It’s frustrating, isn’t it? After all those hours spent perfecting your song, there’s still something that doesn’t sit well with you.
What on Earth could it be? Here are a few things that songwriters often trip over – sometimes even after taking songwriting lessons (we’re all human after all).
View this as the quality check at the end of a production line. If your song’s anything less than 100% by the time you’re done, then think (or re-think) each of the following aspects, and see if your fresh song is missing any ingredients.
1. The Beginning
How does your song begin? Does it grip the attention straight away? Is it instantly recognizable? If the answer to either of these questions is no, it may be time to rethink what your listeners’ first impression of your song will be.
An extended intro may strike you as an effective way of building tension and anticipation, but if it’s overly long or lacks interesting developments, the novelty will quickly wear off, and your listeners will reach for the skip button. The most important thing to realize here is that most listeners will decide whether or not to change over in the first few seconds, so make them count!
2. The Length
Only in very exceptional circumstances should you aim to extend the running time of your song beyond 3 minutes. If you’re hoping to get it played on the radio, a longer song will likely have to be edited down anyway, so save the 10-minute epics for your ‘experimental third album’. You want your song to be a rewarding listening experience, so it’s much better for your listeners to be left wanting more than waiting for it to be over.
If you want to jam a blistering guitar solo in there, don’t overdo it – remember, this is a song, not just a backing track for your virtuoso talent. And if you’ve got a chorus that’s so good it deserves to be repeated don’t repeat it 20 times – maybe only make it twice as long at the end. That’s more than enough repetitions to get people singing along the way after it’s over – just watch ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ live.
3. The Key
Choosing the wrong key will make a surprising amount of difference to your song. And we’re talking more than mixing up major and minor here – even a semitone either way away from your home key can drastically alter the feel of the music. Sites like Bite Your Own Elbow offer expert opinions on what each key might mean in its own right. While it’s important to play in a key you’re comfortable playing in (particularly when it comes to singing), it’s also worth noting what effect these key decisions will have on others.
4. The Arrangement
The arrangement stage will usually come after the main composition stage, but it’s no less important. A weak or inappropriate arrangement will sap the strength out of your song’s meaning. Starkness is just as legitimate a tool as complexity. If you’re singing about something grandiose, like world peace, then you need to think about the scale of the music in relation to the scale of the subject matter. A good example of this would be ‘Give Peace A Chance’ by John Lennon – the acoustic guitar sounds like just one person, but the choral voices sound like a crowd. It’s something that matters to everybody, but on a personal as well as a public level.
You wouldn’t want a chorus of voices intruding on a purely personal message, like Plain White T’s ‘Hey There Delilah’, because that’s not really anything to do with anyone outside that relationship. Equally, imagine if the chorus of ‘We Will Rock You’ was a solo vocal – who’s the ‘we’? As great as that chorus is, it wouldn’t be the same rallying cry we’ve all come to know and love if it didn’t sound like a stadium full of people.
5. The Chorus
If your chorus doesn’t make everyone who hears it want to wave their arms in the air and sing along, you should probably write a new one. Choruses are meant to be sung in unison – it should be the simplest, clearest and catchiest part of your song because it’s probably the part that people will remember when they’re trying to describe it to someone else.
If your song’s chorus is too complicated for your listeners to sing along to, then they’ll have a hard time remembering it. Just remember what Benjamin Franklin once said: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” The same goes for choruses – you want something that people will enjoy singing themselves because they’ll remember they enjoyed it.
6. The Bridge (or lack thereof)
A bridge, as you can probably guess from the name, connects two different parts of your song together. You need a pretty sturdy bridge to make it safely from a verse to a radically different chorus. If your bridge is too different from your verse and your chorus, then the whole thing will collapse into the sea of disconnect. And while not every song needs a bridge per se, it’s definitely worth considering whether you’re asking your listeners to jump with you over a huge gap of difference, because not everyone will make it to the other side with you.
7. The Dynamics
Dynamics are essential when it comes to making distinct sections of your song stand out. The most common pattern for dynamics to follow are:
- Quiet in the verse
- Build up in the pre-chorus or bridge
- Louder in the chorus
This works because the difference in volume signifies to your listeners that it’s the part for them to join in, so you’ve got to be careful not to confuse them if you’re going to mess around with this pattern. If your guests get halfway through the chorus before they realize your song’s changed, then you need to make the dynamic shift more obvious.
8. The Lyrics
A weak line can topple a mighty tune, just like removing the wrong block in a game of Jenga. If you think you can do better, then you can, and will. If you can’t get anything to rhyme with the first line, change it. If you’ve tried to use a metaphor or an analogy and it sounds silly alongside the rest of your lyrics, remove it.
You can always save it for a future song with a different mood. Feel free to use (but not rely on) rhyming dictionaries, as sometimes we can overlook things we already know. But using rhymes for the sake of it can make a couplet feel forced, and you’ll end up rhyming ‘see a ghost’ with ‘piece of toast’ like Desiree did in ‘Life’. They don’t really have much to do with each other.
9. The End
Finally, think carefully about how you want your song to end. It can be abrupt, if that suits your song, but don’t just end it there because you don’t know what else to do – end it there because it’s supposed to because you want it to have an impact. You can use the ‘stadium finish’, but not all the time – it would sound out of place on a quiet or simple song, and would get old if you use it all the time. And be careful of fade outs – if your song ends with many repetitions, it can work a treat. But don’t fade it out just as it’s getting interesting, or you’ll frustrate your listeners. Make sure they know it’s ended – or at least ending – so they know how to feel.
If you build everything up again for what seems like another big chorus, then just give up, you’re just going to be met with a dissatisfied sigh instead of that cheer you’re aiming for. Leave your listeners feeling fulfilled, and they’ll be back for round 2!
About the author: Joe Hoten is an avid writer of songs, content, and song-related content, and is a regular contributor to Bands for Hire. Bands for Hire are a live entertainment agency offering a wide range of live party bands, wedding bands for hire, string quartets, jazz bands, and more – across the UK.