Songwriting is a skill that is born out of the immeasurable and the unquantifiable.
Just like poets and authors, musical content comes from creativity, intuition and inspiration. While this is second nature to many professional writers, to the majority of amateur song writers, songwriting is something that requires practice and focus to hone into a useable skill set.
It is a skill that improves over time, and is certainly not exclusive. While top tier proficiency in songwriting will largely remain with those of natural born musical talent, there are still many tricks someone from a less musically-intuitive background can employ in their production processes to improve and hone their craft.
Whether you realise it or not, songs are the combination of multiple individual musical ideas that rely on each other for context and purpose. If displayed in the wrong way, our songs lose context, and therefore by extension their true meaning. To reference a well-known theory from my business school days, we can compare in part the songwriting process to Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs. Just as Maslow’s hierarchy outlines broadly the needs of an employee that need to be satisfied to incite motivation, we can outline in broad terms the hierarchy of components required for a solid song structure to motivate the listener emotionally:
Pitching & Timing.
Not much to be said on this first point, except that it is an integral and expected component of any song. Temporal and tonal discrepancies will simply put people off your music (unless it is intentional of course!) so make sure this box is ticked before you progress any further.
Rhythmic Structure and Development.
We sometimes assume that instrumentation needs to build in an upward vector of dynamics and complexity right until the end of the song. The truth is that this works in some cases, but definitely not in every scenario. Often a song actually requires the complete opposite, or something drastically unexpected to make it stand out. Simple things like breaks in the use of percussion offer sonic relief for the listener, and allow us to appreciate the rhythmic elements that exist in the song. Another trick is to plan juxtaposition in the rhythms of different sections. For example, a busy vocal over a simple bass line, or vice versa, works well to create space in the parts.
Harmonic Structure and Development.
Harmonic co-operation is fundamental to a good song arrangement. When we assemble the components of a track, we have to treat the elements not just as individual melodies but also as the sum of their respective parts. If you have instruments competing for the same space, then you are going to run into trouble very early on. Do you have many instruments playing the same chords? How about trying an inversion, or adding suspensions, or creating some antiphonal dialogue? The goal is always to ensure that instruments are complementing each other, not competing. The sign of a good songwriter / arranger is to know when to draw the line with arrangement and to do more with less.
Melodic Stability and Counterpoint.
Arrangement is about ARRANGING parts so they fit, not putting everything in the spotlight. Look at the iconic ‘Superstition’, an amazingly well arranged track. Listen to the way the clavier plays a syncopated and asymmetrical melody while the drums hold down the solid backbone of rhythmic movement; how the vocals and brass work in tandem to create a descanted musical conversation, without compromising the fundamental movement of the track.
We need to remind ourselves when constructing a song that everything has a time and a place to exist. We often feel that because multiple elements of a song might be very strong, we need to have them all at the forefront of the mix. The sad reality is that we have a limited stereo image, frequency range and headroom in which to fit the ‘spatialisation’, musical arrangement and dynamic range of the song within, so putting all the parts at the front is going to mask your hard work and ultimately ruin your arrangement.
When we write, we should remember to take a chivalric approach to our writing. As a broad example, when the vocals are singing, it is important that the other instruments are arranged politely, allowing space for the vocal to flourish, without having to compete for space it should have by right.
Lyrical Stability & Feasibility.
Lyrics or melody: which matters most? The reality is that both are equally as important. We have to remember that there is no ‘standard’ type of person that listens to the music we create. Our brains engage music in a combination of ways, with some focusing on the melody, where others are capable of remembering lyrics after only one or two listens. Ironically, I, as a songwriter have great difficulty remembering lyrics, and would regularly recall a songs melody fully over the words. For me, lyrics are the last thing to go on a track. Everyone assesses sounds in a different manner.
The trick is to support your lyrics with a strong melody (see point 4.) and to make sure that while your lyrics are lyrically competent, they are also relatively easy to recite and remember, especially in the commercial domain. The melody should sing on its own too.
Much like the above section, we as songwriters often underestimate the importance of a sonic break in the music we write. A pause, lift or dynamic drop is an unexpected yet acceptable way to segment your
composition into a digestible piece of work for the listener. Inverting chord voicing and changing registers can also give the illusion of dynamic change without actually changing anything. Loud and soft are not the only two options when it comes to the dynamic phrasing of music.
Uniqueness and Individuality.
After all the needs of the song are satisfied, we need to reflect on everything as a whole and ask ourselves…’is my song truly different in some way?’ Many song writers try to play it safe and stick to ‘norms’ in their genre. While there is definitely a threshold in which you need to stay in to be considered part of a particular genre, the final unique elements that you bring to the table will be what define your songs above and beyond the expected and established standards. Contemporary music in particular gives us lots of scope to introduce unique ambient textures that add a 3rd dimension to our musical compositions, so this is something worth exploring.
Above all, a sure fire way to see if a song stands on its own two legs without all the fancy effects and production is to sit at a piano / with a guitar and jam the song acoustically. If it works there, it will translate if approached correctly in the production stage.
Denis Kilty is an Irish songwriter, producer and mixing engineer based in Dublin. www.deniskilty.com