Songwriting can be the most rewarding thing in the world. It can also be the most frustrating. As a songwriter, I often find myself trying desperately to force myself to write a song. Or just a verse. Just something. ANYTHING. And it rarely results in much.
There are plenty of theories on this – many people say that you should keep writing, regardless of quality – that way you’ll exercise your songwriting muscles. Throw the rubbish stuff away – but learn from it. You’ll keep improving. Seems like a reasonable approach to me, but it can still feel rather dispiriting at the time.
One of the things that used to really trip me up was that I believed that writing a song meant coming up with something innovative and new with every song. I’d scoff at the idea of following a G Major with a C Major because…well… that’s been *done*, hasn’t it? It’s so *predictable*. And I’m in the business of writing NEW music. I should be pushing boundaries or I needn’t bother at all.
Well…yes and no.
The ‘yes’ is simply that original songs should obviously strive to be original (duh!). If you set out to write a song and find that you’ve just written Hotel California – the entire chord progression, melody and all, then you’ve not exactly nailed what it means to write an original song*, have you?
And I’m not here to discourage anyone from pushing boundaries. I’ve got a huge amount of admiration for artists who don’t ‘play by the rules’. I listen to a lot of Aphex Twin, Frank Zappa, Phillip Glass, Autechre, Radiohead, Brian Eno, and more. All of whom are well known for toying with ‘the norm’. And I love it. But you should bear in mind that it’s unlikely that many of them were writing songs to play down at the local Open Mic night.
The ‘no’ took me many years to realise. My insistence on using ‘clever’ chords, or notes that jarred with one another was what made it so bleedin’ difficult to write a song that sounded good. And you know what DOES sound good? A good old G Major followed by a C Major.
I’m certainly not trying to suggest that you should write music to a formula. Simply that you should accept that there are reasons why people follow a D minor with an F Major – it feels right.
On this topic – the other thing that took me years to realise is that the casual listener won’t actually be *that* impressed that you used a F#7sus4/Eb when a ‘boring’ F# would have done**. Sure, it’s a cool, edgy, kooky chord and you’re *super* innovative to have used it but…well…your audience won’t give two hoots. They’ll just hear something that doesn’t sound quite right to them.
Ultimately, the question is: Are you writing songs to prove how Avant Garde you are and to start a new musical movement, or to entertain an audience? (I’m working on the principle that, if you’re reading this, you’re more likely to be in the latter category – but if you’re in the former, that’s just great too – you little rebel, you!).
Realising that I’m writing songs for an audience to enjoy has been something of a epiphany for me. Being freed from the shackles of that mindset that told me that everything I did had to be based on hitherto undiscovered principles has allowed me to concentrate on the stuff that really mattered – writing lyrics that people might want to hear and writing a catchy melody; all underpinned by a solid, memorable chord progression. From experience, I can tell you this: it’s far, FAR easier to write a memorable song with ‘predictable’ chords than it is without. And there no shame in it. Think of the catchiest song you can. Something really memorable. Go on…
Now, do you think it was written with complex ‘clever’ chords and progressions or
simple majors, minors and sevenths? I’ll let you answer that one.
Not everyone is trying to write the next Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da. I understand that. But there’s a reason that that song is so memorable. It’s almost childlike in its simplicity. And that’s the genius of it. And that applies to the vast majority of our favourite songs.
Now pick up your uke, put down the Big Book of Unusable Jazz Chords, and embrace the joy of simplicity in songwriting! It’s liberating!
*The obvious exception is when you consciously seek to reference someone else’s song for one reason or another. I like to do this from time to time. And it can really effective – especially with a cheeky little lyrical twist.
**That’s a random chord name plucked from the depths of my imagination – I have no idea if a F# would be a suitable substitute. Please don’t bother correcting me.