As Spinal Tap reminds us, it’s a fine line between stupid and clever. This is particularly true in the world of popular music, where one bad move can kill an otherwise great tune.
Here’s a list of ways to sabotage your next song during the writing or recording process
1. Long intros — Ever heard the saying, “Don’t bore us; get to the chorus?” It’s POP music, not opera! You don’t need an overture. If your intro is longer than 15 seconds, it better be damn interesting.
2. Making the song too difficult to perform — Because that’s how I wrote it is a terrible reason to keep playing a song in a certain way if it’s simply not working. Find the right key so the singer can hit all the notes comfortably. Find the right tempo so the drummer can keep up. Take out some of the weird jazz voicings if your guitarist can only play barre chords. Either do those things or find a different band.
Note about changing a song’s key: if transposing is too hard for you as an instrumentalist, just hit the “transpose” button on your keyboard or put a capo on your guitar. It’ll be worth it.
3. Crappy sound — Lo-fi CAN be charming, but that’s an exception to the rule. Make sure you capture the highest quality signal, and make sure whatever instrument is creating that signal sounds good too.
4. Song forms that lose the listener — The pleasure in most music is about tension and release. In order to have a sense of surprise, you need to establish familiarity. If your song defies traditional song structures, or keeps switching instrumentation every 30 seconds, or never repeats any lyrics, you’re probably gonna confuse a lot of people, and not in a good way.
On the flip side, if your song is overly repetitive and never strays from what’s familiar, it’s going to turn into an audio snooze-fest.
5. Weird breakdowns — Maybe YOU’RE bored with your song already, but nobody else has heard it yet. No need to get all avant-garde on us and kill the momentum. Listen around the 1:50 mark of THIS otherwise catchy song.
Yeah, don’t do that.
6. Following trends too closely — If you’re trying to copy something that’s popular right this minute, by the time your album is recorded, mixed, mastered, manufactured, and distributed, your sound will already be old news.
Besides, aren’t you sick of all those Mumford & Sons knock-off bands? Everyone will be sick of YOU too — before your music is even released.
Plus, if you’re using the exact same songwriting tricks, instrumentation, and production techniques as everyone else, you’re really going to date yourself quickly. One day, you’ll listen back to your song and say, “Wow, that was totally 2014, huh? It’s terrible!”
Note of caution: the worst perpetrators of this are bands who begin to imitate… THEMSELVES. If you have a successful song, try to top it, not recreate it.
7. There’s no end in sight — “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a great song. You’re never going to write anything half as brilliant. So maybe you should stick to writing songs that are half as long.
If you’re pushing past the 5-minute mark, it’s time to ask yourself some tough questions. Do I need this 3rd repeat of the chorus? Do I need this 2nd guitar solo? Do I need this 12th verse (yeah, yeah, I know Dylan did it — but you’re not Dylan either)? Do I need to flange this outro coda for a couple more minutes? The answer to all of these questions is almost certainly “NO.”
Zen note: think of Leonard Cohen filling whole notebooks with potential verse lyrics for a single song, and then picking the strongest handful of lines to create the final version. Be that ruthless with your own writing.
8. Sloppiness — Don’t rush to record. Practice, practice, practice. And once you’re in the studio, don’t keep bad takes just because the clock is ticking. No one else cares that you’re working on a budget, or under pressure, or within time constraints. All they hear is your awful rhythm section, the flubbed notes in the solo, and the buzzing of your amps.
9. Bad lyrics — It’s pop music. No one expects Shakespeare. But c’mon — TRY a little! Do your lyrics make no sense, but not in a cool Talking Heads kinda way? Try harder. Are you keeping the first lines that come to mind? Try harder. Are you leaning on spent cliches? Try harder. Are you expecting that the Oooos and Ahhhhs of your gang vocal will convey all the emotion the song needs? Damnit, try harder!
10. Following rules — There are songs out there that I absolutely love that break these rules (even the one about copying other bands). So what do I know? Forget this list and do whatever feels right for the song. In the end, you’re going to be your own worst critic anyways. Answer to yourself.
I’m sure you’ve got ideas about how to turn a hit into… something that rhymes with “hit.” What are your songwriting and production peeves? Let us know in the comments below.