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Early on in my songwriting career, I considered it a minor miracle that I could create a song in the first place. However, once I got a little more used to performing that particular magic trick, it became necessary to start to refine my process a bit further. In other words, it was no longer enough just to have created a song. Now I had to go back and tweak, edit, fix, and otherwise polish my songs until I was confident I’d exhausted every option to improve them. Here, I’ve put together a list of 10 things for you to examine when critiquing your songs in order to make them both lyrically and melodically stronger.
1. Do you have a strong opening line?
The opening line of your song is the first and best chance to engage your listener in the story you’re about to tell. Strong opening lines explain the where, what, and who of your story and will eventually lead to the “why” the story is being told. Make sure your opening line is designed to start your listener down the road to getting involved in the story you’re telling.
2. Are you using concrete imagery?
One of the best ways to put a listener immediately into the middle of your song’s story is to use strong imagery. I’ve also heard this imagery called “furniture.” These images are the details in a lyric that give your listener things to remember and connect with. Generally speaking, imagery is reserved for the verses where the meat of your story is being told. Choruses are designed to state the main point or theme of your song. Another way to think about imagery is to “show ‘em, not tell ‘em.” What that means is that it’s less effective to say, for example, she was a seductive woman but she was bad news than it is to describe her as “a black heart in a green dress.”
3. Are your lyrics singable?
By the way, it’s not enough to tell a good story with your lyric. It’s equally important to make sure that the words you use are easy to sing and phrase naturally. I’ve also heard this put as making sure your lyric is “conversational.” Lyrics that are awkward or emphasize the wrong syllables pull a listener’s ear in a bad way. There’s a reason the word “baby” is in almost every song ever written … those long “a” and “e” sounds are great and easy to sing. Another way to put this is that you won’t find the word “Nicaragua” popping up in a lot of hit songs.
4. How effective is your hook?
By way of explanation, the main point and identifier of your song can be referred to as the hook. In other words, it is the part of the lyric that reaches out and grabs the listener. Make sure that along with the story you’re telling, the hook is clear and doing its job. Often the lyrical hook of the song is also its title. It’s that important.
5. Does your chorus have a strong last line?
There are very few places in a song’s lyric more important than the last line of the chorus. This is the place where everything you’ve been leading up to in your verses and the first lines of your chorus pays off. It’s often the place where the hook is and usually leaves the listener satisfied that they understand your message. One important way to make the last line of your chorus count is to set it up with some kind of rhyme in one of the earlier chorus lines. That way, not only are the words important but they complete a rhyme, which adds extra emphasis.
6. Does the overall idea of your song work?
Often when we’ve worked on a lyric for a long time, it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees. In other words, we get so wrapped up in making things rhyme and using imagery that the overall concept of the song loses some of its focus. Make sure after you’ve finished your lyric that the overall message of the song is developed and supported in every line. While you, as the songwriter, already know your song’s story, you need to make doubly sure that a listener who is hearing your song for the first time will know what you’re talking about.
7. Is your verse melody interesting?
Given that the melody of your song is one of the first things people hear and pay attention to (sorry lyricists, but the words come waaaay later), you’ll want to be sure that your verse melody is catchy and unique. This doesn’t mean your melody should be bizarre or uncomfortable but, rather, that it should be distinctive and memorable.
8. Does your chorus melody differ from your verse melody?
So much of what we do as songwriters is about giving the listener clues as to what the most important parts of our songs are. By making sure that your chorus melody is not only strong but differentiates itself from the verse melody, you’ll cue the listener in to the fact that you’ve arrived at the main musical – and lyrical – moment in the song.
9. Does your bridge add to the song?
A bridge is really designed as a moment in the song where you step away from the verses and choruses to make an additional lyrical observation or melodic contribution. If your bridge melody sounds too much like your verse or chorus, even if the lyric is doing something new, the risk is that you’ll miss an opportunity to add something of value to an already strong song. All this to say, be sure that if you have a bridge, it’s musically apart from what you’ve been doing in your song’s other sections.
10. Does your melody flow naturally throughout the song?
Not only should the melody in each section of your song distinguish itself, but your overall melody should flow naturally from section to section. Be careful not to have a melody that is too repetitive. A little repetition is a good thing as it adds to the “hooky” nature of your song, but too much repetition becomes distracting and a bit unpleasant from the listener’s standpoint. And be sure that your melody sits comfortably over the chords you’ve chosen. The harmonic – chordal – decisions you make can serve to either accentuate or hinder your melodic work.
Critiquing your own songs is often a time-consuming and somewhat frustrating experience. That said, it’s essential that you hold your songs up to the highest standard if you’re hoping to have a better chance at commercial success. I do want to remind you, however, that your first – and most important – job is to write the song. Focusing on critiquing your song too early in the process might prevent you from writing something heartfelt and spontaneous. In my experience, it’s always easier to get it all out first and invite your “editor” to the party once you’re done.
Good luck! Cliff Goldmacher is a songwriter, producer, session musician, engineer, author, and owner of recording studios in Nashville, TN and Sonoma, CA. Cliff’s site, EducatedSongwriter.com, is full of resources for the aspiring songwriter including monthly online webinars. Go to educatedsongwriter.com/webinar/ for the latest schedule.
Cliff’s company, NashvilleStudioLive.com, provides songwriters outside of Nashville with virtual access to Nashville’s best session musicians and singers for their songwriting demos.
You can download a FREE sample of Cliff’s eBook “The Songwriter’s Guide To Recording Professional Demos” by going to EducatedSongwriter.com/ebook.
This is a guest post by Tom Hess, a touring guitarist, composer, and a mentor to musicians. He plays in the 1,500,000+ record selling band, Rhapsody Of Fire.
Fact is, the majority of musicians want to have a career in music. However, these musicians also doubt their abilities to make good money in music, and fear that they will not be able to support themselves. Unfortunately, these people end up pursuing non-music jobs where they work full time and despise every time they go to clock in. This is all done out of the idea that a “normal job” is safe and secure, while a music related career is highly risky with little security. This is one of the very most common misconceptions that I see ALL THE TIME while training musicians to succeed in their careers!
In truth, achieving great financial success while working on your music career is not as difficult as you might think. In addition, you don’t need to be a big time rock star to make good money in the music business. However, in order to become financially free in your music career, you will need to take a very different approach than the one that is taken by most musicians. You will need to approach your music career as both a “musical artist” AND as a businessman (or woman). You must run your career as a business, where your primary goal is to add as much value as possible to your fans, other bands, music company officials, and other people in the business of music.
Most musicians do not know how to treat their music career in a professional, business-like manner. This is why so many of these people struggle to make a lot of money in the music business.
Besides not being prepared to achieve success in the business side of music, many musicians fail to make a decent income in their careers because they make the following mistakes:
Not Taking The Time To Identify Your Market
Once you have become familiar with the value you have to give to the music industry, you will you need to find and identify the people who you will give value to. For example, imagine that you were about to release your newest record. Who are the people (fans) that would be waiting to buy your new music? Do you have a way to quickly and easily contact these people? If not, what action are you taking right now to build a list of your potential customers? Now imagine that you were a session musician. Do you have an organized list of all your potential customers/business partners such as musicians, recording studios, or bands? What are you going to do today to get in touch with these people and show them how you can help them with your skills and talents?
One of the most common mistakes made by musicians is that they spend the time to create an album, increase their musical skills, or work in another area of the music industry, but when it comes time to receive the payoff for their hard work, they have great difficulty making any money. This happens because they have not taken the time to build a database of customers who are ready and willing to pay for the value that the musician is offering.
Additionally, musicians will make the mistake of assuming that once they are signed with a music company that the company will take all the responsibility to further their career. This is not true. The fact is, YOU are the one who will need to take initiative in your music career in order to promote yourself and make a better living. Work on building your own list of customers and fans so that you are the one in control of this aspect of your career. This can be used as a great tool to improve negotiations with future music business partners to make more money for you (AND for EVERYONE else involved).
Not Having Solid Goals And Ways To Reach Them
To earn a good living in the music industry, you MUST develop a specific plan for how you will reach your goals. If you merely fantasize about making a lot of money, this is not enough to make this goal a reality. Rather than fantasizing, start working toward what you want to achieve by asking yourself the following questions:
What is your desired yearly income from your music career?
What are the sources of musical income that will make the amount in question 1 possible?
What action must you take to set up these sources of income?
How many ways can you ADD VALUE to your interactions with people in the music business? (Think of every possibility!)
How many ways can you eliminate risk for other people in the music business?
After you have figured out your answers for each question above, you must focus on making every action you take in your music career go toward achieving the exact goals you have made for yourself.
Most musicians looking to become successful in the music business are not sure what they must do to reach their desired goals. If you are experiencing this as well, the best solution to this problem is to seek out training from a professional who has shown other musicians how to earn a lot of money in their careers. This way, you can avoid making mistakes that will cost you significant time and effort to fix.
Thinking That Popularity = Making A Lot Of Money In The Music Industry
Fact is, the majority of musicians who are “making it” in the music industry are NOT rock stars. Being part of a popular band does not mean that you will be earning a great living. The truth is that some musicians (who are very popular) still work side jobs just to get by. By understanding this, you will be able to push “fame” aside in order to focus on the most effective ways to work toward your goal of making a good living in music. Of course it is possible to both be famous AND make a lot of money in the music industry, however it is most important at this point to focus your efforts on the appropriate aspects of your goal.
Not Taking The Time To Set Up Various Music Related Sources Of Income
It is common for musicians to treat their music career in the same manner that they have treated any other job that they have had. They expect a single paycheck at the end of an established period of time from doing a “single” activity. Unfortunately, this approach will NOT help you to achieve financial success in the music business. In order to make a good living in your music career, you must stop thinking from the mindset of obtaining a single sum of money as your main goal. Instead, you must work to build many different sources of musical income that go into your bank account on an ongoing, residual basis. By taking this approach, it becomes much easier to make a lot of money from music. In fact, musicians who use this method with save themselves time as well (because they do not have to continually work to get a paycheck). This enables them to have more freedom to pursue things such as writing music, touring and performing, or recording in the studio. In the end, it is important to have income coming in from both your active efforts and your past efforts that you already took the time to set up (that continue to make you money). Additionally, by approaching your music career in this manner, you will feel much more stable since you will not be dependent on any single source of income to pay your bills.
Not Consistently Providing Additional Value To Other People In The Music Industry
To gain a solid understanding of what “value” means when it applies to the idea of making a living in the music business, you must pay close attention to the next sentence. Regardless of what you do in the music industry, whether it be touring in a band, creating music in the studio, giving music instruction or working as a record producer, the people in the music industry (including bands you play for, record labels, music students, etc.) must decide on working together with you versus thousands of musicians competing for the same opportunity. If you don’t want to blend in with the crowd and go unnoticed, you will need to gain the upper hand on your music competition by creating value that far exceeds that of what most musicians are able to offer. This does NOT simply mean working on developing your music skills! Developing truly high value in your music career deals with many different aspects of your personal mindset, emotional stability under stress, and ability to work very hard on a consistent basis.
If you want to make a lot of money in your music career, you will need to make it 110% clear that you are the number one choice when someone in the music industry must choose between you and your competitors. In fact, this must be TOTALLY clear before anyone has even listened to one second of your music!
This may seem like a simple concept as you are reading it right now. However, as simple as it may be, almost all musicians DO NOT build their music careers by acting on this basic principle.
By increasing your potential to create value (for all people involved) during any music related activity, you will be able to quickly earn a lot of money in the music business. This is one of the main ideas I focus on while training musicians to build highly successful music careers.
There are a lot of musicians who think that making good money from their musical talents is “wrong”or “deceptive” in some way. These people think that it is only important to continue improving their musical skills. Although improving as a musician is clearly important, if you’d like to have the freedom to make music for a living, you will also need to invest your time into improving upon the business side of your music career. This way you won’t need to work a dead end “day job” just to make ends meet.
There is no precise method for predicting every decision you will need to make in your music career to make more money. However, by simply avoiding the mistakes discussed in this article, you will be well on your way to making a great living in the music business. Once you have gained more time due to the financial freedom you will obtain, you will be able to focus more intensely on creating the music you love.
Without naming names, I’d like to tell you a story about something that unfolded yesterday on Facebook.
A certain band got a somewhat unfavorable review from a local publication.
The band members’ feelings, understandably, were hurt; they’d worked hard writing, rehearsing, recording, and mixing an album they were proud of — and they expected the whole world to love it too. One music critic, however, didn’t love it. And it was his job to say so in print.
While we’ve argued in the past that posting a link to a negative review on social media can be a good way for bands to blow off steam (and let your FANS do the trash-talking), this band went and did something we would never recommend; they did the trash-talking themselves, insulting the ears, taste, and discernment of that critic, and concluding with an F-bomb aimed at the publication.
It backfired. People came to the defense of the critic and called the band out for seeming both insecure and insensitive. On top of that, the band pretty much ruined their chances of that publication ever printing a nice word about them in the future.
Thankfully the band deleted the post later in the day (and hopefully apologized to both the writer and the magazine).
Anyway, I’m not writing this to beat up on the anonymous band. They seemed to have already learned from their mistake. And besides, we’ve all wanted to respond to bad reviews in this way. But there ARE more productive things to do in the face of negative criticism.
Here are a few things to remember about bad reviews
1. Bad reviews can be a learning experience —
One of my early bands got a review that really stung. For a couple weeks I put up my proud defenses, saying to myself, “Ah, well they just didn’t GET it!” But ya know what? Some of their criticisms were dead-on — and I eventually realized it. The next time around I didn’t make the same mistakes. This brings us to….
2. Bad Reviews hurt, so just go ahead and hurt —
I’m not saying you shouldn’t feel the sting. Someone just said your precious baby was ugly. Let yourself get angry or sad or whatever. Just don’t lash out at the critic. And after the wound has healed a little, you can check out that baby with fresh eyes. Maybe it IS ugly. OR maybe the critic just didn’t like you, but thousands of other people will! Which brings us to…
3. Always remember that you’re not going to be some folks’ cup of tea —
Mathematically speaking, most people that hear your music will probably be indifferent to it, somewhat enjoy it, or somewhat dislike it. Your most loyal fans and your crazy haters are going to be in the extremes on either side of that wide middle-ground. So don’t be upset if most music critics don’t think you’re the reincarnation of Mozart.
4. Bad reviews can boost your website’s SEO power —
Think about it; if a highly-trafficked online magazine or blog reviews your music, when they link to YOUR site in the review it’s going to help your own SEO power. And as your site moves up in the Google results, no one has to know that it was a downer review which boosted your search ranking.
5. Remember your manners —
It makes good business sense to stay quiet — or at least polite — when you get a bad review. If you retaliate (like the band mentioned above), you run the risk of being blacklisted by that publication. And that reputation might follow you elsewhere too.
6. You’ll seem cool and confident by staying calm —
You’re the best band in the world, right? Well the best band in the world wouldn’t be phased by one bad review from a paper in… what town was it in anyway? Oh yeah, right. We couldn’t care less. Because we’re on tour right now and having so much fun. Are you coming to the show tonight?
I’ve known some artists who’ve gotten very negative reviews from certain magazines, only to get glowing press from the same publication for their followup release. That probably wouldn’t have happened had they sent back a nasty letter or blown up on Facebook about it. They stayed calm (outwardly, at least) and kept on!