We all have a particular style of writing, whether we’re aware of it or not. Our style supersedes genre, and characteristics of it bleed through even as we write in many different genres. That style is what makes us unique, and knowing what that is can help us to understand what we do that works in our songs, and also how to do something different.
My own particular style of songwriting is influenced by the music I love to listen to most. I tend towards melodic music, rather than that which is driven by rhythmic elements in a melody or harmony. I tend towards lyrics that carry a more tangible message rather than a completely abstract sense. Harmonically, the music I listen to most tends to be more simple, supporting the melody that is driving the song. I also tend towards songs that can stand on their own well, without production behind them to sell the experience.
Then there are the typical movements I make within harmony, melody, and lyric. Certain intervals, starting tones, rhythmic patterns, harmonic progressions, pacing of the lyric, and overall personality determined by the language I use determine the character of my songs. Reflective feedback from other writers and industry professionals and simply the exercise of writing a lot over the years has enabled me to see these characteristics of my songwriting.
Knowing these characteristics helps me to understand what I bring to a song that is uniquely mine, and what is appealing about what I do for me and for my audience. But knowing these characteristics also helps me to break my typical patterns so that I can keep growing and moving forward.
If you feel that you’ve been writing the same songs over and over again, try taking inventory on your tendencies. Then, try a few simple exercises to do something different next time you sit down to write. Here are some ideas:
An obvious tendency involves lack of harmonic contrast, sticking to the old familiar 1, 4, 5 chords. Take 10 of your favorite songs and play along with them, identifying just one new chord they use that you can add to your vocabulary. Some chords you’ll find appear often are the major 2 chord, the b3 major chord, b6 major chord, and b7 major chord. Transcribing the 10 songs will help to see how these borrowed chords are used in context of the chord progression.
Another tendency when it comes to harmony is changing chords at the same rate. Try smashing this box to bits by writing a verse over just one or two chords. If you’re having trouble doing so, find a few songs that can serve as your example to get your head in the groove.
Notice the lengths of your melodic phrases. Are they short and punchy with lots of rest space, or are they long and legato with lots of lyric? Many singer-songwriters who are focused on lyric and melody tend towards long notes and long phrases. Instead, challenge yourself to write a melody with rhythmic interest, perhaps on just a single note or two.
Notice also the pitches and intervals between the pitches you tend to use most. We often start our melodies on the same chord or non-chord tones, and move our melodies in the same shapes. See if you can identify one characteristic shape of your melodies, and then try something different. We write what we listen to, and the best way to write something new and fresh is to listen to new music.
If your tendency is to write lyric first, focus on the story, or develop the lyric of the verse before the chorus, try changing that up. Write the chorus first, focusing on how the melody and harmony you set the chorus lyric within really sells the message. Adjust the lyric to suit any musical ideas you prefer, instead of adjusting the music to sell your lyric.
If you tend to write about hardship, challenge, and pain, try writing a carefree song. Dare to allow your groove and your musical settings in general to sell the lyric. Explore writing a lightweight and fun lyric.
Have fun examining what makes your songs uniquely you, and pushing past the boundaries of your comfort zone.