7 songwriting rules (and when to break them!)
As with any creative profession, songwriting has some valuable guidelines that are important when it comes to developing listenable songs. Like so many rules surrounding creativity, however, it’s just as important to know when it’s time to break them.
Guest post by Sayana of Soundfly’s Flypaper
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” (Attributed to Pablo Picasso.)
Like any creative process, songwriting has a set of guidelines that will help you ensure that your songs are on par with what listeners expect from music these days. Although music is an art, there are certain things that our ears naturally like to hear or have been trained to appreciate.
You likely already know and use these rules every time you sit down to write a song. Rules, however, are sometimes meant to be broken. And rules that are broken intentionally and tastefully can often lead to some of the most creative and captivating songwriting.
In this post, let’s discuss some common guidelines that songs typically follow, why they work, and what you can achieve by straying away from the norm and trying something different. With each “rule,” I’ll also share my favorite example of an artist who’s broken it and created a masterpiece.
Let’s dive in!
1. Follow a Familiar Structure
90% of songs out there follow some version of “Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus” — and for good reason! This structure is a tried-and-true vehicle for great storytelling and is familiar to listeners. The verses give you a chance to go into vivid details of your story, the chorus is a triumphant and memorable culmination of the song’s essence, and the bridge is a welcomed breakaway that keeps the listener engaged.
If your songs follow this format, great, you know what you’re doing. That being said, there’s no reason why you always have to stick to something this boring. Challenge yourself (or make it easier on yourself, depending on where you tend to get stuck) by making up your own song structure.
There are amazing songs out there that look nothing like what the listener expects, and that’s part of what makes them so special. Some place the bridge before the chorus; some don’t have a bridge at all; some don’t even have a chorus and just repeat the verse through the entire song.
Take Imogen Heap’s “The Listening Chair” for example.
As far as I can tell, this song has no recognizable structure. The roughly minute-long sections each tell a story from a seven-year period in Imogen’s life and could not be more different from each other, both lyrically and musically.
When you have a long and captivating story like Imogen’s to tell, why limit yourself and bind it with rules and structure?
2. Keep Consistent Verses
Regardless of what song structure you choose, you likely have multiple sections that act as verses. Each new verse is another opportunity to elaborate on your story with new lyrics, while maintaining a motif that’s familiar to the listener. For this reason, it’s a good idea to keep all verses consistent in terms of melody, rhythm, rhyming scheme and bar count.
It sounds simple in theory, but writing a second or third verse in the same style as the first can be quite challenging. In my experience, the first verse comes naturally — there’s no existing structure to follow because you’re writing something completely new. Then you get to the second verse and suddenly there’s a tight box around what you can create; you need to write new lyrics but everything else has to match what you did in the first verse. Easier said than done.
The good news is, whether you do this as an artistic choice or out of necessity, you can disregard the notion that all verses have to be consistent. In fact, introducing a new rhythm, melody or rhyming scheme in the second verse can actually make your song more interesting to listen to.
If you’re unsure about what to do in the second verse, I recommend letting the story lead the way. As a starting point, write down the message you want to convey and the lyrics you want to include. If you can play around with them and make them match what you have in the first verse, great, you have your second verse. But if you find that there’s no way you can fit everything you want to say into that tight box, don’t stress or spend too much time on it. Feel free to introduce something new, something that better matches the lyrics you’ve come up with.
A great example of this is “Make It Out Alive” by Nao and SiR.
The second verse sounds nothing like the first one — it’s more fast-paced and spoken rather than sung. This offers a nice surprise for the listener before taking it back to the pleasurably familiar pre-chorus and chorus.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Building Your Confidence as a Songwriter.”
3. Keep a Consistent Chorus
The chorus is perhaps the most important part of any song. You want it to be easily recognizable, catchy, and memorable. Most often, this is the part of the song that people will start singing along to first.
To help make the chorus stick, we tend to use the same lyrics in every instance of the chorus. This helps reiterate and emphasize the main message of the song, as well as give the listener several opportunities to get familiar with the melody and lyrics.
But what if your song has a really important message or a lengthy story to tell? In this case, each chorus is valuable real estate for conveying your message, and you wouldn’t want to waste it by repeating the same lyrics.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing different lyrics for each chorus. In fact, if you can find a way to send the same message with very different words, it can make your song that much more powerful.
A great example of this occurs in George Michael’s “Praying for Time.” Each of his choruses have the same melody, but the lyrics get progressively more and more powerful, driving his message home in an effective and moving way.
4. Make the Chorus Big
Since the chorus is often the most prominent part of the song, it should stand out, not only lyrically, but also musically. The melody usually uses higher notes, where the singer can show off their higher register, the notes are louder and held longer. Chords often change at a faster rate here and the overall production tends to be busier, with more instruments and interesting riffs from each of them.
Take a look at the waveform of most songs and you’ll be able to tell where the choruses are just by looking at the sections with a higher amplitude. However, turning up the volume and energy isn’t the only way to make something standout. What if you did the opposite? Why not try making the chorus stand out by making it softer, quieter and more minimal in comparison to the verse?
The most important thing to aim for is a distinct and dramatic transition into the chorus — whether the chorus is energetically bigger or smaller than the previous section doesn’t actually matter that much. You can even create a build-up leading up to the chorus, making the listener think that the chorus is about to explode, but then suddenly quiet down.
Taking the listener by surprise like this is a surefire way to make your song sound interesting and engaging. Take a listen to Lennon Stella’s “Breakaway” as an example.
When her chorus first begins, it’s composed of nothing but her vocals and a simple drumbeat. This gives the chorus more intimacy and significance, as if saying “Turn off all other noise, you’ve really got to hear this…”
5. Maintain the Same Tempo
A song’s tempo and time signature have an enormous impact on its overall energy, atmosphere and the emotions it evokes.
Typically, it’s a good idea to keep them both consistent — there’s a reason why click tracks are used in recording sessions and skilled drummers are so valued in live performance. A consistent tempo is pleasant to the human ear and doesn’t distract from other important elements of the song, such as lyrics, melodies, and arrangement.
However, when used strategically, a sudden change in tempo or even time signature can be an effective way to make the song more interesting. Particularly, it marks a shift in the energy of the song. If the story of your song involves a sudden revelation or shift in mood, a simple change in tempo or time signature can help convey that.
Take, for example, Jack Johnson’s “Bubble Toes.” The song starts with an intriguing and cautiously paced introduction to the story’s characters, but at 0:48, the tempo increases to tell the rest of the story in a playful, almost whimsical way.
6. Use a Consistent Key and Chord Progression
This one is a no-brainer. The human ear likes chords that fit well together into nice, consonant patterns, with nothing jarring or out of place. Songs typically follow the same chord progression through the verses, and maybe a slightly different progression through the choruses, but things generally remain in the same key. This makes the song consistent, predictable, and memorable — everything we like in a song.
When done properly though, changing up the chords or even an entire key signature can take a song to a whole new level. Between employing a full-on key change — so that the diva can show off her vocal range — utilizing the occasional borrowed chord to switch things up before the chorus hits, and a simple reharmonization of voicings within your song, there are endless options for keeping it sounding fresh harmonically.
What if you wrote the first verse using one set of chords, and wrote the second verse with the exact same melody but with a completely different set of chords? This is a great tool for when you want to shift the mood of the song or emphasize a certain section of it.
I actually had a bit of trouble finding an example of this in popular music (I’m sure this happens quite often in jazz), but with a little help from a friend, I settled on “Lovely Broken” from Gungor.
The song starts out in a major key, backed by positive and uplifting lyrics — yet the second verse carries an almost identical melody but in a minor key. The lyrics here are dark and heavy. Gungor shares that their inspiration for this song came from learning about the “split-brain” phenomenon in neuroscience and the double sided nature of the human experience. The switch between major and minor keys perfectly encapsulates this idea.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Chorus Impact Accentuators, Explained.”
7. Write Lyrics That Rhyme
Songs are rhythmic, they’re meant to be experienced with our entire bodies, like a dance or a chant. Rhymes help create that innate sense of rhythm, that pattern that indicates that a phrase is over and a new one is beginning.
There are many different rhyming schemes you can play around with, but regardless of which you choose, what’s going to make your rhyming scheme effective is placing rhyming words at the ends of your lines.
It’s a bit like poetry, but the advantage that songs have over poems is that the melody and the way the words are sung can help reinforce rhymes (or in some cases, even trick you into thinking that a rhyme is stronger than it actually is).
In fact, perfect rhymes in music are considered lower quality rhymes, because they’re easy to come up with and often severely overused. (How many times have you heard someone rhyme “break up” with “make up” or “light” with “night?”)
Great songwriters never sacrifice the message they want to convey in favor of an easy rhyme. Even greater songwriters often disregard the notion that songs have to rhyme entirely. Yet they somehow manage to maintain that sense of rhythm and pattern in their songs.
One of my favorite songwriters currently is Kevin Garrett. The verses of “Pray You Catch Me,” which he wrote for Beyoncé, don’t rhyme at first glance. You can dissect each line and argue it’s in ABACBC structure, but the rhymes are so loose that it’s barely noticeable.
The lack of obvious structure in the verses make it a beautifully raw piece of music.
“Nothing else ever seems to hurt like the smile on your face,
When it’s only in my memory, it don’t hit me quite the same,
Maybe it’s a cause for concern, but I’m not at ease,
Keeping my head to the curb”
So there you have it!
If you’re someone who tends to stay on the safe side of things, hopefully this post has inspired you to try something new or do the opposite of what you normally would. Will you be trying any of these techniques with your next song? Let us know!
Sayana is a contemporary R&B singer-songwriter based in Toronto, Canada. When she’s not making music, she creates content on personal development and navigating life as a musician on her Instagram and website.