HOW TO BE A BETTER SONGWRITER AND STAND OUT AS AN INDIE

Being a professional musician I get a chance to hear tons of original music by Indie songwriters. I play with plenty of bands, see other bands on the same bill, go to see all my friends shows, hear fellow indie artists at conferences, etc. They are all trying to take it from being just another local band to something that stands out in the massive crowd of aspiring artists. I see loads of impressive talent, special elements, and potential in many acts. At the same time what I see most often that is holding an artist or group back is great songs. I may hear an amazing voice, super tight band, energy, originality, a great look, etc. but if the songs aren't amazing you are building a massive castle on sand. Make no mistake; it's all about the song. You can get everything else wrong but if the songs are great you will be better off than if you did everything else right but are an amazing act performing weak material. 

One thing I hear missing is not just lack of focus on the obvious attention to melody but also to song structure. It's quite common to hear original songs that start off real cool then somehow loose the listener. And this is the kiss of death when trying to win over an audience of distracted listeners who have never heard you before. Too many songs tend to run on or go nowhere. 

So here is my philosophical take on the "Chorus". As I see it, verses are like the setup of a good joke and the Chorus is the punch line. They both work together and each has little meaning or impact without the other. The punch line in a joke is usually a very simple to the point comment but it has a lot of impact because it's already been set up and brings the whole idea to some resolution. Any music listening, any sensory experience, any story being told, or life, for that matter, can be summed up as a transition between tension and resolution. One is a lead in that explains where you're coming from in the story you are telling and the chorus sums up your point or feeling in a memorable impactful way. The song can't just go, it's got to go, to some destination. The chorus is you're home and the verse is the road you travel to get there. The road can be winding and full of many different sights but home is comfortable and consistent. Like the verse could be all the crappy things someone did to you and the chorus would be a line or 2 saying 1 thing that really sums it all up. Like "I hate you" or "I still love you anyway" depending on how that story resolves. 

When it comes to choruses think simple. There is a beauty and art to simplicity and that is the part of the song that it is most appropriate in. The verse is where you've done the more intricate "foreplay" and created some kind of tension and anticipation and the chorus is the real basic straightforward and raw climax of your idea, the summation of your emotion whether it be anger, happiness, etc. 

This is why simplicity works best. Resolution of tension by definition is basic and to the point. It finally gets the to pure honest heart of the matter without any pretension of fluff. Although the situation leading to an emotion may be very complex the resulting emotion is usually not complicated but very honest and straightforward. There may be many shades but you are either sad or your not. At least for the moment in that slice of life you are portraying, and all a song is, is how you feel in a moment in time. You may feel completely different a moment later, but then that's another perspective and another song altogether now isn't it? Don't try to capture everything you've ever felt in one song. It is a snapshot of a sentiment, a momentary conclusion in some way. There are so many parallels to the tension resolution concept everywhere. That is because it is a paradigm that is everywhere in the universe. Sex is obviously a great analogy to illustrate tension and resolution. One without the other is anticlimactic in a manner of speaking and resolution is very base. An orgasm is a very straightforward, honest, simple thing. There is a reason most of the greatest artists and philosophers felt that simplicity is the way to true peace. 

A note on knowing "the rules". Often indie songwriters that want to be "true artists" will scoff at learning songwriting "rules", as if it is beneath a true artist to somehow bastardize their one of a kind master work. They think if they felt it in the moment they wrote it that somehow warrants it as being great and special and how dare someone suggest they alter this masterpiece expression of their artistic soul. If other people don't get it, it's not because it's not good enough, its because you are some misunderstood musical genius ahead of your time. Paleeze, get over yourself Hayden. The Beatles rewrote and rewrote and so did Beethoven and pretty much every other great artist you've ever heard. If you are above them, well then you don't need my advice, just go collect your Grammy now. 

Now are there exceptions to using rules? Of course. The point is not to always follow them no matter what. That would be boring. There are no true "rules" but really just "tools" that can take you in directions that can help you communicate better. But to be aware of these concepts is critical, especially if you are going to break them. Every great artist that broke the rules knew the rules before doing so. And the greats knew if they broke a rule they knew what that rule did, how and why. Once you understand that then you are free to bend and break them because you know the ramifications and how to balance that out in some other way so as to gain more than you lose in the process. That is true artistry. But not getting this concept is one of the biggest mistakes in songwriting. But fully understanding the rules then breaking rules in a way in which you truly understanding why you are doing so and how that can be used is often the element that can create true originality and power. 

On the other hand, if you just break the rules because you are being too much of a artistic snob to learn them you will actually come off as an amateur that is over reaching their capabilities. The difference is night and day. John Coltrane, Stravinsky, Picasso knew all the rules but then broke them. If you think you have their talent by all means go for it, but if not, learn your craft and always be trying to add elements to your bag of knowledge that you can use to continually express and communicate you're true soul to others through music. In the end that is the most important pursuits to every great artist I've come across.

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