How to keep your songs from all sounding the same.

You can feed your family. You can feed your soul. If you can do either one of those with your music you’re succeeding. If you can do both at the same time, you’ve just won the lottery.

Today I'm going to talk about some of the "other" work we do. The money work. The not-so-glamorous work. The we-don't-talk-about-this-with-industry-people work. The work that enables us to do our own indie music without the funding of a record label.

I mean, face it, most creative types don't practice their skills with the dream of some day servicing clients, doing jobs they have no real creative connection to, simply for the money. We all dream that we will use our talents to create projects that feed our souls, that will make people stop and think, perhaps change someone's perspective, perhaps shape our culture and leave something behind that will still live on after we return to dust.  That's what we really want, right??

But then reality hits and we find that after years of living on practically no income in our early 20's, the children we have REQUIRE things... Unexpected things... Like food and shelter... And that somehow as parents, we are expected to actually PROVIDE for them. Ridiculous, right!?

After two decades of working in the music industry, I've come to this conclusion: You can feed your family. You can feed your soul. If you can do either one of those with your music you're succeeding. If you can do both at the same time, you've just won the lottery.


The reality is that once you enter into a creative career, you find that simply making money while using your skill set is a remarkable achievement. Some [naive and sheltered] people think that to make money with one's art is selling out, or it fundamentally cheapens what you do. But to that I say... how the flip are we supposed to eat if we can't make money?? It takes TIME to be creative, and if we were all left to evenings and weekends of trying to create art or music after getting our souls sucked out of us at a 9 to 5 desk job [or heaven help us... serving THE PUBLIC]... this world would be a very drab and colorless place.

One is only "selling out" if they are doing exactly what they said they'd never do. If you set out to make a lucrative career and support yourself with your creative skills, you are not selling out by working for a client who will pay you to use those skills unless it's for something you've got moral opposition to. But who grows up saying "some day I want to take a job in an office where I can be a punching bag for a frustrated mid-level manager while being bathed in unflattering fluorescent lighting"? And yet, how many end up doing just that? THAT is selling out, not making money with your creative skills. 

I am not saying this to try to change the [unenlightened] minds of those who judge creative types for accepting payment for their art. I say this for the sake of any struggling creatives who might be wrestling with the concept of paying their bills with their craft. To THEM I say... carry on and prosper. DO YOUR THING and take the money.


Just hang with me, friends.  Although what I'm writing about is stemming from my personal experience, if you are in a writing rut, you can scope your catalogue of songs and see what your writing habits are. Keep reading, and I'll bet something here will be useful to you.

Back to the topic...


Our "other" work comes in different forms. Some of it is "long shot" work, where we submit a song for placement in a TV ad or some other opportunity and cross our fingers that it gets chosen. In these cases, there's no money up front, and if we don't get chosen we get nothing. If we DO get chosen, it's a decent payout, but you never can predict what they might choose and it can feel about as dependable as gambling in Vegas to pay the bills.  Other times, we might write something that seems right for a placement opportunity based on the track record of something, like the songs they've already used in a TV show, and with the right connections, the odds are much better of getting a placement. The payout again can be pretty decent depending on the placement, but this can be a precarious way to try to stay financially afloat. And kids need to eat not just EVERY day, but multiple TIMES a day... thus requiring a steady and dependable income stream. 

Whenever you’re writing music for money in the bank, there is pretty much always going to be a list of restrictions or requirements to what you do.

This brings me to a different work scenario. In these cases, we are not competing against other musicians, we are simply composing and producing music specific to a client's needs, and when we've gotten through the process of getting their approval and doing the requested revisions, they WILL use our music and we DO get paid. This type of work is rarely anything we want to brag about or send out a press release for, but it highlights and important principle in creative work...


[I'm going to avoid stating that this principle also applies to finding a spouse.]

From time to time, we write music for a foreign company which produces language teaching tools for kids. They take English vocabulary lessons, sometimes they are just short books, and hire us to put those words to music so the kids can learn them.  One of the challenges is that often there is no rhyme scheme or phrasing pattern that would lend itself to falling into natural musical phrasing, so since I'm the one who writes the songs,  I have to figure out musical tricks to make it not seem entirely left footed.  Another challenge is that sometimes I have to write multiple songs in a very short period of time.

We just finished a 36 song job for this client, and I wrote the music for all of them.  When I say "song", what I mean in this particular case is a vocabulary lesson.  I'll give you an example…

What is in bear's box? A ball.
What is in bear's box? A bat.
What is in bear's box? Buttons.
What is in bear's box? Bugs.
And what is in bear's big box?
A balloon!
Bye bye bear.


I can use the glue.
You can use the glue too.
I can use blue.
I love blue.
You can use blue too.
I can use a few of these.
You can use a few too.
This is for you.
Thank you.
How cute.

Those were the words for two of the lessons, one which focused on the letter B and one which focused on the "oo" sound. I had to put those words to a melody and chords. Then we make a demo, the client may or may not ask for revisions, we record the vocalists, and do a number of other things and send them all the deliverables, and the money goes in the bank. Bam.


Whenever you're writing music for money in the bank, there is pretty much always going to be a list of restrictions or requirements to what you do.

These were the parameters for this writing job:

1. Songs need to be fun and happy.
2. The words cannot come too fast.
3. The melody can't span much over an octave.
4. They all need to be upbeat, nothing too slow.
5. The melodies need to take into consideration the meaning of the lyrics as well as the focus of that vocabulary lesson.

If you think about it, these requirements remove a lot of options, so I needed to find ways of staying creative within these given boundaries.


Fortunately, these were very short songs. However, when trying to compose 36 uniquely different melodies within a short period of time, the risk of copying myself was quite high. In order to stay on top of this, I felt the need to make a few different spread sheets.

1. A spread sheet with the steps of progress for each song, to keep track of the over all status as we worked.

2. A spread sheet with all of the chords of each song. I will post a photo below. The purpose of this was two fold. First, it was much faster to have all of the bar lines laid out horizontally across the page so as I wrote a song, I could chart it in just a couple of minutes. And secondly, it helped me to keep tabs on the chord progressions I was using, so that if I started to get stagnant with my melodies, I could be deliberate about changing up my chords. The numbers going down the left hand side are the song numbers, and across the bottom, it's the measure numbers.

3. A spread sheet to keep track of the following for each song: feel [shuffle, polka, latin, etc.], tempo, starting chord, starting note in melody, melodic contour [mainly ascending, descending, or static], and whether it started with steps or leaps in the melody [meaning notes that are next to each other in the scale or if you're skipping notes.]  I also had intended to make note of the instrumental ensemble sound we would use for each song, but in the end, after I'd done all of the composing, I handed that part off to Kurt and allowed him to just do what the spirit led, so I didn't end up documenting that.  My original plan was to have 4 or 5 "ensemble" sounds like jazz combo, woodwind ensemble, quirky band with xylophones and pizzicato strings, rock ensemble, Latin ensemble etc.  

As I look at these, I must say I'm surprised how rarely I broke away from landing on the 1 chord at the beginning down beat. I was able to keep things from getting too similar by using other variables while still starting most songs off with a 1 chord.


When faced with the challenge of writing multiple songs in one sitting, the first "go to" technique I use to keep things from getting too homogeneous is to choose a different feel for each song.  So if I have to write 5 songs in a row, for this type of writing job, I can make one a mid tempo shuffle, one can have a Latin beat, one can be light rock, one can be a lullaby, and one can be a polka.  Those are just for example. But definitely, starting each song with a different feel already puts each song in its own place and the risk of sounding too similar is reduced.

Another option is also to make use of various time signatures. Most of the songs will be 4-4, but if you throw in 3-4 and 6-8 from time to time, that goes a long way toward creating contrast.  [Odd meters like 5-8 or 7-4 aren't practical for this type of job.]

For this client, they are very picky about the general sound of the songs, and for this job in particular, they were clear that they wanted all of the songs to be upbeat and fun and happy.  So… that eliminated lullaby and anything too driving or aggressive.  This meant, I could not simply rely on the feel for contrast because there are only so many "feels" within that given range, and I had 36 songs to write.


When you are limited on how many different feels you can use, then my next go to technique for creating contrast is to come up with different types of chord progressions.  Let's talk about diatonic chords in general. Diatonic means, these are the chords that naturally happen when you stick to the seven notes of the scale. If you use notes outside of these seven notes, those chords are non-diatonic.

Here are the diatonic chords in a major key:

C Major
C     Dm    Em    F    G    Am    Bm[-5]
1     2m    3m    4    5    6m    7m[-5]

Here are the diatonic chords in a minor key:

C Minor
Cm     Dm[-5]  Eb     Fm    Gm    Ab    Bb
1m     2m[-5]   b3    4m    5m    b6    b7

A trick to help spice up a stale old chord progression is to borrow from the parallel minor/major.

A lot of people know how to use the chords in one key. They can move between the 1, 4, 5, and 6m without even thinking. If you listen to top 40 radio, these 4 chords make up the bulk of the songs you hear, if the song is in a major key. Some songwriters can get fancy and use the 2m, and when feeling really sassy, they can throw in a 3m.  This is all well and good and you can go a very long way with these chords.

My client made the specific point of saying these 36 songs all needed to be happy and cheerful. Now there were just a couple in the batch with lyrics about "creepy creatures" that I decided to take the risk and go a little darker with the chords. But for the rest of them, I generally needed to stay in the major camp. I wasn't able to make much use of the minor keys.  However…

A trick to help spice up a stale old chord progression is to borrow from the parallel minor/major.  We will refer to the first scale degree of the key or the letter name of the key as "tonic". So two keys that share a tonic are parallel keys. The parallel minor for C major is C minor.  You can borrow chords from C major when you are writing in C minor and vice versa.

For example, you can substitute a 4m for a 5 chord after a 4 chord like this: 1 - 4 - 4m - 1 instead of 1 - 4 - 5 - 1

My situation with these 36 songs was that I needed to use minor chords sparingly, since they often bring in a melancholy emotion to the song. I did use them from time to time, but often I felt inclined to use the major chord like 4 instead of 2m, just to keep things happy.

Here's a trick… It is possible to write a song using all chords of the same quality between two parallel keys, as long as the bass line is singable. If you look at the diatonic chords available in the major and minor keys, there are 6 possible major chords you can use: 1, b3, 4, 5, b6, and b7. [ The same applies to using all minor chords, but that wasn't an option for me on this gig.]


Another possibility for major chords are triads that are related to the major key, but not diatonic to that key.  Where borrowing from the parallel minor gets you the added b3, b6, and b7 chords, you can also build major triads on scale degrees that normally have minor or diminished chords.  So the 2, 3,  6, and 7 can become major chords which are referred to as "secondary dominants". This now means, we can use the following major chords: 1, 2, b3, 3, 4, 5, 6, b6, b7, and 7.  I used each of these chords at least once in a song, except for the 7. If I hadn't made use of them, I would likely not have had as much success in keeping things from getting too homogeneous while still staying in the right boundaries.

This can really freshen up a chord progression and get away from the predictable old diatonic chords.

If you don't know how to use a secondary dominant, just try putting one in where its minor counterpart would be, and see how it strikes you. As long as your melody note isn't the third of that chord in its minor form, often times that approach can work just fine.  If you're not sure how to resolve it, you can try by going to the chord a 5th down from its root and see how that works. That's not the only way to do it, but it's an easy option. The reason these are called "secondary dominants" is that they are the 5 chords [or "dominant chords"] to one of your other scale degrees. So the major 2 is the 5 to your 5 chord, and the major 3 is the 5 to your 6 chord and so on. So they'll easily resolve to their own respective 1 chord.  But a major 2 can also go quite nicely to a 4 chord, so there are multiple ways to resolve them.

What happens when you use a secondary dominant is that now we have a major chord where the ear was expecting a minor chord, and it is a moment of unexpected brightness. It can temporarily make us feel like we're in a different key for a few beats until we get back to the old familiar chords. This can really freshen up a chord progression and get away from the predictable old diatonic chords.

If you can give yourself a good set of chord progressions that keep you from getting into a rut, and combine them with a variety of feels and time signatures, you're well on your way to being able to write several songs that don't all sound the same!  Now let's talk about those melodies…


Until I attempted to write 36 uniquely different songs in a short window of time, I wasn't quite aware of my tendency to start my melodies on the pitch of the 3rd scale degree. I kept wanting to go 3 -5- 6- 5 in my melodies.  This is why that spread sheet that tracked my starting note, the direction I went from there, and the leaps vs. steps was quite helpful.  

Some principles of melody writing:
1. Rhythm is more important than pitch in terms of creating memorability. [Katy Perry has proven this time and again with her one pitch song hooks a la "Teenage Dream", "E.T.", "California Girls"]
2. Leaps can make a stronger impression than steps.
3. Simply arpeggiating scales for your melody is generally not a memorable use of leaps.
4. Your basic melodic contours are ascending, descending, static, arch, and inverted arch.

Since I was trying to avoid copying myself, I made an effort to start the melody on something other than the 1, 3, or 5 when possible. After that, I first attempted to just "flow" out what came to me as I looked at the lyrics. I'd get the feel in my head and see how the rhythms of the words laid out over that.  Since these are vocabulary lessons, another limitation was that the words couldn't come out too fast, so in order to keep up the energy I often had the words sustaining over faster moving accompaniment.


One simple hack for creating contrast with your melody writing is to pay close attention to where the phrase begins rhythmically.  If you write every single song where the phrase begins right on the downbeat, you'll have a harder time getting variety. If you're getting in a rut, try waiting until beat 2 to start your melody. Or begin the phrases on a pick up to the measure, like beat 4 or the "and" of 4.  

Other qualities to compare and contrast are: busy rhythms vs. long and sustained vs. short notes with rests in between, syncopated vs. straight, and front heavy or back heavy, meaning if the notes are busy at first and then sustaining longer toward the end of a phrase or vice versa. You can create contrast by not always lining up your busy melodic moments with your busy chord change moments.

Relating to this is how often you change chords. If you're in the habit of changing chords every two beats or every measure, try holding a chord for two bars and then do two measures with two chords each.  Or instead of letting the chords always land directly on the beat, you can "push" the back half of the measure by starting that chord on the "and" of beat 2. (That would likely happen when determining your feel.)


Another way to make a song distinctive is to give it a good solid instrumental hook in the accompaniment. This can be a repeating bass line melody [like Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" or The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army"] or some interesting piano part [like anything by Sarah Bareilles] or a memorable guitar part [like anything by U2].   If you have this, then the song's instrumental bed has legs of its own, and two songs with identical feels and chord progressions might still come across as distinctly different from one another to the general audience.


If you have to create a large body of work with multiple unique musical themes in a short period of time, you must be deliberate about your choices and efficient with your work flow in order to maintain sanity while making forward progress. Quite often, the pay isn't so amazing that you want to spend too long on each song. I had my writing/demo time down to about 20-30 minutes per song [depending on how fresh I was creatively.]

My general process was this:
1. Look at the words and see if a feel or rhythmic pattern seems inherently right for the text.
2. Think of an instrumental hook or accompaniment and determine my starting pitch for the melody.
3. Flow out my melodic idea over some chords, making up both simultaneously.
4. Document my flow of my first idea.
5. Cross check that with my other songs to see if it's too similar.
6. Make edits if necessary.
7. Document my chords and play and sing a quick demo into my voice notes.
8. Email the file and a photo of the chord chart to Kurt so he can start on the track.

I know that a lot of what I've written is specific to this particular job. But I believe that this approach could apply to any collection of songs that will live together, like an album. And somewhere out there are other songwriters who might get handed a job where they have to write several songs at once.  I wrote the first 11 songs all in one sitting. If I hadn't had these songwriting tools up my sleeve, I may very well have cranked out a bunch of really basic songs with diatonic chords and step-wise melodies, and the client could very well have rejected them and asked for rewrites.  Instead I was able to employ a variety of chord progressions and melodic contexts that kept things interesting, and in terms of composition, there were only a couple of songs that needed modifications. Whew!


Here's a toast to all you other hard working songwriters paying the bills with the unsexy work! Cheers!!