4 Music Theory Techniques To Help You Write a Great Chorus

[Editors Note: This article was written by Chelsea Ira of New Artist Model.]

 

I want you to think of some of your favorite songs. You know, those choruses you could sing over and over for hours and still not be sick of them.

How do you think those songwriters stumbled upon something so seemingly perfect?

Was it a bolt of inspiration out of the blue?

Or did it stem from their understanding of music and countless hours of practice?

More likely than not, it was a combination of the two. In songwriting, it’s important to find a balance between chasing inspiration and developing your skills. Too much or too little focus on either could leave you in a frustrating writer’s block.

But today I want to focus on the technical side of things. More specifically, I want to go through a few music theory techniques that you can use to spark killer chorus ideas and get your inspiration flowing.

Of course, these are only ideas to get you started. If inspiration strikes, follow your creativity and even break some music theory rules!

1. Simplify Things Down to a Motif

As songwriters we can sometimes get caught up in the big elaborate vision we have for a chorus. This top-down approach to songwriting can certainly work, but it’s very easy for the essence of the hook to get lost amidst everything else. And then you’ll end up with a non-descript chorus that falls flat compared to the initial vision you heard in your head.

In other words, the hook gets lost in translation.

An easy way to get past this is to simplify your idea, narrowing it down to one or two motifs – then build up from there.

In music theory, a motif is a short musical idea that is used to build phrases, melodies, riffs, and grooves. Typically, motifs are very short and simple. Think of them like small little Lego blocks that can be stuck together in multiple different ways to create larger things.

I can’t emphasize simple enough when it comes to motifs. Often it’s the songs that use the simplest motifs that really stick in our heads.

Blues songs are one of the easiest places to see motifs at work. Take a listen to Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues and you’ll hear a motif in the first line of the lyrics, starting on A, going up to B♭ and C, and then back down to F. That motif is repeated with subtle variations and is answered by a second motif.

Another example is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I know – it’s not exactly modern music. But, it’s a great example of just how powerful simple motifs can be. Almost everything in the song is created and derived from that iconic four-note motif. If that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is.

Next time you’re stuck on a chorus, try simplifying things down and really think about the motifs you’re using. Try making small changes or variations to those motifs and stringing them together in different orders. Starting from the core of your hook and working out from there will give your choruses a very strong and cohesive sound.

2. Play With Sequences

Expectation and anticipation is something every great chorus harnesses. You want the listener to be expecting and waiting for that hook to come around – the hook and the sections leading up to it should almost act like a magnet that draws the ear to the most important part of your song.

In music theory, one technique you can use to create expectation for your hook is a sequence. A sequence is a musical idea that is transposed and repeated to create a pattern.

A motivic sequence is made up of a motif that is transposed and repeated using specific interval pattern. (For example you could move the motif down by a 4th and up by a 2nd.)

A harmonic sequence is made up of a set of chords that follow a particular interval pattern.

Our ears latch onto musical patterns by nature, so as soon as you establish a sequence your listener will catch on and begin anticipating where the music will go next.

In songwriting, you can use this to really build things up before or during your chorus and draw the ear into your hook.

Alternatively, you could also create expectation with a sequence and not follow through by playing something completely unexpected to create tension.

3. Pull From the Notes in Your Chord Progression

The notes in a chord will always be the strongest, so they can be a great starting point when you’re writing a strong melody for a chorus.

You see this all the time in popular songs. The hook will pull out one or two notes from the chord(s) underneath it, or even outline all the notes in the chord. Using your melodies to drive home the key notes in your chord progressions can create an overall more cohesive sound and a much stronger composition.

Of course, you don’t need to only use notes from your chords. Try using them as a sort of outline for your hook.

If you write melody first, try going back and creating a chord progression that incorporates some of those main melody notes. If you write chords first, try pulling out key notes to create an outline for your melody.

If you want to expand on this idea even more, try looking into modes. If you’re playing in they key of C Major, use the G Mixolydian mode to create the melody line over the G Major chord and the F Lydian mode to create the melody line over the F Major chord. This just allows you to pull out those strong notes that will really get your hook to stand out.

4. Harness the Power of Repetition and Subtle Variations

Repetition is often the thing that really drives a strong hook home.

Think about songs like “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk. The chorus is simple and it’s played over and over (and over) again. But despite all that repetition, it’s pretty tough to get sick of that song.

Why?

If you take a closer listen, you’ll notice that there are subtle variations in each chorus. Different instruments are added into the mix and small compositional changes help keep things fresh.

Once you have a great hook or chorus, experiment with it, see all the different ways you can subtly manipulate it, and use those variations in your song to really get that hook in your listeners’ heads.


It goes without saying that if you want to write hooks and choruses like the greats, you should study their work. Make a habit to try to really dissect some of the choruses from your favorite songs to see what’s going on.

We gave you a few examples in this article, but if you want more, you can download the ebook Inside the Hits: The Secrets Behind 10 Hit Songs for free here. In that book you’ll see what’s going on from a music theory perspective behind 10 big hits by artists like Rihanna, The Police, Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson, Jay-Z, Johnny Cash, and more.

Making Music After a Major Life Struggle

[Editors Note: This blog was written by Patrick McGuire. Patrick is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician based in Philadelphia.]

 

I used to admire how some of my favorite artists could seamlessly convert the most difficult challenges of their lives into incredible songs. But I found it nearly impossible to do just about anything, let alone write music, in November 2016 after my right elbow was shattered in a hit-and-run biking accident. Realizing that the process of pulling potent lyrics and memorable melodies out of my sudden intense pain and turmoil was going to be anything but easy and straightforward, I’d stare at my computer screen for a few minutes and retreat back to bed after using my good arm to set up my small MIDI keyboard that I planned on writing melodies and bass lines with.

Yes, making and experiencing music can be a powerful agent of therapy and comfort in all things – not just life’s unexpected traumas and setbacks – but it can be hugely difficult or downright impossible to keep writing songs after experiencing death or loss, or any other significant trouble. After undergoing the first of two surgeries I’d eventually need to bring full functionality back to my arm, I soon defiantly returned to songwriting in a percocet-induced haze, but the ideas I managed to eek out seemed uninspired and forced to me.

‘I’ve got plenty to write about,’ I thought. Why isn’t this working?

After a major setback, we’re often eager to make something good come out of a horrible experience, but that’s not always the way it works. For me, I couldn’t make meaningful music again until I was able to fully process and cope with what had happened to me. Yes, I needed and still need a consistent songwriting practice to feel happy and fulfilled, but I was woefully preoccupied at the time with more pressing matters like simply staying afloat as a human being.

Depending on your situation, you simply might not be able to find the time, energy and resources to make music after the trauma you’ve experienced, and that’s okay. That’s not a failing on your part or representative of you as a person. This can be a really difficult thing to accept if you’re a person who uses music-making in your life as a means to stay sane and creatively productive; but like with most things, the passing of time is the only thing that can get you back to doing the things you love.

It took me months before I was able to start making music again at full capacity. The most obvious challenge in writing and producing music after my accident was the temporary loss of my right and dominant arm –– I play guitar and keys –– but depending on your unique trauma, you’ll face an entirely different set of hurdles that need to be cleared.

If you’ve experienced the death of someone close to you, the act of creating music might be something that loses its meaning for a while.

For someone experiencing financial trouble like the loss of a job or an unforeseen medical expense, you might be forced to choose between finding time to make ends meet and making music.

But like with everything after experiencing a huge setback, it’s paramount to keep trying to get back to a sense of normalcy. Maybe you’ll be able to make some incredible music after your trauma about what you’ve experienced, but a more realistic goal is to return to your usual songwriting process whenever you’re able to. This way you won’t have to deal with your problems while facing pressure to create a masterpiece out of them at the same time.

Some musicians are able to completely immerse themselves in their work as a means for coping with life’s struggles, but you shouldn’t be discouraged if you’re someone without the means and inspiration to do the same thing.

Stories of how artists make music inspired by death, breakups and other traumas are good for dramatic bios and press releases, but they don’t reflect the often tedious difficult work of songwriting. If the music you make after a life struggle isn’t emotionally raw or moving, that’s okay. It might take a long time for you to make compelling music again, but you should do everything you can to be kind to yourself and to celebrate your songwriting efforts after experiencing hardship no matter what sort of music you manage to create.

It’s coming up on the 12-month anniversary of my accident, and my songwriting isn’t the same if I’m being honest. But how could it be? I’m a little better after what happened to me in some ways and noticeably worse in others. That’s life for you, right? All I can do is move forward the best way I can and be grateful that I still have the desire and means to still be making music.

How To Finally Break Up With a Co-Writer

[Editors Note: This was written by Dan Reifsnyder and originally appeared on the Sonicbids Blog. Late in 2016, TuneCore Blog contributing writer Mason Hoberg also covered fractured relationships among artists in his article titled, “How To Kick Out a Band Member”.]

 

Sometimes, it’s time to pull the plug on a relationship. It happens all the time, and co-writing is no different. Even the best co-writing relationships can go sour (think Lennon and McCartney, for instance), and it’s wise to think about an exit strategy if things are looking bleak.

Breaking up can be difficult for obvious reasons, whether it’s with a co-writer or significant other, and you may notice some parallels between the two. Sharing your creative side with someone and pouring energy into a project can certainly be a bonding experience. Not to mention the fact that co-writers often know quite a bit about each other, especially if they’ve been at it a long time.

Regardless of the stage of your writing relationship, here are three ways you can let your partner down in the most professional and kind way possible.

1. Be direct

This is by far the most difficult option, but I find it’s usually the best. Letting someone know – kindly, but firmly – where you stand often clears the air very quickly and begets the least amount of negativity in the long term.

If you’re unsure of what to say, try some variation of the following: “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel we’re working well together right now – our artistic sensibilities are just too different.” The other person may ask questions about your decision – in fact, that’s likely.

Your level of honesty depends on your relationship. If you’re too honest, it could piss off him or her. At the same time, if there’s a particular reason (maybe he or she needs to work on listening to his or her co-writers or brush up on his or her lyrical chops), that person deserve the chance to fix it for the future. Your (now former) partner may even appreciate it, albeit in hindsight.

Keeping someone as a friend after being direct can often prove difficult, but I suggest trying to leave a door open. You never know where either of you will find yourselves in the future, and you may change your mind about working with him or her down the road.

Offer to hang out in a non-writing setting sometime. Send him or her a text or an email every once in awhile or reach out on social media. You can never have too many friends in this industry, and it’s always smart to do your best to avoid creating grudges.

2. Avoid writing together

I’ve seen this done a lot to varying effect. If you’re not comfortable with the direct approach, this option may be more diplomatic. A word of warning, though: It can take longer and has the potential to create bad feelings if you don’t do it right.

The simplest way to go about this is to be busy. It can help if you really are swamped with work or working on other projects. Say you can’t write at the moment, but you’ll revisit in a few months. This serves two purposes: First, it lets everything cool off. You’re not writing together as often and maybe talking less. It can soften the blow for the eventual “breakup.”

Second, it can give you time and space to gather your thoughts about writing together. Perhaps you’re just getting burned out. If so, you can return to the project in a few weeks or months since you haven’t officially burned any bridges.

If you still decide you two don’t make the best writing team, continue to be non-committal about making time to get together. Most people either get the idea and drop it or forget about it entirely. (After all, your partner probably has a busy life, too.) If he or she presses, be honest and give an honest answer. And with the benefit of time away, he or she just may come to agree that it’s the best thing.

A word of warning: Don’t lie. In other words, don’t tell the other person you’re not feeling very creative when it’s obvious you’re writing every day. If anything rings untrue – or worse, is an outright falsehood – it will be taken personally and you’ll look pretty scummy… the very thing you want to avoid.

3. Ghost

This is, by far, my least favorite option  because it leaves the most room for hurt feelings and burned bridges. Sometimes, though, it’s the only option – especially if your co-writer isn’t getting the hint or has put you in an uncomfortable, awkward, or dangerous situation (unwanted sexual advances, illegal activity, or just being generally sketchy).

In that case, feel free to ghost and ghost liberally. For those who don’t know what “ghosting” is, it’s sudden and complete radio silence. You can go as far as blocking the other person on social media or from your phone, and that may be necessary depending on what he or she has done. Save this for all but the most serious situations – it will unquestionably end your relationship (professional or otherwise) and potentially sour any mutual contacts you have.

Be wary of ghosting too often, however – if done too much, you will appear to be flaky and unreliable (or possibly unstable), and people will be reluctant to work with you.


As Paul Simon once said, there are 50 ways to leave your lover, and that goes for co-writing relationships, too. These are just some of the most common and effective ways I’ve found. With any luck, though, you’ll never need to use them.

7 Great Ways to Accelerate Your Songwriting Skills

[Editors Note: This was written by Zac Green. Zac is a regular contributor to the Zing Instruments Blog.]

There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank piece of paper. Starting the process of writing a new song can take just as long as finishing it. So here’s seven tips to help you speed up your songwriting.

1. Work in a group, then alone

Having a few people to bounce ideas around with helps the creative process get started. After you’ve got your song started, the democratic process is more likely to slow you down. If you’re writing songs as part of a band, it can be better to go and complete your parts individually once you’ve gotten the overall idea in place.

2. Drink alcohol, then coffee

Research has shown that drinking alcohol boosts your creativity, but makes it hard to focus. Coffee, and other drinks containing caffeine, has the opposite effect. For your brainstorming session, loosen up with a few drinks. This works especially well if combined with the first tip, but be careful not to get carried away and turn it into a drinking session. Once you’ve sat down to start writing the ideas you have onto paper, fire up the kettle.

3. Give chance a chance

After a long music career, you might find that all of your songs are starting to sound the same. There’s nothing wrong with having a recognisable sound, but you don’t want to get stale. Shake things up by writing different elements of songs onto pieces of paper, such as keys, lyrical themes, and so on. Place them into a hat and draw five at random. Force yourself to use these, no matter how badly they seem to go together. The results can be surprisingly good – and more importantly they help you to think outside of your usual boundaries.

4. Write somewhere different

Creativity doesn’t exist in a void. If you want to be inspired, go for a long walk somewhere far away from your usual haunts. The change of scenery, fresh air and act of walking itself can be great for generating new ideas. If nothing else, it gives you a chance to let yourself relax. Stress is a major impediment to creativity.

5. Learn your music theory

I don’t care how unappealing this seems. You might think that learning theory chokes your freedom or that it’s boring. However, if you don’t know what the rules around music are, it’s impossible to break them in a way which is both purposeful and well-executed. This applies no matter what genre you’re in. For example, my own personal foray into EDM was vastly improved when I started learning about cadence, a concept from choral music.

6. Steal from other songs

Now let me just clarify something before we go any further. I am absolutely not telling you to copy somebody else’s song in it’s entirety and try to pass it off as your own. That’s not songwriting, and you’re unlikely to get away with it for very long.

What you can do, is jot down interesting chord progressions, licks and lyrics. Playing around with these later, such as using inverted versions of the chords, trying it in a different key or modulating can lead to something brand new as the changes you’ve made will lead to a naturally different conclusion.

7. Use good notation software

Writing music by hand can take quite a while, and you can’t always check to see if it sounds right straight away. By using notation software, such as Sibelius, or if you can’t read music, just programming the notes into a digital audio workstation (DAW) can transform your songwriting process completely, as it’s quite easy to quickly change sections of your music without having to rewrite every single note.

Armed with these tricks, your songwriting skills will change practically overnight. It doesn’t matter if you apply all of them at once (although that isn’t entirely practical) or try them out a few at a time. Your own process is going to be a factor in this, so perhaps some of them won’t be entirely applicable. Don’t fret about this, just do the ones that feel ‘right’ to you.

June Industry Wrap-Up

Spotify Tests “Sponsored Songs” and Expands Concert Listings


In lieu of traditional audio ads that ‘freemium’ tier users of Spotify hear during a given listening session, Spotify is testing a new process that would allow artists and labels to pay for placement of their song – thus monetizing the free listening associated with this kind of membership. This opens up the potential for artists to to secure a place on playlists, which have soared in popularity among subscribers of all kinds over the past couple of years.

Users of the ad-supported tier will have the option of opting out of this test; and Spotify has confirmed that even if the test is successful, this feature will only remain on this tier. Relying heavily on its plethora of data, Spotify will target sponsored song placement based on listening habits.

While sponsored songs’ likeness to the traditional ‘payola’ models of old terrestrial radio is up for debate, it does represent a shift in how Spotify manages its ‘freemium’ platform and drives revenue from those still unwilling to subscribe for a monthly or annual fee. Spotify has remained one of the few popular streaming platforms to offer a free listening tier, and there has long been speculation around whether or not the company would be willing to eliminate it; the ‘freemium’ model is a key differentiating offer when compared to its growing and formidable streaming rival Apple Music.

It remains to be seen how this will be rolled out and made available to independent artists, but if it is made reasonably affordable and accessible to music makers outside of the label system, they could stand to benefit from the feature by reaching new listeners who are more likely to tune into a ‘sponsored song’ then a generic advertisement.

Spotify also announced that in addition to its partnerships with Ticketmaser and digital ticketing platform SongKick, users will now be able to access artists’ upcoming tour dates via a collaboration with Eventbrite and AEG’s AXS. This means more hometown venues, more touring territories, and more opportunities to promote local live experiences for fans.

LANDR Celebrates 1 Million Users


TuneCore’s pals over at LANDR – the tool that allows independent artists to instantly master their tracks at an affordable rate – have hit a major milestone: one million users! LANDR has continued to offer a great solution to artists hoping to polish the sounds of their tracks while lacking a robust mastering budget.

Throughout most of June, LANDR partnered with TuneCore Artist Chance the Rapper, donating $1.00 for every user that masters a track Chance’s Chicago-based “Social Works” Music Academy, as well as 10% of all purchases. We always love to see great brands connecting with great artists, and the charitable element of this arrangement only warms our hearts more.

Google Play Music’s New Release Radio Feature Launches


No matter what music streaming platform your fans dig the most, (and remember, we help you get your releases on a lot of ‘em!), we can all agree that they should be aware of new releases each week. After all, with so much music being digitally released each year, listeners can feel a bit overwhelmed, and it helps to have a little curated direction when it comes to being alerted about the latest and greatest.

Much like Spotify’s “Release Radar” or Apple Music’s “My New Music Mix” features, Google Play Music announced this month that it’s now offering a feature for subscribers called “New Release Radio”. It’s essentially, according to the Android Authority blog, “a playlist that offers up the latest new release and is actually updated on a daily basis to ensure that you’ve always got something new to listen to.”

As personalized, data-driven playlists and features continue to increase in popularity among streaming platforms, Google’s New Release Radio is a welcomed addition. We look forward to seeing how TuneCore Artists can make their music more discoverable to more fans.

ASCAP and YouTube Strike a Performance Rights Deal


In an era in which artists and songwriters have been forced to be more vigilant when it comes to collecting digital royalties, video streaming giant YouTube and performance rights organization ASCAP have reached a multi-year agreement for public performance rights and data collaboration in the U.S. This comes as a sigh of relief to many who have been seeking ways to ensure that royalties are being paid to songwriters, composers and publishers when their works are streamed on YouTube.

ASCAP CEO Elizabeth Matthews says, “This agreement achieves two important ASCAP goals – it will yield substantially higher overall compensation for our members from YouTube and will continue to propel ASCAP’s ongoing transformation strategy to lead the industry toward more accurate and reliable data.”

Good news for TuneCore Artists who are affiliated with ASCAP: this new deal will allow the two parties to address the issues around identifying and compensating songwriters using the extensive amount of data they have available. This, in general, is also another important step towards creating a system within the digital music economy that holds platforms and rights societies responsible for proper royalty payments.

Industry Navigation Tools for Songwriters

[Editors Note: This is a guest blog written by TuneCore Artist Skela. Enjoy her tips to better network, collaborate, and engage was an independent songwriter in the music industry!]

You have to work very, very hard for a just a little bit of luck in the music industry. There are so many beautifully talented artists in this world, and it’s so easy to become overwhelmed by the idea of being one small fish in what feels like many oceans. Instead of being intimidated or striking up ugly green competition with your counterparts, use the multitude of likeminded artists around you to your advantage.

Songwriters are special creatures. We are spectators, empathetic beings, and constantly translating emotion onto paper. You may not know it yet, but one of your greatest strengths can be the ability to connect with others.

So do it.

Interact with the musicians around you. You may have written your best song alone in your bedroom, but it’s about more than that. Creating a long lasting career takes a village – or, people who support one another. Here are a few navigation tips I wish I knew in the beginning of my career:

1. There is no way of knowing who is going to be plucked from the bucket next.

Don’t cling to the cool kids. Don’t pursue people that you think are going to be the next big thing. Find the artists whose work you admire and connect with them. If you vibe with someone’s music, there’s a good chance you’re going to work well with them. Find your people, not your posse.

2. Go to your friends’ performances.

This seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many people don’t show up and support their music making peers. It’s important to show face because there is going to come a time where you need heads in a room and the favor returned. Also, buying tickets to concerts is what makes the industry go round. Most importantly, seeing someone in their element live is inspiring and always an opportunity to learn something new!

3. Never, ever stop writing.

If you’re going to be “something” in this world, then be the best damn “something” there is. If you’re going to call yourself a songwriter, then make sure you have an arsenal of material ready to work at any given time. You never know what session you might be asked to hop in on. Make sure you have it together so you don’t miss any opportunities to work with people.

4. Don’t burn bridges.

Again, you never know who is going to make it next in this industry. There is no foreseeable timeline attached to musicians so don’t write them off just because they’re not growing parallel to you. There’s a way to speak to people and a way to end relationships amicably. Lead a relationship by good example and leave the future open not barbed with past fallouts.

5. Speak up!

Just because you’re not a producer doesn’t mean that you should sit next to a producer in the studio silent. No one knows the sound you’re after better than you do. You might not know the technical aspect of how to create the palette and structure of a song, but you should know what it takes and be able to find the appropriate references and language in order to properly articulate your vision.

I know that working with producers can be intimidating. When I first started working with producers, I was just so grateful to be working with anyone at all that I nodded my head in agreement to almost everything. If you know what you want, don’t be afraid to speak up. The sooner the better, trust me.

6. When you know, you know.

Don’t force relationships. They should come naturally. It’s impossible to have a strong connection with every musician you meet. Take the session, try it out, and if it doesn’t work, both parties are going to feel something is off. Maximize your time by listening to your instincts when it comes to producers, songwriters and instrumentalists.

7. There is no such thing as an overnight success.

It is so easy to be jealous of others who are finding success in the music industry, but know that the people who are excelling probably worked extremely hard for their bite. It doesn’t come easy or without struggle. If one of your friends is finding success, it means that you’re surrounded by the right people. It’s a good thing when another musician starts to make traction. Your time will come because there is no expiration date if you don’t give up.