When I teach songwriting classes, I tell students that if they’re rhyming “fire” with “desire” that they should leave. That joke always gets a giggle. As someone who’s taught songwriting and also judged song contests, I’ve heard this rhyme too many times. Don’t make that mistake or the others listed below. Keep your audience engaged with a well-written song using these tips.
Use conversational language. If one line ends with “so I am told” only to rhyme with the line before that ends in “gold,” no one will believe you. You wouldn’t tell a friend a story and end any sentences with “so I am told.” Why would you do that in a song?
Step away from the obvious rhyme. I’ve already mentioned fire/desire. Same goes for tears/fears, shelf/self, do/blue, and together/weather. If it’s been heard a million times, your song will lose emotional impact.Rhyming dictionaries are your friend. Imperfect rhymes are great, too.
Watch the clichés. “You put me on a shelf.” “You drive me crazy.” “I was too blind to see.” Anything that equates sad with rain or happy with a rainbow. Yawn. Those lines worked for the first few hundred songs. Time to retire them.
Your verses should sound different from the chorus. You found that great chord progression and used it for the entire song, right? Your audience will think you’ve written one long verse. Mix up the chords for the chorus. Start the chorus with a line pitched higher than the verse. Use a different word meter for the chorus.
Vary your melody. If you use the same 3 or 4 notes for the entire song, your audience will cease being able to hear the lyrics.
Don’t always use the tonic. If you’re playing a G chord and singing a G note, that’s the tonic, and too often, beginning songwriters sing the tonic of every chord. I’ve been a judge in several song contests and there are some songs I can sing along with even though I’ve never heard them before. When writing a melody, play every note slowly in each chord and try to sing another note in some of the places where you’re landing on the tonic.
Your song is not the arrangement! I don’t care if your best friend is the best boogie woogie piano player on the planet, she’s not going to save your weak-ass song with a solo break. Your song should sound great with a simply played instrument and one voice. (Instrumentals are a whole ‘nother ball of wax.) And please, please, please don’t add a cheesy string bed or other canned sounds. It’ll only make dogs howl.
Make the lyrics go somewhere. Have a great plot twist toward the end. Put a climatic line in the bridge. If it just percolates along with a lot of “I love you baby” you’ll lose your audience.
Don’t write War and Peace. Someone already wrote “Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald.” Keep the theme simple. Consider breaking up that long song into 2 or 3 others.
Show don’t tell. Don’t tell us you miss her. Use a minor chord and describe the heartbreaking note she left you next to the house key.
Get feedback. Other songwriters are best but anyone who’ll be honest and offer constructive tips will be great. Don’t just play it for your mama who always murmurs, “That’s nice, dear.”
Now go find that piano and write a song. Maybe your friend will teach you some chords.
Want songwriting lessons? I teach via Skype, contact me here. In spite of the snarky attitude expressed above, I am a kind and supportive teacher. I wrote this at 7:30 AM before coffee. I promise to be well-caffeinated for your lessons.