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The World’s Best Songwriting Tool

There are many elements that make up a good or great song. Music: melody, harmony, rhythm… Lyrics: story, meaning, characters, the sound of the words… Structure: finding the most suitable ‘container’ for the idea and then taking full advantage of it… And, in all these areas, understanding listeners’ expectations of genre and style, and utilizing them to one’s purpose…

There are, of course, many more tools. But there’s one that’s indispensable in continuing to get better at writing songs: Curiosity.

How do great songwriters make their songs work? What is that chord sound, that chord progression? Why does that note sound so good at that particular moment? Is it just the melody note with the chord? Is it the expectation that the previous phrase(s) set up? How high is that high note – what’s the range of the melody?

How does the rhythm of the melody relate to the rhythm of the chords and the rhythm of the song? When does it work to leave space in the melody, when to fill it up? How do the spaces, or lack of them, affect the meaning of the lyric?

Why does a Bob Marley melody feel so effortlessly… melodic? How does Antonio Carlos Jobim make his complex mix of melody and harmony feel so utterly fluid and natural? How are songwriters like Elton John and Billy Joel able to construct those loooong melody lines that work? Why do most of the best melodists’ lines feel so natural yet, when you take a close look at them, they’re so carefully and cleverly constructed?

Where did The Beatles songs come from; who did Lennon & McCartney learn from? How were writers like Lennon & McCartney and Irving Berlin able to write classic songs in so many different styles? How did Buddy Holly, with three chords, Burt Bacharach, with every chord in the book, and Jay-Z and Eminem, sometimes with one chord or no chords, all able to write great songs?

How do you understand the ‘music’ of rhymes? Why do perfect rhymes sound best in some songs and loose rhymes best in others? And no rhymes in others? When is it effective to change up the rhyme scheme of a song in the midst of the song? How and why has rhyming changed so dramatically over the last century?

How is Joni Mitchell able to keep her lyrics so personal yet so interesting? How is Paul Simon able to write so many songs without rhyming (along with many that do)? Why does Bob Dylan always rhyme?

Why do triads give a melody a certain feeling, 6th chords another, 7th chords a very different other, etc.? How about leaving the 3rd out; just playing roots and fifths?

I could go on. The world of songs is so big – a house containing many mansions. There are always wonderful treasures to explore… and learn from… and emulate. And the key that opens the door to the house is: Curiosity.

Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:

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6 responses to “The World’s Best Songwriting Tool”

  • Sophia

    Your post has me mulling over what the opposite of curiosity could be – if there is one such a thing… laziness? a misunderstood overused word but that’s what comes to mind.
    Thanks again for a great read. I’ll set out to discover answers to those Qs at a leisurely rate.

  • Joyce Rogers

    Love this post, Tony.

  • Charity James

    Great stuff, Tony. And thanks for being so consistent & interesting. We’re all out here twisting in the wind a lil bit and it’s fun & reassuring to see your posts.

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