Songwriting tips: do you even need any?

As guitarists, we put hours upon hours into our technique: we learn scales, we work on getting to know the fretboard, we tweak our tone, and we get to know our metronomes really well. I think it’s safe to say that many of us have had pipe dreams of being on stage and really just nailing that one solo, or harmonizing a particular line and having the crowd go wild.

Being a master shredder is the goal, right? We should all aspire to be like Yngwie Malmsteen or John Petrucci?

Well, yes and no. Emphasis on the no, for this series. Writing matters.

The Problem We Face

In the world of 15 second Instagram videos, not a lot of people prioritize the elements of songwriting. The main focus for a lot of players is to leave a mark by being flashy. But here’s the thing: being flashy isn’t the end-all-be-all. We have a ton of really talented players here in the Wired Guitarist community! There are a ton of people who continue to amaze everyone with their mastery of the instrument.

We don’t have very many people who write songs though. Chugfests with tons of repeated open strings and dissonant sweeps may sound cool at first, but they don’t take the listener on a story. If everything is at eleven all the time and everything is harsh sounding, it can sound oppressive and tiring.

Now, I’m not saying that I dislike heavy music or that heavy music is bad! On the other end of the spectrum, for example, it can get exhausting if things sound too light or even operatic. Take Dream Theater’s new album, for example. Coming from a big Dream Theater fan, it’s really just excessive wankery disguised as a sprawling narrative. Don’t do that.

Flow over Fluency

Simply put, when we work on songs we want to have a clear path for the listener to follow. As a general fact of life, our brains love patterns. Without going into the specific neurological aspects of things, we like to make connections and associations and have organization in our lives. This, above all else, is why pop music sells so well.

Here’s where I lose some people: pop music is fantastic. I unashamedly love pop music.

My most-listened to album of the past two years is, without a doubt, Taylor Swift’s “1989.” It doesn’t have any kind of virtuosity or spectacular playing from any of the musicians involved. What 1989 has going for it though is some truly excellent songwriting. The melodies all work together to form a smooth package where verses coalesce into beautifully huge choruses that carry the listener away.

In the event that 1989 is a bit much, just look at some pop-punk songs or even some classic rock. “Panama” is poppy as anything, yet people don’t turn away from it. Why? It has a structure that works.

Let Structure Do the Work for You

This is the part where having a bit of cursory music theory knowledge is helpful, but you don’t need a degree, I promise. Think about music as a straight line. It begins with the intro, which more often than not goes into a verse. These verses lay the foundation of the song and develop the themes present in the work. The song builds, and eventually releases into a chorus, which then will go back into a verse. In terms of the sound of the piece, this is also where having a solid grasp on what your key is and how the time signature structures the rhythm helps a lot.

I know, it seems super derivative and boring.

Think about it like this, though. When there’s a solid verse, it naturally will flow into the chorus. The chorus is the climax of the piece – that’s where the big “boom” is, per se. You want your song to do the work for you, after all.

Moving Right Along: Choruses as a Finish Line

Music is all about motion. Like I previously said, we like patterns and we like for there to be an organized flow to things. In regards to music, that means that the big thing to keep in mind is the directionality of this motion. When songwriting, you always want to ask yourself “What am I trying to convey here? Where am I taking this track?” The answer to these questions is that you want there to be a big payoff for the listener, and that happens at the chorus.

Hearing a satisfying chorus is like when you take a sip of a cold drink after a long run. At this point, you’ve done all the legwork in the verses and you’ve established what’s really “going on” in the piece. Consistency is key here, too. Just like how you wouldn’t want to be surprised with some unexpected meal at the end of a run, you want to know what lies in store in a song.

After all, nobody finished a run and looked forward to having… an exotic selection of bananas.

There’s A Place for Everything

I framed this in the context of pop because that’s where the “simplistic” relationship between verses and choruses appears the most. This relationship appears across nearly every genre though – it’s the frame that’s universal, not the stylings of radio pop. At the beginning of the article I mentioned that we don’t want to turn into Malmsteen or The Trooch, but that’s not to say that we can’t ever be technical.

It doesn’t even mean that you have to write music like the stuff you hear on the radio. An excellent example of an artist using the structure of a pop song to create a tune that flows well is Intervals. Their new album “The Shape of Colour” has some of the most solid songwriting out there. In particular, “Sweet Tooth” (check it out here) has verses that really just groove straight along with some super catchy and satisfying choruses, and the band doesn’t even have a vocalist!

Above all, strong songwriting is the one aspect that carries your music along. Tasty licks are one thing, and being able to do descending A Mixolydian runs at 180 bpm is awesome. When you’re writing a song though, you’ve gotta be able to make sure all the parts fit together, and that it’s all going somewhere.

This article written by community content writer Nico Madden.



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