No matter what genre you call your own, many of the suggestions I give to songwriters can and do apply to all music. Most of the time, the structural elements that make a country song work will be the same ones that make metal, folk, pop, jazz, and even classical work.
Here’s a list of the top 7 tips, in no particular order, that I find myself giving to songwriters time and time again, no matter what style of music they write:
1. Develop more contrast within your songs
Look for ways to juxtapose opposite-sounding events. That might mean contrasting a minor key verse with a major key chorus, using light instrumentation in the verse and heavier in the chorus, or rhythmic complexity in one section contrasted with rhythmic simplicity in another. Whatever it is, the contrast principle is a vital part of making your songs interesting.
2. Don’t be afraid of repetition of musical ideas within a song
Repetition is an important structural element that strengthens music and makes it memorable. Good melodies consist of short fragments that are either repeated exactly, or repeated approximately. Repetition gives the listener the impression that they understand the structure of music, and that’s a good thing.
3. Don’t make your chord progressions so complicated
Most of the time, creativity, imagination and innovation within a song comes better from melodic design and the quality of your lyrics, more so than from complex chords. Chords need to make sense to the listener on some level. That doesn’t mean writing 3-chord songs all the time, but it does mean not worrying so much about chord progressions that stick to the basics. Done well, a good chord progression often just stays out of the way of other creative elements.
4. Yes, your instrumental music does need a melody
I love a good instrumental, and I wish it were done more in the pop genres. When I am asked to listen to someone’s instrumental track, however, I often find the same problem again and again: Instrumentals with little or no melody. An instrumental song has the same requirements as a sung one: It needs a recognizable and catchy tune – something for a listener to remember. It often amazes me how often I’m asked for an opinion on an instrumental track, only to find that it’s basically just a chord progression.
5. You need more variety in your approach to songwriting
Sticking to one genre is fine; many (or most) singer-songwriters write within one or two genres. But if all your songs use the same chords, the same tempos, the same styles, the same backing rhythms, and/or the same overall design, you’re turning away potential listeners. It’s crucial to try to develop your style and explore all the possibilities offered by your genre. The Beatles were the best group in musical history for doing this. “Penny Lane” sounds like no other song they wrote. The same is true of “Yellow Submarine”, “Don’t Let Me Down”, “Ob La Di”, “With a Little Help From My Friends”… You get the picture.
6. Improve the quality of your demos
Songwriters often send me links to songs they’re trying to “shop around.” These days, a demo has to be clean, well recorded, well mixed and well produced. No industry personnel will listen to or consider a poorly-recorded demo. If you don’t have the ability to do that yourself, hire someone who can.
7. Improve the quality of your performances
Like Point #6 above, no one in the industry is going to be enticed by your demo if you’re singing out of tune or if there are other performance-related inaccuracies. If you’re making a demo and you can’t get it sounding professional, you may need to hire the people who can do it.
And if I were to give a related 8th tip, it would be to build an audience base for your music. There are still many songwriters who can’t or don’t believe that that’s important. Industry personnel need to see that your music has the potential to attract a following. These days, at least most of the time, being successful as a songwriter means being successful as a performer.