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Songwriting Article

How To Make Your Songwriting Sound Better And More Professional

By Ryan Buckner

Do you want to be able to write songs that take the exact ideas you have in your head and bring them to life in your music? Would you like to understand how professional songwriters keep their listeners interested in a song for the entire piece of music? Chances are, you struggle with these things in your songwriting from time to time (or perhaps frequently). With that in mind, know that you are not alone. It takes many musicians a long time to become highly expressive in their songwriting. One of the major reasons that you have a hard time conveying your ideas in music is a lack of understanding when it comes to the concept of unity and variety. For the rest of this article, I will explain to you what “unity and variety” means in songwriting and how you can use it to become a better, more expressive songwriter.

Defining “Unity And Variety” And Using It In Your Music

Any time someone listens to a piece of music they are either consciously or subconsciously listening for a balance between unity and variety in the music. In fact, your ability to creatively use these elements will play a major role in the response you get from your listeners (as well as the overall quality of the music in general).

With that said, what exactly am I talking about when I refer to unity and variety in music? Essentially, “Unity” means maintaining consistency, repeating similar ideas and creating a sense of ‘home’ for the listener. On the other hand, “Variety” refers to creating change, adding in depth to repeated ideas and surprising the listener with novel ideas. In order to keep the ideas you write interesting throughout an entire song, you will need to create a balance between unity and variety in all aspects of your music. By successfully doing this, you gain control over the levels of relaxation and tension in your music. This is important for keeping your listeners engaged and interested to hear what will come next. Most likely, you have already written music that did not quite sound how you wanted it to either because it just wasn’t too interesting overall or seemed to lack a sense of structure or direction. When this happens, you can almost always be sure that you are not utilizing unity and variety effectively. In fact, this is very a common challenge for a lot of musicians and songwriters. Here are some instances of when unity and variety are either overlooked or overused resulting in undesired results for the songwriter:

1.   A melody is repeated many times note for note with little variance = lots of unity/no variety

2.   The different sections in a song are repeated several times over without any major variation (same lyrics, same melodies, same chords, etc.) = lots of unity/no variety

3.   The words used in the lyrics of the song are highly conventional, based mostly off of clichés = lots of unity/no variety

4.   The rhythm in the notes for a particular part of a song are unpredictable and seem to have no tie-in to the feel of the song as a whole (this happens commonly when people program notes into a sequencer without really think about what they are doing) = lots of variety/no unity

5.   The music sounds really “strange” due to an over abundance of “out of key” notes that have no specific reason for being in the music = lots of variety/no unity

Find out why you are having a hard time getting your music to sound the way you want it to sound by getting solutions to common songwriting mistakes in this free eBook about writing good music.

Creating An Effective Balance Between Unity And Variety In Music

To learn how to write songs that are highly expressive, it is useful to understand how unity and variety are commonly misused (see above) and how they are effectively used to make a song more interesting. The most crucial reason that unity and variety are useful is that knowing how to use them gives you the ability to set up and change the expectations of those who are listening to your music… unity is what you will use to set up your listener’s expectations and variety is what you will use to add tension and interest into the music by surprising them with something new. The formula here is really quite simple; however, should not be taken lightly as it applies to literally all aspects of songwriting.

That said, unity and variety as a concept is not limited to music only. At a very foundational level, this concept is all about creating a sense of symmetry. As humans, our brains have evolved to notice symmetry over time because it has proven to be highly advantageous to do so. For example, our ability to notice symmetry in patterns has helped us locate things to eat, stay away from danger and gain other useful habits that have helped us survive.

Considering that unity and variety are not entirely “music exclusive”, I have listed several instances below of how unity and variety are used in areas outside of music in order to help you gain a better perspective on the subject. Additionally, I have included some ways that you can use the information in the topics below to improve your songwriting:

How Unity And Variety Is Used In: Sports

There are plenty of examples of unity and variety used throughout sports and other games or athletic competitions. For this example, I will use one of my favorite sports to play: baseball. In baseball, it all comes down to the competition between the pitcher throwing the ball and the batter trying to hit the ball. As for the pitcher, he has many options available to him when it comes to trying to get the batter out. In order to do this effectively, the pitcher must concentrate on creating an expectation for the batter and surprising him by varying the speed of his pitches and the location where he throws his pitches. As for changing speeds, this is commonly done by putting together a sequence of consecutive fast pitches followed by a pitch that is much slower. Since a fastball only gives the batter little time to locate and hit the ball (about .2 seconds), he must react very quickly if he wants to put the ball into play. By throwing a pitch that is significantly slower, the batter’s timing gets messed up. This greatly increases the pitcher’s chances of striking the batter out or getting him to make poor contact on the ball (and get out).

How Can You Use This Information To Write Better Songs?

By creating a certain expectation of “speed” for your listener, you can add a lot of interest into your songs by essentially “throwing them a curveball” and slowing things down. So, if you are writing an upbeat song with a faster tempo, try writing a section into your music where the tempo slows down. This will really stand out and cause the listener to pay attention to the musical ideas in this section.

How Unity And Variety Is Used In: Movies

Do you know that feeling you get when you are watching a movie and suddenly there is a “twist” in the plot? This commonly happens when a main character in the film makes a fundamental change in his outlook or decides to take an unexpected path. This is a prime example of the effectiveness of using unity and variety to set up and change one’s expectations. The more comfortable you become with the personality of a certain character, the bigger the surprise when he or she makes a drastic change in behavior (… and the greater the chances are that you will tell your friends to check out the movie afterwards).

How Can You Use This Information To Write Better Songs?

The Picardy Third, a technique made popular during the classical period, is great way to express “plot twist” in a song. This technique essentially comes down to changing a single note in a chord during your song (usually a chord at the end of a section) to change it from what was expected to something entirely unexpected. Most commonly this means changing the final chord in a song that was mostly in a minor key from minor to major. For instance, if you are in the key of A minor, rather than using an A minor chord to finish the song, you would use an A “major” chord. This creates a very interesting change in mood that feels very surprising to the listener.

How Unity And Variety Is Used In: Building Muscles

If you have ever taken an interest in working out to build muscles, you having likely experienced the “plateau” where your exercises no longer seem to be effective in helping you gain mass. This is because over time your body adapts to the work you do (unity). In order to start seeing gains once again you must “surprise” your muscles by trying new exercises or strategies that will work your body in new, unexpected ways (variety).

How Can You Use This Information To Write Better Songs?

To tie in this concept to songwriting I am going to describe a commonly used approach by musicians who write ballads in pop/rock music. Chances are, most of the ballads you have listened to in your lifetime have followed a similar process to the following:

In the beginning there are no drums or percussion instruments of any kind… only vocals or other “softly played” instruments such as guitar, keyboard, etc. The song proceeds through a verse section and the first chorus. Then, upon the repetition of the verse, the drums enter the song and provide it with a louder contrast to keep you engaged in the music.

The reason that this formula is used so often is that it sets up the expectations for a soft, easy listening ballad and then suddenly contrasts this with loud drums that come in during the second verse. Like with adding weight resistance to spark growth in your muscles, this formula adds in a sudden shock to the listener to gain their attention and set the foundation for new growth in the direction of the music.

Learn more about song structure by signing up for a free 10 day songwriting mini course.

How Unity And Variety Is Used In: Visual Art

When an artist is painting a picture, she knows that she can utilize the contrast between light and dark to capture the attention of whoever is looking at her work. Let’s say you were painting a picture of a calm day on the beach. On the beach there is plenty of white sand and brightly colored beach towels by umbrellas… but off on the horizon you decide to paint in dark, ominous clouds. If someone were to look at your painting, chances are they would look at all the bright colors on the beach (unity) and their eyes would quickly notice the dark clouds in the background (variety). Immediately afterwards, chances are they would come to the conclusion that storm was coming.

How Can You Use This Information To Write Better Songs?

To create a sense of contrast in a musical way for your songwriting, you can take a repeating idea in your song and alter it to draw the listener’s attention. One way you could do this is by repeating a common theme in your song (a reoccurring melody, group of chords, etc.) on a different instrument than the one that originally played the idea.

How Unity And Variety Is Used In: Comedy

Unfortunately, analyzing comedy to understand why it is funny is highly unlikely to get any laughs… but for the sake of discussing songwriting, I will do it anyway :)

When it comes to comedy, there is one simple formula that just about everyone understands at a ‘gut’ level: “premise” + “punch line” = funny. That said, often comedians will take this approach one step further in order to get a big response from the crowd. Rather than follow this basic formula, they will add onto it by adding on an additional punch line to really surprise their audience and make the joke even funnier. This is accomplished by adding on a punch line right after the first punch line is delivered that adds on an entirely different perspective to the joke. By doing this, the comedian creates a whole new dimension to the joke, surprising the audience and getting big laughs.

How Can You Use This Information To Write Better Songs?

Just like delivering a punch line for a joke, the chorus in your music is often a very important part of the song that requires great attention to detail in order to truly engage the listener. One great technique for changing your chorus in a way that adds a whole new dimension to the music is to change it up in when it is repeated for the final time. So for example, if your chorus has already repeated 2 or 3 times and you are about to end your song with the final chorus; you could try altering it by moving all the notes up by a half step in pitch. By moving everything ‘up’ you create a sudden change that greatly alters the listener’s expectations and the mood of the music as a whole. This is a good way to end the song “on a high note”.

After finishing this article, you should have a much greater understanding of how unity and variety work together to set up expectations and create contrast for your listener. By mastering the ability to use unity and variety effectively in your songwriting, you will greatly enhance the quality of your songs. Any time you create a song (or write a part in one of your songs), remember keep the concepts of this article in mind.

Find out how you can start writing good music by downloading a free eBook about overcoming the most common songwriting issues that songwriters face.


About the author:

Ryan Buckner is a professional guitarist and songwriter. He currently runs, a website dedicated to helping musicians learn how to write songs, develop better songwriting skills and gain the ability to express themselves freely through music with songwriter tips, e-Books, guides, lessons and exclusive songwriting interviews with other professional musicians. As a professional in the music industry, Ryan has written music that has been distributed worldwide, made collaborations with other highly talented musicians and written countless instructional columns for musical websites and e-zines on the topics of becoming a better guitarist, understanding how music theory works and developing songwriting skills.

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