Emulating Others

Feb13

Once in a while, whether you’re stuck in a rut or your songs start sounding alike or you simply want to vary what you’re writing, you will be looking at other options to improve your writing.

One of these options is to emulate what others do. See what they do to find out how they think. Discover how their thought process can be blended with your own.

The best way to do this is to find a great songwriter (Paul McCartney, Greg Lake, Bob Dylan) or one you admire but who has a style that is completely at odds with your own.

For example, if you always write using the verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus, etc. recipe, go to Classic Genesis (the period where Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett were with the band) and check them out. You won’t find this recipe very often.

Then select a song you’re particularly fond of. Make sure it is well written: a great melody, at least “very good” lyrics and interesting chord changes. Find the sheet music or TAB of the song and get the lyric sheet.

Next, study these. Find the patterns. There will always be patterns, although sometimes you’ll have to look hard to find them. See how they’re used, how they’re repeated, how they are varied. The best way to do this is to actually learn to play the song. Playing it will help you identify the patterns, as it requires your abilities at playing, hence your unconscious mind. It’s important to learn to play it the way it is played on the recording. If the song has a particular strumming pattern, learn to play it the same way in order to keep the same rhythm.

As for the lyrics, all songs start with a particular idea, a line or a few words from which all the rest of the lyrics are derived. This idea is not necessarily and actually rarely at the beginning. See if you can find it. Which words in the song are key to the story being told.

Here are the lyrics to Mad Man Moon from Genesis’ “A Trick of the Tail” album. See if you can find the basic idea of the song. A hint: there is one line that gives away the whole story.

Mad Man Moon (Genesis)
Was it summer when the river ran dry,
Or was it just another dam.
When the evil of a snowflake in June
Could still be a source of relief.
O how I love you, I once cried long ago,
But I was the one who decided to go.
To search beyond the final crest,
Though I’d heard it said just birds could dwell so high.

So I pretended to have wings for my arms
And took off in the air.
I flew to places which the clouds never see,
Too close to the deserts of sand,
Where a thousand mirages, the shepherds of lies
Forced me to land and take a disguise.
I would welcome a horse’s kick to send me back
If I could find a horse not made of sand.

If this desert’s all there’ll ever be
Then tell me what becomes of me.
A fall of rain?
That must have been another of your dreams,
A dream of mad man moon.

Hey man,
I’m the sand man.
And boy have I news for you;
They’re gonna throw you in gaol
And you know they can’t fail
‘Cos sand is thicker than blood.
But a prison in sand
Is a haven in hell,
For a gaol can give you a goal
[and a] goal can find you a role
On a muddy pitch in Newcastle,
Where it rains so much
You can’t wait for a touch
Of sun and sand, sun and sand…

Within the valley of shadowless death
They pray for thunderclouds and rain,
But to the multitude who stand in the rain
Heaven is where the sun shines.
The grass will be greener till the stems turn to brown
And thoughts will fly higher till the earth brings them down.

Forever caught in desert lands one has to learn
To disbelieve the sea.

If this desert’s all there’ll ever be
Then tell me what becomes of me.
A fall of rain?
That must have been another of your dreams,
A dream of mad man moon.

© Genesis

Obviously this is not about a guy who grows wings and ends up in the desert… It’s about a guy who abandonned the woman he loved because he believed he could find a better love somewhere else. The desert and the people who made him land there are just images. But that’s not the point of the song. This is found in the last verse:

Within the valley of shadowless death
They pray for thunderclouds and rain,
But to the multitude who stand in the rain
Heaven is where the sun shines.
The grass will be greener till the stems turn to brown
nd thoughts will fly higher till the earth brings them down.

People are never satisfied with what they have; they want what others have. Those in the valley of shadowless death pray for rain, those who stand in the rain think heaven is where the sun shines.

Yeah but that’s more than a single line. Right. Because what gives the song away is:

O how I love you, I once cried long ago,

This is most certainly the lyrical starting point of the whole song. After saying this, one must suppose that something happened to make him leave. The story is then told after… and before.

Was it summer when the river ran dry,
Or was it just another dam.
When the evil of a snowflake in June
Could still be a source of relief.

The river is the emotion, love. The dam might be some silly fight between the couple. However, the snowflake in June as a source of relief seems to indicate that the relationship was stale to the point where even a bad event brought some kind of motion to the tediousness of the relationship.

And this takes us to the point that people are never satisfied.

By studying any song, even a Celine Dion song, one will find this starting point. Then you follow through the artist’s thought process. In the Genesis example, if you had written these lyrics, you might have automatically jumped to something like “she left”. This would be quite natural, but quite boring. Here it’s the guy who decides to go, but for no good reason.

Now, once you’ve studied the song and that you’re comfortable with it, it’s time to start writing your own version of it. Read carefully, this is one of the rare occasions will I will tell you to plagiarize. But only as an exercise.

Using different chords, play the exact same pattern as in the song you’ve studied. Build your own as a copy of the other song. Then, lyrically, you can come up with a completely different storyline, but use the same thought process as the original. Take however long it takes to do so.

Once you have your completed song and that you have understood the process perfectly, you must do two things. Take your completed song and destroy it. You cannot, may not, must not use it under any circumstances. Anyway, the point was not to come up with something creative, but it was an exercise. Even if you believe it is the best thing you ever wrote, destroy it anyway: you will soon be writing much better material; I’ll explain this in a minute.

The second thing you must do is to forget the original. Never play it again. The reason for this is that as it is now in your baggage of learning, you will unconsciously plagiarize it at some point; you’ve just done it once. And you must never do it again. By forgetting it, you are less likely to plagiarize it again.

What’s important is that the thought process of this other songwriter, his way of writing songs has now become incorporated into your own style. Every once in a while, when you will need it, you will be able to automatically borrow from this person’s style. You won’t be doing it the same way as this person though, you will have adapted it your own style. Which is why I said you will be writing much better things than you did during this exercise.

About A-J Charron

Between 2000 to 2005 A-J wrote over 300 articles and reviews for Guitar Noise. Many of them have been translated into other languages. A-J is a singer and songwriter from Montréal, Québec. In 2005, A-J left to begin his own music media website.

Leave a Comment

*