Breaking the Rules of Sync Songwriting

Nov 13, 2020

One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Pablo Picasso. It is “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

I think about that quote all the time when I'm making music. I feel like if I'm not pushing the envelope or breaking the rules or bending the rules just a little bit, then I'm either bored with what I'm creating, or I feel like the people that I'm going to be sharing this music with are going to be bored.

That's really what it comes down to for me. I feel like everybody needs something that they're doing for themselves, even if they are making music for other people, like for sync, like I do a lot. Or whether you're just trying to write music for your fan base, or whatever it may be. So for me, this quote is the one that I most identify with and I kind of carry with me no matter what music I'm making and who I'm making it for.

So I'm going to share three rules for sync and how I go about bending them, breaking them, or taking them out of context to make the music more interesting.

Rule #1

One of the first rules that you often hear for sync is don't use nouns, don't use person place or thing names, right? One of the themes that you're going to see as I go through these rules is don't do this unless you mean to. And that's the key part of it.

If you're going to break the rule, make it obvious that you're breaking the rule, do it on purpose. So, for example here - don't use nouns, don't use a person's name. It makes sense in general, for sync. You don't want to be singing about some person named Tim? It's if the characters are on the screen or in the film, and none of the characters are named "Tim", then why are you singing about this person?

And if one these people are named "Tim", then it ends up being kind of too 'on the nose' and the song just feels weird. So what you could do instead, is to kind of bend this rule a little bit. What if you wrote a song and used a non-traditional name, but you wrote it as if that word is a name.

You could imagine a blues or rock song or something, like a gritty blues song where they say, my name is "Trouble", right? So it's kind of a nickname. Or they call me "Sin", and then it's like a metaphor for this other thing. You're not really focusing on what the name is of the character though. You could get away with doing something like that. I think that it could be kind fun to write a song like that.

Rule #2

A second sync rule is don't use 'he' or 'she' pronouns. That divides up the opportunities that you have to sync that song. So if you're writing a song and it's all about 'she this' and 'she that', then that's going to mean that those sync opportunities have to be from a female perspective. It can't be for a male character on the screen or in an ad or whatever.

Those are generally good rules if you're trying to maximize the opportunities for your song. However, one of the most common sync requests are for 'female empowerment' songs. There's a bunch of other ones, but female empowerment is a big one.

In those cases, you really want to lean into the 'she' and the female, the feminine aspects of the language that you're using in the song. Those are situations where if you hear that rule or someone on a panel saying 'you know, don't use nouns and don't use he or she, and all these other things', then it's like, yes, but if I want to, then you can. As long as you do it well, then that's all that matters.

Rule #3

The last rule that I'm going to share with you is don't use cheap sounding instruments, right? We hear that all the time. Don't use cheap sounding virtual instruments. Your midi sound is dated. Or it sounds cheap, or you need to update your sounds. Again, that's true, unless you are doing something on purpose, right?

So if you listen to "The Postal Service", there's a couple of songs where they use string pads in the back of their songs. If you listen to those, those strings don't sound great. Like if you just took them out and tried to make like an orchestral string arrangement using those string sounds, it would sound horrible.

But the whole thing about The Postal Service that I heard an interview with one the of The Postal Service band that they used just one (I think it was a Yamaha) keyboard for all the sounds on those albums. And it totally works because they're playing off of the fact that things sound very lo-fi in that style of production.

If you listen to the band "Cake", man, pretty much any song, if you listen to the guitars, the guitars sounds so bad! I've heard it in an interview where they purposely use a super cheap guitar that barely stays in tune. It's just part of the sound, right?

If you listened to "Bone Lovers" "Skinny Love", the guitar on that sounds horrible! It's like out of tune the vocals - he's a great singer, but the vocals are doubled and tripled and they kind of clash in places, but it's part of that sound, and he's doing it on purpose.

He's not trying to write a Celine Dion monster ballad and using like a crappy guitar and vocals that are doubled and kind of out of tune in parts. He's doing this particular thing, and he's meaning to do it, and it is on purpose. And that's kind of what makes it interesting, right?

So that's what I want to leave you with for this week. If you're going to break the rules, know why you're breaking them, and do it ON purpose. Do it WITH purpose.




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