Quick Tips for Righting Your Song’s Wrongs
Well, okay… Songwriting is an art, so technically there are no rights or wrongs. But there ARE certain tools you can use to make your songs as strong as they can possibly be. Here’s a crash course on some of those tools. This page gets updated frequently, so check back often for new tips.
Have you ever gone through a phase in your songwriting where you decided you just weren’t going to rhyme anymore? I think most songwriters have. But that could just be because you didn’t have a good strategy for rhyming. If you think of rhyming as strategy to enhance the mood of your song, and use it in conjunction with a few other tools, it can greatly benefit your songs.
An ABAB rhyme scheme feels complete and balanced. If you’re writing a song that has lyrics or a mood that is NOT happy and balanced, applying an ABAB rhyme schemes just isn’t going to feel right for your song. Instead, try modifying your rhyme to use it to your advantage.
I’ve always found that before you put pen to paper, you should think about the big picture of your song. From there you can get more and more detailed. For example, you might first start by asking yourself “what’s the main idea for my entire song?” Then from there you can ask yourself what you want each section to do. In other words, figure out how each of your verses, your chorus and your bridge are going to move your story forward. If you figure out the big picture and then the main idea of each section, you’ll have a better road map for writing your song.
Ambiguity in lyric writing can be a pretty cool trick. But don’t confuse ambiguity with vagueness. They may sound similar, but they’re not. Ambiguity has a clearly defined purpose, while vagueness does not. Ambiguity implies open to interpretation between a few perceived options, while vague is just open. Ambiguity puts several meanings alongside each other.
Have you ever written a first verse and thought you were done with all of your ideas before you even got to the second verse? The next time that happens, instead of trying to further your story in a second verse, assume what you just wrote WAS your second verse and write a first verse that leads up to it. It’s a good trick for dodging some potential writer’s block.
The lyrics of your songs have to stand on their own. You don’t always have a chance to explain what they’re about the way you do when you’re onstage performing. Your story is told in your lyrics and enhanced with your music, so don’t rely on having to give an explanation of what your song’s about before you play it. If your story’s strong, it should speak for itself.
A great way to pull your listeners into your story, is to write lyrics that are very descriptive and engage the senses. Our minds tend to remember sense-bound memories very well, so if you engage the senses with your words, it will become easy for your listeners to relate to what you’re saying.
If you read your lyrics on a page, and you feel more emotionally than when you hear your lyrics in your song, chances are your song needs better prosody. In other words, the feel and emotion in your music probably isn’t supporting the meaning of your lyrics properly. A simplistic example of this would be singing happy lyrics to a song in a minor key.
The first few lines of your song may determine whether your listener sticks around for more, or bails out. While you want your whole song to be engaging, you really want to draw them in with an interesting opening. Techniques like the use of metaphor, and engaging the listener’s senses will greatly help in bringing them into your story as soon as your vocals begin.
A great way to get your audience interested in your song right off the bat is to have your opening lyrics be very engaging. Avoid starting off with very generic language. Instead, be very sense bound and paint a very visual picture that will easily invite your listener into your song.
When your song’s in 4/4 time, the first beat of the measure is the strongest. That’s why it’s usually an effective strategy to make the most important words or syllables of your lyric land on the first beat. This way they’ll receive the highlighting they deserve. Smaller, more insignificant words, like “the” or “a” would typically be wasted (and undeservingly accented) on the valuable real estate of the downbeat.
Repetition, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and a highlighted title are all songwriting tools you can use to create a memorable song. Use them wisely to get your listener coming back for more.
Avoiding cliches when you’re writing lyrics is usually a wise approach. Cliches have been heard so many times, they’ve practically lost their meaning to the listener. Conversely, if you come up with your own new, unique way of getting your ideas across, they’ll be much more likely to make an impression on those who are listening to your song.
Rhyme is important in songwriting, because it can make your lyrics memorable, while at the same time creating a sense of completion. Rhyme works best when use as a strategy in your music. Simply not using it because you want to be different isn’t likely to help your songs very much.
Metaphors can really liven up your lyrics. A great way to brainstorm metaphors is to decide what characteristics something you’re writing about has. Then figure out what else shares those same characteristics and you can mash the two ideas together to create some cool metaphors.
One great way to achieve contrast from your verse to your chorus is to start your vocal on a different beat in each of those sections. It’s an effective approach that’s often not considered.
Every time you see a phrase, practice putting a melody to it. It could be a phrase you hear someone say, or even something as simple as a traffic sign. The idea being the more you do something, the better you get at it. So if you incorporate melody writing into your daily life in this way, it’ll help you improve.
As songwriters, part of our job is to align the accents in our words with the accents in our music. Singing is an exaggerated form of speech, so in order for our words to resonate with our listeners and sound natural, we need the phrases we sing to have the same sonic shape as the spoken version of our words.
Using the scale of your song’s key is a great place to start if you’re stuck with coming up with a melody. Aside from using the notes in the scale of your song’s key to write a motif, you can also use the pentatonic and blues scales to come up with melodies as well. You can write melodies with the major pentatonic and blues scales if your song’s in a major key, while the minor pentatonic and blues scales can be used to write melodies if your song’s in a major or minor key. They’re great tools to try, if you’re having trouble coming up with a melody off the top of your head.
Keeping your melody simple is a great way to keep it memorable and singable. A lot of times songwriters want to complicate their melodies either to prove themselves as melody writers, or because their lyrics are too wordy and don’t lend themselves well to simple melodies. But it’s important to remember that simple is easy to remember and sing along to. That’s really what your listeners are looking for. If you don’t believe it, listen to your favorite songs, and you’ll see what I mean.
If you’re stuck with coming up with an idea for a melody, the notes in the chords of your song are a great place to start. Just play a recording of your song’s chords while riffing on the individual notes until you come up with a melodic motif you like.
If you’re trying to come up with a melody and you’re thinking of it as a daunting task, simply stop worrying about the WHOLE song’s melody. Just take it one piece at a time. If you just come up with one small motif, you can repeat it and tweak it within a section of your song and the song moves along. Before you know it, you’ll have an entire melody for your song.
There are a handful of very common song structures used in contemporary songwriting. One of the ones to be familiar with is Verse / Chorus / Verse / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus. It’s also notated as ABABCB (where A denotes the verse, B the chorus and C the bridge). A plethora of hit songs use this structure and it’s one our ears have become accustomed to hearing. We’ve heard this song structure so many times in popular music that we’re practically trained to expect a bridge right after the second chorus. Next time you hear a song for the first time, after the second chorus is over see if you can catch yourself expecting to hear a bridge, even though the song is brand new to you.
Typically, the bridge of a song sounds different from the rest of the song. It’s usually the first time we’ve heard a part like that throughout the whole track. So since the sound of that section is unlike what we’ve heard in the previous verses and choruses, the lyrics should match that altered intent as well. Try experimenting with a new perspective or idea in the lyrics at the bridge of your song.
Changing the feel of your song from your verses to your choruses is an important way to keep your listeners interested. A few ways you can create that contrast include changing the melodic rhythm of the melody, changing the vocal range of the melody, changing the beat the melody comes in on, or changing the chords you’re playing. There are other ways to achieve contrast too, but those four are a great way to get started.
Contrast between the different sections of your song is important to keep your song interesting throughout the whole track. A great way to achieve contrast from your verse to your chorus is to use different line lengths in each section. Very short melodic (and lyrical) lines in your verses will contrast well against longer lines in your chorus, and vice versa.
There are many different ways to achieve contrast between each section of your song (or from your verse to your chorus to your bridge). You can sing your vocals in a different range than the in the previous section. You can start your vocals on a different beat that you did in the previous section. You can play different chords on the guitar or piano from section to section. You can even play the same chords to a different rhythm. You’ll often see the best results when you combine several of these contrasting ideas together, to highlight the contrast.
Making your verses sound different from your choruses and bridge is a good way to make each section sound different from each other. A great way to achieve this kind of contrast is to use different chords under each section of your song. At the very least, starting each section with a different chord is an effective way to create the change.
Typically song titles are intended to serve as a summation of what the song’s about. But more than being just a recap of the song’s essence, they’re meant to help up find the songs we want to hear again. It’s common for us to hear a song we like, then go to a search engine and search for the phrase in the chorus we perceive to be the title. We usually assume the title is the phrase that repeats the most, or is in the most highlighted position in the song. Use this concept to your advantage when you write, to make it easy for people to find your songs again.
Writing the title before you write any other words for a song can be a great approach to try when writing lyrics. Think of the title of your song as a bumper sticker. In other words, it conveys the “big idea” for what your song’s all about. That’s why the title often occurs in the chorus. Aside from typically being the most memorable part of your song, your chorus will generally be a summation of what’s happening in your verses. It’s an “overall idea” so it can relate back to the progressing story line of your verses and bridge. Your title has that same role. So if you write the title of your song first, you’ll have the “big idea” in mind when getting into the specific details of the rest of your song.
The next time you finish a song, play it for a friend without telling him the name of your song. See if your friend can tell you what the song is called, just by listening to the lyrics. If he’s right, you probably have a strong title. If he doesn’t know, you probably don’t. Your titles should help your potential fans find your songs easily, after hearing them once. This is a good test to find out if your songs will be easy to find.
Next time you’re in a conversation with someone, listen carefully to what they’re saying. Don’t just listen, but listen specifically for song titles. You’d be amazed by how many ideas you can get by doing that. And once you have a title, you’ll have a central focus for your chorus, which will get you going for your whole song. If you incorporate this exercise into your every day life, you’ll be flowing with ideas.
Song titles are important because they can create intrigue. If someone’s looking at a list of your titles, and that’s all they have to go on, a well written title can make them want to hear your song. For example, the title “I Never Knew That” is more likely to get played than “I Found out You Were Cheating on Me” because there’s a curiosity arousing element to the first one. You’ll ask yourself “He never knew WHAT?” and then find yourself needing to hear the song.
Having a catchy, memorable title is a great way to keep the name of your song stuck in your listeners’ heads, so they’ll know what it’s called when they go to search for it later. That’s why using alliteration, rhyme, and/or a flowing, consistent rhythm in your song’s title can be great tools to use, as they tend to create memorable phrases.
When inspiration hits, you need to be prepared to capture it. Especially since it can happen at any time and is likely to happen when you’re at your most relaxed, and least expecting it. For that reason, always have a means by which to capture those great ideas. Keep a pad and pen by your bed. Make a “Songwriting” folder on your smartphone for all the apps that will help you bottle your inspiration. Have an app for recording sounds for melody, and riff ideas. A notepad app is handy for lyric, title, or overall song ideas. And a dictionary, rhyming dictionary or thesaurus app will be useful as well. You can even grab a metronome app and a tuner while you’re at it. Or you can carry the real things around (for some of them, like a tuner, you should) but smartphones are just making everything easier these days. Including writing songs.
If you find yourself consistently writing lyrics before you write melodies (or vice versa), try doing it the other way around. A great way to improve upon what you do is to break your current patterns and try out new ones. We can get lazy if we fall into old routines. Plus, when doing things this way, you’ll realize which way really works better for you. You won’t just be doing it, because that’s how you’ve always done it.
The tempo of your song will set its mood. As an experiment, take a guitar or piano riff from a song you’re working on and try playing it at different tempos. Speed it up, and then slow it down. Then try some tempos in between. See what that does for the song. A lot of times it’s easy to come up with a riff and roll with it as-is, without considering what altering its tempo can do for the music. If experiment with your tempo, you may end up with some cool, unexpected ideas.
Breaking the patterns you’ve created for yourself when you write a song is a great way to grow as a writer. If you use the same techniques, in the same order each time you write, your songs could not only start to sound the same, but you won’t be pushing yourself to grow as much anymore. Always be challenging yourself with new ideas and techniques to keep getting better at what you do.
If you’re stuck with coming up with an idea for a new song, go through some of your favorite songs to see what they’re about. There may be some similar ideas you’d like to use as a concept for your own music.
Before writing a new song, ask yourself who the song is being addressed to. It’ll help you keep focus as you come up with lyrics. If your verses and choruses and each addressed to different people, your song can get confusing.
Maintaining a balance between predictability and surprise when writing a song is usually a good approach. Overly predictable songs can become boring pretty quickly, while songs that are too complex can get your listener to tune out. However, a sense of familiarity mixed with elements of surprise is always nice.
Develop good work habits when you’re writing songs. Being consistent about your writing and planning times to write is a great way to get more things done when it comes to your music. Writing when inspiration hits is great as well, since ideas tend to flow at those times, but it shouldn’t be the only time you write.
When you’re stuck with coming up with a new song idea, try watching everyone around you and ask yourself questions about them. Questions like “How did that couple meet?,” or “Does he love his job? Why?” could really help to get the ball rolling if you’re experiencing writer’s block. Come up with you own questions based on who you’re looking at and have fun making up answers, and consequently song ideas.
Performance and Recording
One of the most important jobs a singer has is to attach emotion to his lyrics. The lyric should not be separated from the actual delivery of the words. If you’ve ever seen a local performer reading his lyrics off a sheet to a cover song he’s playing, I can guarantee you’ve seen a singer who isn’t fusing words with emotion. How can he be, if he doesn’t even know what words are coming next?
Many performers experience stage fright, but haven’t you noticed it’s pretty rare that you actually see someone performing that looks nervous? Well, the same goes for you. Even though you may be feeling nervous while you’re performing, the audience probably isn’t noticing it. For that reason, NEVER tell the audience you’re nervous. If you didn’t look nervous to them before, now they’re seeing you as weaker than they did before you mentioned it. And they’ll focus on that, instead of your performance.
The better know your songs, the better off you’ll be. So practice them a lot. A great way to really make sure you’re thoroughly prepared with your songs is to practice them in completely different ways each time you play them. When you rehearse, play them the standard way and then try playing them at an increased or decreased tempo. If you’re playing with a band, try playing the songs without one or more of your band members. Try playing the songs with the same structure without the lead vocalist singing.
One thing to consider when choosing a rhyme, or a word at the end of a line, is whether or not it ends with a hard consonant sound. Words that end with vowel sounds will be much easier to sing, if the note on the last word is held out.
When you’re performing live, it’s important to engage your audience. For that reason, it’s usually pretty ineffective to close your eyes when you’re playing a song. That’s inwardly focused and makes it harder for your audience to connect with you. Instead, make eye contact while projecting the emotions of your song. That approach is much more likely to make a big impact.
Your vocal is the most important part of your recording. When you’re coming up with an arrangement for your recording, don’t overload the track with too many instruments underneath the melody. It’ll take away from the singer’s performance. Instead, let the arrangement be more stripped down when the melody’s being sung, and you can fill out the arrangement more when the vocal is resting.
It’s important to know what you want to achieve as a songwriter or performer in order for you to get there. That may sound obvious, but it’s often neglected. A lot of times amateur songwriters walk around with the mindset of simply hoping “something’s” going to happen for them, without knowing what that something is. Whether you want to become a chart-topping performing songwriter, be on a songwriting staff in Nashville, or simply enjoy songwriting as a hobby, you need to define that for yourself. Knowing your purpose is the first step to getting there.
Protecting your songs via copyright is important. However, for most independent songwriters, obscurity is a much bigger problem than theft by other musicians. Don’t be afraid to put your songs out there. It’s the only way to have any kid of success with your music. You can protect your songs by copyrighting them at www.copyright.gov, if you’re in the United States. You can even copyright a handful of songs with one submission. For other countries, simply do a Google search for the appropriate place to protect your music. But get them protected and then get them online! You need people to start hearing your music right away. Don’t let your fear of theft cripple your music career before it even begins!
Collaborating with another songwriter can be a great way for each of you to compensate for each other’s weaknesses, when writing a song. If you want to collaborate with another writer, but you don’t know how to find one, start building relationships with other songwriters. Attend songwriting conventions, and even your local open mics. You can also go online and meet people through online songwriting forums. When you’re meeting people in these ways, don’t just show up and say what you want. Instead, get involved in conversations and build relationships, first. Then finding collaborators will be easy.
It’s important to define the style of your music so you can describe it to other people who haven’t heard it before. Simply saying something like “it’s totally original and can’t be defined” won’t help anyone imagine it. And aside from that, it’s most likely not true. Coming up with a couple of other bands that you may sound similar to is a good way to help you describe your music to others. If you can’t tell, ask your friends who your music sounds similar to.