Tommaso Zillio
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The Key To Making Your Songwriting Interesting

While its great when songwriting can come from a completely raw and personal place, there's are also tools you can implement to make your writing better and more interesting. As a composer, its important to always seek out ways to develop your craft, and today I am going to share with you an essential writing technique.

When a musician first tries their hand at songwriting, its not uncommon for them to feel a little uninspired by their own writing. Much like when learning a new instrument, you can't expect to know what it is that makes music sound good without a little guidance. You might feel like there is something is missing in your music, but you can't quite nail down what that something is. The music you write may sound pretty and all, but…that's it.

If this sounds like you, fear not. As much as you may have been telling yourself otherwise, you ARE cut out for this. You just need to do a little more research and a little bit more listening to find how you can improve. Often times, this is the point when many musicians will give up on being a songwriter, but as long as you read this article (and perhaps some of the other ones I wrote on songwriting) I promise you will not be one of them!

Is This A Skill Issue?

Understandably, if you can't quite reach that wow factor with your music, you might be questioning your skills as a writer. Fortunately, this isn't always a problem with your skills. Though its easy to feel like this means your compositional abilities are just not up to snuff, it actually could be a problem with your thinking.

You already have the technical skills at your disposal. So, if great music is what you are setting out to write, then you have to begin shifting your mindset. Think as an artist would.

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.

Writing An Antagonist Into Music

Before you begin writing music this way, take some time to listen to other songs first and see if you can spot who or what the antagonist is (this is more apparent when listening to vocal music).

Typically, you are going to find the antagonist in the form of an ex-lover, (for instance, most Taylor Swift songs), a current love that you just aren't sure about (such as The Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go") Or perhaps a love that is yet to come (yep, most music you listen to is about love in some way).

This doesn't mean all antagonists always come in people form. The antagonist can be found in the many anti-establishment protest songs (such as "Uprising" by Muse). Other peoples opinions could be the antagonist (as it is in "All About That Bass" by Meghan Trainor) Or the antagonist could be not wasting your youth (As Fun. makes sure not to in "We Are Young").

When you try this in your own writing, have a vivid idea of what or who the antagonist will be. Pay attention to this throughout your next writing session and see what a difference it makes.

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. There is 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!

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@fl3k   3 years ago
Wow, I've never tought about it. Very nice and interesting article Tomasso. I will be checking the samples you just noted here to better learn from it, specially the instrumental ones which I suppose are less evident and harder to identify.
I think it will be an interesting exercise indeed. Thanks for such a contribution!
@ericbourassa   3 years ago
Love it! I especially like the idea of including an antagonist AND that you referenced Taylor Swift and Mussorgsky in the same article ;)
@nidzan   2 years ago
This is a very interesting post with a lot of good advice. I believe that the most important thing when it comes to writing songs is the feel and emotion of the song itself. It all depends on a number of factors of course and the process can vary. One thing that I would mention is whether you are writing alone or along-side more musicians. If you are doing all the work by yourself, things get a little bit easier as you are the only one who has a certain direction in mind that the song should take and adjust that direction and moving back between the instruments and lyrics in order to make them go well together is as flexible as you want it to be and there is no idea clashing. However, if you are writing with somebody else, ideas can clash and they might not share their vision of the song with you. The more people that are involved, the more difficult it is for everyone to achieve their vision of the song and usually somebody has to compromise. Personally, I have never been a very good instrumentalist. Although I can play a couple of instruments on a medium level, most of my knowledge of them is there to accompany my vocal needs. Since that is the case, I usually leave all of the instrumental work to be done by my instrumentalists, mostly guitarists and then I chip in with vocal lines and of course the lyrics. While the vocal lines are always my own, I would usually ask the guitarists if they had an idea for the lyrical subject. If they didn’t have the answer then I would just let my creative side run wild. I would mostly listen to the song while humming the vocal line and listening to the feeling and what images the song invokes in my brain. It could be just one simple thing like love or hate, or something more complicated like an entire story of a certain character, fictional or real. Once I know the subject and the line, it is not that hard for me to put it all in a cohesive narrative and combine those fragments into a whole. Afterward, we practice the song with the band and I make small adjustments like word choice and length of the vocal lines to fit the song better and make things sound interesting and not too repetitive.