How to Write a Song

I was asked to teach a songwriter’s workshop during a festival I recently played and although I was initially apprehensive, I was relieved to find how long-winded I became when I spoke on the subject. By no means do I claim to be the authority on songwriting; however, over the years I have accumulated a number of tips, tricks and unorthodox ticks that makes my process a bit more calculated.

Below is an outline of my discussion with the workshop audience — I think it will give you some things to think about as you approach your future songs. Good luck.

1.) KEEP A JOURNAL and/or WRITING BOOK

  • Keep a writing journal where you dump all of your writing scraps into. Whether it’s a single cool word, a one-liner, alternate verse, etc, write it all down in one place.
  • Even if you write something on a napkin or a sticky note, store it within your journal so that all of your songwriting arsenal is in one place.
  • Flip through and re-visit your book a couple times a year and enjoy the delayed inspiration.
  • EXAMPLE: Many times I’ve stumbled upon a line or a word that made no sense when it was written; however, a year later, within the new context of my life, it made all the sense in the world. Whistle Stop, for example, was simply a cool word that I wrote down in my journal and it was a full year before it ever made sense.

    When I first heard the word, I tried and tried to write a song but nothing in my vault of life experiences would support the theme. HOWEVER, a year later when I read that phrase in my journal, my brain immediately snapped into focus because of a current circumstance: my great friend had recently lost his mother. Even though Whistle Stop meant nothing to me a year prior, in that moment it screamed “life is a train … and since you never know when the next whistle stop will be, don’t whisper softly the things that you want loudly to be.” This delayed inspiration was a result of keeping a journal and re-visiting it often with a fresh perspective.

    2A.) IF YOU’RE STRUGGLING FOR IDEAS, USE “A TECHNIQUE FOR PRODUCING IDEAS”

    I studied advertising in college but because I knew songwriting was my call, every time I heard the word advertising, I would subliminally substitute it with songwriting. That said, I read a book called “A Technique for Producing Ideas” and even though it was about scheming ads, here is how it applies to the craft of songwriting.

    Amazingly enough, upon reading this book, I realized the steps it described was how my brain was already working. It’s a 4 step process that is more natural than you might think:

    STEP ONE – Gather Information
    The goal here is to find a word or an idea (aka Whistle Stop) and collect every scrap of information that could support it. Collect nouns, read research papers, use wikipedia, interview people, etc.

    STEP TWO – Grind and Explore
    This step involves taking all of the raw information that you’ve gathered in step one and simply grinding it into the ground. Yes, stretch it, molest it and attempt to connect all of the dots while exploring all of the possible combinations. In this incubation period, you may not have the major break through; however, the goal is to leave no stone unturned and become overly acquainted with your information — to the point of exhaustion.

    STEP 3 – Move On
    It may be hard to do at times but step three suggests to simply walk away from the train wreck of thoughts in your head. Move on to the next project or song and clear your head. The argument here is that once you’ve collected all of your information and ground it into the ground, even though you’ve walked away from it consciencely, your sub-conscience has not forgotten about the task. While your conscience is away, your sub-conscience will play.

    STEP 4 – Revisit with a New Perspective
    Once you’ve completed the word jumble of steps one and two and then walked away for a time, come back with a fresh head and revisit the material. Again, even though you aren’t aware of it, your sub-conscience has been connecting dots without you even knowing it. You will find that upon your return, the idea has matured and your words will fall with much more precision.

    NOTE: Even though I claim that I rarely write a song in one sitting, this process is the caveat. I have certainly schemed and schemed, walked away for a few months then returned to write the song in one sitting.

    2B.) IF YOU ALREADY HAVE A SONG IDEA

    If you’re lucky enough to already have a song title, theme or idea, here are a few very basic ideas that will help them reach their full potential.

  • Collect nouns. When you have a song idea, much like step one above, collect and absorb a number of tasty nouns that will support the theme. Yes, your hook needs to be potent but the words that surround it should have some substantial character of their own.
  • Establish a color scheme. As an advertising student I was exposed to the power of visual communication and how colors portrait emotion as much as the words in music. That said, one of the first things I suggest is to apply 3-color palette to each song and write within that mood. Simply put, if your song is sunshine yellow, stem green and sky blue, you won’t be writing any purple thoughts. To me, this keeps all of your words as true to the core of the song as can be.
  • Don’t be afraid to do research. If you’re serious about songwriting, know your subjects and never be afraid to learn more. Whether it’s a book, google, wikipedia or an old school personal interview, read about your topic and ask questions to gain context. Often you’ll find some fruitful nouns and other leads that will help you map your song.
  • 3.) LISTEN TO THE SONG BEFORE IT’S WRITTEN

    Most of my songs start with a chord progression on the guitar or piano and then I retrofit words afterward to fill the spaces. To me, fitting words into music is much easier than the alternative.

    It may sound odd but when I have my chord progression established, I sit in my room, guitar in hand and play through the song about 10 times — filling the space with ad lib, mumbles, oooohs, aaaaahs, random lyric and whatever else decides to come out. I find that keeping an open mind and simply letting the sounds flow can be VERY telling.

    What you’ll find is certain vowels poking up in the same place each time. You’ll find certain lines beginning with the same alliteration each time. You’ll find that amongst the chaos, there are constants. Embrace those constants and listen to them as if it’s the song revealing itself to you piece by piece.

    After I’ve made a fool out of myself a dozen or so times and noted the revelations, I plot out the constants in a sort of road map and then back-fill the other information. It’s somewhat difficult to explain but when you know your anchor points, the rest of the content is immediately less random. If I know my second line wants to end with an “eeee” sound and the third line wants to start with a “B” alliteration, rather than pulling random thoughts from the air, the thought process is now: “What line can I think of that ends with an “eeee” rhyme while introducing a “B” alliteration?”

    This step takes some confidence; however, I guarantee if you open your mind and let the unwritten song flow through you, you’ll find that it speaks to you — ultimately revealing little pieces of itself. By listening to the promptings, your song will assume a more natural feel because nothing was forced or contrived — on the contrary, it’s meant to be.

    4.) LITTLE THINGS THAT WORK IN BIG WAYS

  • Alliterations. To revisit your 7th grade lit class, an alliteration is the repeating of a consonant (crystal clear, mad max, big boy, etc). When used within lyric, it can be a subtle moment with big impact.
  • The magic C/K. In my advertising classes I learned that the hard C/K (cat, cup, kill, etc) is the most appealing sound to the human ear. As an example, I use the term constant constellations in one of my songs in an attempt to double-dip on the above lessons.
  • Using proper nouns. Using a proper noun in a song can be a very powerful tool but it can also work against you. Naming a specific town or lover’s first name has the ability to be extremely intriguing and draw a listener in to your story; however, when used at the wrong moment, it can also alienate a listener by shutting them out. The joy of music is that it’s universal — each person can interpret a song as they please — custom tailored to their wants. If a love song is interrupted by the mention of a specific name, the listener might immediately detach themselves from the sentiment because they can’t relate to the name.
  • Internal rhyming. This is a type of rhyme that happens subtly inside of a single line (rather than the more common situation where two separate lines rhyme). Like an alliteration, when used in succession, they can be very catchy. Example: Though I’ve tried to find my heart’s muse. Note the 3 “I” rhymes within one single line.
  • 5.) GENERAL RULES, DOS, DON’TS, TOOLS, ETC

  • Your first line. The most important moment in a song is your first line. It is the moment when a listener makes the decision to keep listening or to press next. Because it’s the moment to hook your listener or let them go, this line cannot be ordinary. If it comes across as cliche, it gives the listener no incentive to stay because they’ve heard it before.
  • Second verse, not second best. Once you’ve spent a verse and introduced your chorus, your second verse can act as the nail in the coffin. They’re listening, they’re intrigued; this is the moment they’ll decide to be repeat listeners or not. When advancing into your second verse, post chorus, always keep in mind, What’s new, what’s next? If your second verse is more of the same from the first verse, think bigger.
  • Are bridges necessary? No. More formulaic and commercial pop songs tend to utilize bridges as a way to break up the monotony. If your song is monotonous, I encourage you to write a bridge to give the listener a reward for listening; however, if your verses and choruses are filled with musical rewards, unique lyric, metaphors or hooks, a bridge is not a mandatory piece to a song.
  • Ask yourself has it been said before? If so, how can I say it differently? It’s okay to say things in very human ways without speaking over the heads of the listeners but with the wash of music that exists in this world, there is little room for redundancy. You can say things that have been said before but challenge yourself to say them in one-of-a-kind ways.
  • Scrap silver to make gold. Even though you may be in love with one of your verses, there are times when it simply doesn’t fit the scope of the song and must be abandoned. Yes, it may be a stellar individual verse but when you look at the big picture, is The Song more or less cohesive as a result? If the answer is less cohesive, then scrap it and go for gold. Note: keep that verse in your journal, it can always be used in another song down the line — somewhere where it will shine brighter because it belongs.
  • Rhyme Zone. A final resource that you should never be afraid to lean on is www.rhymezone.com. Simply type in a word and let it generate a list of words that rhyme.
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