It’s easy to get in the habit of writing songs in your perfect key, in the same style, and always on your same instrument. The hard part is figuring out why you’re not happy with the finished product. Sometimes small details can dramatically change the bigger picture. Try these tips to instantly spice up your songwriting!
Get in the groove
The biggest part of a song that translates across genres, languages, and cultures is the groove. A compelling back beat plays a big role in keeping the listener engaged. Tinker with these pieces of your songs to make things interesting.
Let me tell you a very important secret: the vast majority of the songs you hear are in 4/4! The reason is because this meter flows really well with conversational lyrics, which makes it the easiest to put words to. If only for the sake of being unique, attempt a song in 3/4 or 6/8. Other more challenging meters include 5/4 and 2/4.
A good trick for differentiation in form is to change meters during contrasting parts of the song, such as a tune in 4/4 that goes into cut time, or 2/2, for the bridge.
Changing the tempo doesn’t only take a song from upbeat to ballad and back again. There are many different paces at which your songs can move, which allow for greater or fewer subdivisions, lyrical cadences, or the ability to make it danceable.
Here’s another secret: a common tempo for songs you can dance to is 120 BPM. A change of 10 BPM in either direction can make a song come out very different. It can mean the difference between your lyrics coming off as pensive or agitated. And just like with meter changes, slowing down or speeding up between sections of a song keeps it pushing forward – which means you’re holding your listener’s interest.
The groove of your songs can dictate the genre, but only to a certain extent. In addition to groove, genre is also established through instrumentation and harmony. It’s possible to experiment with different grooves while keeping the integrity of your chosen genre intact.
For instance, if you make your song swing, that doesn’t mean it has to be jazz. A lot of songs employ a basic rock groove with a kick on beats one and three, and a standard snare back beat on two and four. These percussive elements underneath (or maybe at the forefront of) your music is the foundation of the groove. Listen for this in songs of contrasting genres to get a feel of how you can use it.
All about harmony
On top of all those pieces that drive the music forward, the harmonic elements of the music can have a huge influence on the emotion of the piece. Luckily, there are endless ways to manipulate them.
This tip is a classic one – you’ve heard it in probably three-quarters of ’90s pop songs (and every Disney movie), but that doesn’t mean it’s overdone! There are plenty of unique, tasteful ways to change keys.
Instead of moving the key up a half or whole step for an impactful climax (as it’s most commonly heard), you can change keys from verse or bridge to chorus and back. You might only change keys for instrumental interludes between sections.
Similar to changing keys, but not quite as intimidating, is using borrowed chords. This means using one chord or a combination of chords outside of the key you’re working in. Here’s a simple example: If you’re writing your harmony in the key of A minor, and you use a major V chord instead of the key-related minor V, that would be considered a borrowed chord.
Basically, you don’t have to stick to the rules. If you come across a chord that sounds good but it’s not in the key, use it! It keeps harmonies from getting stale.
You’ll definitely want to spend some time learning music theory before attempting to use modes in your songwriting, but when used effectively, it can make for some very colorful harmonies and chord changes. It can all be very math-y and technical if you’re not familiar with it, but basically, what you can do is just take your typical minor or major scale, and alter one note of that. Now, you’ve changed at least half of the chords that could be pulled from that scale! If you’re interested in learning more about how modes work, this WikiBooks post lays it all out.
Your choice of instruments can easily alter the tone of your song. There are tons of variations on drum kits and percussive instruments, combinations for a rhythm section, and comparisons between electric and acoustic options. Two different electric guitars can have very contrasting timbres, which can then be altered in production to bring out that those particular characteristics.
While you may be inclined to include your principal instrument, try your hand at writing for a different instrument to shake things up. See if you can translate a guitar part for piano, or vice versa.
The melody provides the listener with the catchiest part of the song, and it’s the clearest way to create a climax. Try to use repetition to make it memorable, and draw an arc through the song that takes it to a destination. Keep in mind that a singer’s voice only has a certain range, and too many far-reaching leaps can muddy up a good melody!
One of the best ways to spice up your songwriting is to bring a songwriter friend into the process! Co-writing is an easy and fun way to bring new ideas and perspectives to your songs that you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. If you’re looking for someone to write with, you can join SongwriterLink for free to get matched up with songwriters who will fill in your blanks.
There may only be 12 notes on a Western music scale, but there are countless ways to create something beautiful and original out of that. Don’t be afraid to try new things with your music, because you might discover something new that you love, and you’ll ultimately become a better songwriter!