We've heard it all before. One band will come out with a hit song, Top 40 radio will eat it up like Grandmas apple Pie, and then just like that, a new sound has been born. Examples are "With Arms Wide Open" by Creed, "My Immortal" by Evanescence, and a few by Blink 182. Suddenly many bands have songs that sound ridiculously similar, either in key, formula, or even imitating the singer's voice. You can mainly find this in local bands, and sadly enough, the majority of "Christian" music.
But what if we thought outside of the box? What if we made sure that our songs were long enough to make a point, but short enough not to bore? What if we steered clear of carbon copying other bands success and wrote what was in our heads and in our hearts as musicians? I say to you that if we did these things, our songs would live on much longer than we would, leaving a peace of us behind for future generations.
I offer you immortality, in a way. Let's look at several ways to ensure that you write a good song.
Most mainstream or "pop" tunes of any genre, be it rock, country, rap, anything, have a formula. Some bands even have a formula, a certain way that songs are written, and they generally stick very closely to it. For example, Creed (and the many sound-alikes that followed very closely afterwards) have this formula. The guitarist will pick something (usually in D) with a clean tone. Enter the southern "take-a-half-step-on-every-pitch-you-hit" vocals for the verse. Then after the first verse is done, the chorus comes in, and it's not much different. It's the same chord progression as the verse, only with distortion, the picking is done away with, and the lyrics become very catchy (which in and of itself isn't such a bad thing). Oh, and the rest of the band usually enters here. For the second verse, the bass and drums keep a steady beat going underneath the same picking part that we heard on the first verse. Then the chorus comes back, same vocals, same distortion, and then comes the bridge. It usually goes into a minor feel, and introduces some new chords to the song for a short few measures, and then back to the chorus, yadda yadda yadda, then back to the soft picking part we heard in the beginning.
This is actually a pretty solid song, when writing is considered. My complaint here is this. This pattern, this formula, is extremely overdone, over rated, and over duplicated.
Now there are bands and songs everywhere just like this, and it's really just your basic stencil song. Take this formula; add your own chords, guitar tones and novelty vocalist and you have a new sound. When you find a formula in your genre or even in your band, be sure not to over use it. Try to keep things fresh and almost ambiguous. Shorten a verse, or cut it in half. Start off with your "bridge" and then bring it back in the end to tie up your song in a nice, neat little package. Avoid formulas as much as you can, and make sure your song flows.
Finding Your Flow
It pains me to hear when a band or an artist has a great point musically and lyrically to make, and then ruin the flow with some off the wall effect, guitar breakdown, chord progression, or even key change. Foundationally, the drummer is a vital key to any band and any song. If there is no drummer, the rhythm must keep the song flowing. If the drummer breaks down, or if the drummer puts in some impulsive fill in the middle of a song (as many often do) the song can literally be ruined. The drummer is key and thus should not be overlooked when it comes to a songs flow.
My musical heroes, Nickel Creek, are perhaps the best when it comes to finding the songs flow. Beloved is also very good, but I will concentrate on Nickel Creek.
They are masters when it comes to writing a song and creating pure musical force. From one verse to the next, from one chorus to the bridge, from introduction to ending, they make sure that the song stands on its own, with a strong foundation. Describing musical flow is difficult and even putting tangible "do's" and "don't do's" can be difficult. This may also be something thats inherent to you and may not be able to be learned, other than listening over and over to good song writers. Push the envelope in your song writing, but be careful not to make the waves of your songs flow capsize your song. Make sure that all the musicians and all the parts have a good working knowledge of the song. They should know what the song is trying to say, where it should go, and how it should get there. If you are a solo musician, be sure that all the parts come together to make one beautiful sound; one magnificent song.
Finding Your Message
What does your song say? What do you want your song to say? How is it going to say it, and how is it going to get to its final destination. These are questions every song writer should ask themselves when writing a song. Whether it be lyrically or musically, every song needs to say something. Enter my qualm with pop music and the rap genre that it has embraced. Musically, Rap communicates to me drunken orgies, wasted time at clubs, and mindlessness. Lyrically, it communicates an infatuation with shiny objects, expensive cars, and the all holy club. As a genre, as a society even, surely we can come up with better, less shallow things to discuss...Please.
I will step off my soapbox now, but I will say this. Every song should come from the heart of you. I should be a product of life experiences, of life, love, pain, good, bad, ugly, beautiful, and all the other spaces in you. Make sure that lyrics and music match up well or compliment and/or balance each other out. It would also be to your benefit to make your point in the shortest amount of time possible. There are songs that will continue and continue and continue and by the time the song is done, you are sickened. Make sure your highest point is memorable and all other points support it. Explore your song and your sound and your meaning and carry it out as long as it will go. Do what it takes to drive your point home, and when you do, let it go. Let your song stand on its own and let it speak for itself. As a communicator, music needs to do its work alone. It is up to us as musicians to create it. Once that is done, be proud of what you made. Trust it to make the point and communicate very clearly. Liken it to rearing a child. Though I've never raised one of my own, I have observed good parents and bad parents alike. I've even read some books on the topic. You are responsible for the way the child turns out, but whenever the child turns 18 and moves out (hopefully) it can go out on its own, make a living and make you proud. You must release your song out into the cruel crazy world and allow it to stand alone. You must learn to release it.
Finding Your Release
Once your song is written, once you are confident in it, and once you have everything fine tuned, honed, and perfected, let the song go. There's something beautiful in simplicity. Some of the most beautiful songs are written with one acoustic guitar or one piano and some vocals. Many bands and artists alike think (though subconsciously) that quantity equals quality. In fact, this mindset can be lethal to your song. Say what you want to say, say it in the time frame you need to say it to fully drive your point home, but avoid fluff. Its a mindset of extremes. When communicating or talking to someone, if you consistently use one word to describe something, let's use the word "awesome" for example, the true meaning of that word is lost. Where is the contrast between one awesome to the next? The point I'm trying to make here is this. Don't overuse elements in your songs such as catchy bridges (or bridges in general) or loud guitar solos or a drum breakdown or anything else you may have up your proverbial sleeve. Don't be tempted to layer your guitar tracks 5 times over and add harmonies to your vocals all through the song and add some intricate guitar breakdown. Even if your song comes down to bare bones tracks, let the song stand on its own for what it is. Be proud of what you created and let it say what you wanted it to say.
If all of us as songwriters will take the time to look over our songs, refine them, and then be proud of what we came up with, I think our songwriting will become very solid, and something to be very proud of. I said that I offered you immortality in the introduction of this article. If we write good songs with good messages and good points offered on a quality palette of musical styling, future generations will look to us for inspiration. Pieces of our heart and soul will live on as long as our songs do. That point alone is something that is very encouraging to me. I challenge all songwriters to go over their songs again, and cut out the fluff, add extra parts, and really give them a work over. Make sure that all your music, all your songs make a point, make it efficiently and drive straight to the heart of the listener. Hearts connecting to hearts, souls connecting to souls, and thoughts inspiring other thoughts. This is the beauty of music, and it is something that should be respected and cherished.