8 Things Billie Eilish does, that you don’t
Tips on how to craft better songs
Billie Eilish started gaining notoriety after dropping the single “ocean eyes” on soundcloud. Since then, she has 7 gold, and 2 platinum singles. If you are a songwriter (or want to become one), you should make it a habit to study the people you like, and how their songs are constructed. You should come to find vast differences between you and them. Even if you are a “metal” guy, or a blues/folk writer, songwriting is songwriting, and understanding the elements are critical.
With all this in mind, In this post we’re going to examine 8 songs, and highlight 8 things you can do right now to make you a better songwriter. Let’s dive in!
Bad Guy – When we fall asleep, where do we go? 2019
1. Catchy Harmony – Stacked Triad Harmonies
In “Bad Guy”, Billie Eilish uses stacked triad harmony in the verses over each word. Even over each syllable of each word. One of the reasons this is so effective is that the vocals sound very precise. Each overdub laid out only conveys more harmony, and the inflection of each individual word is very close to the other tracks. Try adding harmony to parts of your verse, or chorus, or even a bridge!
Lovely – 13 Reasons Why
2. Exact melodic Repetition in Chorus
In “lovely”, Eilish uses one motivic line to carry the entire section. As a result, we have a verse with strong unity. One 4 bar idea is generated, and repeated to create a chorus. If you typically write choruses that have 2 discrete sections, or more, try using just one. Make sure the melody is strong enough, and you will be able to do this. If it’s not, the melody needs to be edited. Once you have a melody that works, modify the words on each repetition. Exact repetition and varied repetition will be mentioned in other examples below.
We have another article on this topic here
Bury A Friend – When we all fall asleep, where do we go? 2019
3. Varied Repetition in Verses
Bury a friend has a verse setup that follows similar to Ocean Eyes’ chorus, Repetition. In this example, Billie Eilish uses the first line to create all further repetitions. The line, “what do you want from me?” is an 8th note line starting on D. Then, in the next phrase, we see the same melodic line, with the same rhythm, only starting on C instead of D. After that, the line repeats once more the same way as the original one, finally closing into the 4th repetition that outlines a D major chord (highlighted by using F sharp, the 3rd. This is a great example of varied repetition. In truth, this is only one idea played over and over. To compose lines like this, simply tweak one or two small things about them, but above all, don’t go overboard, or they will not be recognizable anymore.
Ocean Eyes – Everything, Everything 2017
4. The name of your song in the first 30 seconds
Being purposefully vague in your songwriting can often be a hinderance, and although there are cases where songs have taken off that are in fact, very vague, in general, it is good practice to be clear to the listener what you’re trying to convey. Having the name of your song in the first verse, or, taking the listener on a journey that leads to the name of the song is a good way to gardener interest.
This tip will likely spark the most conversation between songwriters. There is a camp of writers who believe being vague is part of the “art” of the song. There are others that believe that the lyrics have to spoon feed every detail. Ultimately it is up to you to decide which is best.
Bellyache – Don’t smile at me 2017
5. Use one Chord Progression for the whole song
Songwriters struggle to find the perfect chord progression with their songs. The verse needs one sequence, the chorus needs another, and so forth. The first question is this, is it worth the effort to tweak and edit your perfectly crafted melody to get all those fancy major 7ths, and secondary dominants? Probably not. Maybe? It’s up to the individual. One alternative is to try writing an entire song using ONE (yes one!) chord progression. If you can successfully write a compelling melody with words that follow the harmony of a single sequence of chords, that may be all you need! Instead of trying to add different chords, start thinking about the orchestration of the song.
Copycat – Don’t smile at me 2017
6. Make the end of your verses distinct
In copycat, there are actually 2 different concepts that are important. The first is that the verse is constructed using varied repetition. Measures 1 and 2 present the basic melody, measures 3 and 4 are repetitions by rhythm, with some tweaks to the melody, but not much. The 2nd concept is to make the end of your verses strong. The reason this verse ending stands out, is because the rhythm becomes much more active, and the lyrics present the end of the thoughts that have come so far. When constructing your verses, make the end just as important as the beginning. A good tip to getting into this is to write your ending line first, than work backwards.
I love you – When we all fall asleep, where do we go? 2019
7. Use Major 7th chords
Yes! Even in a depressing love song, you can certainly use major 7th chords! This song, and many others are successful using a I to IV progression with major 7ths. With this in mind, here are some common ways Major 7ths can be used that don’t take much work to apply to your songs.
- Extremely common – I to IV
- Useful – I to major III
- Common – I to major VII
- Very Rock – I to Flat VI
Six Feet Under – 2016
8. Swinging your Melody, Strong beat emphasis
In example 8, Billie Eilish illustrates emphasis on strong beats to carry a somewhat disjointed, stabby melody. With this, the melody actually pulls the beat forward, creating interest. If you listen to this song, you’ll hear how the melody has a swinging, disjointed, lost feeling. The stark harmonic material in the background also emphasizes this, as it is simply 2 chords per measure, in half notes held out.
To practice this, construct a melody, then begin chopping it up and displacing some of the words. Spread your line over the barline, and lighten up on the harmony. Too many chords will be too complex for this application.
How to craft better songs:
- Stacked Triads in harmony – overdub your line with harmony, practice keeping the inflections and performance tight
- Use exact melodic repetition – if it’s catchy, repeat repeat repeat, don’t try to build the roman empire in a 3 minute song
- Varied repetition – Experiment with creating a melody, and only tweaking small parts of it to build a bigger whole
- Name your song or create lyrics that lead to the name quickly
- Use one chord progression – focus on the orchestration and not how many chord progressions
- Make the end of your verses distinct – Your verse ending should not be placeholder, think of it as the end of a sentence
- Use major 7th chords – Yes, they are jazz chords, but they are useful even if you don’t like jazz.
- Swing your melody – Make your melody carry over the barline. A good melody will move not contain itself in one measure, it will flow on
Thanks for reading!
Songwriting links that help with concepts here:
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