• What I've Learned: How to write a song.
I started this bog in 2006, when I was just beginning a STILL ongoing recovery process from a brain injury. The blog's reason for being has been to chronicle how my brain injury seemingly reawakened my long dormant love of songwriting and compelled me to finally try to make an album. Everything -- the recovery and the album -- is taking a LOT longer than I thought it would, but along the way I'm learning a ton. So, to share what I've learned to be true for myself -- and possibly for others -- I'm starting a series of posts, called What I've Learned, which I will ultimately collect and edit into a single PDF for all to download who want it. For now, this is a work in progress and your comments are encouraged!
HOW TO WRITE A SONG
How is that for a pretentious title? Preposterous even. How on earth could I, a bedroom legend at best, possibly have the right to even pen such a title, much less craft the words it sets up?
I can't. Except as it apples to me. After all, everyone is different and there is simply no way that one approach to songwriting stands above all others for all songwriters. However, if my approach helps you, great. Awesome, in fact.
So, here goes.
1) KNOW WHAT YOUR SONG IS ABOUT BEFORE YOU REALLY SET TO WRITING IT
I used to start songs all the time and "see where they would take me". The answer, for the most part, was nowhere. Sure, every now and then one of the kernels I was throwing on the page would pop into something worthwhile, but for the most part, the idea of writing my way to a destination never worked.
Rather, I need to be able to answer the question: What is this song about? In fact, I will often times write out the answer to that question as I'm working on a song, and then refer back to my answer as I craft verses and choruses. By knowing what I'm trying to say, I can really focus on HOW to best say it; further, I know when I'm veering off track.
2) MATCH YOUR MUSIC TO YOUR WORDS AND VICE VERSA
I know, this seems obvious, but it's so important, it's worth mentioning. If you have a sad song, go for minor chords, or, if you've got the chops, try setting some sad words on top of majors. Whatever you do, be aware of what you're doing. Have an intention and try to achieve it. AND PAY ATTENTION TO TEMPO AND GROOVE. Don't be lazy. Try different tempos before settling on one; if you're a guitar player, push yourself to go beyond standard strumming/picking patterns.
3) TAKE THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
More often than not, I've found the very first chords/melodies I concoct are a little expected. Yes, they just flowed out, but the reason is usually a lack of originality. So, if you've penned a nice melody over A, E, D, fiddle with it more. Try other chords with the same melody, try some sort of variation, try a turnaround. Simple is best, yes, but not if it's been done a thousand times -- and possibly a thousand times better -- by other folks.
4) SING, EDIT MERCILESSLY, SLAUGHTER CLICHÉS
Once you think you've got your words, chords, groove, tempo and basic structure together, SING. Even if your voice sucks, do your best. Need privacy? Then record a basic track and belt it out in your car. Just do it. Over and over and over. This is the only way to work out your phrasing, to learn whether or not your brilliant lyrics sing brilliantly, to decide if your song has potential or not. Because if it's a bastard to sing, chances are others are going to have the same issue, and pop songs that are bastards to sing rarely finish first.
As you sing, pay attention to your words and how they sound. Does their sound match what you're after or is there a disconnect of sorts? Do your words sound stupid, trite, corny (be honest!)? If so, change them. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
Did you rhyme rain with pain or again? Did you rhyme care with there? Did you sing of hair as fine as silk, eyes as bottomless as the sea, love like a rock? If so, ask yourself: "Is this the best I can do? Have I truly thought about this? Am I actually incapable of original thought?" Kill your clichés.
5) BE A MIGHTY RE-ARRANGER
If you're primarily writing for just one instrument -- say a guitar or a piano -- this bit might not apply, but if you're like me, and want to write songs for a full band, give a lot of thought to your arrangements. Should the drums be loud, soft, classic four on the floor, trickier, drop out altogether at some point? Where are your harmonies? Is a guitar solo really necessary? Etc.
6) CREATE AN INTERESTING STRUCTURE
Any songwriter worth his salt knows the classic song structures, such as verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, chorus. There are a zillion variations, but as you craft your songs, try to keep your structures fresh. For ideas, look no further than The Beatles; they were the masters of innovative structures.
For me, the structure of the song is usually the last thing I really work hard on, because I need to know the elements before I can best decide how to string them together or if I'm missing something.
7) PLAY IT FOR SOMEONE WHO'S OPINION YOU TRUST
The final step in songwriting for me is to play the song for a few people who's opinions I think matter. For me, this step is crucial for two reasons: 1) listening to a song you've written while playing it for someone else makes you a WHOLE lot more objective, and 2) unless you're writing just for yourself it matters what others think (plus, they might actually give you some good ideas).