"While this book is not a songwriting handbook, let me point out a number of common points that stick out when an artist or band that’s inexperienced at songwriting and/or arranging first play me their songs. Keep in mind that we’re talking about songs from any genre of music. No matter what it is, from rock to country to goth to rock-a-billy to alien space music, you want the song to be interesting to your particular audience, so beware that any of the following apply.
1. It's too long: One thing I hear a lot are songs that have sections that are way too long. Two minute intros, three minute guitar solos and five minute outros are almost always boring. The idea is to keep everything interesting and to the point. You are always better off to have a section too short rather than too long. The only exception is if you can actually make a long section interesting, which usually takes a lot of arranging skill and even then still might not keep the audience’s attention. One really long outro that does work, for example, is the outro to Lynard Skynard’s classic Free Bird, with slight arrangement changes, kicks and accents every 16 bars. A great band, great performance and great arrangement keeps the listener’s attention to the very end, and that’s your goal after all.
2. There's no focus: Beginner songwriters often have no focus to their songs which means that the song meanders from chord to chord without an apparent structure and no clear distinction between sections. This is usually the result of not honing the song enough and thinking it’s finished way before it’s time. Sometimes there’s really a song in there if you peel it back a bit, but usually the only way to fix it is to go back to the drawing board for a major rewrite.
3. The choruses are weak: In a lot of songs I hear, it’s hard to tell when the verse stops and the chorus starts, they’re basically the same. An interesting chorus has something different from the verse. It may be just a little different, like adding background vocals or another instrument, or an accent or anticipation to the same chord changes and melody (like Robert Palmer’s 80’s hit Addicted To Love with the harmony vocals, or Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Crossfire with the horn hits and guitar fill, or Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough with the string pad and horn fill). Or it will be a lot different, like a different set of chord changes or melody combined with the arrangement changes previously mentioned like Vertigo by U2, This Kiss by Faith Hill, or our oft sited favorite Hotel California. Either way, something has to change in the chorus to lift the energy and keep the song memorable.
4. There's no bridge: Another common songwriting mistake is no bridge. In song writing, a bridge is an interlude that connects two parts of the song, building a harmonic connection between those parts by increasing or decreasing the tension. Normally you should have heard the verse at least twice. The bridge may then replace the 3rd verse or precede it. In the latter case, it delays an expected chorus. The chorus after the bridge is usually the last one and is often repeated in order to stress that it’s final. If and when you expect a verse or a chorus and you get something that is musically and lyrically different from both verse and chorus, it is most likely the bridge (Van Halen’s Panama comes to mind).
A bridge is important because it provides a basic quality found in all art forms - tension and release (in music going from loud to quiet or quiet to loud, in painting going from dark to light colors, in photography it would be light to shadows, etc.). Tension and release keeps things interesting. The bridge is sometimes the peak of the song where it’s at its loudest and most intense (check out the bridge of the Police’s Every Breath You Take), or it could be its quietest and least intense point (The Who’s Baba O’Riley where Pete Townsend sings “...It’s only teenage wasteland,” or The Doobie Brother’s Black Water).
Almost every great song has a bridge, but there are the occasional exceptions. Songs that are based on the straight 12 bar blues frequently don’t have bridges but might use dynamics or arrangement to provide the tension and release. An example would be the ZZ Top classic Tush. There’s no bridge in the song, but the snare fill by itself after the last verse into the outro guitar solo supplies the release. Another would be the Guess Who/Lenny Kravitz song American Women where there’s just four bars of a different guitar rhythm and a stop.
And then there are the songs that can get by without a bridge by virtue of the fact of how they’re arranged or how long each section is. Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams has only two verses and three choruses but listen to how everything builds so that the peak of the song is the last chorus.
5. The arrangement is poor: Even with great songwriters, this is the most common mistake I hear. Usually this means that the guitar or keyboard will play the same lick, chords or rhythm throughout the entire song. Now this can work perfectly well and might even be a great arrangement choice if another instrument plays a counter-line or rhythm, but normally it just means that the arrangement will be boring. You’ve got to make sure that the song stays interesting, and that means the addition of lines and fills. An example where a structure like this does work is American Women again.
6. There's no Intro/Outro hook: If we’re talking about modern popular music (not jazz or classical), most of the songs have an instrumental line (or hook) that you’ll hear at the beginning of the song, maybe again in the chorus, and any time the intro repeats in the song. A great example would be the opening guitar riff to The Stone’s Satisfaction or the piano in Coldplay’s Clocks. It seems that developing intro/outro hooks are one of the major jobs confronting a producer.
7. The song has no dynamics: Once again, one of the secrets to an interesting song is tension and release. In the case of dynamics, it’s getting loud then soft (or vice-verse). The song breathes in volume from loud to quiet, to louder to quiet, to louder to really loud and the intensity builds. That’s tension and release. Even if the song doesn’t use this song structure, you always have to consider the volume envelop of the song before recording it. It’ll sound better and make the arrangement a lot better right out of the box.
The next time you listen to a song, notice how something different happens in every section. Either an instrument is added or subtracted or is played a little differently, like on the drums between the high-hat and ride cymbals. Not only does this arrangement make the song naturally dynamic, but it make the song a lot more interesting as well. Compare the this outline to many of the big hit songs from the last 40 years or so and you’ll find they all use some variation of the above. If it’s worked so well before, it will work for you too."
To read additional excerpts from The Music Producer's Handbook and my other books, go to the excerpts section of bobbyowsinski.com.
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