: The kind of lyric determines the kind of chord progression you use. Strong, conclusive lyrics need many strong progressions; introspective lyrics work well with fragile progressions. And remember, writing a good lyric does not necessarily mean writing a good poem. Rather, it's better to write a working title for your song, then start brainstorming words and short phrases that relate to that title.
For example, if you've written, "All I've Ever Wanted" as your working title, you might come up with these words as relating text: love, hand-in-hand, touch, satisfaction, emotion, my heart, for you, warm... etc. You will find that even though many of these words won't necessarily make it to your song, they get you thinking in the right direction, and start you formulating a working lyric.
ERROR #6: YOU'RE RELYING ON A HOOK TO SAVE A BAD SONG.
SOLUTION: Adding a hook to a bad song gives you a bad song with a hook! Composing a song and then trying to find a hook that makes it really come alive is a really difficult thing to do. Try writing the hook first. Improvise on a couple of chords, or a few notes, or a rhythm - something short and attractive. Once you've got something that really catches your attention, try using it as an intro to your song, and something that keeps recurring between verses and choruses. A hook needs to draw an audience in, and keep them coming back to your song.
ERROR #7: YOU'RE WAITING FOR INSPIRATION.
SOLUTION: I can say it no better than the musician/author Ernest Newman: "The great composer... does not set to work because he is inspired, but becomes inspired because he is working." Waiting for inspiration is, quite frankly, a waste of time! You need to be writing daily in order to make your songs better. If something isn't working.... don't throw it out. Just put it away, and start something new. Keep everything you try to write in a scrap book. You'd be surprised what will eventually make its way into a song.
These are just a few examples of the kinds of things that will make your songs work better.
I have been teaching music for many years, and many of my students, in addition to their music studies with me, are budding songwriters on the side. But the number of students who describe the anxiety songwriting causes is far greater than the number that describe the gratification or contentment. Have I just described you?
You know, it's a bit strange: if you ask a professional songwriter how they do what they do, many will describe the songwriting process by saying, "Well, it's just got to happen... It's not something you can describe, as such..."
I CAN describe the songwriting process. If you have ever felt that music is within you, but you can’t seem to get it out in an organized way, you may simply be committing one of the seven basic songwriting errors I've listed above.
WHY SOME SONGS WORK AND OTHERS DON'T
As frustrated as you may feel at times, the good news is that you may already be creating good chord progressions, melodies and lyrics. It could just be the underlying structure of your song that is at fault. You've got the right components... now you need to put them all together in a way that keeps people singing your songs.
FACE YOUR FRUSTRATIONS
For now, I need to focus in on what has been frustrating you the most. Maybe it's lyrics... trying to come up with the right words. Maybe it's creating a melody that really works. Or perhaps it's chord progressions.
Whatever it is, think about that one area of writing songs that's been frustrating you, and write that word down. The only way to solve problems is to first identify them, and then face them head-on. Remember that word, because it will come up again later on in this article.
There are lots of books out there that try to tell you how to write music. So if those books are working, why are there still so many frustrated writers? And if those books have what you're looking for, why are you still looking for help?
Those books will tell you to model the success of professional songwriters, but they don't give the strategies for doing that! And often when you read what professional writers say about what they do, they can't really explain it.
You can spend forever writing songs, and never get past the ho-hum stage if you aren't applying the same techniques to your composing that the professionals are.
Structuring your music properly is essential. For the pros, that means starting with getting chord progressions to work. It's not magic, and it's not guess-work. Let me show you some basics.
Believe it or not, the best comparison to writing music and getting chords to work is constructing an office building and getting the walls to work. Picture that building in your mind. Any architect will tell you that no building will stand for very long if the load bearing walls aren't considered first. It's an absolute MUST. The other walls - the ones that create many of the hallways and office walls - can only be worked out once the load bearing walls are in place.
SO WHY ARE SONGWRITERS NOT LEARNING THIS VITAL LESSON FROM ARCHITECTS?
In our songs, we tend to think of all the various chord progressions as just simply... progressions. We write one, then... on we go to writing the next. This can result in music that is weak and riddled with failures. While not the only problem with bad songs, it is one of the big reasons why songs fail!
As you read at the top of this webpage, not all chord progressions are the same, just as not all walls are the same. Some progressions are very strong, like the load bearing walls in my analogy. And we need them in crucial structural moments in our song. Other progressions are like non-load bearing walls. They are beautiful, they are necessary, but... they were never intended to be the ones holding the music together. In that sense, they are fragile.
Balancing Strong and Fragile Progressions
Now - THINK BACK to every piece of music you tried to write, songs you tried to make work. Did any of those failed songs have chords that sounded like... something just wasn't working? I have no doubt at all that those weak songs have fragile progressions where strong ones were needed, and too many strong ones where fragile progressions were needed.
It's not just chords that have songwriters in a state of confusion. If you aren't constructing a good melody, what are your listeners going to be remembering about your song? Writing a melody isn't just writing a nice sequence of notes. Verse melodies are different from chorus melodies, and you need to know the difference.
A beautiful verse is one that cries out for a chorus to follow it. In general, verses use lower pitches than choruses. It's a crucial part of contouring the energy of your song. As a verse passes the mid-point on its way to the chorus, the melody can begin its swing upward. In doing so, you create a kinetic energy within your song; listeners will find it hard to stop listening!
It's all part of structuring your music. If you aren't structuring your music in this way, your songs will feel like they lack energy and direction. And there's so much more!DEALING WITH WRITER'S BLOCK
Writer’s block is the dreaded scourge of every songwriter’s life. Being unable to come up with a song happens to all writers, and shouldn’t be alarming when it occurs. But when it lasts for an extended period of time, it is the most frustrating thing that can happen to a composer.
The typical symptom of writer’s block is the feeling that once a basic musical idea is created, you just can’t seem to progress beyond that beginning stage. Everything feels like aimless wandering. It can turn what used to be the enjoyable experience of musical creation into a torturous journey, searching for the right notes, the right chords, or the right words.
There are two major culprits in causing writer's block to take hold.
1) An overwhelming fear of failure. Athletes experience this fear frequently, and it has even ended the careers of some very fine and talented people. Songwriters can suffer from this same debilitating fear.
2) Songs that lack musical form. It's not necessarily that you can't come up with ideas. It's more often that the song itself is poorly structured:
The VITAL Importance of FORM
FORM is the most important element in writing a song. Be sure to read the next section.
The good news is that there are things that you can do to reduce or even eliminate writer’s block. These ideas will get you feeling creative and successful:
1) Create random phrases of text and write them down in a notepad. For example, “through the moon,” “a breath of sunset”, “the clock cried”, “tomorrow’s sigh,” and so on. These are random thoughts, and may never make their way into a song. But they can cause you to feel creative, without the pressure of putting dozens of thoughts and words together to form a coherent lyric. And you will eventually stumble across a couple of words that will be useful in some future song. Keep every phrase you create.
2) Imagine that you’ve been told to create a five-second piece of music for the end of a TV show. Just a little tag to end a scene. You’ll probably only need one or two chords, and a little four or five note melody, without lyrics. This allows you to be creative without the pressure of creating a three or four-minute song. Play the chords over and over, and improvise a very short melody. Keep changing the melody and/or chords until you come up with something you like.
3) Invent a four-note melody. Hum the melody several times; then start harmonizing the melody with your guitar, or at the piano. See what chords sound good with that melody. Some will sound horrible, but some will sound very interesting. Don't change your melody once you’ve decided what it will be. Write down the chord progressions that sound good. Find four or five progressions that work well, and see if you can string them together somehow to create a short piece of music.
These activities are useful because they require you to be creative. At the same time, they can help you eliminate writer’s block because they are easy to fulfill, and you will feel successful. And feeling successful is one of the biggest weapons you’ll have for defeating writer’s block.
Hopefully those ideas will get you feeling creative and successful. Now, more about the importance of form...
THE MOST IMPORTANT COMPONENT OF GOOD SONGS...
What it comes down to, and why so much music being written fails, is a lack of structure - a lack of form. When you talk about form in music, you really are talking about how all the elements of songs work together - the structure and placement of all the components. For songs that don't work, and for the main cause of writer's block, you can usually place the blame on form.
And this is where people get messed up, because when they look at their songs, the components BY THEMSELVES are often fine. But HOW THEY GO TOGETHER isn't working. A verse may be fine, but it doesn't seem to be begging for the chorus. The chorus may be fine, but the chords don't feel right. An intro may be great, but... not for that song. So it's how things go together that's the problem!
Do you remember playing with Lego® blocks as a kid? Using the same blocks, one child's building can be spectacular, while another's might fall down. It's not the blocks that are the problem. It's all about how the blocks are put together!
I've been a music teacher now for twenty years, teaching every age group from elementary school through to university and beyond. Over those years I had opportunity to scrutinize the music that my students had been writing. And while some was great, most of the songs were weak, and in need of serious help.
Chord progressions were only one of many weaknesses I observed. I saw how they struggled with melody construction, how verses didn't sound like verses, choruses didn't sound like choruses. And I also saw the frustration of my students as they tried to get their songs to work.
So I decided to do something to help not just my students, but every other struggling songwriter out there. Writing songs does not need to be mysterious. There are essential secrets of songwriting. The good news is that YOU CAN LEARN THEM AND BEGIN APPLYING THEM IN MINUTES!
I began to write an e-book to help my students deal with songwriting from every possible angle. It may seem like writing songs is just dealing with chords and melodies, but it's so much more. Here are some of the secrets my e-book, "The Essential Secrets of Songwriting," reveals:
There is SO MUCH to learn, but the journey is FUN, and it is WORTH IT!
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?
This e-book is extremely comprehensive. This book deals with every possible frustration that has been nagging you as a songwriter.
Just think of one word that deals with songwriting, and I guarantee that when you click here for a listing of the table of contents, you will find that word listed right there, right in the table of contents. When I wrote "The Essential Secrets of Songwriting", I wanted to make sure that I dealt with writing songs from every conceivable angle.
SO WHO CAN WRITE SONGS?
songs! I can say that with complete confidence, and I
haven't even met
psychological studies show us that humans are artistic animals. ALL
humans. The ability to do musical
things is within
all of us, not just some of
Essential Secrets of Songwriting", I took years
and boiled it
down to eleven essential principles.
read the e-book,
you are going to see these eleven principles laid out for you, chapter
Principles that describe:
SO... WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
I have visited newsgroups and online forums, and it never ceases to amaze me how much people like talking about writing music. A quick search on Google Groups will tell you that there are thousands of people writing about songwriting, asking thousands of questions.
NOW! There is no reason to be delaying your
advancement as a
All the best
in all of your musical endeavors!