10 Mistakes You Need To Avoid When Songwriting

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We’ve all heard songs before that just plain sucked. And those of us who’ve written their own songs have likely all written songs that have sucked too. It almost seems to be a rite of passage in the songwriting world. The problem is, it can be a recurring problem for some of us, in which we have to wade through several rubbish songs to get a half-decent one actually worth recording.

In fact, even though all of us can spot a really lousy song when we hear it, and most of us can spot a really good song, it’s like there’s this strange middle-ground in which something can be simultaneously catchy and awful, or good but boring. And what’s worse is that these underwhelming songs still make it into the charts. So those who write them might be deluded into thinking they’re A-grade when they’re not, and keep writing songs like that. But they have no real staying power except as a future punchline, and no songwriter wants to be remembered that way.

So, it’s really important that each of us understand what the biggest mistakes we could make are; the trips and traps and pitfalls that could perpetually prevent us from writing that next big hit, or worse, give up our music career altogether. Nobody should have to change their career because of simple, solvable, repeated mistakes. Some mistakes are surprisingly common, and you’ve likely made most of them before at some point or another.

1) Your new song sounds just like the last one you wrote.

What do you do if you song sounds just like the last one your wrote? Well, if you’ve been following along for a while, or have read a bunch of our other articles, you may have seen me break down Ed Sheeran’s songwriting style. Artists who have a really particular style (or really distinct voice) face this problem ALL THE TIME. Because their song style is so very particular, they have to work extra hard picking different keys, chords, time signatures, tempi (tempos), instrumentation, collaborations/guest artists, etc, in an attempt to artificially make every song on the album different and distinct from the next/last one. Those are some of the main tried-and-tested ways producers will “fix” songs/albums for “diversity”.

Now, sure, the order in which the songs appear on your album doesn’t have to coincide remotely with the order you wrote them in. Shuffling the songs about to better vary keys and tempo can be an easy way to shake things up, but wouldn’t you rather solve the problem right from the beginning? What can you do right from the start to set your songs apart from the others you’ve written?

Well, besides all the things we’ve touched on already, I find one of the best ways to create a sense of diversity in your songs is to binge-listen to different, distinct artists/bands for a day or two before you write. You’re going to pull in some of their influence for sure, but as long as you’re not directly plagiarizing their material, nobody in the world is going to spot it. And if one or two people do anyway? So what. At least nobody is going to criticize your songs for all sounding the same.

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2) Your chorus lacks oomph.

This is another really big, common problem you’ll see. Songwriters who just wait around for inspiration to strike will have some sort of epiphany moment, come up with this really inspired intro riff and verse, and then have no idea where to go with the chorus. So, instead of waiting for another strike of inspiration for the chorus, they just force out a chorus that is either boring, anticlimactic or just unrelated to the song they’d started. And then they’ll turn around and wonder: I don’t get. Why isn’t my song working? Where exactly is my song going wrong?

Unless you’re going for a killer bridge/outro that you plan on repeating a dozen times (ala Hey Jude), your chorus needs to be the catchiest part of the song. For real. If your chorus isn’t bringing your A-game, your whole song will turn flat. The cows will not come home. (For more information about writing killer melodies, see our in-depth article on melody writing here.)

Sometimes, however, the problem isn’t melody, it’s lyrics. Some lyricists will expend their best feeling-words in the verse and then just do more of the same, or something less powerful, in the chorus. Again, you want the chorus to be the most compelling part of the song, not the verse. If you need to derail your verse a bit because you’ve stolen that one awesome line for your chorus, so be it.

3) Your chords don’t fit the melody.

Because most pop music revolves around the same 3-5 chords, it’s really easy for songwriters, especially more intermediate-level songwriters, to ask themselves: Are my chords too cliched? Are the chords I’m using just overdone and boring at this point? How can I use more original chords and still get that ear-catching sound I’m going for? I really want something catchy, but I don’t want to use the same chords as everybody else. What can I do?

Well, for starters, you CAN have a hit pop song with a ridiculous or complex chord progression and still make it work. Case in point, Happy by Pharrell Williams keeps flipping back and forth between the keys of F minor and F major. The chorus follows this bizarre progression of Dbmaj7 – Cmin – Cmin7 – Fmaj. It’s certainly NOT your standard 1-5-6-4 progression and it has half a BILLION views on YouTube. Creep by Radiohead is another classic 4-chord song in which 2 of those chords don’t belong to the home key.

Alternatively, you have these long, rambling, ever-changing chord progressions in iconic songs like Yesterday, Hallelujah, More Than Words, Blackbird, We Are The Champions, Bridge Over Troubled Water, etc., and pull in all these cleverly-used non-diatonic (outside the key) chords and create something really unique and beautiful.

But the real problem I see here is that some newer songwriters will try to incorporate some of these non-diatonic chords or more complex structures to their songs, and they either don’t know how to use the techniques properly, or they’re trying to throw some basic Coldplay melody over the chords to Creep or Happy, and it’s just underwhelming and blah. The key to fixing both of these problems is musicianship, specifically ear/aural training and music theory. Having a better-trained musical ear and some extra music theory know-how is going to give you the upskilling you need to really take your songs to the next level.

4) You’re repeating lyrics instead of writing more.

This is kind of a particular thing, and I need to properly explain what the problem is here. Yes, you want a chorus to have this repeated hook, and most choruses don’t change the lyrics the second time around. This is fine. You want a level of repetition in your songs. But there comes a tipping point where it’s just too much. There are a surprising number of songs that, instead of giving us something new for the second verse, just repeat the first verse again verbatim, or they repeat a single line or phrase over and over again for the chorus. A good rule of thumb is, If you’ve ever asked yourself: Is my song too repetitive? Then yes, it probably is.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t make either of those things work. You can. If your lyrics are really powerful, poetic genius and the meaning changes or grows as the melody does, or, after you’ve heard the chorus once, it takes on some new dimension of meaning, then great. Use it again. But don’t just use it again because you can’t come up with something else to add to it. That’s lazy and unprofessional.

For example, one of my favorite bands as a teenager (who will remain nameless) released rockin’ awesome 3rd and 4th albums. I saw them live a few times, it was unforgettable. Their 5th album went downhill a bit, but there were still a few decent songs. Their 6th album was a huge disappointment. But still, because I had a great nostalgic love for them, I really wanted to incorporate one of the songs on their new album into my repertoire of cover material, so I went through the album for the song with the greatest potential (I’d been writing my own songs for over 10 years at this point), and realized 2 key things they were doing over and over again that was ruining all their songs.

Firstly, they’d gotten less melodic. Less cool guitar riffs, more repeated block chords. And the singer’s melodies had gotten less ambitious. The main melody was muted, confined, constricted. But the second, much bigger problem, was that there were almost zero second verses. 4 lines of verse. 4 lines of chorus, often the same line or two repeated 4 times. And then they’d just do it all again, maybe throw in a guitar solo and repeat the chorus a final time.

For. Every. Song.

It was like they’d just gotten really lazy or burned out in their writing. And it was especially sad for me because there are literally a dozen tricks for writing second verses. There are formulas you can follow. If I had been in their circle, they could have given me all their songs a month before recording, and I could have written second and even third verses for all of them. But now their new songs just lacked all this depth, and to be honest, it kind of ruined the band for me.

The absolute best use of this over-repetition technique I’ve seen, on the other hand, is Coldplay. Just look at the choruses of Clocks or Paradise; one simple phrase, repeated over and over, but because there are enough other things going on musically, it’s not boring. It might start to get old if you covered it with just a voice and single chords on the guitar, because it is obviously repetitive, but they do enough studio magic on the record to cover those sins, so people will eat it up for the catchy simplicity.

5) Your song lacks an arc/climax.

And here you thought I was going to talk about rhyming. No, we’ll save that for another day.

But have you ever wondered: Does my song really need to tell a story? What does it mean for my song to have a climax? Do I really have to take the listener on a journey? Am I expected to create specific characters or something? Can’t I just sing about my feelings?

Obviously, there are tonnes of different songs in different styles. But despite the sheer flexibility you have when you’re writing a song, one of the biggest recurring problems we see is that many songs fail to “take you” anywhere. And because there are a few different ways that this happens, many songwriters don’t even realize they have a problem. They’re probably thinking one- or two-dimensionally, when a song is a more multifaceted beast than that. So let me break it down for you. Sometimes your song lacks a musical arc. Sometimes it’s purely melodic. Sometimes lyrical. Sometimes instrumental. Sometimes it’s a matter of depth or volume. And each of these problems need to be addressed slightly differently.

Music can be broken down into 3 fundamental elements; the melody, the harmony and the rhythm. You create a melodic arc with pitch. You can create a feeling of climax with the highest note in the song, that is, if you use it right. This is where the harmony and rhythm come into play. You can create a rhythmic climax with a long-held or repeated high note. But obviously you want to build up to it first. Otherwise, it’s random. As for harmony, using a bridge section in your song is a great way to take your song to another level above the chorus, because even though you might come back to the chorus again afterwards, it’s just reiterating to the listener that it’s still there beneath it all, and because it’s familiar now, it helps provide the resolution you want in the end.

Now, a lyrical climax is another matter entirely. The example that jumps immediately to my mind is Skin by Rascal Flatts, because the song establishes this formula and story, and then takes you somewhere unexpected, touching and poetic, and you just want to cry. But that’s a country song, you expect it to tell you a story. What’s a more pop/rock example? Well, Avril Lavigne’s Sk8r Boi, (yes, that’s really how it’s spelled) follows the same basic idea. It establishes a lyrical pattern or formula, builds upon it as the story goes on, and then turns it around in the end. If you’re not telling a story with your words so much, and just diving deep into a particular feeling or moment, you can create a feeling of climax with the most powerful, poignant words. If you’ve already used those in the chorus, ask yourself: is there anything else I could say/add in the bridge that would make those chorus lyrics EVEN more meaningful?

Now, the final point that needs to be made about climax here concerns the production phase. In the days of analogue recording, tracks were not mastered to the level of radio/digital volume consistency that they are today. Digital audio production has come a long way in making the quiet parts of songs just as audible and prominent as the loud parts. This means, however, that you cannot utilise volume to anywhere near the capacity that a live symphony orchestra can. We’ve traded in the climactic power of swelling, dynamic volume changes echoing through a large performance space for the convenience of earbuds and private playlists and consistent noise levels. As such, producers will often try to play with space and depth of sound, doubling and tripling instrument tracks in choruses to give the illusion of greater depth and dynamism. While such techniques are useful, there is only so much compressors can do before you’re stuck against the wall of peaking sound.

In short, you want to have done as much as you can on the front end of the song, during the writing and recording process to create that sense of progress and climax throughout it, because you really can’t “just fix it in post”. So, do everything you can today to make your song timeless and unforgettable tomorrow and so on.

6) Bad Rhymes.

How do I know if my rhymes are good enough?

Rhyme is a funny thing. We have such a history of quality rhyme from hundreds of years of poetry, nursery rhymes, theater, and, of course, music, that there are essentially two schools of thought on the way rhyme is used in modern music.

The first group think that rhyme is established tradition and necessary for the success, memorability and likeability of your songs. They seek to build upon the noble tradition of lyric writing and will generally try to avoid the obvious rhyme but don’t mind it every now and then, because predictability can also create a sense of comfort in the listener.

The second group think that rhyme is a pretty unimportant part of lyric writing, because it’s become so very cliched. It’s virtually impossible to come up with original rhymes, because they’ve all been done before, so you shouldn’t even bother; just try and go for powerful words that really capture what you’re trying to say and help express the melody and you’re good. The problem with both groups, however, is that they’ll still often include some almost-rhymes, and that’s a big no-no. For instance:

Your skin, oh yeah, your skin and bones,
Turn in-to something beautiful,
Oh-oh-oh, oh how I love you so,
Oh how I love you so.
(Yellow, Coldplay, 2000)

Nobody in their right mind will tell you that the word “beautiful” rhymes with “skin and bones”. You can make an argument that “love you so” counts as a solid rhyme, I’ll give Coldplay that one. And I’ll even concede that, like Destiny’s Child’s Survivor, they seem to have pulled off one of the worst rhymes in music history. But just because they somehow escaped unscathed, doesn’t mean it’s a smart thing to do. Seriously, for every Yellow and Survivor, there are dozens of other weak-rhyming songs that never made it into the Top 40 because they were groan-inducing.

So, if you’re going to intentionally break the rhyming pattern, that’s perfectly fine, but you NEED to be overt about it. Intentionally pick something that won’t be construed as a rhyme because it’s the perfect word for what you’re wanting to say, and emphasize the difference when you sing it. And don’t have your bandmates/back-up singers sing “wer/wuh” underneath the final syllable of each line to make it sound like it rhymes when it doesn’t.

I want to add that I personally believe that there are bands and singers and composers and poets and rappers out there every day showing us that rhyme is far from dead, and that there are new, ingenious rhymes we haven’t tapped yet. Besides Ed Sheeran, whom we’ve specifically called out before for his witty wordplay, there are a number of great artists out there to look at for their clever rhymes. Jason Mraz, Eminem, Lin Manuel MIranda, Chino XL have some of the best examples I know off the top of my head, but I’m not really into hip-hop. I know Childish Gambino, Jay-Z, Kanye and Watsky get a lot of praise for wordplay. Even Taylor Swift had some killer lines before she decided to get all political. What’s your excuse?

7) Lyrics that lack purpose.

You’ve probably had this problem before if this has ever been you: I’m not really sure what my song is about. I don’t really know where it’s going. Or what to call it. Or how to write a second verse from this.

Lacking purpose, direction or an end-goal in the song that you’re writing happens all the time, especially if you’ve sat down to write a song because you have some sort of obligation to write. For instance, let’s say you wanted to write a song for a songwriting competition, or maybe you’ve been commissioned to write a song for a band or singer, and you’re just expected to do it in their general style, but haven’t been given any underlying purpose that the song is going to fulfill on the album. So, maybe you have an idea of what it’s generally meant to sound like, but if you start getting too derivative with the lyrics, the song will very quickly become cliched, and you might lose sight of it altogether.

This issue is connected in some ways to the bad rhymes above, (and a previous point about the song not taking you on a journey). One of the biggest problems with a bad or cliched rhyme is not really the rhyme itself, but usually the rest of the sentence. The whole purpose of the follow-up sentence is to create a rhyme with the line before it. If half of your lines are just there to provide a rhyme, hear me now and hear me clearly: YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG. For instance:

More sacrifices than an Aztec priest
Standing here straining at the leash
All fall down
Can’t complain, mustn’t grumble
Help yourself to another piece of apple crumble
And consequently
Hearts of oak are charged and blistered
Russians should be baby-sitted
Americans enlisted.
“That Was Then But This Is Now” by ABC.

I’m afraid of the dark
‘Specially when I’m in a park
And there’s no one else around
Oh I get the shivers
I don’t wanna’ see a ghost
It’s the sight that I fear most
I’d rather have a piece of toast
And watch the evening news
“Life” by Des’ree

When you have to throw random food items like apple crumble and toast into your song for the sake of a rhyme, you’re probably wasting half of your song with nonsense. Seriously. Don’t do it. Unless you have some deeply thematic imagery going on, be honest, you’re steering a rudderless ship here. Make each line actually count for something. Know what your song is about. And figure out the most evocative ways you can express that with every aspect of your song.

8) Useless song sections.

If you’ve ever wondered: Does my song need a bridge? Or does my song actually need to have a bridge? Then you’re not alone. Surprising as it may seem, it’s probably one of the biggest debates in modern pop songwriting circles. Everybody’s got an opinion on the matter.

It’s a debate because bridges aren’t always necessary. They typically perform a specific song function and, just like the rhymes above, when they’re simply included for the sake of having them, they’re redundant. And bad songwriting irks other songwriters especially. Bridges that automatically shift to the relative minor usually sound cliched. If the lyrics then add no new depth at all to the song, your bridge is going to sound absolutely useless.

It’s exactly the same with guitar solos. As a guitarist myself, guitar solos are usually my absolute favorite part of a song, but some bands will throw unnecessary guitar solos into every other song because that’s their bridge and they want to shake things up between choruses before the song ends. That’s not a good enough reason. Don’t artificially lengthen the song if your song doesn’t need it.

So how do we know? How do we know whether our song needs a bridge or a guitar solo or something else?

Rule of thumb: Question anything that you’re doing out of habit. If you get through to the end of the second chorus, don’t just assume guitar solo or bridge, ask yourself what the song is really needing at this point. Does it need more lyrics for some explicit statement of feeling, or will a powerful melodic solo take your song to that next level? Do you just need to play around with an extended pre-chorus or altered third-verse format? There’s several different options to explore, and if you’re just sticking to what you know because you’re comfortable with it, you’re likely robbing yourself and your songs of their greater potential.

I’ve personally found in a number of my own songs that my song actually needed both a bridge and guitar solo. The purpose of the bridge was to take the resolution reached in the chorus and build back up some intensity to smash out an awesome guitar solo. Or vice-versa.

9) Puff-uppery.

Q: What 3 things do rap/hip-hop and emo music have in common?

A: Me, myself and I.

Lame jokes aside, there’s a really valid critique of certain types of music in there. Some songs are just really self-obsessed, and those of us who maybe aren’t that egocentric, hear those sorts of songs and find them to be incredibly off-putting.

But, you ask, how do I write a song in the first person without seeming too self-focused?

It’s a great question. You want to be relatable without being a whiny or arrogant egotist. One of the best ways to reframe it for yourself is through the lens of a storybook. In the first person, you a character in your own song. Who are the other characters and what role do they play?

If it’s a song about you and a special someone, pay particular attention to how many times the words “I, me, mine, myself” appear compared to “you, your, yours, yourself” or “she, her, hers, herself”.

Secondly, using “you” instead of “she” for your love interest is always always always going to sound less self-focused. Using “she” means you’re singing about yourself to the audience, and she is a side character in your experience, not the main star. Girls want a man who tells them straight up how he feels, not someone who only talks about how beautiful and perfect they are behind her back.

In non-love songs, your other character might be the world in general, or you might have a lot of little people mentioned along the way. The distinction here between a hippie girl singing about her love of the environment and the way different people interact with it, and a rapper talking about how all these people want to either be him or be with him, is pretty obvious. The hippie girl isn’t focused on herself, though her concern in the environment might ultimately have some selfish motives. The rapper only cares about talking himself up, and will try to trick you with clever wordplay that he’s every bit as awesome as he professes himself to be.

In short, pay attention to who or what other subjects take priority in your song. Your fans want you to be confident but not egotistical, because they want to relate to you and your music, and while everyone is a little self-focused to some degree, blatant egotism instantly shatters that illusion for them that you’re the same as they are. Maybe they still really like you for it, but some of the absolute biggest stars of the last decade have more of a friendly guy/girl down the street vibe. They seem down-to-earth. Not head-up-in-the-clouds.

10) Lack of rhythmic variation.

This one falls more under the is my song too repetitive(?) category. For starters, what do I mean by rhythmic variation?

Well, music is made up of patterns. Melodic patterns, rhythmic patterns, harmonic patterns, lyrical patterns, etc. There are specific ways that we can provide variety using each of these aspects of a song. For instance, the song Let It Be by the Beatles.

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Each bar is lyrically and rhythmically identical, but the melody and harmony/chord changes every single time. Because the melody and harmony changes are so distinct each time, however, nobody has a problem with the other repetition because it’s never the same, and it doesn’t just repeat this, it goes onto to something else afterwards.

This is something that Eminem actually does reasonably well with rhythm in his songs. Because rap is really repetitive and (usually) melodically stagnant, clever rhythmic variation with rhymes need to happen regularly or they’ll become boring as all heck. Eminem will establish a lyrical pattern, and after the number of rhymes has gone on long enough where it’s about to stop being so clever, he’ll shift the beat that the rhyme sits on in the bar, thus shaking up the rhythm and keeping things fresh, even if he doesn’t actually change the rhyme.

Too many pop writers who lack that rap/hip-hop foundation often lack the necessary rhythmic variation in their songs to keep them fresh. Songs with repetitive melodies NEED greater rhythmic variety. If the first and second line have identical melodies, you must never ever have an identical third line. Most people seem to understand that instinctively, but I’ve still heard too many rookies play songs where they repeating the one melody/rhythm over and over again with different lyrics and because they are really into what they’re singing, they think everybody else automatically is too.

This isn’t the case.

In short, don’t be Coldplay’s Hymn For The Weekend. It’s monotonous because it’s aimed at people who are “drunk and high” (their words, not mine). Vary things up a bit. If you’d like help figuring out how to do that in better detail, maybe have a look at some more of the great articles and resources we have here at SoundSongwriting.com.

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