If you started reading this article to find out how to write songs for Celine Dion, I’m sorry, but you’ve come to the wrong place! That’s formula writing and it won’t be featured in this article. Perhaps in a future one. This article will be about writing from the heart, rather than from the checkbook. (Peter Gabriel’s Genesis rather than Phil Collins’ Genesis.)
I will not go into the theory aspect of music in songwriting either, David Hodge’s column is your best bet for that. The only thing I will say about theory is learn it. Whether you write songs or not, it’s something you need to know in order to improve. I will instead try to show the overall aspects of songwriting. We can go over the details in more… detail at a later time.
The first thing to realize about songwriting is that not everyone can do it. It sounds cold, but it’s the simple truth. Songwriting is an art. And like all the arts, it’s not given to everyone to excel in it. That’s why some professional musicians who have been in bands for 20 years never write songs: they simply don’t have the talent for that particular aspect of music.
However, don’t let that stop you from trying!
How many times have you heard artists say that no one can explain where inspiration comes from? They probably think this makes them look like they have some special powers. The reality is that inspiration comes from carrying an emotion, a feeling in your subconscious and needing to exorcise it. For some people, venting an emotion requires breaking dishes. For others it’s crying. I’ve even once seen someone exorcise an emotion by twisting her head all the way around! Others, still, have some other way of doing it. For us, it’s through songwriting. The inspiration comes from the fact that we need to vent our emotions and, usually, don’t even know that we have emotions to vent.
Now that you know where it comes from, you probably realize that you can create the climate for inspiration. Watch the Discovery channel and look at the cute baby koalas (with the 6-inch claws). Go for a drive, but don’t yell at the idiot who will cut you off. Call your mother and tell her you’re wearing dirty underwear… and that you’ve just been in an accident. Talk to your friend who says you’re stupid to think you can make it in music… It’s unfortunate but negative emotions make you more creative. That’s why songwriters tend to be very active right after a breakup. However, I don’t recommend you break up with your girlfriend just to be inspired.
You can also try more positive emotions, laughing for example. It may work well for you. Another thing you can do is reminisce. Although that can go either way depending on the particular emotions involved.
If you want a good example of transferring emotions to music, rent the film Immortal Beloved, where Gary Oldman plays an excellent Beethoven (and he’s really playing the piano parts). This film was written around the music, rather than the other way around as is usually the case. You’ll understand what it truly means to be inspired.
Why write a song?
If you’re a songwriter you just need to. Even if you’re just starting out, you’ll soon come to depend on it. If you’ve been writing for several years and stop, you’ll end up burned out. Songwriting allows you to vent your emotions, frustrations, etc. If you stop writing, you stop venting. You stop venting, it accumulates inside. When the bottle spills over, you end up fit for a rubber room. Without a view. It’s that simple. Unless you’re writing for Celine Dion, in which case I refer you to the first paragraph.
The tools of the trade
As far as I know, Beethoven’s dead. So I’ll assume that you aren’t him and that you need to hear the music, therefore your first requirement will be a guitar. Then a pen and some paper. Lined sheets for writing the notes or tabs. And whatever else may make you more comfortable. Personally, I like to have a pot of coffee. What helps you during your creative drives? Alcohol and drugs don’t work for me. The next day, when I look at what I wrote, I find things there that are worlds apart from my true emotions. So I tend to avoid them in these instances. I know some guys who can’t write unless they’re drunk. But you listen to what they write and it’s just incredibly dark. Usually they need to get drunk again just to sing it… (Remember that alcohol’s a downer.)
When you start writing more, I recommend you carry a pocket-size tape recorder with you at all times. You may get musical ideas at the strangest times and not have anything around to write them with. Just hum it or sing it into the recorder. I tend to get a lot of ideas in the shower… On weekdays. When I’m late for work. Of course I don’t remember them when I get back home at night. In fact, I don’t even remember having had an idea to begin with. I used to tell myself that if I forgot these ideas it’s probably because they weren’t very good to begin with. Until one morning when I decided to take ten minutes to write one down. I had drawn several arrows on a newspaper which was still on the living room table, pointing toward what I had written so that I’d remember having had the idea in the first place. After finishing the song that night and realizing that it was pretty good, I went out and bought myself a tape recorder.
Words or music first?
Personally, I tend to start with the music. But not all the time. I usually begin by playing around with chords or individual notes or a bit of both until I stumble on to something that reflects the way I’m feeling. Then I use it as a starting point and work around that.
As I (unfortunately) do not have any formal training, I rely on 18 years of experience to know what should or should not come after. (Again, I refer you to David Hodge’s columns.) But there’s more to it than that. Depending on your style of music, it’s often possible to go in a direction that has nothing to do with what you’ve started with. I write Progressive Rock, so it’s almost expected.
Once I have my starting point, I play it and listen to it and “hear” what it’s telling me. The words eventually come. I never try to force them out. It’s almost as if the song were already written and you were learning it. Or remembering it. Almost.
With some words and some music, you should know soon enough how you want to structure the song. It’s hard to say how I decide this, but I rely, again on the emotions conveyed, and on the complexity of the music. If it carries a lot of weight, I might decide not to put in a chorus and let a more complex musical pattern carry the song at those points. When I do use a chorus I often go with different words each time. I believe this is only due to the fact that I’m long-winded.
Always keep in mind that the music has as much to say about the song as the lyrics do. So the music and words should be saying the same thing. If they don’t, people will notice this immediately.
If you’ve written all of the music first, then you can sit down and concentrate on the words. If you’ve finished the lyrics and they’re wrong for the music, start over. Keep the lyrics, though, you may want to use them, or part of them later on. I’ve recently written one starting with the music, completely arranged, and had to write three different sets of lyrics. And I’m still not entirely happy with what I have.
Write about things you know but in places you don’t know
You’ve probably heard it a hundred times: “Always write about things you know”. Sure. But then again… Isaac Asimov wrote incredible Sci-fi, but I’m willing to bet anything that he never set foot in space. And that he didn’t own a human-like robot either. And what about all those people who write for Star Trek?
You can create a specific setting you’ve never experienced and “feel” your emotions toward it. By comparing this to personal experiences you can fairly predict what you reactions would be. Or what somebody else’s would be. You don’t have to write about yourself all the time.
Starting off with the idea of writing on a particular subject can be tricky. Unless you have real emotions toward the subject, you might not be able to pull it off.
When is it finished?
That’s an easy one. It’s finished when you have nothing more to say. If it takes 2 minutes, then don’t try to go any longer. If it takes 10 minutes, it may be due to the fact that the idea your trying to convey is just very complicated ?or extremely subtle. If it takes 20 minutes then you’re probably a member of Yes.
I remember hearing one songwriter say that if you couldn’t get the message across in three minutes, then you were just babbling. Although I respect him and like what he writes, I strongly disagree with him on that point. That, to me, is more like forcing the issue and not being explicit enough when you should.
O.K. it’s written. What next?
How do you feel? With your first few songs, you’ll feel exhilarated. Since you’ve never written before, you cannot compare you work. Don’t try to compare it to what other songwriters have written. They are not you and cannot write what you write. And vice versa. And you’re not hearing their first songs either.
Your first song probably won’t be any good. But don’t worry. You’ll probably think it’s good for a while. Until you start writing better ones. But it doesn’t matter, it’s all part of the process. Just remember the first time you picked up a guitar, you probably couldn’t do very much with it. But by playing more and more you’ve become better. The same is true of songwriting. Although, you might write one of your best ones early on. Justin Hayward (the Moody Blues, for the younger crowd. They were big in the late 60’s and early 70’s) wrote Nights in White Satin at 16, Greg Lake (King Crimson in 90s and Emerson, Lake and Palmer in the 60s and early 70s) wrote Lucky Man at 12.
Once the song is finished and on paper, make a copy of it. On the bottom line put the international copyright symbol © (Alt-0169 if you’re using a computer) followed by your name, the year, and your address. (ex: Ben Dover, 2000, 123 Anystreet, Sometown, USA) Put that copy in an envelope, write on the back of that envelope the title of the song, address it to yourself (don’t forget to put a stamp on it!) and mail it to yourself. I also get someone to sign across the seal, but that’s not necessary, although it does show that it hasn’t been tampered with. When you receive it, don’t open it! File it away somewhere safe. You now have copyright protection.
If while you are reading this you have 30 songs sitting around at home and haven’t protected them this way, get up and do it immediately (immediately after having read this article, that is!).
What do I call it?
Ah! Titles! Some songwriters just use a few words that come around several times in the song. To me, finding a title is the hardest part. I tend to avoid using something that’s already there unless it resumes the whole idea of the song. I once wrote a song about a person finally achieving victory over an old rival. Perhaps because it had an overall mythological feel to the lyrics and a feel of soaring in the Hammond chords in the background, I came up with the title: The Icarus Dream. Icarus was that character in Greek mythology who, accompanied by his father, Dedalus, built wings of feathers and wax to escape the Minotaur. Icarus flew too close to the sun, his wings melted and he fell into the Aegean sea and drowned. So what was Icarus’s dream? To soar high and free like a bird. Which was more or less the point of the song. Although the song itself has nothing to do with Icarus or flying like a bird. As long as you remember to be original.
Yes, but I’m not sure if it’s good!
Sometimes you’ll write a song that seems like your best work. Three days later you don’t like it anymore. It may have been written while you were feeling a passing emotion which is normally foreign to you. I recommend putting it away for several days before playing it again. How do you feel about it now? That should be your answer. Although, once in a while you’ll write one which will never be a clear cut case: You’ll like it one day and dislike it the next. Then you’ll like it again, then…
If it’s not good, do I throw it out?
No. That is, not unless it has something in it that really disturbs you. Ten years later you may find, for example, that the instrumental section fits in nicely into a newer song. Or you might find that a verse fits in perfectly with another song. Maybe it just needs to be rewritten differently. Don’t forget that you can’t plagiarize yourself. Even if your absolutely sure you’ll never use any part of it, keep it anyway. Every time you’ll look at it will remind you of what you shouldn’t be doing. Twice I tried to write something funny. Both times the results were horrible. Every time I get the idea to try again, I just look at those two songs and move on to what I’m good at.
That’s O.K. Stop. Don’t try to force the words or the music out. I always have three or four unfinished songs lying about. And usually a dozen or so ideas, too. Every once in while I’ll pick one up, when the mood is right and finish it. Or add to it and get stuck again. You have no deadlines. I’ve recently finished one that I’ve been working on for a dozen years. And it is good.
Sometimes writing a song can take fifteen minutes, other times it can take fifteen years. The important thing is to feel comfortable with it. Even if it’s not very good, it expresses a moment’s emotion as it was at the time.
There’s this part that sounds like someone else’s song
There are only seven notes and five sharps, 12 half-tones in all, that the human ear can decipher. Although chords and variants of number in the hundreds, it’s still very limited. Just consider all the songs you hear on the radio in a day. Now imagine every songwriter since the very first one. Imagine how many different songs have been written using this base.
Every note sequence, every chord change imaginable has been done. So once in a while you will write something that already has been written. What you do with it is tricky. Earlier this year, as I was demoing a song, I came to the instrumental section only to realize I hadn’t written one. I ended up using the instrumental section from one of my first songs. I transposed the chords to the keyboard and played it in successions of notes rather than chords. It sounds good. Three months later, I bought a compilation progressive rock CD that had a couple of Rick Wakeman songs on it. I can honestly say that I had never heard Wakeman except for his work with Yes. However, one of the songs has a few verses which use exactly the same notes, played the same way as my instrumental. The only difference is that he ends it on a high note and I end it on a low one.
Even if your conscience is clear and you know you didn’t lift it, remember that a judge might not see it that way. If you’ve written a song several years ago and someone else, later comes up with pretty much the same thing then you’re pretty safe. As long as you can prove when you wrote it. Hence the importance of covering yourself through copyright protection.
Expand your horizons
Early in his career, Beethoven played for Mozart. Mozart said that Beethoven definitely had talent, but that he wouldn’t go far. Two hundred years later, Beethoven is, by far, the biggest record seller in the world. Every year, there are more Beethoven albums sold than the Beatles, Presley and Celine Dion put together. Although Mozart is second, he’s not a close second. What’s the difference between the two? Although Mozart was a genius, he had clearly defined borders for his compositions. Baroque music started here and ended there. You could play anywhere inside of that, but never outside. Beethoven didn’t care about borders, limits, etc. He played out his emotions. That is what helped Baroque evolve into something else.
Keep an open mind. Listen to different styles of music. I’m not a country fan, but I’ve heard a few good country songs. And listening to Chet Atkins play the guitar is always impressive. By listening to different styles, even if you don’t like them, you may like elements of them. Or find elements you want to avoid at all costs. Steve Hackett (ex-Genesis) tells it well in an interview on his site.
One thing that is never clearly explained is that music is not meant for listening, it is meant for feeling. Let it come in through your ears and flow through your body. Once you understand that, it will open you to real experiences.Once you find songwriters you like, learn as much about them as you can. Try and find out what makes them tick. Understand why they write the way they do. But keep in mind that you’ll never be able to duplicate what they do. You are not them.
You’re not being graded. Even if you write a lot of bad songs, it doesn’t matter. But try different things or else you’ll bore yourself to death. Try rhythm changes, pattern changes, no chorus, starting the song with a chorus, no verses. Try writing on a different instrument. Can’t play the keyboard? Get yourself a cheap second-hand one, press the keys and see what happens.
Try something that won’t have drums. Play half of the song with a classical guitar, then switch to a distorted electric.
You’re stuck on two songs? Try putting them together (that’s how Justin Hayward wrote the Moody Blues’ Question).
Do I have to write the arrangements?
Not upfront. There are actually a lot of songwriters who can’t think out arrangements. They just write the chords and the lyrics and let someone else handle the arrangements. That’s where playing unplugged comes from. There usually just playing the songs the way they wrote them.
Some people do compose the arrangements right off the bat, though. Some people do both. I find that in the case of a very simple song, the arrangements are usually a lot more difficult to handle. When you’re used to writing something complex and that you have to go into simple, it can be a nightmare.
I’m writing a lot of bad ones
Well that’s O.K. Most recording artists who write their own material only write what’s on the albums. That’s why you have so many albums with only two or three good songs on them. Out of the hundred or so I’ve written over the years, I’d say that about thirty could be recorded as is and maybe another twenty could be recorded if I did some rewriting. The rest are either bad, or are songs that are good, but that I wouldn’t want to record myself.
Reach inside yourself and let the emotions flow out. They will essentially direct the new song. Learn theory and techniques. Expand your musical horizons. But most importantly, be original. Even if you’re writing for someone else, you cannot know the extent of their emotions. And, over time, your skills will improve. But even if it becomes easier (and it does), you will get the occasional song that will demand a lot from you. And those are the best ones.
I realize I could go on for hours on this subject, there is a lot to say. In the next column I’ll supply you with a simple song I wrote and walk you through the various steps I went through to write it. Then we’ll move on to a complicated one. Feel free to email me any comments you may have. Let me know if you would like to hear more about specific aspects or different aspects.