I’ve been a student of songwriting my whole life. I’ve had guitar lessons since I was 5, went to 2 different conservatories, studied jazz guitar, classical and pop music, I’ve written for bands, orchestras and big bands.
And with all of this experience I also learned a thing or two. When I listen back to my first songs I can hear that I didn’t understand a couple of simple concepts that I now use all the time.
Listening to your contributions on Feedback Friday (my youtube show where I review your songs for free) I now see that I’m not the only one with these problems. There really are 3 things I hear amateur songwriters do repeatedly that tell me they don’t know what they’re doing.
Knowing what you’re doing wrong is the first step to becoming a better songwriter, so read carefully:
1. Avoid Notes
Man, oh man: Avoid notes. They are tricky little bastards, aren’t they? I even hear professionals mess this one up.
An avoid note is a badly sounding note that is to be avoided (SURPRISE!). It takes a while to be able to hear them in a song, but once you have developed an ear for them, they will stick out like a sore thumb.
In music theory, an avoid note is a note that lies a b9 (= a minor second) away from another note you’re already using.
That means that in a major triad (1 3 5), avoid notes would be b9, 11 and b13 (or b2, 4, b6). If you’re playing a maj7 chord (1 3 5 7), the 1 is another avoid note (but only if it’s played above the maj7, so you can still play the root in the left hand). In minor (1 b3 5), avoid notes are b9 & b13.
While the b9 and b13 can sound great in the proper setting, the 11 in major chords is a rite ol’ stinker. It is a big trap for Pop songwriters because it’s the only avoid note that falls on a white key (in C, where it’s the f).
Whenever I hear this note in a major chord I cringe. It screams “I haven’t developed an ear for this yet”. And really, it’s not that difficult to work around it:
There are 2 major ways in which the 11 pops up:
- If you want to use the 11 in your melody, make sure it’s over a power chord (which doesn’t have a 3rd and therefore there’s no rub) or over a minor chord.
- When arranging their songs, songwriters often give a simple major triad to one instrument and a sus4 to another. The 4 (or 11) from the suspended chord now grinds against the 3rd of the major triad. So watch out: Avoid notes work across different instruments! When you’re rehearsing with your band or writing your own song, always watch out for that 11!
Go to your instrument of choice and play a couple major chords and add the 11 above it (for example a C major in the left hand and an f in the right). Play the 3rd and 11 of the chord in isolation. Listen to the dissonance, then bring in the rest of the chord again and see if you still hear it.
Train your ears and wash the 11 out of your system.
2. Nonsensical Harmony
I hear it all the time: Songwriters playing instruments they haven’t properly studied. The problem: Your harmony doesn’t make any sense.
Let’s assume you’re a self-taught pianist. You didn’t learn by reading books or asking pianists for advice, you just started pressing some keys and hey, doesn’t sound so bad, does it? (spoiler: it probably does)
Most songwriters start with made up chords. This is fine if the piano doesn’t have to carry the whole song. But if it is, just pressing keys without knowing what you’re doing can sound bad rather quickly. And worst of all: you may not even hear that it sounds bad because your ears can’t tell the difference yet.
So here’s some general tips for playing an instrument you’re not familiar with:
- Whenever you accompany someone on an instrument, make sure you play the full triad, not just power chords (unless you want a cold, ambiguous sound).
- Watch out for proper voice-leading. Use inversions if need be. This is important especially on piano and less important on guitar.
- Don’t play 2-note chords unless you’re playing power chords or you understand counterpoint and know exactly what you’re doing.
3. No Build-Up
Another biggie: Most beginning songwriters are so happy once they have something, that’s all they want to hear. So they copy-paste what they have, change the lyrics (but not much else) and voila: They have a song. Right?
Wrong. A musical piece that revolves around just one idea is just a bad loop.
Professional songwriters take you on a journey. Listening to a well-written song is like riding a roller coaster: It has ups and downs and most importantly: it takes you somewhere.
I call this “lyric-less storytelling” and it is one of the most underestimated parts of commercial songwriting (It’s so important I wrote a whole book about it).
So when you’re writing a song, make sure it draws the listener in and take them on a ride. Make listening to your songs exciting and compelling.
If this is the first time you’ve ever heard of this concept, here are 3 tips to get you going:
- Start small. Believe me, starting big is tricky and only for seasoned songwriters. Why? Because your chorus suffers immensely from a big opening. So start small and build to your chorus.
- Make your chorus pop out. The chorus should be the biggest moment in your song. Make the beginning of your chorus a dramatic moment. Add drums, go up in the melody, show us we’ve arrived.
- Write an exciting second verse. This transition is the toughest part for any songwriter. We’ve heard the verse already, so why should I want to hear it again? Make sure to put out enough new, interesting stuff in there to keep me hooked throughout your second verse as well.
Of course, this is really just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to dive in deep and become a master of lyric-less storytelling, check this.
QUESTIONS (Answer in the Comments)
- What do you hear beginning songwriters do wrong all the time?
- What do you think amateurs should learn in order to really step up their game?
Creating Specific Emotions With Chords (Hit Song Chord Progressions Part I)
My Top 5 Chord Progressions (+Chord Rotations) – incl. Video
Some of the bigger mistakes I hear amateur songwriters make (and honestly I’m just starting to write myself even though I’ve played guitar for 30 years.) are:
1) Writing rambling, nonsensical melodies. Most have never been exposed to melodic development techniques (repetition, sequencing, retrograde, rhythmic augmentation, diminution and displacement, interlocking, etc.) so their melodies lack any understandable structure which leads to a confused and/or bored listener.
2) Using chord progressions that don’t match the emotional content in the lyrics. Ex.: Getting a date with your dream girl and using a sad i – bVII – bVI – bVII Aeolian progression or…getting dumped by your dream girl and using a happy I – V – IV – V Ionian progression.
3) Not understanding how to use balanced and unbalanced sections to create forward motion going into the next section.
4) Starting every vocal phrase on the same beat (usually beat 1).
5) Using the same melodic curve throughout the entire song (related to #1)
6) Writing instrumental parts that get in the way or detract from the vocals.
7) Keeping the same dynamic level the entire song.
8) Writing lines that are all the same length.
9) Instrument sounds not complimenting the song. i.e. Using a death metal guitar tone on a pop ballad. lol
10) Using backing vocals too much or in the wrong spots.
11) Having all the instruments playing all the time though the entire song.
The only thing I’d like to add about your comments on ‘avoid notes’ is that sitting on the 11 can work IF you incorporate the 11 into the harmony. Ex.: Your tune is in C Ionian and your melody sits on an ‘F’ note while the harmonic instruments are playing Csus4. Basically a 4-3 suspension. An article on the harmonic series would be cool and how it subconsciously affects how we hear music. Thanks for your articles! Good stuff…
all great stuff! Here’s my thoughts:
1) Yes! Have to agree 100%. I see someone’s been reading “Melody in Songwriting” 😉 This is also something I will talk about a lot in my new hook-writing master files.
2) Yes, good point, thanks for sharing.
3) True, this CAN be used very effectively and I love using unbalanced structures (which basically means contrasting “standard” 4-line lyric blocks with more uncommon 3- or 5-line blocks). BUT: It doesn’t seem to make a difference in how successful your song is. There’s plenty of hit songs who only use balanced structures and get away with it fine. But yes, great tip and I’m definitely a sucker for unbalancing sections (and melody lines as well).
4) Yep, excellent tip. Starting on the 1 without a pick-up phrase sounds really boring and gets old very quickly.
5) Again, one of those things I personally like doing as well, but there’s plenty of hit songs that are stationary throughout their entirety. But from an artistic “interesting is good” standpoint: two thumbs up!
6) Agree, I call this “Trading Space”. I wrote an article on this blog about this called “The #1 Songwriting Tip For Beginning Professionals”.
7) Yeah, ouch. Hear that all the time.
8) Again, one of those things that do work better in practice than one might think. But I’m a sucker for unbalancing lines as well 🙂
9) Yes, and guitar solos!! 😉
10) & 11) Couldn’t agree with you more. These are basically the same point as 7): Not using dynamics to their full potential.
And of course, if you substitute the 3rd of the major chord for a 2 or 4 (making the chord a suspended chord) you no longer get the b9 rub and therefore don’t have an avoid note any longer.
Great, great comment – thank you! 🙂
Hi, excellent post, as usual. 🙂 Concerning Petey Wheatstraw’s 9th point and your answer, is there a possibility to include a distorded electric guitar solo (in the second part of the bridge, or in verse 3 cont. before outro, at the tiping energy point of the song) if the song itself isn’t rock (nor rock ballad) but really pop/funk/EDM…? And if the anwer is “well, if you do it right, it may work”, what are the dos and donts for it? Cheers! 🙂
Very nice post!! I like such kind of informational posts that helps singers and songwriters to grow from amateur to professional.
Glad it helped. 🙂
My experience at least equals yours. I also started taking lessons as a young kid–six years old in my case, I started writing music shortly after I started lessons, I went on to get a PhD in theory/composition, where I did a combo “legit” and jazz concentration, and I’ve worked as a musician, composer and arranger in many different genres for almost forty years.
There are no categorical “avoid notes,” and there is no “nonsensical harmony.” The idea of either is what is nonsense. There is no wrong way to create music. There isn’t anything that’s categorically bad (or good). Development as a musician, composer, arranger, is all about (a) developing a toolset that enables one to best execute one’s aesthetic goals, whatever they might be–including using intervals, chords, chord progressions, etc. that narrow-minded folks might see as “avoid” intervals, bad chords/progressions, etc., and (b) tempering that with one’s professional goals, so that one is able to do what is required of them to successfully execute a particular gig. This requires the knowledge and skills of various conventions, but one should understand that these are simply conventions in a particular socio-historical context.
Every rules set out can be broken, and indeed have already been broken..
To me, bottomline is…the directed emotion of the song..
If whatever used, be it ‘following the rules, or breaking them…does not attribute to the emotions..then, the methods are wrong..
To me, an amateurs songwriter is one that doesn’t attribute their song well with the directed emotion