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February, 2013

"Help With Songwriting"

by Webmaster

I got an email recently, from a woman I don't know. She wrote about her failed attempts at songwriting and said she needed help. A mutual friend told her to contact me.

I noted that she mentioned she had some half-written songs. I have a lot of those. I also have a lot of what I call B-list songs. They're written but there's something wrong with them. They didn't turn out the way I'd hoped they would. I took one to a songwrting group in December. They gave me ideas about how to fix the song and enthusiasm to try to make it work.

Thinking about the help I got from my songwriting group, I sent her this reply:

There is an NSAI group that meets near you. NSAI is the Nashville Songwriters Association International. I go to 2 songwriting groups in Colorado Springs. One is NSAI. They are wonderful for helping people get their songs critiqued, with very useful comments about how to make it better. Think about these meetings as a team of people who want to help you write better songs.

If you choose to join NSAI, you will have access to videos about songwriting, and 12 song critiques / year. They are geared toward helping you write current country songs. Some of their instruction and advice will be correct for all genres of music. Some will not.

When I first started writing songs, I went to the Denver Public library and read bunches of books on songwriting. I also went to workshops and music camps. These days you can get all that info online. Just google songwriting. There are a lot of web sites that tell you how to write songs. There are even videos on YouTube.

In August, there is a song school at Planet Bluegrass in Lyons. It is wonderful! I've been there several times.

Last year I made a list of 100 popular songs in a variety of genres that I really liked. I found the lyrics and chords, and studied them. I looked at what I liked about them, and how they were constructed. It is a wonderful exercise to help you get clear about the basic structure of songs, and get familiar with the language of songwriting.

I am a writer, a lyricist and a poet. I am not a good musician. And, I'm limited in the styles of music I can play and sing. But, I'm not limited in the variety of lyrics I can write. I look for co-writers to help me with songs that are musically outside of my comfort zone. So, most of my comments will be about lyrics. However, it is important for the music (chords, melody, rhythm, tempo) to be in sync with and support the lyrics. I know how that works, too.

Right off the bat, I'd say learn the components of a song: verse, chorus, bridge, pre-chorus, introduction, ending and hook. Learn the purpose for each song component and how they are arranged. Study how good songwriters use them.

Take one of your songs and think about the emotion of the song. What do you want the listener to feel? Then think about sensory images (not just sight, but sound, touch, taste, smell, hearing) that makes you feel that emotion. Write all the possible ideas down and see where they take you. Free associate. Don't edit yourself at this point. Turn off the critical voice in your head. No matter how far-fetched it seems, write it down. Use adjectives with nouns that seem improbable. I used "triumphant new red shoes" in one of my songs. Take two images that don't go together, and see what they have in common and how you can tie them together.

Some books recommend writing exercises that you do every day when your mind is ready to free associate. Just pick an object and write down every sensory image that comes to your mind for 10 minutes. Go deep into an emotion that the object evokes. That gets you into the habit of being aware of all your senses and their connection with your emotions.

At some point, come up with a short phrase that is catchy, memorable, unique, and is a symbol of the emotion you want to convey. That will be your hook. Bob Seger is a master at writing songs with hooks. Listen to his songs.

Rewrite your song around your hook. Make sure that everything in your song supports your hook. Make sure you leave out anything that doesn't support your hook. If your hook image is a tree standing alone on a mountain, don't suddenly start writing about a boat adrift on an ocean.

Try limiting the scope of what you are writing. Look at photographs and realistic paintings. Some are photographs of entire forests. Some of pictures of a single leaf, edged with ice. Some are photos of crowds of people. Some are photos of one or two faces. Think about your song. Are you trying to write about a forest when you only need to write about a single leaf? Are you writing about a crowd when you only need to write about one or two people?

Songs that tell stories are usually easier to write than songs that are just about emotions. So, you might think about putting your emotion into a story. That way, you can show what you mean rather than telling about it. I think about a song as a series of slides: each slide moves the story along. Picture the slide. What's in it? What are the colors? The objects? The weather? The furniture? The odors? The sounds? The temperature? Unfortunately, TV and movies have taught us to depend on sight and sound, and ignore touch, taste and smell.

Smell is one of the most powerful trigger of memories that we have. I can remember one cold night, walking home from the bus stop after work to my empty house, and smelling something cooking in the house I was passing. It reminded me of coming home after school to something my mother used to cook for dinner. By the time I got to my house, I was crying and wanted to "go home." Steve Spurgin wrote a song about his grandmother, "She Always Smelled Like Lilacs."

Think about the characters in your story. What would they say and do? What actions would support your hook?

I stopped writing there. It was late and I figured I had enough to get her started.

Upon re-reading this, I realized I wrote nothing about the back-story in a song that doesn't have an expressly-stated story line. I wrote nothing about rhyme or meter. I wrote nothing about present vs. past tense or active vs. passive verbs. I wrote nothing about the narrator of the song, or the personal "I" point of view vs. "you" vs "them." I wrote nothing about the actual craft of songwriting. I guess it's because all the craft techniques won't help you if you don't know what you want to say. Emotion is the core of a song, for both the music and the lyrics.

For the most part I start with lyrics. There have been only two times that I started with music, when the music itself inspired me to write. Founders: Bands, Singers, Songwriters, Solo Performers, Sidemen, Instrumentalists, Performers, Entertainers, Musicians, Places to Hear Acoustic Music, Locations, Venues, Clubs, Festivals, Business and Services Supporting Acoustic Music, Music Stores, Musical Instruments, Music Teachers Ernie Martinez played a chord progression for me, which inspired me to come up with some characters. They became the heart of a poem, and I speak the lyrics to Ernie's music, which he re-arranged to go with my spoken lyrics. In another case, I wrote a poem that was longer than Dave McClure's instrumental piece. I saw images in my mind while I listened to his recording. With his permission, I arranged the music to go with my poem: slowed it down and then copied and pasted sections where I needed them.

Many songwriters are like me: they start with lyrics. Many songwriters start with music. Many songwriters write music and lyrics together. However they start, the successful ones make sure the emotion of the song is consistent in lyrics and music. I like to think that the music supports the lyrics. Perhaps the lyrics clarify the music.

I've taken a number of songwriting classes, workshops, seminars, etc. and notice they seem to concentrate on writing lyrics. I did that here. I think, in some ways, it's easier to teach lyric writing than music.

The next two columns will be about writing music.

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