Why Copying Successful Formulas For Writing Music Won’t Work

Nothing feels better in music when your work genuinely clicks with an audience. Many of us make music in the hopes that what we create will go on to help listeners feel understood in some way, and seeing that happen can be an incredible payoff. So incredible, in fact, that a song or album’s success can inform the creative decisions we make in the future. The frustrating thing is that copying the songwriting formula that made an old idea successful and pasting it into a new songwriting context probably won’t result in more great music, and can actually work against you in a big way.

Spontaneous creativity can’t be imitated

Things like chord progressions, beats, melodies, and lyrical content can be imitated relatively easily. But recreating the exact emotional, inspirational, and creative conditions that informed a successful song’s creation isn’t possible. It’s sort of like trying to go through the motions of a day you experienced a month ago. Sure, you can retrace your steps by doing each and every little thing you did that day, but you won’t feel the same. The in-the-moment magic we feel when we create music and something incredible seemingly materializes out of thin air is so special because it’s rare, and can’t be bought or bargained with. Trying to force it to happen over and over again will just leave you frustrated.

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Creating conditions for musical success

What you can recreate, however, are some of the positive conditions that you might have been surrounded by when you wrote successful music. Was the music you made written through a random spur-of-the-moment experience, or did it come after months of working at a consistent time and place? How were you feeling and what were you inspired by? Was the eventual piece fully formed out of the gate, or did you spend time tweaking and shaping things until it sounded just the way you wanted to? Instead of focusing purely on the musical elements that made your work successful, paying attention to the conditions that allowed you to create something compelling can help set you up for future successes.

At best, copying the songwriting formula of a successful piece of music will result in something that sounds similar to what you’ve already created. But learning more about what makes you thrive as a musician will help you work in a productive space where great new ideas are more likely to come to you. Knowing yourself in this way is a lot of work, but the rewards you’re likely to experience will far transcend the ones you’ll get from trying to imitate past successes.

Don’t be a victim of your own success

Success in music is rare, so it makes sense why so many musicians let it inform their careers. But living in the past means putting your intention and energy in the wrong place. You can choose to see success as a burden you’re creatively beholden to, or as just another part of a long, unpredictable musical path.

Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

TylerWhy Copying Successful Formulas For Writing Music Won’t Work

11 comments

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  • Dave - September 11, 2019 reply

    Hooks are hooks. You need them. You can indeed think about those while writing, and you should. Without them your song will not have staying power. There is a reason songs like Sweet Home Alabama and Brown Eyed Girl outlive the music created today. They had GREAT hooks, not generic hooks like most of today’s music.

    People need to write in whatever fashion they can, as writing is still better than doing nothing at all. You do need something to say though, if you don’t have anything to say, you may as well get a job that will pay for you to say nothing and the world will have far less terrible songs. It will be a win win.

  • Rick Herron - September 11, 2019 reply

    The Beatles used old formulas to create new songs. So must any songwriter. So have all the greats. Chord progressions and melodies are based on the same note structure and chord progressions they used tried and true formulas and added their own magic.
    Books come from books and the most important thing one can do is learn what the greats did all the way back to classical music and add your own twist. The Beatles played just about every pop song and copied them up until they toured in Germany and later. adding their own pizazz, sound and style. John Lennon explained that there were only so many notes so what could be so hard, or something to that effect. I find the best thing is to learn ones instrument and be able to sing to it. Great songs are often written by accident and writing a lot of songs is the best way to improve. Try as many styles as you can and become familiar with them. Accidents happen and often the emotion doesn’t happen until you begin to explore the songs possibilities. If you have to wait till the right moment then you better look for another art form.

    Go10 - September 12, 2019 reply

    Church!!!

    Shane - September 12, 2019 reply

    That is a really cool comment…reading the title of this blog post my initial reaction was “what?” Song structure or arrangement is very much a “formula copy” thing. Most successful songs follow a very “copied” formula. Intro, verse, chorus etc. I think what the writer is getting at is trying to make lighting strike in the same place, the same way sorta thing. Repeatedly writing the same song because the 1st one was so successful….maybe, that’s what I got from it anyway. As far as “waiting” for that magical moment, you’re right…as songwriters we should be able to “perform on cue” to some degree. The spontaneous emotional content of a piece comes from, as you said, knowing your craft. A songwriting formula can be a really good thing, why do you think the same people write multiple great songs? They figured out a “formula” and within it are able to be spontaneous and emotional. These people aren’t “lucky”. They understand what makes s great song and they work within those perimeters. Certain progressions resolve a certain way and understanding this “formula” isn’t an accident, but at the same time great songs can happen by “accident”, but I think that is what is so great and subjective subjective about songwriting…you never know how someone else is going to react to your art, but you can understand what makes a great song and work within that formula, some will be better than others, but chances are you’ll have more good than bad… or I’m talking out of my neck…Hopefully that makes sense. Anyway, just wanted to add to what you said.

    Chad - September 12, 2019 reply

    👍

  • Jeff Parks - September 11, 2019 reply

    Very well said Rick!

  • Ralph - September 12, 2019 reply

    The best thing you can do is build ideas around a successful formula – which is not what this author seems to suggest. There are many different ways of approaching song writing so maybe this will work, but I have found when I am at a loss with a song, if I build it under a formula (like Verse, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus, Chorus) I may end up with a workable song. This formula is a basic one I use quite a bit in writing Christian Contemporary music which I think is one of the easiest venues to write.

    My suggestion is to take your idea (maybe it’s a hook or cool chorus) and build out the different parts; Make your Verse and Bridge and Chorus maybe even a pre-chorus and possibly a repeating ending. Fill out each section and finish your idea. The worst thing I hear is when someone comes up to me and says ‘Hey, listen to this cool lick’ – I’m left with feeling the song is incomplete. Challenge yourself to write a complete song in a couple of hours – it may not be the best thing you write, in fact it may be terrible but you may surprise yourself. Remember this, you can always go back afterward and change it around. At the end of the day you will have something that you didn’t have before you wrote it. My site is full of that kind of writing. If you like my songs then maybe I’m on to something, if not then at least I’ve given you some idea how not to write a song. The biggest thing is have fun doing it.

  • karl - September 12, 2019 reply

    “Success in music is rare”
    You mean popularity and money? I don’t and will never lament that I didn’t write “who let the dogs out,” or most anything that blares over the airways today.

  • Dennis - September 12, 2019 reply

    Rick,
    I’m always interested in any songwriter that’s inspired by the Beatles music. I agree with much of what you wrote above.According to various interviews, many of Paul McCartney’s musical influences came from his father,also a musician,who listened to and worked in big bands of the era himself.Much of the music of that period[’40’s-50’s] did not follow simple formulas and was highly inventive.

  • Chad - September 12, 2019 reply

    Tell that to Aerosmith!

  • Lola Parks - September 12, 2019 reply

    Look at who’s successful at what you want to do – songwriting – and 80/20 Pareto principle: 80 % familiar, 20% original. Emotion has to be yours, the story essentially yours. But you can work off chord progressions – they will inevitably change a bit as you write – and alter tempo, key, chords. I wouldn’t suggest copying melody – but take certain parts “of the wheel” that you like, and own it and make it your own with various changes. I think the idea (?) is to not just copy, but make your own versions that may avail of things you like in songs already out there. You have to not only like it but feel it – It has to be genuinely you and yours. Or it’s just a copy.

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