Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Cons of Inconsistency

One of the big secrets to writing effective pop music is consistency. In fact, I believe this is one of the MOST important skills an aspiring songwriter can master, but still one of the most overlooked.

By consistency I mean that certain elements of your song need to remain relatively stable as in order to give the impression of a cohesive whole. In general, your tone, theme, mood, subject matter, voice and point of view should all stay within a certain "range" and any wild musical or lyrical shifts ought to be the result of carefully considered design as opposed to haphazard chance.

How many times have you been on youtube and listened to an original song with lyrics all over the map? How many times have you listened to a new song that was pleasant enough but it feels oddly bipolar or schizophrenic (and not in a good way)? How about songs that start off with solid, concrete imagery, then lapse into the realm of the abstract, before finally turning into a jumble of clich├ęs? Many of these problems can be traced to a lack of consistency.

Here are some of the more important types of consistency to keep in mind while writing "pop" songs.

1) Consistency between lyrics and music.

All else being equal, you want your music to roughly match the feel of your lyrics. You might have some great words you're just DYING to use, but don't assume you can just randomly graft them onto the first catchy melody you come up with. If your melody sounds like a sweet lullaby, combining it with a political dissertation on war in the Middle East won't work 99 out of 100 times. Listen to your music. What's it saying? Listen to your lyrics. What music expresses the emotion therein?

With this in mind, I am fully aware of the way a writer might use tools like irony to pair a happy melody with a sad lyric, and vice versa. Or perhaps a writer could employ mechanical beats to provide dynamic contrast or undercut a particularly passionate lyric. These types of maneuvers require a particularly deft touch, however, and most of the time they play off the consistency our ears expect.

2) Consistency of Pronoun Use

Unless you're deliberately obscuring your lyrics for some artistic reason, you want to be clear on who did what to whom, and where and when it happened. Too often I read lyrics and I can't figure out what the hell's going on because the pronouns are either shifting or unclear to begin with. Did "he" run off with "her" brother? Or are "you" running off with "him" because some OTHER "she" betrayed "us" both? Just like normal writing, you want your pronouns to be clear and consistent.

3) Consistency of Tense

Hoo boy. Here's another common trap that writers fall into: The song starts off in the present ("He's driving all night, looking for his girl..."), then shifts to the past at some point ("Then he FOUND her in that diner..."), then back to the present for a second verse, and then suddenly we're in the past again! Unless you're HG Wells, you want to avoid all the funky time travelling, especially when describing a specific event at a specific point in time. If the song's events are in the past, keep them in the past. If they're happening in the present, keep it in the present.

Of course, there are songs that start out describing the past ("I went out searching") before moving into the present to describe something that's happening now ("…but NOW I have you"). However, it's still vital that you keep the tenses consistent with the song's narrative time line, and any switch in tense should be clear and logical.

4) Consistency of Voice.

Whatever voice you start the song with, that's the one you want to carry throughout (unless you have a thematic reason for switching). So, for example, if your "voice" is happy, conversational, and uses "everyday" language, don't abruptly switch over to angry, professorial or pretentious language in your chorus. This seems like obvious stuff, but too often people get tripped up trying to make a line work where it plainly doesn't, just because they're enamored with a particular phrase. Writers need to learn to sacrifice parts (even parts we love) for the good of a song's overall consistency.

More to come…

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