Be An Original In A Play-By-The-Rules World

An Original is a person living an authentic, creative life, one whose work expresses truth and emotion in a way that speaks to others. While a rebel breaks the rules, an Original bends them, plays with them, twists them around and reshapes them until the results are surprisingly unique and fresh.

To do that, you need to know what the rules are, then you can select which ones to play with and what you want to do with them. It’s kind of like having the coolest Lego set ever. Once you know what’s in the box and how it fits together, you can build something special and uniquely your own.

If I use song craft won’t I end up being UN-original?

No, you won’t be un-original because, even though you’re working with the same set of song crafting techniques as other songwriters, you’re going to use them in your own way.

Think of it like this: Shakespeare was undeniably original, but he followed the same rules of poetry and play writing as everyone else. In other words, he was playing with the same “Lego set” as the rest of us. It’s what you do with what you’ve got that counts.

Here are a few thoughts on writing authentically while using song craft.


No matter what level of songwriting you’re at, you can start playing with your songwriter’s Song craft is like a Lego set.Lego set right now. Here’s a list of ten song craft techniques you’re probably familiar with, followed by some suggestions for totally messing with them. Try a couple and see where they take you. I’ve included examples of successful songs so you can hear how it worked out for someone else.

There’s no need to write finished songs; this is just for the fun. But, of course, if you do happen to get something going that you like, by all means finish it. And don’t be afraid to bend a few more rules along the way.

  • Song craft technique #1 (Melody)

=> Increase the energy in your chorus by putting it in a higher note range than the verse.

Play with it: Write a verse and chorus melody or rewrite an old one. Put your chorus in a lower note range than your verse. What kind of lyric does the lower chorus melody suggest? What emotion?

Examples are “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon and “Maps” by Maroon 5  which has a pre-chorus and chorus in the same range, both are lower than the verse.

Or you can try putting both verse and chorus in the same note range. Create contrast by varying the rhythm or phrase lengths of the melody. Example: Dierks Bentley’s “Say You Do.” (See the song analysis below.) For an R&B example, check out “Truth Is” by Fantasia.

  • Song craft technique #2 (Rhyming)

=> Use rhymes to add memorability and structure to your song lyric.

Play with it: Write a lyric that doesn’t rhyme. You might start by writing phrases that describe an emotion, a person, a conversation, or situation. Keep it conversational. You can add a melody afterwards or write to an existing hit song melody.

Don’t make an effort to rhyme any lines, just write what you feel. If a rhyme occurs by accident or in an unusual place, it’s okay to keep it. You’ll hear a few of those in the following non-rhyming songs: “America” by SImon & Garfunkel, “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega, “Demons” by Guster.

It’s hard NOT to rhyme. Some of the songs I just mentioned accidentally rhyme, even though the writers obviously didn’t intend to.

  • Song craft technique #3 (Lyrics 

=> Use images and phrases that express a single emotion.

Play with it: List three or more images or phrases that you associate with a single emotion… like happiness. Rough out a verse or chorus lyric that expresses happiness using the words on your list.  Then, list three or more images or phrases that you associate with a different emotion. Rewrite your happy lyric adding the words on the new list. What happens to the emotion in your lyric? How does the song feel now? Example: “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying” by Sting. (Also recorded as a duet by Sting and Toby Keith.)

  • Song craft technique #4 (Style)

=> Write your song in a single genre.

Play with it: Choose a song you’ve written or work up a rough verse and chorus in a genre you’re familiar with. Now, choose chords, rhythmic feel, melody, lyrics, or production – one or more of these – from a different style and blend the two into a song that works for you.

Among many recent hit song examples are “Grenade” by Bruno Mars (classic Motown with modern lyrics and production), “What Does the Fox Say” by Ylvis (EDM production and melody with novelty song lyrics), “You Should Be With Me” by Taylor Swift (Contemporary Country lyric with Pop melody), “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars (classic Funk riffs in today’s sampled and looped production style), “This Is How We Roll ” by Florida Georgia Line (Contemporary Country with Rap rhymes and phrasing).

  • Song craft technique #5 (Chords)

=> Use chords that support your song’s emotion. Feature major chords for happy songs, minor chords for sad songs.

Play with it:  Write a heartbroken or downbeat lyric and sing it with a progression that starts on and emphasizes major chords, like this one – C,  G,  Dm,  F –  from the chorus of  “Almost Lover” by A Fine Frenzy. For more of a challenge, add an upbeat rhythm groove. Examples to listen to are “Fall Hard” by Shout Out Louds, “Wonderful” by Everclear, and “We Are Young” by Fun.

Or try a chord progression that emphasizes minor chords and sing an upbeat lyric to it. Use a progression that starts on and features minor chords, like this one – Am, F, Dm, Am. Songs like these often come across as ironic or yearning because the music tells listeners what the singer is actually feeling. Check out the classic hit “I’m Not In Love” by 10CC to hear this. Take a look at the lyrics first and imagine an upbeat music track with it. It works. Then listen to the actual track of the hit song. The chords to the song’s verse are A, Am, G#m, G#, C#m – a mournful, descending line where major fades into minor.

  • Song craft technique #6 (Melody & Lyrics)

=> To create an interesting melody, use a mix of long and short melody and lyric phrases.

Play with it: Make all the lines in your verse or chorus the same length. You can keep them interesting by changing the lyrics or the chords underneath. You can also try starting on different beats while using the same melody line. Play around by bending this rule until you come up with something you like.  Example: “How Far We’ve Come” by Matchbox Twenty is full of melodic repetition in both the verse and chorus.

  • Song craft technique #7 (Structure)

=> Today’s successful songs use a structure with a verse and chorus.

Play with it: Write a song that doesn’t have a chorus. Hint: Write  a string of verses, then sing the second or third verse an octave higher. Examples: “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls, “If I Were a Boy” recorded by Beyonce, “Piano Man” by Billy Joel.

  • Song craft technique #8 (Chords)

=> To add contrast between sections, change the chord progression.

Play with it: Use the same chord progression throughout your entire song. Use the melody to keep the chord progression interesting by weaving it through the chords, changing the note range between sections, or changing from a choppy verse melody to a smooth one in the chorus. Just be sure the chords and chord progression remain the same.

This is a real rule-busting challenge yet it’s being done in many of today’s most successful songs. Examples: “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” recorded by Kelly Clarkson, “Counting Stars” or “Apologize” by OneRepublic, “Halo” by Beyonce.

You can find karaoke tracks without background vocals for these example songs at a website like For practice, try writing an original song to the track.

  • Song craft technique #9 (Lyrics)

=> Avoid clichés!

Play with it: Use clichés but twist them around to make them sound fresh. Play with the wording or try a different angle to make listeners hear the phrase in a new way. Examples: “A Hard Day’s Night” by the Beatles, “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, “Friends in Low Places” a hit for Garth Brooks, “That’s What Friends Are For” sung by Dionne Warwick (and friends), “You’re Gonna Miss This,” a hit for Trace Adkins, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who.

  • Song craft technique #10

 => Choose any shortcut in one of my books and mess around with it.

Lego masterThese are just a few ideas for twisting, tweaking, bending and breaking the song craft “rules.” The truth is, there are no rules, only techniques that work for listeners.  Play with the building blocks in your song craft LEGO set, fit things together in new ways and see what happens. Practice, Grasshopper, and soon you will become … a Master.
by Robin Frederick

Robin's books at Amazon.comThis post is based on my songwriting books: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.

Reprints of this article by permission.

Faster & Better: Pick Up Your Songwriting Speed

We all want to be more creative, have more songs in the catalog, and feel satisfied that we’re getting things accomplished. It’s just that reality doesn’t always work out that way. More often than not…

  • We don’t have any good ideas for new songs.
  • We’re not sure what kinds of songs we should be writing and for what market.
  • We get stuck working on one song that’s in trouble.
  • We’re scared our songs aren’t good enough so we don’t finish them.

We all know that good quality has to be maintained, but I bet you could write more songs and keep the quality at the level you want or even improve it. Here are a whole bunch of ideas for writing FASTER and BETTER.

The quickest way to get started.STUDY SUCCESSFUL SONGS
This is the quickest way to solve a lot of the problems I just listed. Spend at least one to two hours per week listening to songs on the music charts, or songs used in Film & TV. Of course, you won’t like everything you hear. You may have to dig a while before you uncover a song you want to learn from. But it’s worth it and it’s an essential part of the job of songwriting.

Too often we think of our songwriting career as ONLY the act of songwriting, but there’s so much more. Laying the groundwork for new songs, learning how others creatively use song craft, getting inspired, feeling like you could beat those songs – all of these are ways you can up your game. Get your ears used to hearing what’s successful out there and your songwriting will improve.

READ THIS: Here’s an article on my website with a list of resources where you can find successful artists and bands in a range of styles to listen to.

Embed current songs to give yourself an instant feel for the style
When you find a song you like, get a copy of the lyrics. (you can find them online or take them down by ear.) Practice singing along with the track until it’s comfortable for you. This may not be as easy as it sounds. Many current singer-songwriter songs have complex melodies and phrasing. Just learn it one section at a time. If the song isn’t in your vocal range, talk-sing along with it until you get a feel for the rhythm of the melody. These days, the rhythm of the notes is as important as note pitches. Continue reading “Faster & Better: Pick Up Your Songwriting Speed”

Do Your Songs All Sound the Same?

by Robin Frederick

Q & AQ: I have one big problem and I’m wondering if you can help.  I have written over 160 songs. My words, melody, and my voice all seem to sound the same.  What am I doing wrong?

A: If you have a “signature sound” – your songs all have a recognizable style and sound –  there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. To my ears, many of Jackson Browne’s songs sound very similar in terms of music and vocals, and he’s certainly successful. He relies on powerful lyrics to tell unique stories filled with emotion and character. Vocals and music are secondary, while the lyrics hold the listener’s attention.

So, the real question is, do listeners respond to your songs and your sound the way you want them to? If you feel you’re not reaching them, then it’s a matter of upping your songwriting skills in one or more areas.  Continue reading “Do Your Songs All Sound the Same?”

What Are You Really Writing About?

Bright ideaYou’re Inspired! You woke up in the middle of the night with a killer first verse running through your head. You actually sat up in bed and said: “Man, that’s killer!” You managed to write it down before you forgot it. Maybe you even got up and plunked a few chords on the piano. Suddenly you felt like Sting writing “Every Breath You Take.” You even recorded your inspiration onto the Voice Memo on your Smartphone before going back to sleep.

Now, in the cold light of morning, you listen back to it. Amazingly, it still sounds good!

So now, you need a chorus. Nothing pops into your head right away, so you go to the notebook where you keep lyric ideas. (Good for you for keeping a notebook!) There’s a line you’ve wanted to use for months and this looks like a good opportunity. Bingo! You’ve got the first line of your chorus. You can’t really think of a second line, so you just repeat the first one a few times.

But wait a minute. Repeating a lyric phrase, even if you change the chords and melody underneath, can feel static. There’s not enough development to keep the song moving forward and listeners involved. And you can’t think of anything at all to say in your second verse. These are signs that there’s trouble up ahead.

As you continue to work on your song…

  • Nothing seems to fit with your first verse.
  • Everything you write sounds forced and unnatural.
  • You can’t get back to the inspired feeling you had.
  • Your lyric “voice” has changed. It sounds like someone else is writing the song.

After struggling with a chorus and second verse, writing and rewriting hour after hour, you begin to get tired of this song. You don’t like it anymore. You put it away and it becomes one of the Unfinished Ones. But it was off to such a great start. What happened?

Writing from inspiration

Inspiration is a wonderful thing and it always has a big role to play in the writing process. It gives us those gems that add color and life to a lyric, special insights that create depth, unique melody twists that surprise us at just the right time. Inspiration is playful, exciting, and refreshing.

The problem with inspiration is that it is neither linear nor selective. It gives you everything all at once! It might even be giving you ideas for a different song. Inspiration is either ON or OFF. And once it’s ON, like dreams, it will work on anything that’s happening in your subconscious. Continue reading “What Are You Really Writing About?”