Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How To Write Songs

How To Write Songs

I have no formal music training, and am completely a self-taught musician and songwriter.  This is just one songwriter’s process, described with lessons learned and advice for the like-minded.  If someone had shared this with me 25 years ago when I wrote my first song, it would’ve helped.  

Songwriting can be almost effortless at times, and that’s when it’s fun.  Other times it feels more like hard work and a struggle.  Rarely can you boost a bad draft to a keeper, but it is possible, and when it happens, it is a result of hard work spinning your wheels when the magical solution presents itself.  Those are the exception, and usually the songs that you write quickly as if it’s being channeled through you are the best.  Different aspects of songwriting come easier for some people than others, depending on things like their natural talents, inclinations, preferences, abilities, etc. - whether they be the lyric writing, music writing, or other various aspects.  Based on this, I will divide this post into sections accordingly to cover my experience and comfort level with each aspect.  

The amount of pain and agony involved with songwriting varies with the stages in the process, and depending on your process the sequence of those stages may vary as well.  The experience factor is similar to playing an instrument - some can log a ton of practice hours and still not be very good, while others are seemingly born with a high level of talent.  Everyone has different strengths, but here’s my assessment of my own pain level for each stage and a description of how I don’t always follow a consistent process for every song.  

The Scott Cooley approach to songwriting described herein assumes you’ve already looked up the basics about typical song forms (verse/chorus, verse/pre-chorus/chorus, AABA, etc.) and song sections (chorus, bridge, verse, etc.).  It also assumes you like popular vocal music (rock, folk, blues, country, etc.) that has words and singing versus classical or instrumental jazz.  It also assumes you at least know how to play some basic chords on an instrument.

Sequential Approach
I’m usually a lyrics-first writer, only because I find myself most often inspired about an idea for a song when I have a way to get the lyrics written but don’t have a way to get the music written (no instrument).  We all have smartphones on us most of the time nowadays, and they usually have a text editor or audio recording app.  You’re not always near a piano or happen to have a guitar with you.  So, you hit record and do a note to self, or you type stuff, or you write it on a napkin, etc..  Even without the phone, you can always find a pen and paper in most places where you find yourself, but don’t necessarily find yourself in a place where you have a way to borrow a handy instrument.

This article focuses on writing lyrics first, but of course I also am fully capable of doing it the other way around, and have done so with success in the past.  Quite often a musical idea you come across will drive how the entire song is written, including the lyrics.  Making lyrics fit music is in some ways easier.  My songs are not super complicated musically, and I believe the lyrics are slightly more important for someone who writes the kinds of songs that I do.  Sometimes you like songs only because of the music, others you like only because of the memorable chorus and have no idea what the lyrics in the verses are, but more often than not it’s the total package that you like, and that usually means good, meaningful lyrics throughout.

Fun, somewhat painless.  The idea for the song is the most important part - not just the main topic, but your point of view on that topic.  If you’ve got a great concept for a song, it can write itself.  The concept has to be about a feeling - and the concept itself must be the thing that motivates you to finish the rest of the song in the first place.  Follow the inspiration.  Of course it can be about topics covered in other existing songs - either your own or other people’s, but it has to be a new take or a different way of looking at the topic that hasn’t been done before, or at least, not that you’re aware of.  Starting with a title that summarizes that concept can be one way to start.  Coming up with a topic idea for a song is typically pure inspiration.  The emotion you’re experiencing is what drives you to finish writing about it.  You’re basically just filling in details of a skeleton theme.  

On the other hand, sometimes you come up with it only in the process of stream-of-consciousness lyric writing.  Usually though, the idea usually just strikes you, maybe as a reaction to an experience you’ve had, a conversation you’ve had or overheard, reading a book, watching a movie or tv show, listening to other songs, etc.  This often leads you to a title for the song, and a good idea of what the main theme of the chorus and hook will be.  From these, you can build the rest of the song, so it’s not a bad way to start.  Typically, you’ll operate within the subject matter and associated genre confines of, for example, love found/lost (pop, R&B), celebration/party/wild&crazy/escape (rock), a song about a place (folk), drinking/fishing/patriotism (country), etc., only your goal will be a fresh take or angle on these that hasn’t been done before – I guess that’s the challenging part, but when it strikes you like a lightning bolt, it’s a no-brainer.

Lyric Writing
Fun, somewhat painless.  Especially on a computer, with a word processor and online rhyming dictionary and google, you’re set.  This assumes you’re starting with the words as opposed to fitting words to existing music, and further it assumes you’re probably starting with a title and overall concept already.  It’s really just a matter of expanding the title and concept into a chorus, then making it a conversation/story that has the basic elements of a story – the verses can identify a beginning, middle and end, and a bridge can provide a different perspective or tie things together.  

You’ll want to select a form structure along the way – either from the start, where it serves as a skeleton template form where you simply fill in the blanks, or just focus on getting all the story down, and after you have all the lines of information you want to include in the song, then rearrange them to fit the form structure.  Google ‘song forms’ and you’ll see there are only about 5 or 6 that most songs use, with optional variations.  
If you’ve started with music, and are trying to write lyrics to fit the music, you obviously already have a set form, and again, it’s a fill in the blanks thing.  Typically, you’ll want to pay attention to having lines with close to the same number of words and/or syllables as each other in each song section (verse, chorus, bridge), and change the rhyming scheme between sections, making sure you have agreement and keep in mind the basic and commonly-accepted rules (rules which if broken in the right way, of course produce great variations).  

The lyrics, when flowing out of you, are words and ideas you can’t wait to get out of your head and down on paper before you lose the cool concepts for the content.  Jot it down quickly, as you can always fix the little things like syllable pronunciation and meter later.  It’s the ideas that you want to capture while they’re fresh - the things you want to say and the point you’re trying to get across - the rhyming and story details and sequence of information can be perfected later on after you’ve got the bulk of the content down.  A final clean-up is then just a matter of getting it as close to ideal as possible while wearing your editor hat and looking at the song in its entirety.  

Music Writing:
A little more painful, depending on things.  When you’ve already got the lyrics done, and you have a structure with the song form, and a rhyme scheme, and the number of syllables in each line comes close to matching similar lines, then you’ve got something that’s easy to work with.  As you read the lyric either in your head or out loud, without pausing, the song as a whole will usually have patterns that become more evident - and these patterns will help you “envision” the music as you read it.  It’s got to be interesting to listen to, only not plagiarize existing songs that are interesting to listen to.  

Style considerations must be taken into account if you are after a particular genre of song – they can often dictate the key musical elements.  You have to come up with something new, yet something that uses some commonly-accepted elements that provide tension and excitement.  You probably want to use some commonly-accepted chord families for the key the song will be in.  You will want to stick with the structure of one of the major popular song forms, and not stray too far from it.  

You must have an exciting melody – hummable, whistleable, memorable – this is by far the most difficult part.  When you’re trying anyway, it’s hard, but sometimes it just happens naturally and you stumble upon a good one by accident.  Otherwise, you need to know how to read music unfortunately, and piano might be a better instrument for guitar for writing melodies.  When writing music to fit lyrics that are already written, this makes it a lot easier, at least from a harmony/chord perspective.  

Well-written lyrics have lines with close to the same number of syllables.  Within those lines, if you just speak the lyrics aloud or in your head, there is a built-in meter where you can hear a rhythm while reciting, and then you can place “ghost” markers above words where the chord symbol will eventually go.  This is where a “dummy melody” starts to form in your mind as you read through the lyrics.  You can hear where a chord should be played and where the changes would most likely be (usually at the start of a phrase within a line, and associated with emphasis on a syllable), and then mark those with an X above the word where the chord would be played throughout the lyric sheet.  These serve as placeholders for the actual chords.  Then it’s just a matter of picking a key and chords within that key and replace the X markers with the letter of the actual chord.  

A final step then would be to play those chords on a guitar and start singing the lyrics along with them, and the melody sort of naturally appears.  You could do this with a piano or some other instrument besides guitar, if you know how to play chords on it.  Music-first writing for motown tunes often started with a bass groove, so don’t rule out writing on bass, where the chords are the root notes.  

When selecting a key, go for one that is good for your own voice if you’re singing your own demo, of course, otherwise consider the range of the singer.  The chords you select can be fairly easy if you just do a google search on chords for a particularly.  There are usually five or six chords that are in the same family, and usually go well with each other, then there are substitution chords that sometimes also work well.  You can use the circle of fifths chart too - so google that and look at it.  The melody notes themselves usually are notes that make up the chord being played while sung, so I’ve been told.  

For writing music first, when you don’t read music, you can just play a chord sequence and hum or whistle along with it until the whistling sounds good, then replace whistles with sung words.  These serve as the dummy singing melody.  Then just write your lyrics to fit.  Otherwise, if singing in the key the song is in, usually the first chord played in the song, the melody notes just sort of work themselves out naturally, so that when you’re done with your song, someone who does know how to write/read music can verify for you that they are technically allowable notes you are singing that are in the chord being played, and in the key the song is in.

Arrangement stuff can come last.  If you’ve got your verses, bridges, and choruses written - that is, both the music and lyrics for each part - then the order they take will come naturally according to commonly-accepted song forms.  The toughest decisions might be where to place an instrumental break, and which chords to play for the intro, and then whether to end the song with a fade out or something more abrupt.  These decisions are minor and can be tweaked once you start recording.  Often when you listen back to one of the first recorded versions of your song it will occur to you how to handle the arrangement.  Other times you know from playing it live and solo how it should best be arranged.  It is important to notate these decisions on your lyric sheet so you won’t forget when it comes time to do a final recording.

Rewriting bad songs is a waste of time, but some parts you might re-use someday, so don’t throw it away completely.  Save the lyrics at least.  Rewriting borderline keepers can promote a song to keeper only rarely.  You can rewrite the heck out of a mediocre song and maybe elevate it to a deep album track keeper, but never a hit single.  My advice is to move on to the next new song, and don’t spend too much time rewriting.  Keep coming up with new ones, and then you’ll have a better chance at one that sort of writes itself into being a quick keeper.  When you run out of those completely, need more to fill out an album, then go back to the borderliners and polish them up to get an acceptable filler song, but only when you need a break from trying to write new songs.  

Songs that aren’t very good at all from the get-go might have some recyclable parts and pieces for a future song, but again, do the recycling as a last resort.  Many times I’ve listened back to my catalog tapes of first take recordings, and I make notes right next to the titles on the cassette j-cards, or on the lyric documents.  The notes will often say something like “awesome music, bad lyrics” - in which case I can make future lyrics with no chords yet fit the music.  The opposite has also happened where I’ll note the lyrics are excellent, but don’t work with the music, and a future set of chord changes can be made to fit.  This is again why writing down both the chords and lyrics, accompanied with a rough first take recording, are good things to have to fall back on.  Going back through your notes and parts of songs that worked is a good exercise to get yourself through writers block.

Vocal Key
The key the song is in matters after you’ve listened back to a recorded version and you realize it’s too low or too high to work well with your voice.  Re-do it with a capo, or transpose if possible to make it work better for your range.  This is a hassle, but worth it, and may even be an important factor in whether a borderliner has potential to be a keeper in the first place.  The most painful is the re-recording in the new key, so it’s important to take this into consideration early in the songwriting process.  

Lead Sheets
Not writing down the chords (or lyrics for that matter) can be a huge source of pain later on down the road.  I’ve recorded a ton of songs early in my songwriting experiences where I never wrote down the lyrics or the chords I was playing, and it’s a big pain to listen back to the tape and pause constantly to type up the lyrics and get out the guitar to figure out the chords and then type those too.  Document it as you’re doing it, and don’t assume you’ll remember certain parts later.  Tapes wear out, so your cool songs can be lost forever.  

You can’t rely on your own memory either - even if you regularly practice and memorize your own material, when you’ve written hundreds of songs, it’s nearly impossible to remember everything given your free time availability.  Write it all down in that word document, and back up your hard drives.  If you actually know how to write music - that is notation on a staff, go for it.  If you know the Nashville number system, document that too.  I don’t know either, but writing the chord letters above the word where strummed at least helps, so I highly recommend the discipline to do this.

Instrumentation and effects decisions are often driven by the overall feel of the song.  This gets off the topic of this article, but the recording process matters a little bit since the finished product is important in the overall process of writing a song.  Aside from being able to teach a band the song or perform it live by yourself, the recording ends the songwriting process, so it does indeed matter what it sounds like.  Sometimes only after it’s fully recorded in a multitrack environment with several instrument and vocal tracks mixed, do you hear the need to tweak to the point of where you would consider it rewriting the song.

Giving it time is maybe another important aspect of writing a song.  Once you’ve got a batch of keepers you’ve written, ignore them for several months.  Then re-listen.  You’ll be surprised that some aren’t as great as you thought when they were freshly written, and on the other hand, you’ll be surprised that some you were on the fence about are much better than you originally thought.

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