Pat McHenry

songwriter + performer

Pat McHenry is an award-winning songwriter in Seattle WA. His work has been featured on MTV.com, Comcast, FOXNews, ABC, TBS, local and national independent films.

Top 10 Songwriting Mistakes I See Over and Over

Dislaimer* - I'm not perfect at this. Still working, obviously. Still learning. Just like you. Here are some tips I've learned or picked up over the last 15 years of failing and succeeding in the art of songwriting and music industry. Hopefully, this list of mistakes helps to 'right' your compass on the path to stardom. Also, this does not apply to every genre and flavor of music. I'm mainly writing to the pop/country/folk/blues hopefuls that are pining for some wisdom on songwriting. I'm sure most of this does not apply to PBS-acid-jazzers and classical composers (although some of it might) :)  

1) A Weak Title

I see this almost everyday. If you're like me and want other people to enjoy your songs (not just yourself) you need to write songs that relate to other people. Your best place to start, well,  is in the title. It's the first thing they read right? Weak titles are just as good as weak lyrics.  A strong title really sets the bar for the quality of a song. Strong titles generate strong lyrics. I read in an interview with Ryan Adams once (one of my heroes) that he starts with the title which then generates the entire song. He can write a whole song based on the mood, feeling, and emotion he gets from thinking of the title. That's kind of awesome. Even if you aren't like Mr. Adams, who seems to be a songwriting factory (go ahead and look at his discography), good titles can really grab a listener before they even hear the song!

2) Dissimilar Verse/Chorus Melodies

Isn't it annoying when you're listening to a song and you can't tell what direction the singer has taken? Or you thought the song was going to lead into a chorus and it jumps right back into a verse? Or wait, is that still the verse? The chords are the same but it doesn't quite have the cadence of the previous verse. Have you ever listened to songs that have like ten verses until a chorus? You find this mostly at open mic nights where amateur songwriters haven't really got their thang down yet. Have clear verse melodies and choruses that repeat. It's an unconscious way of telling the listener, 'Oh here you go, this is the verse now!" or "Here's the chorus you heard the first time that you loooooved." Your audience is much smarter than you, in the way you will find out very fast onstage when presenting new material. Don't try to pull any fast ones on them, they didn't buy a ticket to the confusion train. Treat em right!

3) Weak Melody

This should kinda be number 1. There is an entire arm of the songwriting industry dedicated to 'top-line' writing. That's a dumbed down word for melody. In a way, it's more important than the lyrics themselves. In most cases, it is. Unless you're the next Bob Dylan, most people aren't even gonna care about your lyrics unless you're melody hits a home-run. This is even MORE meaningful at the beginning of your career where most of the fans you build will likely eat up some great melodies, and not your genius level, crack-poet lyrics.  Heck, just look at Ariana Grande's slaughter of the English language with her complete reliance upon melody. BTW I am not a fan.

4) No Concrete imagery

Your song totally defines you. We get it. It's like you had a baby and when it popped out you looked at it and saw your complete life right in the moment of whatever feels you were going through. That boy who dumped you. There it is. Your desire to have a meaningful relationship. Voilà. But here's the thing poet, if there isn't concrete imagery like who, what, when... our minds aren't going to be able to picture anything. White noise. Country music is so good at concrete imagery. I don't know why. Maybe the average bloke who likes country just really wants to hear about trucks, beer, short skirts, back roads, and white girl booties? There is hardly any abstract ideas either. Because it is hard to find a lofty, touchy-feely detail in any country song. Sure, they are extremely good at turn of phrase ex I'm Gonna Right A Great Country Wrong (gold!), but country songs are not for the artistic. The key here is balance. Most of the best songwriters balance their lyrics with lofty ideas and concrete imagery. Here's some original lyrics via this writer: I was sitting on a truck (concrete), had a beer in my hand (concrete), I felt a lot of luck (abstract),  in no man's land (abstract).

5) No emotional purpose

And here's the flip side to the above. Now you're writing songs that are ALL concrete imagery and NO lofty feels. Come on man! In short, you can tell me everything that is going on in your little story, but I'm not gonna care about it unless you tell me why. I need some sort of emotional connectivity to explain why what you're telling me is important. It's as simple as that. You gotta reach out to my amygdala. Emotions baby.

6) No Climax

Just like a good book, a good movie, a good meal, and a good night, your song needs to have a climax. If your song involves some sort of conflict resolution, it needs to live in the climax. This is powerful stuff. Most every classic story has a strong conflict resolution. Most classic songs have a climax.

7) Intro is WAAAAY too long

Dude save it for the stage. Long intros are cool when the headlining band is finally onstage and the audience, as a whole, has reached it's limit on how many more music blue balls they can endure. Do not have an intro longer than ten seconds in the studio. Your engineer will also hate you. A favorite saying of mine: Don't bore us get to the chorus

8) Song Road-map is Too Complex

Most songs do not need 2 unique bridges. Heck, most songs do not even need one bridge! Most songs do not require multiple solos (I said it). Keep it simple, stupid. We all just want a few verses and a few choruses.

9) Too much musical tension

Oh man I love some good tension in a song. You know what I'm taking about. That major 6th. Majoring the 2nd? Mmm so good. Also, throwing in one awkward lyric that doesn't rhyme or maybe makes you just feel weird! I love me some good key changes too. But there is a thing called too much. Unless you're a musician from the mid 50s you really should limit this to 1, per album of songs. If it's your trademark, hey, go for it Buddy Holly. Celine Dion can also get away with this. If it's not an addition, it's a subtraction.

10) Your song only applies to you and no one else

In closing, you're writing songs for people to listen to right? So then write them for other people! Sure some songs are very cathartic, but the magical bridge that separates the pros from the novices is writing your song  in a way that applies to all of us. That's how you're going to get the largest audience. That's how you're going to sell the most albums. And that's how you're going to get the best gigs.

 

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