In the beginning, you just write. The feeling is giddy as you sense improvement and one day you experience the wonderful realization that you have authored an entire song! The fact that it may be entirely mediocre or even lousy is not yet a consideration. You are the proud parent of what vaguely resembles the real deal and for a while you bask in that glory!
Reality, as it is prone to do, soon sets in when you perhaps attend an in-the round writer's night and realize that your songs are not even close to competing with the ones you just heard. There is a certain amount of denial but the voices in your head continue, nagging away until you act upon them.
time and hindsight have a way of weeding out the garbage.
I went from being the queen of wham-bam songwriting to turning into an anally retentive chemist distilling my creations late into the wee hours, night after night. I went from demoing everything I wrote to compiling a large assortment of carefully dissected songs and narrowing the lot down to the chosen few.
Like for many things in life, time and hindsight have a way of weeding out the garbage. I have compiled a list of some hopefully helpful tips towards critiquing your own songs.
1. Analyze Your Blueprint
The arrangement of your verses, chorus, bridge, instrumental sections, and tags can be as varied as styles of architecture. Deviating from common song structures is fine as long as you are not being weird for the sake of weirdness.
There is a genuine ear satisfaction in the sound of a working form. There is a natural flow with a few unexpected turns. There is contagion. There is departure. There is a feeling of completion. Just like a well-paced drama or novel, a structure gives a song grace and balance.
Listen intently to your form. Realize that most of the common forms are used because they genuinely work. As my old piano teacher taught me when I started composing pseudo Bach fugues in fifth grade, "Learn the rules before you break them, Patricia!"
2. Master Your Melody
Two octave acrobatics are not an essential of good melody.
The most common problem with melodies is that they are not memorable. Two octave acrobatics are not an essential of good melody. Spend a little more time experimenting with slight alterations to what you have settled on.
A different chord, perhaps, or a far more complicated progression can do wonders toward breathing freshness into a mundane melody. Phrasing needs to be varied. Chunk up one section with rapid fired notes and smooth out another.
When you have a signature flourish of notes, probably in your chorus, that you just can't stop rendering aloud, maybe just maybe, you have that essential ingredient. Things improved big time in my writing when I started spending a lot more time second-guessing myself!
3. Dissect Your Sections
Another aspect of good melody writing is in the separation of the sections. What could be more sleep-inducing than a slow, evenly paced verse followed by an equally slow, evenly paced chorus. Oh, and don't forget to add the dirge effect to the bridge and instrumentals! Even for a lullaby writer, the answer is a resounding, "Nothing!" Slow is not another word for boring and uninspired.
Strive for lots of variation between verse and chorus, chorus and bridge, bridge and instrumental. A bridge is not essential, but if your song cries for one, make sure it is making a separate musical or lyrical statement that has not yet been covered.
Sometimes less is more, and sometimes it is simply less! Notice as you listen to your favorite hits how one song section may be extremely sparse in both word and track, only to explode into a very full and chaotic section.
Flat terrain makes for a less than scenic trip. Mix it up, thereby adding melodic scenery!
4. Lacerate Your Lyric
Surgery is often necessary when it comes to lyric writing. So much of what is literally thrown into a song does nothing to enhance anything. It is simply filler. You get the feeling that the lyricist was constantly checking Word Count in Tools to determine when he or she could call it a day.
Cut away the fat and replace it with something of substance.
Make sure your lyric flows between sections. Don't leave your listener trying to figure out your chorus while they miss your bridge!
Ask yourself, "What am I trying to say in this song?" "Would I know what I was talking about if I did not know what I was talking about?" Make sure you have something worth saying. If the gist of a novel were a person's journey to the drug store for cough medicine, would anybody want to read it?
Find a new angle if you are writing about a common subject.
Add examples and visuals that show the listener what you are trying to put across. A picture is worth a thousand words, and the same goes for lyrics.
5. Analyze Your Alpha and Omega
an opening line in not all that different from a one liner spoken at a singles bar.
There are as many ways to begin a song as there are songwriters.
- Ask a question that requires a though-provoking answer.
- Make an absurd statement that begs for an explanation.
- Paint a vivid picture of a setting or a place in time.
Whatever you do, remember that an opening line in not all that different from a one liner spoken at a singles bar. "What's your sign?" does little more than inform the listener that the speaker lacks imagination and originality. Changing the station comes to mind!
Sometimes you can paraphrase a common opener in a way that gives it humor and irony. Allude to something from literature. Make an observation about a prop. Set up your story from the perspective of an inanimate object. A friend of mine wrote a song from the perspective of a barstool!
There's a boatload of songs in the world, so freshness is not easy to achieve. Not easy, but not impossible either! The possibilities are endless.
6. Hook Your Hook
Sure there are hits with weak hooks, or hooks disguised as contagious riffs or melody lines, but the classic hook is a combination of word and music that occurs repeatedly at a pivotal time in the song. It usually ends up being the title, so this fact deserves consideration as well.
This is the part of the song that a listener remembers if they remember little else. It becomes an unrelenting earworm in the best of scenarios. Make sure some or even all aspects of your hook grabs your listener.
7. Scan Your Singability Quotient
Too many words beginning with P and you've got popcorn on the mike.
Every heard a song that is impossible to sing along with? The words might include an impossible tongue twister.
Just because studio magic can make it appear possible to sing without breathing, doesn't make it so. Perhaps the wrong words are being stressed rhythmically or worse yet, the wrong syllables! Too many words beginning with P and you've got popcorn on the mike.
Rather than hearing your creation in your head, force yourself to sing it yourself and look for the problem areas. With enough discerning repetition, the warts always show up.
8. Caveat Songwriter
Even a night's sleep can make a world of difference in one's ability to spot a gaping flaw.
There are a few random caveats I would mention too:
- Writing for too narrow an audience limits a song's future. How many Siberian Canine Lullabies does the world need?
- Don't write about subjects so personal or specific that few can relate to them. A toe fetish doesn't speak to all!
- Avoid topics that will date your song too quickly. I have several songs that mention twenty-five cent phone calls. Brother, do they sound silly now!
- Watch for words or phrases that are out of the song's vibe. Mentioning a certain video game in a passionate love song probably won't work!
- A little repetition goes a long way. Yes, it can be hooky but only to a point. Avoid droning on and on both musically and lyrically. That's about as fun to listen to as hiccups!
Self-critiquing one's songs can be a tedious process but the difference is well worth the trouble. At times you may even begin the process only to determine that there is nothing much worth saving!
I find that I am defensive right after finishing a song and will not hear criticism, even from myself. Give it a little time and attach when your creation is not quite so new and precious!
Like songwriting, the endeavor becomes both easier and more effective with time. Even a night's sleep can make a world of difference in one's ability to spot a gaping flaw. It's all about mastering the art, only to up the bar and redefine that phrase with every passing year!