Writing Songs That Don't Suck

It is not uncommon for new songwriters to feel like their music doesn't quite have that "it factor". That there is something going on in other peoples music that they just can't quite put their finger on. Something that doesn't appear to be happening in their own writing. Today I am going to tell you just what that thing might be.

Many musicians who try out songwriting for the first time will run into a common obstacle. While they are good at playing their instrument, and feel as though they have some great musical ideas, somehow their composing seems to always fall a little short. The songs might be pleasant to listen to, but not the most captivating.

The unfortunate thing is that many musicians will write a couple songs this way and figure they don't have what it takes to continue composing. The truth is that there are a few important tips that will instantly improve anyones writing, you just have to be willing to look. Luckily, if you are looking, you have come to the right place.

Songwriting Proficiency

The lacking feeling you are getting from your songs does not necessarily mean that you are an unskilled songwriter. Even though you might feel like you still have some improvement to do in that area (which is a healthy feeling), there is a good chance this is not what is holding you back.

Rather then writing over and over to refine your skills, this is more of a mindset issue. You can practice all you want, but until you start thinking like an artist you won't get very far.

The Good Is Not As Good Without The Bad

To figure out how to make your music sound more interesting, let's take a look at another story telling art form. Movie making. Take a second and try to think of the dullest movie you've seen. This movie is probably boring due to the fact that nothing really... happens. There is probably no conflict, or bad guy or evil villain. Nothing that really compels the viewer to remain invested in the story.

There is a basic rule when it comes to film and that is that in order to progress the plot you need conflict, and in order to have conflict you must introduce an antagonist. The antagonist can be a variety of things ranging from people (The Joker in Batman), beasts/animals (Godzilla), nature (the iceberg in Titanic), or what ever else you can think of. There is also the option of having multiple antagonists.

This also holds true for songwriting. If you want to write interesting and engaging music, you must include an antagonist of some sort in your writing.

Conflict In Music

Begin listening to vocal music and picking out where the antagonist is found (it will be easier to find in songs with lyrics).

You will quickly find that antagonists are the most apparent in love songs (you will also find that almost all the songs you listen to are about love). You might find the antagonist in an current love (“Crazy in Love” by Beyonce), past love (“Someone Like You” by Adele), or anything in between.

However, music does not always require a human antagonist. For example, in "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath, the antagonist is warmongers and the destruction of mankind. In Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" the antagonist is found in other people’s unfair judgement. "Carpe Diem" by Metallica presents an antagonist in the form of a reminder that we only have one precious life to live.

Next time you are writing a song, try to think about it this way. Visualize who or what exactly is posing the conflict in your tune. Notice what kind of a difference this makes in your writing.

Instrumental Story Telling

After you begin feeling comfortable identifying the antagonist in songs with lyrics, challenge yourself and move on to songs that are instrumental.

I would recommend checking out Holst's "Mars Bringer Of War" and see if you can pick out the villainous aspect. Or maybe try "Night On Bald Mountain" by Mussorgsky notice when the threat starts creeping up. If you think you have spotted these moments, make a note of it and take another listen. Try to dig a little deeper by asking some of these questions:

  1. What chords are used and how is it affecting the feel of the song?
  2. What instruments are being used in what way?
  3. How do the dynamics develop the story?
  4. What happens before and what happens after you spot the antagonist?

After you have written down your answers to these questions, do the same thing with another instrumental song of your choosing. If you play the piano, choose a solo piano piece. If guitar is your instrument, try checking out instrumental guitar music. Theres no one genre that works better than the other. What is important is asking these questions about music that you enjoy.

By doing this, you are going to get a better answer next time you ask yourself what it is that you enjoy. This self awareness will aid you greatly in your next writing session. After analyzing a handful of tunes you will find it easier to incorporate this method into your own compositions. Music is all about story telling, and to tell a good story you must include an antagonist.

I hope this article was useful for you and that it puts an end to your humdrum composing!

Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.

Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.

Tommaso Zillio