Writing a column is not unlike writing a song. First, you look within and find the abyss looking back. Then you cry: O Lord, give me an angle! Please—I’ll be good!
Then you remember one weird trick: Just listen to the artists in the upcoming issue and jot down anything that comes to mind. Any-thing. Pretty soon your inner critic nods off, and like magic, your topic appears.
Keith Richards clarifies the parallel:
“I never deliberately sit down to write songs. I sit with a guitar or at the piano and play my favorite Buddy Holly or Otis Redding songs, and with a bit of luck, something suddenly happens and you’re off on your own track.”
A week ago, it worked. I sat down to listen to the featured songwriters in this issue, and found myself wondering, “What do they have in common besides talent, beautiful voices, and polished musicianship?” The answer, I believe, is life. Without it, you’re nowhere. With it, you’ve got magic.
But what is life? And how do you get it? That’s when it hit me: One of the most important life-giving skills in songwriting is also the least often discussed. I’m talking about the tension between promises and delivery.
Every song combines rhythm, harmony, melody, and lyrics. But there’s a subtext in each of these elements: anticipation. When you play a chord, you make a promise—you’re implying you’ll go somewhere next. Promises are made to be broken, however. To do so is not a sin, because unexpected twists add life to your song.
The moral? Don’t break your promises to the Lord, but do it regularly in songwriting. A few examples should get you going.
In the ’40s, swing was king. Then came Chuck Berry. “It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it,” he sang, and the river of pop swung in a new direction. After giving rock ‘n’ roll a lift, the backbeat—which accents “2” and “4” in a four-beat measure—rebounded across the Atlantic in the British invasion, then branched out into folk-rock, pop-rock, hard rock, country, and metal. Today a backbeat is de rigueur in all pop music, from disco to hip-hop to EDM.
Kane Brown, a featured artist in this issue, adds life to “Leave You Alone” with a subtle backbeat. The song, which resembles a country waltz, really has two beats subdivided in three per measure, with an accent on beat “two”: “I know I don’t say you’re | beau-ti-ful e-nough” scans as “One-ti-ta, TWO-ti-ta,” a subtle break that pleasantly plays with genre norms.
Syncopation is another way to enliven rhythm. Simply skip an expected beat and unexpectedly accent the offbeat. Consider the bass-riff intro to Bonnie Raitt’s “Thing Called Love”: | (One) & two-& three (four)-& | One-& two (three, four). Syncopation, which toys with your expectations, is a salty seasoning here.
The tension built in the next song is subtler.
Blondie’s “Rapture” starts with a funky backbeat. Over that predictable pattern we find a melody with surprising contrasts: First, on “| Toe___ to toe |” we hear a square, “1, 2, 3-& 4” rhythm. On “danc-ing | ver-y close,” the rhythm shifts to “3, 4 | 1, 2, 3.” The offset rhythm repeats, building anticipation for the return of the original, squarish rhythm. The promise is kept on “Wall___ to wall.”
“Offset rhythms” use pickup beats, which create forward motion, a term coined by jazz educator Hal Galper. Just think of forward motion as another sign of life. But in “Rapture,” the promised return of the first rhythm is equally important.
“Rapture” makes melodic promises, too, which achieve ecstatic realization in measure 17 on “Rap – ture.” The promise? A fateful minor-scale descent from Sol to Do. You don’t need theory to understand. Just listen and feel the shivers.
“Rapture” uses predictable scale steps as a long-range backbone for melody. Theory calls this a “step progression.” Songs based on step progressions, such as “Blackbird,” tend to be popular, yet you won’t find much about this technique on YouTube. In today’s hook-dominated world, that’s a crying shame.
Consider the enduring classic, “Teach Your Children.” Here the step progression climbs upward from “Sol” to “Do” (“Sol-La-Ti-Do”). The first step from “Sol” to “La” consumes three measures: “| You__ | who are on the road|__”.
“Must have a code” climbs to the top, “Do”, but it’s a little early to end the journey, so Graham Nash repeats the ascent, then backs off plaintively with “Do-Ti” on “that you can live by.” The falling half step to scale tone 7 denotes yearning.
The chorus (“Teach…”) begins assertively on the tonic “Do”, striking a reassuring note of fulfillment. Promise kept!
Gospel contains a cornucopia of surprising changes. Listen to “Stolen Fruit” by Tank and the Bangas, and start a scrapbook of your favorite progressions. One such prize can be found in “Twelve-Thirty” by The Mamas & the Papas.
“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get,” said Forrest Gump. Songs are similar. As songwriters, we exploit the tension between chocolate promises and unpredictable fillings to add life to our songs.
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