All I Want for Christmas (original song)

I’ve written and recorded a Christmas song for three years in a row – I feel like I’m on a roll. This year, I didn’t have an idea for a new song until I fired up Spotify one day and saw their new Holiday playlists. Front and centre was the 1994 Mariah Carey hit, All I Want for Christmas is You. I had an instant gag reflex to seeing this, as I really despise the saccharine lyrics. Yes, there are some really cool musical motifs and chord changes, but that’s really re-purposing from classic holiday songs written decades ago.

Lyrics and chord ideas

At first, I wanted to write a poetic treatise about how sugary and sweet Christmas and the holiday season seems to appear on its surface, but bubbling underneath are things like growing financial debt, family feuds, and an uptick in depression.

I made a short list of keywords: saccharine, sweet, sugar on the one hand, and darkness, depression, and debt on the other. But the poetry wasn’t happening. As I started writing the lyrics, things came out more subversive and almost like a parody of Mariah Carey’s hit. So I just went with it, including borrowing her title.

I introduced a deliberately subversive chord sequence, alternating between C-major and C-minor in the intro and verse. I borrowed this from Ramin Djawadi’s theme for Game of Thrones, which he explained on an episode of Song Exploder. It’s supposed to symbolize the two-faced holiday season, like I mentioned above.

Like all my songs, I developed the chords and melody through both singing and playing the piano. I worked out the chorus lyrics first, then the verses, along with chords and melody, and added the bridge the next day.

Arrangement, recording and mixing

After the song was finalized, I worked out a heavier arrangement with electric guitar, bass, drums, and a vintage organ (all through software instruments). I wanted more of a hard rock / punk attitude. I worked on adding a little more grit to my vocal performance.

The mixing was fairly straight forward; I wanted punchy drums and an in-your-face crunch to the whole song. I used compression and saturation to get a dynamic yet loud mix.

Hope you enjoy it and happy holidays!

See the streets light up
So obscenely bright they blind your way
See the stores fill up
Stuff you won’t keep past Groundhog Day

And all I want for Christmas
Something more nutritious
Sick of all the saccharine
And never play that song…again!

Cram your bellies, filled up
Office parties, stapled smiles
Expectations build up
All the presents piled high

And all I want for Christmas
Something more nutritious
Sick of all the saccharine
And never play that song…again!

Darkness creeps in
As the lights all come down
Bills they rack up
As you put on the pounds

And all I want for Christmas
Something more nutritious
Sick of all the saccharine
And never play that song…again!

And all I want for Christmas
Something more nutritious
All the sugar makes me numb
And all I want for Christmas is dumb!

Interview on ThatChannel.com – Liquid Lunch

I had a great time being interviewed for a youTube channel in Toronto last week. I got to chat with hosts Hugh and Yaz on a show called Liquid Lunch about my songwriting, Song Talk Radio, Beige Shelter, my blog, photography, and my Meetup groups. They also played my music video for Holiday Shopping Spree.

I also met some of the other guests – the fantastic all-female country/bluegrass band Dirty Dishes, and the truly inspiring visual artist and poet Blake Horsley.

I’d recommend connecting with ThatChannel.com to anyone in music, visual art, or literature. They have a great variety of videos on their channel.

The Countless Few (#MeToo)

Following news of sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, many of my female friends posted “#MeToo” on social media. Some of them even shared their own harrowing stories of sexual assault. Their courage and vulnerability really got to me. It’s one thing to hear about famous people who live a world away, but another thing to see these stories coming from people you know. Frankly, it made me feel sick that my friends had undergone such pain in circumstances where better behaviour on the part of men would have prevented them. I knew I wanted to express something, but I didn’t presume to speak for assault victims, or even the guys who perpetrated the acts.

Lyric writing process

I started with lyrics for the chorus:

Is it you too?
Of course we believe you
Wishing it weren’t true
Join the countless few

The idea for the “countless few” came from the notion that this issue is pervasive and it seemed like there were countless women coming forward, and certainly there are countess women who are accosted or assaulted every day. The “few” refers to the notion that, as a culture, we believe it’s rare, or only affects celebrities.

Later, I changed the first line to “You said, ‘Me Too'” as I wanted to include the “Me Too” phrase and I thought it would be more powerful than a question. All too often, I write lyrics that are questions, and I’m trying to make stronger, more affirmative statements. Not to worry, though, I saved plenty of questions for the bridge :).

On the first day of writing, I only had the chorus, complete with chords and melody. I wrote the verses two days later, and then the bridge on the following day. I changed one word in the bridge, “Gotta unlearn the hateful stuff” to “Gotta unlearn the hurtful stuff”, even though “hateful” first came to me, I thought “hurtful” was more appropriate and accurate.

Here’s my worksheet as I worked through the writing. You can see some more earlier versions of lines I went through.

Being conscious about chord choices

I knew I wanted this song to be haunting. I decided to drive both the verses and choruses with minor chords. The last line of the chorus (“Join the countless few”) begins on a major chord, to help highlight that phrase. I also employed one of my favourite chord tricks, flipping the V chord from minor to major (in this case, E-minor becomes E-major), which works best at the end of a phrase where you’re returning to the I chord (A-minor). Check out the chord progression at the end of the chorus.

I made a conscious choice to start with the relative major chord for the bridge, to give it a different colour than the heavily-minor-chord-driven verses and chorus.

I was also conscious about returning to a more haunting quality to end the song. I revisited the verse section with new lyrics and ended the song on the VII chord (G-major in the key of A-minor), which is very unresolved and leaves the listener hanging. Just like this issue remains unresolved, the song doesn’t conclude in resolution.

Production process

I started with recording the piano part, quickly discovering that I couldn’t play it to a click, or steady tempo. The verses had a natural slow down at the end of the each phrase, while the chorus and bridge kept a more steady tempo. So I recorded the piano part in “free time” and re-defined the grid to match my performance. Here’s a screen shot of some the tempo changes in the first verse and chorus:

Notice how there are deep slow downs as the verse lines end. The chorus maintains a more steady tempo.

At the time, I added a cello part and a drum part, but I suspected they just muddied up the arrangement. I slept on it, and the next day it was clear that the simplicity of the piano and vocal was much more haunting and effective. I did add a soft synth pad to complement the piano.

Final version

It’s nice when you’re inspired to write a new song and it comes together fairly quickly. I knew I had to get this out fast, before the emotion of what I was feeling faded. If nothing else, I think writing this song will open the window to looking at this issue in a healthier way.

Download the final lyric and chord sheet.

Can’t believe what I see
The shame of our time
What we’ve put you though
It weighs on our minds

You said, “Me Too”
Of course we believe you
Wishin’ it weren’t true
Join the countless few

There is no excuse
For stealing your pride
Sorrys won’t fix the pain
You don’t need to hide

You said, “Me Too”
Of course we believe you
Wishin’ it weren’t true
Join the countless few

How has this been taught to us?
Can’t we respect the lot of you?
Gotta unlearn the hurtful stuff
Gotta change our attitudes

You said, “Me Too”
Of course we believe you
Wishin’ it weren’t true
Join the countless few

Must listen to what you say
It’s our time to change

Neel on Song Talk Radio with his new Progressive Electro-pop songs

This week, I had the privilege of once again being the guest on Song Talk Radio, where I talked about my current songwriting and recording project of progressive electro-pop songs. For this project, I’m abiding by three self-imposed creative parameters:

  1. I’m not allowed to use the 4/4 time signature
  2. All my lyrics are stream of consciousness, random, and narrative-free
  3. The finished album of songs won’t have any breaks in the sound; songs will blend together like a DJ mix

I was also lucky to have my composer and manic creative friend Frank Horvat on the show in the guest host chair. Frank had some great insights when interpreting my songs and my creative approach. Thanks Frank!

Check out the show page on Song Talk Radio’s site, or just listen to the show here:

Write a Song Together Meetup

In September, I hosted a new event at my Meetup group, The Songwriting Supermarket. I invited members to get together and collaborate on writing a song in two hours. Three other talented songwriters showed up, and we had a blast writing and recording a new song, Don’t Fix Me.

Before the session, I asked each member to state their songwriting and instrument playing skills. Together, we had the bases covered in terms of lyrics, chord progressions, guitarists, singers, and one pianist (me).

I came up with a simple chord progression on the piano while Carole suggested an idea for a song that expressed a message of “It’s not up to you to try and fix me or my problems.” She came up with the title “Don’t Fix Me.”

Meanwhile, Layla, guitar in hand, suggested my chord progression was too complex, so we opted for something simpler. As it turned out, the chords we picked ended up being for the chorus. I wrote a slightly more complex chord progression for the verse.

Layla and Bruce came up with great phrases and rhymes, with some critical input from Carole to make sure we kept to the theme. Together they settled on lyrics for two verses and a chorus. Bruce worked out the melodies as I played the piano.

We collectively decided the song also needed a bridge. Since the verse and chorus were both in major keys (starting on the I and IV chord, respectively), I tried the relative minor for the bridge. Bruce jumped in with a melody that fit perfectly to finish the writing off with a short, 4-line bridge.

We recorded two takes on my Zoom recorder, with Bruce on vocals and myself on piano. For a two-hour session, we focused on getting something done, perfect or not. We managed a complete song, chords, melodies, lyrics, and structure all coming together. Kudos to Bruce, Layla, and Carole for a great session!

Song Studio Student Showcase Photos

I attended the Song Studio Student Showcase at Hugh’s Room in Toronto this year. Song Studio is a week-long songwriting camp in Toronto, hosted by Blair Packham and others. I know several songwriters who have attended and they all say it’s an amazing experience.

For the week’s grand finale, the students put on a show with a stellar backup band featuring Rik Emmett of Canadian rock band Triumph on lead guitar. The students hand over lead sheets containing chords, lyrics and the structure for their original song. The band haven’t practiced or heard the songs before, but within about two measures, they lay down a backing groove like they’ve been performing it for years.

It was a joy to watch the performances, hear the original songs, and cheer on some of my friends. I had my camera in tow, and took a few snaps. My friend David St. Bernard used my phone to shoot a video of the incredibly entertaining closing song by Matt Gerber.

Congrats to the students and faculty for a tremendous show!

How to use the Circle of Fifths to write songs

I know many of you don’t care for music theory. It’s clinical, it’s boring, and it sucks the soul out of songwriting. Well, news flash: you’re using music theory whether or not you intend to. For myself, I know my theory pretty well, as I learned it at young age. I couldn’t tell you if I’m playing in a Mixolydian or Phrygian mode, though, except that it’s fun to throw “Phrygian” into normal conversation.

Case in point: the Circle of Fifths (the Circle). Download a hi-res copy here. I’ve been asked before if a certain chord progression is an example of the Circle of Fifths. The question is missing the point. The Circle of Fifths isn’t a technique like modulation or chord substitution. It’s a way of understanding the essential elements of western music: the notes, the intervals, the chords, and the relationships between them.

It’s the relationships between chords that make a chord progression. Referring to the Circle of Fifths can help you discover interesting chord progressions, particularly when you’re stuck for what the next chord wants to be.

Just like clockwork

The Circle looks much like a clock. Just like there are 12 hours on a clock, there are 12 notes on the Circle. (If you haven’t downloaded a copy yet, you’ll want to so you can refer to it as you read the rest of this article.)

Moving clockwise, each note is a fifth above the last one. A fifth, as we know, is the third note of a major or minor triad (3-note chord), and the fifth note of any major or minor scale. For example, the C-major chord is C-E-G. The G is a fifth above C, and one “hour” past C on the Circle of Fifths. Similarly, an A-major chord is A-C#-E. The E is a fifth above A, and one segment after A on the Circle. This pattern holds true for any starting point on the Circle of Fifths.  And it comes full circle; if you start on C and go up a fifth 12 times, you’ll be back to C.

But the Circle can also be used to represent chords. The outer circle refers to major chords, and the inside circle to their relative minor chords. Remember, the relative minor is always the VI chord in a major key.

For example, in the key of C-major, the 6 major and minor chords are:

I Chord II Chord III Chord IV Chord V Chord VI Chord
C-major D-minor E-minor F-major G-major A-minor

How many songs in C use a variation of these 6 chords? Many popular songs use only 3 or 4 of them. Now look at the Circle of Fifths. The chords touching the C-major are the other five major and minor chords in the key of C major.

Just like the notes, this hold true for whatever key you’re in, or your base starting point on the Circle. In the key of G, all the chords touching the G correspond to the other major and minor chords in that key.

There’s also a great youTube video that explains this well, specifically for guitarists.

Get experimental

Developing a chord pattern based on the six major or minor chords is tried and true. Even if you use the I, IV, and V chords in your verse and chorus, you could try starting with the II, III, or VI chord for your bridge. All the notes you’re using belong to the scale you’re in—i.e. you’re never going out of key.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever used a seventh chord. That’s the one that sounds bluesy or jazzy. It’s called a seventh chord because it’s a major chord plus a flattened seventh note. That is, the seventh note of the scale is taken down by one half-step or semitone. That note is out of key, technically, and it sounds Phrygian awesome (see? It works).

The point here is that going out of key is cool. It creates musical interest, adds tension and can really open up a song.

So how does this relate to the Circle of Fifths, you must be asking? Say you’re writing a song in the key of C-major, and you’re using the tried and true chords—the ones on the Circle that touch C. If you want to extend a little, say for your bridge, or heck, the third line of your verse, try a chord that’s “two hours away” from C. So, try a D-major, B-minor, Bb-major, or G-minor.  Just like the seventh chord, these chords have one note that’s out of the base key signature or scale. The other two notes of each chord remain grounded in the base key signature.

If you want to experiment further, try the chords that are “three hours away” from your I-chord. Once you start introducing chords that have two notes out of key, things start sounding weirder or more dissonant. The trick here is to stay grounded in your home base. It’s fun to travel to strange and exotic places, but it’s reassuring to come back home soon.

And of course, this holds true right around the clock. You can start on any chord and you’ll have five other chords that are guaranteed to work in consonant harmony with it. Try chords that are 2 or 3 hours away from your base, and things can get interesting.

A fine example

The Beatles were masterful at creating interesting changes in the songs without compromising catchiness. In other words, they did some weird stuff without making it sound weird.

Take A Hard Day’s Night as a fine example. The A part starts with G-major, F-major, and C-major. Even though it starts with a G-major, the section is clearly in the key of C-major. The G and F are either side of C in the Circle of Fifths. It’s very consonant (i.e. not dissonant). The second half, however, things start to shift. They introduce a D-major chord (“things that you do”). The D is “two hours away” from C. They quickly return to the G-C-G pattern they introduced at the top to finish off the section. It’s like you’re walking along the curb of a street, and just for a moment, you step on to the road (maybe into a puddle), then right back on the curb.

In the B section (“when I’m home…”) they shift to a B-minor. This is a great contrast for two reasons: it’s “two hours away” from the base C-major, and it’s the minor flavor (it’s also Paul taking the lead vocal from John). By the end of this section, they’ve returned to the D-major chord that we’ve heard before.

The twists are both subtle and noticeable. There’s no mistaking the B section for anything else when it comes in. They always return to base fairly quickly.

Light a new path to songwriting

I co-wrote a song called Light Your Way with Adi Aman for our band Beige Shelter. We released it in May for Mental Health Awareness month.

Download the chord/lyric sheet here.

The verse, pre-chorus, and chorus all remain in the E-major key with no dissonant chords. The pre-chorus introduces the F#m chord which wasn’t used in the verse. For the guitar solo section and bridge, we flipped over by “3 hours” to the C#-major chord. By the end of the bridge, we’re back on B-major which is perfectly consonant with returning to E-major for the final choruses. Sometimes when you step far away from your base key signature, it can be tricky to get back to base.

Writing with purpose

I don’t deny that sometimes you just stumble upon some magical moment when you’re writing; you don’t know why it works, but it sounds cool and different, and you go with it. For myself, I’ve been trying to embrace my intuition for writing more recently. Knowing about the theory doesn’t destroy your intuition; in fact, I think it strengthens it. If you practice writing with purpose enough, you’ll begin to forget the reasons you make excellent snap decisions, but you’ll make better ones and feel more confident that they’re right. Keep on writing.

Light Your Way collaborative songwriting

As part of the indie rock band Beige Shelter, we were approached to write a new song for a youth gang prevention event. Although we declined to perform for the event, we realized our new song was also a great message for mental health awareness and conversation.

My friend and Beige Shelter frontman Adi Aman had written a song a few years ago with a message to help out a friend going through some tough times. Adi sent me a rough recording and his lyric/chord sheet to play around with. In particular, he said he wasn’t very happy with the melody. Before I even got a chance to look at it, he followed up with a revised lyric that was more poetic and a bit more abstract.

The rewriting process

At the time, we were still involved in the youth prevention event, and I took this angle when rewriting the song. I thought a more direct lyric would be more effective in reaching young people. I also wanted to highlight the aspect of reaching out for help and getting it from friends and family. This, to me, is at the cornerstone of good mental health—people need to be willing to come forward and talk to someone they trust, and their communities need to be willing to listen, empathize and help as best they can.

I printed out Adi’s lyrics and chords and sat at my piano to work on the song. Starting with small edits, I quickly found myself rewriting entire phrases. I realized that using Adi’s lyrics as springboards, I could develop a much more direct song, and marry a melody to the words more easily. This is the sort of lyric I never would have come up with on my own, but using Adi’s original take as inspiration gave me the direction and focus I needed. Here are the working pages I used:

Page 1
Page 2
Page 3

I took care to develop a simple, flowing chord progression and catchy melodies. It was amazing how much mileage I could get from using C, G, F, and Am by playing around with the time between each chord change. I introduced a new, unheard chord to start the pre-chorus section. In other words, the Dm had not been heard in the song yet, but the rest of the pre-chorus chords were also used in the verse. This, along with the melodic centre change, was enough to give the listener a sign-post that the pre-chorus was a new section. For the chorus, I returned to the base C major chord but lifted the melody again.

Back and forth

I presented the revised song to Adi and he liked it very much. He had a few revisions for some of the chord changes, especially the unusual chords I used to end the chorus. Adi felt keeping it simple would be more effective, and once he sung it with his rich voice, I was compelled to agree.

Our bass player Tom made a suggestion for a lyric change at the end of the second verse:

Me: It goes “For your grief, but you know…” which is kinda cheap. We need a good word that rhymes with “grief.”

Tom: Believe.

Adi (singing): For your grief, but believe…

Me: And that flows great into the pre-chorus lyric “You have got the strength to carry on…” — well done, Tom!

Feedback from other songwriters

I presented the song at a Songwriter’s Cafe Meetup by playing back the recording from our latest rehearsal. Members found the song to have an inspiring message without being didactic, and with a good flow to the chords and melody.

We adopted two points from the group to improve the song:

  1. Revised the chorus lyric “And you think that there’s no way to see the light” to “And you think there’s no way out of your plight” so that the word “light” isn’t featured twice in the chorus.
  2. Extended the ending to repeat the main hook “We’ll be lighting your way” a few times before finishing the song.

Recording and Producing

We wanted to release Light Your Way as a single during the CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association) Mental Health Week between May 1 and May 7. I knew this would be a tight schedule to get it arranged, recorded, mixed, and released.

During our first recording session, we were still finessing lyrics and making small changes to the chords. I used a rehearsal recording to set the tempo for a drum loop. I recorded Adi playing his acoustic guitar and then recorded his vocals.

Tom recorded a bassline at his home studio and sent it to me. Meanwhile, I developed a drum track and added some piano comping. Our lead guitarist, Karan, was busy with final exams and couldn’t commit to the recording session. I asked singer-songwriter and guitarist Paul Vos to contribute lead guitar based on some noodling I had done on my keyboard. Paul did an awesome job with the last minute crunch and played the part with great finesse.

During the mixing stage, I decided the piano track wasn’t helping and re-recorded an electric piano track with a little more interest than simple comping. I still wanted the acoustic guitar to be the main rhythm instrument—the electric piano was just there to add some weight to the track. I also added a string pad and a tambourine to thicken up the choruses. Finally, I recorded some vocal doubles with Adi for the choruses, again, to give them a little more thickness.

Final release

We wanted something unique for the cover art. Adi happened to see a canvas watercolour painting of tulips that my wife Hema had done a few years ago. He liked it enough to ask her if we could use it for the cover art. She gave us her blessing, and I took a photo of it to develop the cover. We kept it very simple, with the Beige Shelter logo and the title. A big thanks to Hema for her beautiful contribution!

Here’s the final track, which is available on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Google Music and other digital retailers. It was a great joy and privilege to write and produce this song with Adi, Tom, and Paul. Enjoy!

7 ways to bring variety to your collection of songs

When writing a collection of songs, whether for a album release or in general, we sometimes end up playing it safe and resorting to tried and true motifs and ideas for every song.

For myself, when I become a fan of an artist or band, I like to hear a variety of songs. Sometimes the differences are obvious, like a ballad vs. a rockin’ out song. And sometimes, the variety comes in more subtle ways—-ways that only looking closer reveals. Your audience will know something feels different and unique, but only the more discerning listeners will know the how and the why.

More than likely, you’re already doing some of these “7 ways” — they are by no means truly unique ideas, as my examples of popular songs will show. Some of them may not work for you, and this list is by no means exhaustive. Hopefully, looking at these will spur on some more ideas. So let’s get into it.

One: Play with the structure

The typical verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus structure is a go-to for many songwriters. But you don’t have to look any further than the Beatles for excellent examples of structural inventiveness. In I Feel Fine, for example, the title occurs at the end of each verse. Then there’s a “B” section that almost sounds like a bridge, until it repeats later, and then maybe you can call it the chorus. Who knows? And more importantly, who cares? It’s all catchy, the title is clear, and the changes are frequent, regular, and interesting. They did something similar with A Hard Day’s Night, and we argued about discussed it on an episode of Song Talk Radio.

When you play around with structure, the parts of the songs sometimes defy conventional nomenclature. Call it a bridge or a chorus, it doesn’t matter; it’s merely semantics. Sometimes it’s more effective to use terms like “A section”, “B section”, and “tag.”

Sometimes the narrative you establish can inspire an unconventional structure. For my song, Depend on Me, I established a narrative with three distinct parts: an easy going afternoon drive, a car accident, and the aftermath. This structure inspired me to begin the song with a simple verse chorus, verse chorus, then a bridge (for the accident) and a completely new section for the aftermath.

Two: Write a song with very few or no perfect rhymes.

Rhymes are usually an integral part of any song in a popular medium. If there’s anything most genres have in common, it’s rhyming. More “pop” songs characteristically have lots of perfect rhymes. At the other end, folk songs tend to have fewer perfect rhymes.

First, let’s talk briefly about rhyme types. Perfect rhymes are pairs of words which have both final vowel sounds and final consonant sounds the same – e.g. space / race, moan / cone,  exemplify / diversify. Assonance rhymes have the same final vowel sound, but different final consonant sound, and the result is softer – e.g. lost / cough, graze / lake, policy / bakery.

The tricky part might be writing a song that minimizes perfect rhymes. Fast Car by Tracy Chapman comes pretty close, using mostly assonance rhymes to end her verses.

For my own song Hurting. Choosing. Learning, I managed to get through four verses and two choruses with absolutely no rhymes, and writing the verses as haiku poems to boot.

Three: Do a few songs in 3/4 or 6/8 time

This one is fairly common, but still, many songwriters fall back on the ubiquitous 4/4 time signature.

Before I get into examples, let’s go over what time signatures mean and how they work. Time signatures are normally expressed as two numbers (four-four, six-eight, or three-four). 4/4 time is sometimes called Common Time (go figure). The first number, or the one on top, is how many beats there are in one bar or measure. The bottom number represents the note division of the beats. So, if the bottom number is 4, the song is counted in quarter notes. If it’s 8, it’s counted in eighth notes (half the duration of a quarter note). It’s far less common to see a 2 for the note division.

For example, 4/4 time is counted as “1,2,3,4” in a moderate pace. 6/8 time is counted as “1,2,3,4,5,6” where each beat is about half the duration of the quarter notes. Of course, tempo plays a big part in exactly how fast the song is; the note divisions are relative to each other and also represent rhythmic emphasis—i.e. most of the time, there’s a strong emphasis on the “1”, otherwise known as the downbeat. In 3/4 time, the emphasis is usually on the 2 and 3, and in 6/8 time, the emphasis is usually on the 1 and 4. You can usually focus on the kick drum and snare drum hits in a song to indicate the stressed beats.

Compare the songs Wrapped in Grey by XTC and I Go To Sleep by The Pretenders. See if you can identify which is in 3/4 time and which is in 6/8 (hint: in the chorus of Wrapped in Grey, the snare hits on the “2” of every other measure).

Four: Treat your title differently

Many songwriters write from titles, which is a great way to get your song moving in a focused direction, and sticking to that focus. Sometimes the title is a phrase, at other times, a single word or pair of words.

Context is important here – does your title stand alone, or is it part of a larger phrase that maybe connects it with the verse or pre-chorus? Take note of your collection of songs; do you stick to one way of singing your title?

Consider Billy Joel’s song The Stranger. In this song, the “stranger” shows up frequently but it’s always part of a larger phrase in the verse. There’s a catchy “B” part which might be called the chorus, except that the title doesn’t show up there.

Contrast that with a song like Layla, where the title is the main hook (apart from the classic guitar riff), tops each chorus and melodically stands by itself.

Then look at the classic rock song Closer to the Heart by Rush; here the title is a full phrase that ends each verse in a verse-refrain structure (there is no chorus).

You can examine just about any song and note other ways in which the title shows up. Consider melody, narrative and what it might mean if the title was incorporated differently. For example, often when the title shows up as part of a larger context or phrase, the song is following a verse-refrain structure (see tip One above).

Five: Try a song with a quiet / small chorus

Where is it written that your chorus has to be the “big” part of your song? Typically, your chorus has a melodic center change to a higher, more expansive and catchy melody. But in Pretty Good Year by Tori Amos, the chorus is the most understated part of the song. The melody goes nowhere, it’s dynamically quieter, and very simple. The bridge is the section that takes on more characteristics of a chorus, expect the presence of the title and refrain (multiple repetitions in the song).

For a different example, check out the song Pretty by Miggs. The verse has a good amount of melodic range, and is fairly resolved. The chorus (“If it’s worth it..”) has more tension and less melodic range. Similarly to Pretty Good Year, it’s the C-section of the song that takes off with the catchiest, most energetic part of the song (“It takes a lot of steps…”). Call this part the post-chorus, maybe.

I took the “quiet chorus” approach when writing my own song, Brave DaughtersIn this case, the chorus lyric was more reflective and less direct than the angrier verse lyrics, so it led me to treat the music with a lighter energy.

Six: Open a song with your chorus

Opening your song with the chorus is a great way to give it a great kick off, particularly if your chorus is catchy and tight. This works usually when your chorus expresses the central theme of the song, and it doesn’t spoil anything to give it away up front. If you’re used to working in a double chorus at the end of your songs, this is an opportunity to keep that a single, lest you have too many choruses in your song.

A couple of good examples are We’re Not Gonna Take It by Twister Sister, and All About the Bass by Meghan Trainor. (Note: The song doesn’t kick in until over 2 minutes in We’re Not Gonna Take It, but that first couple of minutes is classic music video satire at its finest.) In both songs, the opening chorus is treated more like an introduction, with lighter arrangements than the full-blown choruses that come later.

Seven: Try a different mode in a song

I’ve saved the (arguably) most complex tip for last. Using different modes assumes you know about scales and key signatures, but after that, it’s fairly simple. Customarily, we begin a chord progression on the I chord of the key we’re playing in. But what about starting on the II chord, or III chord? Doing this imparts a subtle tension to your song, and especially works well if you resolve to starting your chorus with the I chord.

Try playing a major scale using the same notes but going from the II tone to the II tone. For example, the Dorian mode in C major would go like this:

D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D

You would also stick to chords in the base key signature. So in the the key of C major and the Dorian mode, this would mean you start your chord progression with a D minor. Famous songs in the Dorian mode include Scarborough Fair (made popular by Simon and Garfunkel), and Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles.

I tried this myself in a collaboration I did with my friend Shari Archinoff, called Winter Without You.

Note that the special, unusual chord progressions start with the II, III, IV, or V chord. It’s very common to start with the VI chord, known as the Aoelian mode or natural minor—just think of every song starting on A minor and using C major, F major, and G major.


You can also combine any of these tips into a single song. Please comment below about any of these 7 ways you’ve used, or about other tips you have for adding some variety to your collection of songs.

Winter Without You (with Shari Archinoff)

I met singer-songwriter Shari Archinoff at one of my meetup groups. Shari plays piano, guitar, sings, and lives in the same neighbourhood I grew up in.

The first time we met, I came up with a simple chord progression on the piano. Shari developed lyrics and a melody for a song about moving on from a relationship with a winter theme. We also threw in a little joke about the debate over the naming of Canada’s national bird. We completed a draft of the song in one afternoon.

Something I’ve been playing around with recently is trying to write in different modes. For the verse, I developed a chord progression in C major, but started the progression on D minor (the II chord). The mode reveals its slightly unusual nature when the G major chord turns up in the verse. Normally, if the song were in D minor, the IV chord would be G minor, but using a G major instead keeps the song in the key of C major, even though it doesn’t start with a C major chord.

A couple of weeks later, I had developed a more interesting chord progression for the chorus and some greater melodic interest for the piano verse part. Shari had completely re-written the lyrics with much greater attention to poetics and melody details.

We performed the song at a Songwriter’s Cafe Meetup in January. Feedback from the group was largely positive, and we ended up taking a suggestion to transpose the song a whole step higher. We found the higher key resonated a bit better with Shari’s voice.

We recorded the final version in my home studio. Shari added some wonderful melody variations to the final chorus.

It was a joy to work with Shari and we’re hoping to do some more writing together.