Yes, you can.. write a song.

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.

Creating Emphasis

The meaning of your lyric depends on which word gets the emphasis.  For example, the phrase “I’m going to the store” could mean:

  • I’M going to the store    (not you, me)
  • I’m GOING to the store  (in motion, on the move)
  • I’m going TO the store    (not away from it)
  • I’m going to THE store   (the only one, the most important one)
  • I’m going to the STORE  (not the office)

As a songwriter, you have two ways of creating emphasis: pitch and rhythm.

PITCH

“Pitch” is how high or how low a note is.  There are always exceptions, but as a rule high notes get more emphasis than low notes.  For example, the old nursery song “Row Row Row Your Boat” begins with a low pitch on the word “row” and rises to a higher pitch on the word “boat.”  In this case, “boat” would get the emphasis in the phrase.

RHYTHM

Rhythm is concerned with the beat or the flow of the melody. In general, longer notes get more emphasis than shorter notes, and remember – space counts.  If you sing a note and wait a while before singing the next note, it has the same effect as holding the note out. There are three ways to emphasize a melody note with rhythm:

  1. Start the note at the usual place and hold it longer
  2. Start the note earlier and release it at the usual place
  3. Wait a little longer before singing the next note.

TONE

In addition to these two ways of creating emphasis, singers have one more tool: tone.  Tone can be changed in a number of ways.  For example,

  • If you’ve been properly singing every line and then you speak a couple of words, the spoken words will stand out and get emphasis.
  • If you’ve sung a line in a normal tone and then sing from the back of your throat for a couple of words, those will stand out.
  • If you “growl” on a few words, those will stand out and get emphasis.

These variations become especially useful when you’re singing a song demo.  Remember that musically your song should be a balance of repetition and surprise.  Too much repetition and the listener is bored.  Too much surprise and the listener is confused. If you’ve sung the chorus the same way twice, it’s time to make a change for the third time.  If you’ve already sung the first verse straight, you have the freedom to give the second verse a little more expression. Take note of where you want to create your emphasis , try each method – pitch, rhythm, and tone, and use what works best.

Songwriting – the big picture

I’ve given a course on songwriting and presented a few talks on aspects of it to various groups. While I haven’t published anything formally, I wanted to use this blog to at least give the main points of my approach. Whenever a songwriter comes in the studio with a song that may need a bit of work, I always use these principles to guide my suggestions on improvement.

  1. The purpose of a song is to convey an emotion to the listener.
    Ask yourself what emotion you want someone to feel after hearing your song. If you get that emotion back from your listener, you have succeeded as a songwriter. I’m not talking about deep, heavy emotions necessarily. It may be that all you want someone to feel is light and carefree. Maybe you want them to be amused. There is a huge range of feeling and emotion between happy and sad, so try to be as specific as you can.
  2. Lyrically, a song should be about one moment in time from an emotional point of view.
    Without getting into a lot of lyric writing technique, this principle alone should keep you on target. This is not to say you can’t change scenes and go from one point in your life to another in one song. It’s that, if you do, each of those scenes should still be about the same moment, even though they occurred at different points in time.
  3. Musically, a song should have a balance of repetition and surprise.
    Too much repetition creates boredom. Too much surprise creates confusion. We need repetition to remember the song after it’s over. We need surprise to create a pleasant excitement for our ears.

Remember, there are no rules in songwriting, only expectations. We are used to hearing things presented in a certain way; however, the three-minute verse-chorus song is not the only way that a song can be done. No matter how you choose to write your song, if you adhere to these three overriding principles, you should be able to keep your listeners’ interest, deliver the emotion you were feeling when you wrote it, and connect.