The Hit Songwriting Formula

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Creating Good Music is Not a Random Process

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The following is an excerpt from “Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music“, Chapter 6: Verses, Choruses, Bridge: The Moving Parts. It’s a book I wrote two years ago, published by Backbeat Books, a subsidiary of Hal Leonard Corporation:

Music, in all the diverse ways in which songwriters create it, comes from what could be thought of as a set of instructions in the creative part of our brains. Those instructions are formed over time, starting with our earliest encounters with art and music. Those encounters help to define our own personal musical “taste.” With everyone having different musical tastes, and a different take on what good music is, it might make you wonder how anyone can learn to like anyone’s music. It all seems so random, put that way.

In fact, it’s not completely random. The fact that most of the time we like to assemble those bits of music that appear in our minds into verses and choruses, for example, is a kind of musical form that provides an important aspect of predictability. Form helps listeners remember songs. An audience may not have heard your song before, but they usually know when they’re hearing the verse and when they’re hearing the chorus. They may not know how they know, but that doesn’t seem to stop it happening. Even when songs have a similar verse and chorus melody, like Lieber & Stoller’s ‘Hound Dog,’ audiences will still know that parts of the song are verses while other parts are choruses. They also know when they are hearing a bridge, or middle eight, even if they don’t call it that. They may not have the vocabulary, but they know that when they hear a bridge they can expect to hear “something come back” – probably the chorus. When they hear an intro, they expect a verse to follow it. They expect choruses to repeat almost exactly, while verses will use the same melody with different words.

And they must know other things that they lack the knowledge to explain: why a verse melody sounds like a verse, and what makes it different from a chorus melody. Play Lady Gaga’s ‘Paparazzi’ and practically everyone will be able to tell you where the verse ends and where the chorus starts. It has to do with an audience’s innate ability to compare song sections. If you play only the verse of ‘Paparazzi’ to a person who has never heard the song before, they’ll find it harder to say if it’s a verse or chorus. Now give them the verse and the chorus – or even play the chorus first and then the verse – and they have a better chance of correctly labeling the sections. They also seem to know that a song might have verses but no chorus.

And even if they don’t know that, they still understand the ups and downs of song energy. Without knowing exactly why, listeners can tell that a song’s energy should ebb and flow over time, but generally in an upward direction. Since verses, choruses, and bridges all come with basic energy levels as part of what they are, even musically untrained audiences can usually tell where the verses and choruses are, and spot that something is amiss if the energy and momentum of a song are off. So the form of music – the way we put the various sections of a song together – is vital to its success. Listeners need those formal elements to help them remember the song. If those formal elements stray too far from what is normally done for verses and choruses, it affects the song’s momentum, and its memorability. And if you as the songwriter stray too far from what song sections usually do, you are likely to find the resulting song unsatisfying, and that frustration can lead to fear: the beginning of songwriter’s block.

“Beating Songwriter’s Block: Jump-Start Your Words and Music” is available from Amazon, Hal Leonard, and most other booksellers. It has been translated into French and Italian.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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