Last night I watched “Still Bill,” a docu-drama about writer/artist Bill Withers. I have always enjoyed his songs and his artistic style, but after seeing the movie, I appreciate him much more. Here’s someone who decided at 32 years of age to start writing songs and try to do something in the music industry. He didn’t try to write songs for other people. It was always about what moved him, and (IMO) he innately understood the expectations of listeners as he worked through composing his songs.
Some people believe that you can either write or you can’t. I personally believe that anyone is capable at some point of writing a song that people can identify with. The better they understand a few points, the easier it will be for them to get their idea across.
A song, in its simplest form, communicates an emotion.
When you as a writer have an idea for a song, it is because something moved you. You saw something that made you mad; you heard a phrase that made you feel good; you wondered what it would be like to be in someone’s shoes; you experienced something deeply that you need to get out. That emotion is what you want to get across. How you want the listener to feel after they’ve heard your song is just the way you felt when you wrote it.
When you begin writing, start by writing down the phrase, person’s name, or situation that got it started.
If you get lost, come back to that starting point to get your bearings. Also write as precisely as you can the emotion you feel. There is a rainbow of feelings in between sad, glad, and mad. Try to pinpoint it.
For the most part, a song is about one moment in time, with every line written from the same emotional point of view.
That one moment is usually now. If the singer is remembering something, it’s in the context of what’s going on now. If the singer is thinking ahead, he’s still planted in the reality of now.
As for the finer points, each verse should basically say one thing. If there’s a chorus, each time the chorus comes back, it should have a slightly different meaning because of the new context of the verse.
Each couplet should be written like the punch line of a joke.
A joke is really two different planes of thought. You lead the listener along the logical line of thought, then you get to the last word, which introduces a completely different plane of thought. Here’s a pun to illustrate the point – My last job was working in a muffler factory, but I had to quit. It was too exhausting. “Exhaust” is the link word – joining the logical reason for quitting with the physical function of a muffler. Construct your couplet rhymes from the thought generated by the last word, then work backwards for the setup rhyme word.
Musically, a song is a balance between repetition and surprise.
If you get all repetition, you have a boring song. If you get no repetition, you have a confusing song. Repetition is what makes us remember a song, i.e., the melody of the second verse should be the same as the melody of the first verse. After you’ve heard a repetition, then it’s time for a departure of some kind. We anticipate that as listeners. We like safe adventures. Guide us along a new path for a little while, but bring us back home.
I feel those are the biggest basic fundamentals one should absorb into the unconscious songwriting life. Start by internally analyzing songs you love that have made an emotional impact on you:
- Write down the emotion you felt at the end.
- Paraphrase each verse.
- Look at the last lines of each couplet, particularly the last word of the second line.
- Pay attention to how you anticipate a change after the second chorus is through and what happens in the song to satisfy you.
Then start applying this kind of analysis to your basic thinking and develop your own methods for constructing your songs to have the impact you desire.