It’s been said that writing a song is easy but writing a good song is very very hard. That’s always made perfect sense to me as to be totally honest, writing a song really requires no understanding of music or language. Anything goes and the sky’s the limit. You can use as much or as little creativity as you want. Can you make a random note with your mouth or musical instrument? Can you beat your hands on your knees or table? For bonus points use a word with the note or sound you made. Congratulations you’ve just written a song!! This no holds bar approach to writing can be incredibly cathartic and expressive not to mention super fun. Now on the other hand writing an objectively good song is a bit more complicated and requires you to follow certain standard and familiar formats and loose formulas. Here are just a few examples of some of the “rules” you will commonly find in popular music of any genre.
- Using standard song formats like ABABCB (A=verse, B=chorus, C=bridge) or ABCABCDCC (A=verse, B=pre-chorus, C=chorus, D=bridge) etc..
- Using common chord progressions like I V vi IV or vi IV I V (in key of C: I=C – V=G – vi=Am – IV=F) etc..
- Using commonly relatable lyrical themes like love, loss or overcoming adversity etc..
- Using simple rhyming schemes to help make the song more memorable
- Using simple memorable melodies
These are just a few examples but hopefully that gives you a rough idea of some commonality between commercial or popular songs. Why bring all this up? Because I have found that there tends to be two very distinct approaches to writing songs both with their pros and cons and figuring out which type of writer you are may help you to become better at writing songs.
Commercial: I call this the standard approach because it is the one that most of us are familiar with listening to. People who use this style of writing tend to stick to the “rules” above and become very good at following them. Most songs on the Billboard Top 40 over the last 70 years have followed these guidelines. That doesn’t necessarily make them good or bad songs but there is undeniably a sense of familiarity in popular music and people tend to like what is familiar. So the big upside to this style is that you are more likely (but not guaranteed) to have other people enjoy the songs you write and more willing to pay you for them. So what’s the down side to this approach? The formulaic nature of this style can put some people off, especially those who want to flex their creative and artistic muscles. The limiting facets of following the “rules” can be hard for some people to adhere to and lead to writer’s block. In a nutshell, if you are more concerned about other people enjoying your music and a greater likelihood of making good money from your songs then this approach is probably the one for you.
Artistic: This style of writing is actually very similar to the commercial approach except that instead of following all of the “rules” they only follow some of them. For example they may incorporate a standard song format and relatable lyrics but experiment with the chord progression or melody. Each “rule” that you break will take you farther from the commercial approach and push you deeper into the artistic one. In essence, you need to know the “rules” so well that you can start creatively breaking them in an artistic way. This approach can be very creatively appealing and a fun challenge to your songwriting chops as well as open up an endless amount of variety to incorporate into your music in fun and creative ways. It can allow you to think outside of the box and add your own unique touches to the songs you write. There is often an element of elitism in this approach that comes from wanting to show off and impress your peers with the talent you worked hard to develop. The down side to this style of writing is that typically the more “rules” you break the less likely others are going to be to want to listen to or enjoy your music so the real challenge can become knowing which “rules” to break and when (assuming you want others to enjoy your music). That being said most people who choose the purely artistic approach tend to be less interested in what the general populace thinks and are more concerned with what they and their musical peers think. If you’re writing primarily for yourself and your own gratification and don’t really care about making a lot of money from your songwriting, then this approach is probably the one for you. Rapture in the glory that is your song and reap all the enjoyment you can out of it.
One style is no better than the other, they just have two different goals in mind. Basically the question you need to ask yourself is, am I writing this for my own enjoyment or am I writing for others enjoyment? There is no right or wrong answer here and keep in mind that following the “rules” is no guarantee of a good song and breaking all the “rules” is no guarantee of a bad song, but you will be putting the odds in that favor. Whether you’re writing the next artistic masterpiece or commercial hit, RCR Recording Studios can help take your music to the next level.
Cary Crichlow, Senior Producer and Engineer