tagHow ToHow To Write a Song

How To Write a Song


That's misleading. It should read: 'how to capture a song'. A song is not something you manufacture, it's something that happens, sort of like a little literary fart, seeping out at the most inopportune time. Your literary fart might bubble up while you're in the bath, or driving to work, or perhaps while waking up in the morning. You'll roll over, open your eyes, and realize there's a phrase or a melody stuck in your head. The problem arises if your SO is feeling frisky that day and you get distracted. The next thing you know, your idea-fart has dissipated, leaving nothing but the faint odor of halibut.

The trick is to capture the idea-fart the moment you smell it. Maybe it's a phrase, and the phrase fits a melody. Maybe it's just a word, like 'sodomy'. Remember the Billy Joel song called 'Honesty'? It started out as 'sodomy', just like Paul McCartney's 'Yesterday' started out as 'scrambled eggs'.

(At this point, I should inform the reader that I'm pulling this stuff out of my ass, but because I'm a writer, I'm allowed to do that.)

So what do you do with that germ of an idea you woke up with (besides inserting it into your SO's favorite orifice?) The prudent thing to do would be to render the idea onto some sort of media before you forget it. For example, you could take a felt-tip pen and write it on your SO's back, or thigh, or tummy, which could be fun, but a more practical approach might be to jump out of bed, turn on your recorder, and wail away.

What if you don't have a recorder? Dumb question, dumb ass. Everyone has a recorder. If you're reading this, you have a computer, and computers have a record function that utilizes the built-in mic, you know, the one that's staring at you right now. (And by the way, would you mind getting dressed? Your minicam is on.) Most MP3 players have a voice record function. Most cell phones also have that function, although it might be called 'dictation'. (Snicker)

Another recording method is called voicemail. You call your voicemail, leave yourself a message, and then try not to erase it later when you're frantically checking to make sure you S.O. doesn't discover any remnants of that affair you had last week.

The most antiquated recording method of all would be the old-fashioned cassette deck, followed by the minidisc recorder. I have a little silver minidisc recorder with a built-in mic. It sits atop my piano, awaiting my muse like a dog awaits his daily walk. It has a large red button (the minidisc, not the dog.) You push it, and the machine starts recording - no questions asked, no menus to scroll through, no 'device not found' message flashing on the screen. Each recorded snippet is numbered on the disc, so you can go back later and catalog your ideas:

1. 'Makin' Bacon' - half-time funk (sucks)

2. 'Let's get small' - slow rock (sucks)

3. 'I could do worse than waking up with you' - fast shuffle (sucks)

... and so on down the line. My minidisc will record 160 minutes in mono, which means I can easily scroll through fifty or a hundred 'sucks' ideas before finding something worth working on.

Now, the hard part. What to do with your germ of an idea? Spray it with Bactine? That would probably be the wise choice, but for the sake of this how-to essay, let's continue.

Many times, the germ of an idea will be more like a full-blown case of the flu, with verses and choruses flowing out of you like snot. Too graphic? Okay, how about 'flowing out of you like a river rushing to the sea'? Do you see what I've done? I've illustrated one of the biggest pitfalls of writing a song - using a cliché instead of something original. 'Like a river to the sea' has been done to death. It's trite. It's lame. It's the epitome of predictable. We're not trying to write Hallmark cards here, we're trying to create original art that will impress our friends, and, hopefully, get us laid. Go with the unpredictable. Surprise the listener.

So, suppose your song has already flowed out of you like snot. It's time to grab the kleenex (if there's any left after this morning, when you and your SO mussed the bed.) Just because the Muse has given you a whole mess o' words doesn't mean you have to use all of them. Just pick out the good ones. Throw the rest in the trash. This lovely little song you're working on may be your baby, but not everyone is as proud of your baby's poop as you are.

What if the germ of an idea is just a germ? You're SOL, my friend. No, not really, you just have to work a little harder. Perhaps your germ of an idea is just the tip of the iceberg. Your job is to guide the Titanic directly into the iceberg, ripping a gaping hole in the hull until the hidden meaning rises to the surface. Sometimes you'll go down with the ship, sometimes you'll see Kate Winslet, naked, reclining on a couch. It's all up to your imagination.

What if you have no imagination? Well, let's see. You could pay someone else to write your song for you, but that would defeat the purpose of this essay, so let's be creative instead. You could try free association, writing down everything you can think of that has anything to do with the poor little pitiful germ of an idea you came up with. You might fill two or three pages with ridiculous crap. This is good. This will be fuel for the fire. Or sometimes it will be fuel for the fireplace. The point is, you need raw material with which to craft your song.

This brings us to another point, and the point is: what is the point? Are your words supposed to make sense, or are you just writing for the sound of the phonetics? If it's the latter, I can't help you, because I want a song to mean something to me. I don't want to have to pick up the slack of a lazy writer, filling in the blanks left by his/her blank mind. I want the words to kick my ass. I want the words to make me laugh, or cry, or want to fuck my hot sister, or overthrow the government. I want to be moved.

A good way to do this is to treat your song as the joke that it is. LOL. Ha ha. (That came out wrong.) What I mean is, imagine you're telling a joke. The first part is the setup, the second part is the punch line. So the verse sets up the chorus, and the chorus delivers the zinger. If you give away the punch line in the verse, you have nowhere to go - you might as well just write a song that's one verse long, and then go back to watching TV, or surfing the internet, or whatever it is you do to fill the empty pages of your barren, wasted life.

Okay, so the verse is going to set up the chorus. Could we, perhaps, include a little mystery? Draw the listener in, so they are compelled to pay attention? Here's an example:

"I was standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona, such a fine sight to see."

Oh my god! What's going to happen? I can't wait! It's killing me!

"It's a girl my lord in a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at me."

Cool. I'm digging this. We can see the action as it unfolds. It's like a little movie posted on YouTube, except the girl doesn't lift her top and show her tits.

Okay, forget about the tits. We're back in Winslow Arizona. Imagine if he had written:

"I was all lonely and shit, standing around somewhere. I saw some chick drive by, and I think she might have, like, looked at me."

Were you drawn into the story? Could you see it unfolding before your eyes? I didn't think so. This is the difference between 'showing' and 'telling'. If you can show what's going on in the song, you can draw the listener into your little demented world, and the listener is yours to do with as you wish. Sure, it makes you work harder as a songwriter, but that's your job, dammit! Nobody said it would be easy.

Continuing with this song, which is called 'Take it Easy' (for all you musical geniuses out there who've never heard of The Eagles,) what happens when the chorus arrives? Well, there's no punch line to speak of, which sort of shits all over my punch line concept, but that's not what I'm getting at. Look at the syllabic pattern in the verses. The words are rapid-fire, boom boom boom, almost tongue-twisters. Now, when the chorus hits, the words are all drawn out, like some hayseed singing on the Grand Old Opry:

"Come on Baaaaybeeee don't say maaaaaybeeee"

The writer has changed the syllabic pattern. Is it because the writer was being goosed when he wrote those lines? Perhaps, but the point is, there is something new to engage the listener, something to break the monotony. Plus, there are some nice long notes for the singer.

Singers like long notes. Singers like to show off their golden voices and impress everybody, and perhaps get laid later. Even Leonard Cohen puts long notes in his songs, and he's one of the worst singers to ever spit on a microphone. (No offense to Leonard Cohen, who is one of the best singer/songwriters in the history of the world, not to mention Limewire and Kazaa.)

There are several ways besides syllabic structure to bring contrast to a song. There is chord structure, melody, and dance moves. (We'll be skipping the dance moves for now.)

Suppose your chords change with every measure. When you get to the next section of the song, hold a chord for a few measures while the melody meanders around. Or hold a long melody note while the chords change rapidly underneath it. Your listeners will thank you for this.

As we can clearly see (if we've been paying attention) the syllabic structure in songwriting is totally different than the syllabic structure in poetry. In a poem, there is no way to turn 'easy' into a two-syllable word that lasts for five or ten seconds. This is the beauty of songwriting. You can change the gist of a word by how you place it in the music.

Try singing "I need you" as if you were in love, desperate to find out for the first time what your new GF's pussy feels like wrapped around your stiff dick. The emphasis would probably be on the word 'need'. Now try singing it as if it was a put-down, sneered by Mick Jagger. "I need you?" Mick Jagger's 'you' would be totally different from your new GF. Mick Jagger's 'you' would probably be a model with big tits and a purse full of blow. So please, do us all a favor and don't set your poems to music, not unless you want to become the laughingstock of the coffee house, or unless you're dating a model with a purse full of blow and she likes hearing your poems set to music.

Now, shall we talk about melody? Actually, we're going to talk about melody whether you like it or not.

There is a lot you can do with melody. This can be a good thing, or a bad thing. Many times, when the Muse has you in her evil clutches, you gravitate towards repetition. You become so enamored with your glorious idea, you repeat it over and over again. Wrong!

Look at your initial idea as if it was a boat tied up at a dock. You can either climb into the boat and just sit there, or you can untie the boat from the dock, raise the sails, and take off for points unknown, or at least across the lake for some more beer.

You want your melodies to be free, soaring like birds on the wing. (Yeah, I know 'birds on the wing' is a lame cliché - I'm just using it to illustrate how glaringly awful it is to run into over-used clichés in an essay, or a lyric.) Sometimes it's best to abandon your guitar, or piano, or Apple loops, and just go melody hunting. If you let your instrument constrain your melodies, you'll founder in the same old ruts, going the same old boring places you always go. Cut those melodies loose. Let them breath. Let them run naked in a field of daisies (and don't forget batteries for your camera.) Let them go where they will, and figure out how to accompany them later.

Generally, you want your chorus melody to go places the verse melody hasn't gone yet - like higher, maybe? Or if the chorus is pensive and sad, perhaps you want the melody to go lower. A friend of mine wrote a song called 'Low Low Low', and guess where the chorus melody goes?

With melody, and song structure in general, we have to respect the Rule of Twos. It's a very basic concept; women have two breasts, men have two balls. Actually, that has nothing to do with the Rule of Twos. The Rule of Twos says: do something, then repeat it, then do something different.

Think about it. You do something once - say a melodic figure. When you repeat it, the listener recognizes it. You have now connected with the listener. They're into you. They're hanging on your every word. Repeat that same melodic figure a third time and the listener gets bored. They've already heard your stupid melodic figure twice. They want something new. In this case the third time is not a charm. The third time is a deal-killer, (unless you're Bob Dylan.)

So, instead of repeating your melodic figure a third time, you lead the listener away with a new melodic figure, which makes the listener miss the first one - the one they recognized and fell in love with. Then you return to your original melodic figure and the listener is happy. Sure, you're manipulating the listener, but if it sells a couple of CD's, who's complaining?

If you analyze the Beatles music, you'll recognize the Rule of Twos all over the place. Take Norwegian Wood.

"I once had a girl...blah blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah." This musical section is repeated, but with new words: "She showed me her room...blah blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah."

Now what happens? The Rule of Twos kicks in and they introduce a new section: "She asked me to stay...blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah blah." Then this new musical section is repeated: "So I looked around blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah", after which the song returns to the first section again.

The Rule of Twos is the basis for most of the music in the Western World. Sure, some asshole like Paul Simon or Amy Whinehouse will break the Rule of Twos now and then, but if you apply it to the music you listen to, you'll recognize it more often than not. It's just human nature. Reward the listener with repetition, then break the repetition to keep the listener from losing interest.

Rhythm is another building block you can use to shore up your pitiful little germ-infested idea. But rhythm is very powerful. You don't want to write a sad song with a happy rhythm, or a happy song with a sad rhythm, unless you're a sick fuck and just like to fuck with peoples heads. By the same token, changing the rhythm can change the song drastically. Take something like:

"I'm so happy I could shit myself."

Do it fast, and it's a campy little ditty you might encounter in an off Broadway gay-revue. Do it slow, and it's another piece-of-crap shoe-gazer dirge you hear on The Mountain six times an hour.

Speaking of The Mountain, songs generally have a rhyme scheme, although you wouldn't know it from some of the crap they play these days. But the rhyme scheme of today is nothing like the rhyme scheme of yesteryear. Nobody demands perfect rhymes anymore, except perhaps your grandmother, or the people who write praise music for church.

Nobody rhymes 'moon' with 'June'. They'll rhyme 'moon' with 'dude' or 'fool' or 'pubes' (if they're from the LIT site) or 'Consuela' (if English is not their first language.) Go for the unexpected. One of my favorite unexpected rhymes is from a Guy Clark song called 'Homegrown Tomatoes' where he rhymes 'garden' with 'hard one'. If you can do this, you'll definitely get laid. It might be with the gal who sells flower pots and fertilizer at Target, but beggars can't be choosey.

That being said, perfect rhymes won't necessarily delegate you to the praise music section at Kazaa or Limewire. Perfect rhymes can really make your lyrics jump off the page. The point is, what you're saying is more important than the rhyme scheme you're saying it with.

Attitude and POV are also variables you can use to your advantage. If you're writing a song that makes you look like a jerk, consider; will it help your chances at getting laid, or will the jerk angle be a turn-off? Try changing the POV, so instead of you being the asshole who gets drunk every morning, it's your friend who's getting drunk every morning, and it's you who's trying to drag him to AA meetings. This makes you look like a hero, and your chances of scoring some bleeding-heart liberal pussy have just increased by a hundred percent.

Another consideration: make your point, and then get the hell out. There's no need to run your song into the ground. A good song is like a good story: it has an arc. If you build the arc too high or too long, it's not going to stand up. It's going to fall down around your ankles, making you look like an arrogant asshole who thinks his/her shit doesn't stink. Nobody likes that. Do us all a favor and be succinct with your songs. Thank you.

There is so much more to writing songs, this essay could go on for days, but I believe I'll take my own advice and stop now. Just remember this one thing: be true to yourself and your art will be your legacy; be false with yourself and you might make a shitload of money, but you'll hate yourself in the morning - at least until that gold-digging babe lying next to you wakes up and coaxes one more germ of an idea out of you and into her. Just don't forget to push the red button.


'Take it Easy' by J. Browne & G. Frey

'Norwegian Wood' by P. McCartney & J. Lennon

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