One of the most valuable things I’ve ever done was a series of songwriting courses at Berklee College of Music. I was already a songwriter down in my soul, but this helped me learn that songwriting is not only an art, it’s also a science. There are tricks to making songs sound pleasing and “correct” to the listener’s ears.
I am NOT advocating formulaic/cookie cutter songwriting here (can you tell from my songs?), but what I learned was invaluable. With a few new tricks up my sleeves, I was more productive, less frustrated and composing better songs.
Here are my favorite tips and tricks!
1. Follow a clear (and simple!) song form:
My favorite song form for kids (that’s also improvisation friendly*) is a simple ABA or AABA song form. “A” is your repetitive theme and “B” is your departure from that theme. When your song heads back to the (catchy) theme, that familiarity can be grounding and comforting to the child.
Many simple children’s songs are in an “A” form, meaning there isn’t any departure from the theme (Mary Had A Little Lamb, Twinkle Twinkle, etc.). Taking your simple theme and adding a “B” section adds substance and variation to your song. The “B” section is also a great place to add in an additional goal (motor, speech, communication, etc.). OR, it’s the place to jam out, have fun and take a break from more cognitively demanding goals you’ve built into the “A” section.
*Improvisation tip: Sometimes I only write the “A” theme and plan to use a “B”, but don’t write it so I can improvise based on what I’m seeing in the moment.
2. Keep it SIMPLE:
Have you noticed that the children’s songs that have lasted years… upon years… upon years… are the simple ones? Your song doesn’t have to be complex to have an impact. Use those simple songs that initially feel insignificant!
3. Use a singable melody:
For kids, a singable melody is one that moves step-wise up or down and doesn’t jump more than about a 3rd at a time. If you’d like participation, a singable melody is key!
4. Use repetitive lyrics:
“We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine. We all live in a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine, a yellow submarine.”
“Na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye. Na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye.”
“Work, work, work, work, work. You see me I work, work, work, work, work.”
Popular choruses are repetitive. There’s something about our brains that thrives in repetition… so go for it!
If you have a great line, try this:
“This is your great line.
This is your great line.
Say something new here.
This is your great line.”
That is a very common songwriting trick for an instantly strong chorus!
5. Borrow chord progressions:
Are you stuck in the same old chord progressions? Look up chord progressions used by your favorite artists and pull ideas from their songs. Chord progressions are used and reused by everyone, so there’s no shame in getting an idea from someone else if you turn around and make it your own.
If you’re writing a song with a client, google THEIR favorite artists. I recently did this with a teen and we borrowed 3 chords from an Avril Lavigne song. It was a progression I wouldn’t have thought of, it completely changed the trajectory of her song, and it fit her style better than my initial ideas!
6. Match your strum/fingerpicking pattern to your lyrics:
Try not to get stuck in your favorite strum or fingerpicking pattern. Instead, match it to the lyrics, melody and chord progression of the song. HOW? If your melody has a lot of long, sustained notes, you’ll want your pattern to either, 1. Fill in that space to give it forward momentum, OR 2. Pause at the same time to reinforce the drama of that pause. Try a bunch of things– you won’t know til you try!
7. Carefully consider tempo and muting:
This is WAY more important than it sounds. It’s the fine-tuning at the end of your process that can make your song go from good to great.
What’s the purpose of your song? Beyond matching the tempo to the needs and goals of your client (ex: a movement song should be active and the chords probably shouldn’t be too sustained), there is a lot of opportunity to use varying TEMPOS, STARTS and STOPS to reinforce goals.
Simple examples: If kids will be stopping and freezing, the accompaniment needs to stop and freeze with them. An unexpected stop can draw a child’s attention back to the song, if need be. A “B” section with a varied tempo (or time signature!) can send the song in new direction. That’s completely okay to do with most kids if you return back to the familiar “A” section.
Additionally, if you want to emphasize words, isolate those words within the accompaniment. Stop your regular strum and only strum DOWN on those specific words while leaving space around them.
8. RECORD EVERYTHING:
You think that you’ll remember it forever… you won’t! The voice recorder on my phone is my best friend.
9. Don’t overthink it:
I used to start songs, get discouraged by how simplistic or cheesy they initially sounded, abandon them, and then start again. I’ve since learned that some of the simplest, most straight-forward songs are the most effective. Some of the songs that I have spent hours on that I’ve been certain will be “home-runs” definitely WEREN’T!
Try not to overthink it. Trust the initial ideas that pop out right when you sit down to write… they’re often the best.
10. Work at it!
Don’t sit down when inspiration comes…. sit down when you WANT inspiration to come. And then just START.
I truly believe that if you want to write a lot of songs, you need to sit down and work at it. I often sit down and will not get up until a song is completely written. It may or may not be a winner and I may tweak it later, but instead of nothing, I got an option.
Inspiration rarely comes out of thin air… sit down and write!
What are some of your favorite tips and tricks? I’d love to hear them!