The Power of Simplicity in Songwriting
By Kim Copeland
Reprint from The Songwriters Connection E-Tip
Most up and coming songwriters have been told at least once to “be original”. Try to say something that hasn’t been said before or to say it in a new way. Easier said than done, right?
Too often we strangle our creativity by trying to be too profound, too clever, too original. Listen to the radio. Most radio hits contain elements of familiarity combined with a new twist. They aren’t reinventing the wheel. They just give us enough new to make the old sound fresh.
Listeners want to feel engaged and comfortable while listening to songs. They don’t want to think as much as feel. Music is more emotional than intellectual. Complex lyrics and musical structures have their place, but in commercial songwriting, they are rarely the songs that “break” songwriting careers. Those songs are written for the writer, not the audience. If you hope to find commercial success as a songwriter, you owe it to yourself to try to understand what listeners respond to. Why they are drawn to some songs over others. What makes them willing to pay for some songs so they can listen to them over and over again?
Simplicity is a powerful tool in songwriting. If you can wrap a deep message within a catchy, repetitive melody, you’ve got a hit. If you can create a groove that makes the listener immediately feel comfortable wanting to move to it, you’ve got a hit. By combining simple elements that any listener can get involved with easily and quickly, and original elements (whatever you do differently than anyone else), you create a fresh, new product that can attract a mass audience.
When you play to your strengths by doing what comes naturally to you, you make writing songs easier and you write better songs. Keep it simple by identifying elements that work for you and combining them in a way that works for audiences.
Study what people respond to about your songs. Once you have identified it, let that be the unique factor that you showcase in all of your writing. It could be your language; the way you express yourself or your ideas. It might be your musical gift; the chord voicings you use or the particular texture and tone of your instrument, be it guitar or voice. Perhaps you feel grooves and phrasing that is different and hooks people into your songs.
Study hit songs from several genres, and try to determine what about the song is infectious to listeners. Is it the groove, the hooky message, the musical riff, the sing along melody? Next, choose one element from each of two or three different hit songs, and combine them with one of your lyrical ideas. Maybe a repetitive chord structure from one song combined with the groove of another. Now add your original lyric to it and see if it gives you a presentation for your song that now contains some proven elements with some fresh new ones. Almost every hit song has something that is familiar hidden within it, either by design or accident.
I am certainly NOT encouraging you to plagiarize anyone’s work; but studying it, learning from it and using that knowledge to help you break through the wall of commercial songwriting is encouraged. We are all conglomerates of what we have seen, heard, felt, and absorbed. By using your experiences, talents and personal musical tastes you will create an original voice for yourself as a songwriter. Hopefully, one that will help you stand out as original while attracting a mass audience.
When you hear “be original” and “this is a little TOO different – I don’t know what to do with it” in the same conversation, perhaps you are trying too hard. Try being original within the structure of familiarity and see if not only makes your songwriting life easier, but also elevates your standing in the commercial market.