Are you falling asleep to the sound of your own songwriting? Does your music seem to lack edge? Struggling to find any sort of drama within your art? Well don't worry. You don't need to have lived a hard life to add intrigue to your music.
When a musician first tries their hand at songwriting, its not uncommon for them to feel a little uninspired by their own writing. Much like when learning a new instrument, you can't expect to know what it is that makes music sound good without a little guidance. You might feel like there is something is missing in your music, but you can't quite nail down what that something is. The music you write may sound pretty and all, but…thats it.
If this sounds like you, fear not. As much as you may have been telling yourself otherwise, you ARE cut out for this. You just need to do a little more research and a little bit more listening to find how you can improve. Often times, this is the point when many musicians will give up on being a songwriter, but as long as you read this article (and perhaps some of the other ones I wrote on songwriting) I promise you will not be one of them!
The lacking feeling you are getting from your songs does not necessarily mean that you are an unskilled songwriter. Even though you might feel like you still have some improvement to do in that area (which is a healthy feeling), there is a good chance this is not what is holding you back.
Rather then writing over and over to refine your skills, this is more of a mindset issue. You can practice all you want, but until you start thinking like an artist you won't get very far.
The Good Is Not As Good Without The Bad
To figure out how to make your music sound more interesting, let's take a look at another story telling art form. Movie making. Take a second and try to think of the dullest movie you've seen. This movie is probably boring due to the fact that nothing really... happens. There is probably no conflict, or bad guy or evil villain. Nothing that really compels the viewer to remain invested in the story.
There is a basic rule when it comes to film and that is that in order to progress the plot you need conflict, and in order to have conflict you must introduce an antagonist. The antagonist can be a variety of things ranging from people (The Joker in Batman), beasts/animals (Godzilla), nature (the iceberg in Titanic), or what ever else you can think of. There is also the option of having multiple antagonists.
This also holds true for songwriting. If you want to write interesting and engaging music, you must include an antagonist of some sort in your writing.
Writing An Antagonist Into Music
Before you begin writing music this way, take some time to listen to other songs first and see if you can spot who or what the antagonist is (this is more apparent when listening to vocal music).
Typically, you are going to find the antagonist in the form of an ex-lover, (for instance, most Taylor Swift songs), a current love that you just aren't sure about (such as The Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go") Or perhaps a love that is yet to come (yep, most music you listen to is about love in some way).
This doesn't mean all antagonists always come in people form. The antagonist can be found in the many anti-establishment protest songs (such as "Uprising" by Muse). Other peoples opinions could be the antagonist (as it is in "All About That Bass" by Meghan Trainor) Or the antagonist could be not wasting your youth (As Fun. makes sure not to in "We Are Young").
When you try this in your own writing, have a vivid idea of what or who the antagonist will be. Pay attention to this throughout your next writing session and see what a difference it makes.
Writing With Notes, Not Words
Including conflict in your music is not limited to vocal music. Do another listening exercise, but this time with instrumental music.
Listen for when the danger begins approaching in tunes like "Night On Bald Mountain" by Mussorgsky. Or can you visualize the malicious component throughout Holst's "Mars Bringer Of War"? Once you think you have spotted the antagonist in the piece, take note of it and consider how it was developed. Some good questions to ask are…
What is the instrumentation and how does it affect the song
Where and how the dynamics are being used
What you hear just before or after the antagonist is introduced
The chords that the composer used (getting your hands on a score is great for this one)
Take a piece of paper and jot down your analysis of this tune. Once you have done that, move on to another tune and see how it is similar or different. If you love rock music, choose an instrumental rock song. If classical is more your jam, study a classical piece. It doesn't matter what exactly you are listening to, just listen to things that you like and ask yourself how they are succeeding in their writing.
The trick is that by listening to songs that resonate with you, you will have a better defined idea as to what it is precisely that YOU enjoy. You will find after a few songs that it will come more naturally to include it next time you are composing. Remember, if you are trying to tell a story you must have an antagonist. Keep this in mind next time you compose and I promise you music will start attracting more listeners.
Now stop reading and get to listening!
About the Author
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and composer with a passion for teaching songwriting