The Misery Myth: Why a Self-Destructive Attitude Won’t Improve Your Songwriting

[Editors Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]

No matter how gratifying songwriting can be, making meaningful music and sharing it with the world is often tedious, thankless and discouraging. With that in mind, it’s no wonder so many artists associate emotional pain represented by addiction, depression and other self-destructive habits with songwriting gains. But while it might be tempting to liken the economy of songwriting to a bank where the more misery you put in the greater the songwriting returns, it’s just not true.

The Misery Myth

From modern songwriting greats like Elliott Smith, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse to legendary musicians active all throughout the 20th century like John Coltrane and Bix Beiderbecke, misery has been associated with musical genius for a long time.

Some of the world’s most influential songwriters have fought and lost battles with addiction and depression on the world stage, so it only makes sense that music fans and songwriters equate self-destruction with songwriting talent and potency. And because the fact that pure, unbridled sadness is something everyone longs to relate to in music has never changed, the misery myth continues to persist and thrive today.

Recognizing the Problem

The fact that lots of phenomenal musicians have tragically succumbed to their own self-destructive behaviors doesn’t mean that misery is an essential ingredient for meaningful songwriting. There’s no telling what sort of music Elliott Smith would be making now if he were still alive today. Misery didn’t enhance his legacy, it ended it.

It’s time to recognize this problem for what it really is. Glamorizing self-destruction is foolish, destructive and completely disrespectful of musicians who’ve died battling their personal demons.

Music fans and songwriters alike have a habit of holding up a few examples of depressed, self-destructive musicians as sacred musical role models while ignoring the overwhelmingly vast majority of artists with the same behaviors who never became successful.

The truth is, things like substance addiction, depression and mental illness make it nearly impossible for musicians to create music. The great songwriters we associate with misery, self-harm and addiction somehow managed to musically thrive in spite of their demons, not because of them.

Rather than imitating and fetishizing self-destruction, if you want to become a great songwriter like Kurt Cobain, songwriters should try defining what it is they really admire about him.

Separating the Music From the Myth

Things like talent, musical intuition and consistent hard work are what make songwriters great.

And while dramatic stories about addiction and suicide often elevate artists to a legendary status, a songwriter’s legacy is built off their music, not their tragedy. Misery will only hurt you as a songwriter and as a functioning human being. If you want to thrive as a musician and writer, you’ll have to learn how to write great music. Using self-harm and destruction as tools to relate and connect with your listeners will only end up making true, impactful music a more difficult and remote goal to achieve.

Creating meaningful music over the long term is almost impossible without taking care of yourself. That’s something that isn’t discussed much in our culture for the simple fact that it’s less dramatic and sexy as the misery myth, but it’s true. It’s absolutely possible to emotionally resonate with listeners while being healthy and centered.

In fact, that’s a position the majority of musicians working today operate from. If every songwriter in the music industry was perpetually high, suicidal and on the brink of death, the world would have much less music. If you want to make meaningful music, misery in all its forms something important to write about, but it alone just isn’t capable of doing the job.


Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician based in Philadelphia.

How To Write a Killer Guitar Hook

[Editors Note: This was written by Sarah Jacobs.]

The hook is basically what keeps you hooked on a song. It’s a selling point, that group of notes or that phrase that stays stuck in your head and makes you sing, headband, or rock out on your air guitar. Most of the time it’s the first thing that comes to mind when you mention a song’s title, and it’s what most musicians usually start out with when composing as it serves as the foundation for the verses of a song.

Consider the lines “We are the champions,” “I can’t get no satisfaction” and even “Ah, ha, ha, ha – stayin’ alive” – these are all popular hooks that have made their respective songs easy to recall. Of course, it helps that these are also part of the song titles, but not all hooks are in the titles or the chorus. Blur’s “Song 2,” for example, has “Whoo hoo!” that sets off the hook.

Writing for Gibson, Ted Drozdowski says that for guitar players, it’s wise to think of hooks as riffs. Riffs have the power to pull listeners right into a tune – recall the riffs of great guitar players in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and you’ll see what riffs can do to make a song a hit.

What makes a great guitar hook?

Before you go writing a hook, it’s first important to know what makes a hook a great one. If you listen to the most iconic hooks in music, you’ll notice that they’re all short and easily repeatable. When writing a guitar hook, keep in mind that the longer it is, the harder it is to remember, which defeats the purpose of a hook – so keep your hook short and simple.

Music producer Kim Copeland says that different music genres rely on different types of hooks to sell songs. Country songs, for example, almost always have a story and characters. Country music artists are storytellers, which is why their songs would usually have a hook at the beginning or end of the chorus, or at the beginning or end of each section of verse. A great example is country favorite “Always On My Mind.”

For pop music, a melodic hook is key. The melody is what makes people burst into song, (even if they don’t want to), and what makes earworms stay in our heads seemingly forever. Hooks in pop songs make lyrics singable and hard to get away from – Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” is one song you probably can never shake off because of its catchy hook.

And for rock music, you’ll agree that the most hooky hooks are there at the very beginning, way before you even hear a vocal melody. Copeland mentions AC/DC’s “Back in Black” as a prime example of a song with a killer hook.

So how do you come up with a guitar hook that will get people hooked, keep them listening and make them invested in the song and your music? Let’s look into three different kinds of hooks and what you can do to create them. By the way, you don’t have to stick to just one type of hook in a song – experiment and see which ones work best alone and which would work well together. Let’s get started!

The Rhythm Hook

The rhythmic hook uses a combination of instruments and essentially establishes a beat-rhythm combo upon which a song is built. Many of Stevie Wonder’s hits in the Seventies are built on rhythm hooks, such as “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and “Superstition.” Creating a powerful rhythmic hook involves these steps:

  1. Keep a steady beat by slapping your knee or tapping your foot.
  2. Improvise (sing or hum) a short, catchy 4- or 8-beat rhythm.
  3. Come up with a one- or two-chord progression that sounds interesting when repeated, such as C-Bb, C-Fm7, C-Eb and so on.
  4. Make a bass line where the end connects easily and smoothly back to the beginning of the line. Make sure that this bass line has a catchy rhythm, one that is ideally different in rhythm as the guitar or other instruments.

The Intro Hook

The intro hook is mainly a melodic idea that, as its name suggests, gets established in the first few bars of the song. It is then repeated throughout the song over and over but it isn’t always present – it appears then drops out. Some examples of songs with an iconic intro hook are “Smoke on the Water” and “Moves Like Jagger.” The following steps can help you write your own intro hook:

  1. Think of a catchy rhythm (4 to 8 beats) and base a melodic idea on it.
  2. Stick to the pentatonic scale notes C, D, E, G and/or A (in C major).
  3. Come up with three separate chord progressions to accompany the hook. These chord progressions should be able to function as chorus, verse and bridge progressions.
  4. Let the hook appear and disappear throughout the song.

The Background Instrumental Hook

“With or Without You” by U2 and “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan are two fine examples of songs with great instrumental hooks. The instrumental hook is usually added to an already completed song, and it works well in combination with other types of hooks. Here’s how to create one:

  1. Make a short 2- to 4-beat riff (with a distinctive rhythm) on your guitar. The guitar riff should be able to be accompanied by most chords in the key you’ve chosen.
  2. Focus on using it mainly in the song’s chorus but instead of putting it on top of the chorus lyrics, fit it in and around the lyrics. Think of the instrumental hook as a counterpoint or answer to a chorus lyric.
  3. Let the hook stay in the background, complementing the other hooks you already have.

Now that you’ve come up with a hook (or at least an idea for one that you want to try), get songwriting! Remember to repeat, repeat and repeat – but not too much. Give your song a listen with different hook repetitions and you’ll know when it’s too much so you can adjust and make it just right. Change the rhythm between verses and choruses, or add effects like stuttering and pauses for variety. Lastly, make sure you highlight the hook. Again, the hook is the song’s selling point, so make it easy for listeners to pick out and sing or air guitar along to. Good luck and have fun!


Sarah Jacobs is a blogger at Know Your Instrument.

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.]

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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Zac Green is a regular contributor to the Zing Instruments Blog.