I got a question recently from a songwriter who is torn between two very different song genres – Pop and Contemporary Folk. He loves both and sees the strengths in both. But because he can’t decide which to focus on, he’s having trouble getting started and working on a song. Which style is it going to be?
Which genre am I writing in?
The whole question of choosing a genre can be frustrating, especially if you’re drawn to a couple of the big ones – like Pop and Folk. Every style – from Pop, Country, and Rock to R&B, Folk, and Blues, etc. – has a different approach to melody, lyrics, and production. Veering between two styles within a single song can be a disaster. And working on a Pop song while wondering if maybe it should be a Folk song can distract you from the things you should be focusing on.
Targeting a genre helps you build an audience and gives you an edge when it comes time to market your song to the music industry. It’s an important issue and one that every serious songwriter has to confront sooner or later. So, what do you do? How do you choose? Here are some ideas that might help.
1. Get to know the genres you’re interested in
Studying a genre, getting familiar with the range of lyric themes, language style, chords, melodic rhythms, etc. will help you stay within the genre and write songs that appeal to listeners who are fans of that style.
Spend some quality time listening to and studying successful songs in the genres you’re interested in. Try to stick to recent songs because that’s what listeners and the music industry are currently interested in. Listening to current, successful songs is a great songwriting exercise all by itself.
You can find recent hit songs in a range of genres on the music charts at Billboard.com. Go through the top twenty songs or so on a few of the charts. It might take a while to find songs you like or you might find a few right away.
Once you find a song or two you’re interested in, use these tips to take apart a song and study the genre: Study a Genre.
2. Try out a couple of genres
I usually recommend focusing on one genre at a time, mastering it, then expanding into another area. But if you’d like to test a couple genres before deciding which one to tackle first, try this. I’ll use the Pop and Folk genres in this example.
Pop – Choose a recent Pop song you like and use the chord progression and song structure as a template to write a song of your own. If you want, you can write to a Karaoke track. Karaoke-Version.com has some good tracks you can buy, download, then write to. Try to find one that doesn’t have background vocals.
Write at least a verse and chorus of your own to the track. Of course, you can write a whole song if you want to. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, just get an idea down and record a vocal to the track.
Folk – Use a recent radio-friendly Folk hit, like Passenger’s “Let Her Go” or “I Will Wait” by Mumford and Sons, or “Gone, Gone, Gone” by Phillip Phillips. Use the song’s structure and chord progression as the basis for a song of your own. You can play the chords on keyboard or guitar or use a karaoke track. Write at least a verse and chorus of an original lyric and melody.
Then ask yourself the following questions…
- Does one of the two songs you wrote appeal to you more than the other?
- Did it feel more natural to write?
- Do you feel there are more themes you want to explore in songs like this one?
- Did you feel more creative, free, or inspired when writing one or the other of the songs?
- Does the character of the singer feel more natural for you, someone you can identify with?
- Make a list of the resources you’ll need to record a solid, competitive demo of each song. Is one style easier or more affordable than the other?
- Of the two songs, which one do you have a better chance of finishing and pitching?
Once you have the answers to these questions, you’ll probably have a pretty good idea which style you want to start with. Later on, when you’ve built up a cache of songs and demos in this style, you can apply that knowledge to other genres.
Remember: Every skill you learn and practice in one genre will help you understand another and master it more quickly. It’s not “either/or.” It’s simply a matter of choosing your starting point.