Read about how to write better songs
How Do You Write Songs?
One of the things we’ve been doing in Songwriting School is looking at how students actually write their songs. The way they do it, when they do it, what gear they use, what rituals they foster, what gets them going and what stymies them.
As an exercise, each student was asked to have a really good think about their own way of conjuring up a song in honest and specific detail and then write it down and post on the Songwriting School forum.
The results were fascinating. They showed that a process is different from a hard and fast formulaic ‘5 Steps to Writing A Hit Song’. The processes were much more malleable and change responsive – evolving as the songwriters incorporated new ideas or approaches.
They also showed how a ‘cookie cutter’ one size fits all formula will never really work because it doesn’t take into account the innate individuality each songwriter has in terms of the experience, ability and motivation they contribute to their chosen creative pursuit.
Writing it down encouraged each songwriting student to allocate some in-depth time to self-reflection, to identify the things they find easier in songwriting and isolate areas that could be nurtured. It also created a wee snapshot of where they are now and clarified what to focus on for the future.
Each account of ‘how I write songs’ had significant differences and some surprises. People wrote while out for a run or watching a movie on their computer (half-screen). Some folks struggled to get a tune in their head without an instrument in their hands while others wrote anywhere anytime. Some were larks and other owls. And one person couldn’t do this exercise because the rest of life was too big that week and that’s just gonna happen sometimes! All good.
The important thing is they got to read each other’s accounts, as well as think about their own way of doing things for better or worse. It’s a stock take as well as a ‘learning moment’ – learning both by committing to doing the task and by gaining insight into other songwriters’ creative processes.
Worth having your own look at how you write your songs now. Professor Andrea Stolpe of Berklee College of Music has a detailed ‘moving song parts’ list to help.
Some words punch above their weight in song. Where there’s little time and space in the real-time audio experience of a 3 minute track, not every word in a lyric is going to get the spotlight. But some words need to
Yes, there’s the title – the rule of the thumb being it’s often repeated, potentially the most repeated word or group of words in the lyric, and for good reason. Er, it makes us remember the name of your song and tends to encapsulate the point of the song – the takeaway. But other types of word have a different function.
Action verbs express something that someone or something can physically do – like kick, scream, run, dance, smother, stab or kiss. Yup, these verbs are active! That’s in contrast to verbs that describe a state of being – particularly any derivative of the verb ‘to be’ – am, is, was, are, were, be, been, being. They’re called linking verbs and useful for sure.
But in song lyrics, it’s useful to minimise their appearance in favour of action verbs. While I was aware of this as a concept, I wasn’t quite so aware of the recommended relative balance to aim for – which is why I’m bringing it up! Rule of thumb here is for every linking verb you use, colour the rest of your song with five action verbs and your song will spring into life.
Action verbs bring direction and momentum. They contribute to your audience’s connection with the lyric because they contribute to imagery – we can see someone kissing or stabbing. We can readily imagine someone jumping off a bridge or diving into the ocean.
Action verbs make us feel like we’re present in the drama or narrative of the song, like we’re part of the experience.
Action verbs also make the point concisely. This is highlighted when you boil down a sentence to a noun followed by an action verb eg love hurts. Now there’s a song right there.
So the tip is when you’re editing, comb through your verbs and pump up the action. If you’re stuck, don’t forget the online or real life thesaurus. Or just type ‘action verbs’ into your search engine and see what treasure surfaces. Even substituting just one linking verb for an action verb could do wonders for your words.
Talk more soon.
Shout out to reader Glenda Rogers who forwarded this very cool podcast episode of Strong Songs on ever inventive duo, They Might Be Giants and their technique of creating ‘microsongs’. Check it out!
A lovely client I work with has bitten the bullet and finally bought her first music software. She’s taken a course and started the journey of creating her first tracks at home. While excited, she also hit a common phenomenon where her initial results had left her wanting - an experience she described as, well, "humbling". Dang - meet the gap!
I was reminded of an article James Clear put together from an interview with radio producer Ira Glass about his own career path from no-nothing-intern at 19 to respected producer/host of This American Life with millions of listeners.
Glass described the gap between what he wanted to do and his ability and experience to be able to do it.
“…your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you're making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.”
His solution sounds simple, if somewhat daunting.
…” if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you're going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you're going to catch up and close that gap. “
Not surprisingly, your competence or even expertise in other areas of your life exposes your relative inexperience when you’re learning something new, like how to translate your musical ideas into exquisite recordings.
But this idea of the gap – the space between what you want to create and what you actually deliver – is a prod for established artists too. Martin Phillipps, songwriter/leader of the Chills, encapsulated this in a wry comment:
“You don’t want to make good art. You want it to be great.”
No pressure much! But if you find yourself on the brink of the gap or if it has become a vast crevasse you’ve fallen down for a while, cut yourself some slack.
The antidote - turn up & turn up consistently, and the gap will shrink little by little, as you, your taste and your skills improve. There’s an apprenticeship to serve before you master any craft or art, including writing and recording good, or even great, songs.
ps RESCHEDULED SONGWRITING RETREAT - new dates post lockdown!!
First Level Retreat is now scheduled 14-17 January 2022 at Tahora. All songwriters welcome.
What is your song about?
I've been enjoying alt pop artist Caroline Polachek's new release ' Bunny is a Rider' - heck of a hook, lots of ear candy and danceable, with quirk and some edge. The lyrics provoked some discussion 'at home'.
On first listen, the title was utterly recognisable and memorable. Some words leapt out - excuse the pun - offering surprise and intrigue ( dirty like it's earth day ) So when I was asked 'what's the song actually about', I couldn't immediately say but I knew there was a 'bunny' and she wasn't just there for the pellets. And I certainly wanted to hear the track again.
I was forcibly reminded of the idea put forward by Casey Kelly and David Hodge in their very readable book The Complete Idiots Guide to the Art of Songwriting
You should be able to say what your song is about in one declarative sentence: it's a song about a woman dating a married man, or it's a song in which the singer has just realised he is in love with someone he thought was just a friend....Your job as a songwriter is to describe common feelings & situations in a way that will make listeners identify with what the singer is saying & bring their own experiences into your song.
You shouldn't have to go to a lecture to get what the song's about, but it should be about something we can understand, something we can relate to in some way, something we 'get'.
Here's Caroline Polachek's 'declarative sentence', supported by a character reference and an invitation to explore the nuances and join in.
‘Bunny Is a Rider is a summer jam about being unavailable. Bunny is slippery, impossible to get ahold of. Maybe it’s a fantasy, maybe it’s a bad attitude. But anyone can be bunny, at least for three minutes and seventeen seconds.'
Thanks, Caroline! And by the way, a declarative sentence is a sentence that asserts the truth or falsehood of something.
Full lyric here.
ps Songwriting School's second songwriting class starts this Wednesday Aug 4. This will be the last class on offer for the year. Email or ring to inquire or to subscribe. Only 2 spots left.
pps Here's a downloadable link for more info on the upcoming Songwriting Retreats based at beautiful Tahora. Don't miss your spot!
Image by Bruce Mackay
Part of becoming a better songwriter is playing your songs live. It contributes hugely to your development as a writer, partly by building relationships with other songwriters and performers, but most importantly by connecting with an audience.
This is in addition to having an online presence - also critical. Yes, you should have a website and a social media profile with whatever platforms you can stomach. But online doesn't supplant live performance. More people will buy your music because they actually saw you play your songs live in front of a crowd, than if they watch a live stream from your lounge.
When you start playing 'out', the shows are usually small and it can be the first chance an audience has to easily meet you post show, and give you direct feedback. They may be the first fans you ever have! If they like your songs, they can tell other people, come to another show, buy physical product and still download or stream anything you have online. The reaction can be immediate and ongoing.
Being in the room with punters and fans also allows you to see and hear in all dimensions whether your songs are having an impact on listeners - whether in fact people are listening at all! It's a critical part of the feedback loop on your material, vital for its immediacy.
It puts you right in the middle of the river instead of just watching from the banks. There's a much stronger connection between live performers and their audiences - it really is a two-way street.
So, write the best songs you can and find any chance you can to play them live. Take any stock you have and sell it. Starting talking to and with your audience. If you're not a great performer, invest some time and energy in getting better. It helps the delivery of your songs. If you haven't already, develop your online presence, and use it to let folks know about your performances and recordings.
Finally, use the opportunity live work gives you to get informal, often really constructive feedback from other more experienced songwriters on the bill with you, and directly from the reactions of your audience. If a song isn't landing quite how you'd like it to, you can always rewrite it. You're the boss!
SONGWRITING RETREATS COMING UP!
In response to feedback, dear readers, there will be three songwriting retreats over the spring/summer months. The previous retreats I've run at Tahora, brilliantly supported by Kerry and Debb, have all sold out, so here's something for everyone I hope and no one need miss out!
First Level - for anyone who hasn't done a songwriting retreat before or who wants to deep dive into their songwriting hard out. All welcome and the bookings are open.
Next Level - this will suits songwriters who have already had a release, who have been playing their songs live or who have been studying songwriting online or irl and want a more interactive experience. (please email me to inquire or apply)
Stage Level - this is a new retreat on offer for songwriters who want to develop their live act for regular pro/semi pro/ 'serious' amateur performance level. ( please email me to inquire or apply)
with very best wishes
ps Songwriting School is opening up one more online songwriting class This will be the last class on offer for the year. Sessions on online via Google Meet and run a set curriculum each week are presented live by me. A great way to keep on track and up to date. Email or ring to inquire or to subscribe.
Sometimes to get creative, you limit something. It skinnies down your choices and provide something to push against, a tangible problem to solve or work around. And that fires up your imagination.
Sometimes it’s the length of time you choose to spend on your writing. You confine a songwriting session to 90 minutes – what can you generate in a manageable studio block on your calendar?
Sometimes, it’s meeting up with a collaborator or coach – you have to make that date or, like working for James Brown, you get fined.
Sometimes, it’s setting a ‘non-negotiable given’ for part of the songwriting process that acts as a prompt. For example, if you keep writing songs in a particular key e.g C major for keyboard players or A major for guitarists, run to the other side of that Circle of 5ths, and try writing in Ab or Gb for the session.
Another constraint can be returning to something extremely simple. Uncomplicate part of your songwriting. Try it 'just for today' and see what happens.
I was really struck by how effective this can be from one of the class ‘assignments’ for Songwriting School, where in the online teaching session, we looked at the simple song structure AAA.
For many of us, it’s the first type of song structure we learn, often by osmosis from nursery rhymes or hymns, carols and folk songs growing up. But it has stood the test of time and finds its way into multiple contemporary genres to this day.
The assignment asked the students to write a song using the AAA structure. No fewer than 3 verses plus or minus refrain. By constraining the structure, it forced the songwriting students to come up with other ways to create interest, tension and contrast within the song, because there are no innate sectional changes doing it automatically.
Each student did this in their own way – with imaginative narrative or metaphors or an illuminating chord progression or a powerful melody. But more importantly they were all able to complete the task within the week allocated – one immediately after the online class in a fever of inspiration.
And that was just one constraint!
So, if you’re floundering, try returning to something simple in your songwriting practice. You may surprise yourself or at the very least, write something new.
Talk more soon
PS To see some of Aotearoa’s finest songwriters working with constraint (song set to a Katherine Mansfield poem), come to Mansfield – In Her Own Words if you’re in Wellington Monday 14 June 8pm at the Michael Fowler Centre or Sunday 20 June 7pm in Auckland’s Bruce Mason Centre. 12 artists – 12 poems set to song - it’s quite a line-up!
PPS Songwriting School now has a second weekly class available on Wednesday evenings at 7.30pm. Email me to sign up.
So here’s April and we’re now firmly into the second quarter for 2021. That felt pretty quick to me. While I’m not a particular fan of New Year resolutions, I think taking stock of where you’re at in your own ‘dream scape’ is valuable.
Because while clearly articulated goals, especially SMART goals sure can help you get stuff done, dreams bring the magic.
Dreams let you run riot in your imagination creating all sorts of fantastic possibilities. In your wildest dreams, you can be or do anything. You can ask for whatever you want. You can ask what if.
Dreams completely change your everyday pace and perspective. You can try things on for size – big or small - with no strings attached. They really are free. It costs you absolutely nothing to dream. And no one need know about them – except you.
Dreams are hugely motivating – they can help you create a better vision for your life or your way of life.
They have an interesting relationship with goals - their more prosaic but practical cousins! Goals without dreams can be a little dry and dusty - more raspberry cordial than sparkling burgundy.
Dreams can extend your horizon while goals have the potential to settle for ‘this’ll do’. While goals can be the tactician allowing you to draft the most intricate day planners and morning rituals, it’s the dreams you want to chase that bring fuel to the fire.
That fuel is a heady mix of excitement and hope. It’s present in creativity as part of intrinsic motivation and it's there as part of you feeling ‘right’ about the direction you’re headed with your songwriting.
So this autumn, clock in with your dreams – do they light you up? Or are you ignoring them, just because you have get a bit ‘goal-ly’, a bit organised to make them come true?
ps new class opening for Songwriting School Wed May 5.
pps First Level Retreat's open for bookings now
Photo by Unsplash - Jonathan Hoxmark
Despite Eddi Reader’s great vocal for Fairground Attractions’ hit song, Perfect, being perfect ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. That terribly effective chorus is a curse of an earworm if you’re at all susceptible to perfectionism.
While I totally get wanting your work to be good, better or even best, there’s a downside to over polishing or waiting until ‘it’s just right’ before sharing or releasing a song. There’s also a potentially shady side to repeatedly comparing your music or your performance with other artists.
Sure, anyone involved in creative work is prone to losing perspective. Being fully immersed in a project or a production is a fine thing, but when you’re never satisfied with a job well done to the best of your abilities, then something’s amiss.
Songwriting is wildly subjective. There really is no single formula to follow for a hit or a magic pill you can take to ‘make it’. Yep, there are fairly generic songwriting conventions, sometimes misconstrued as ‘rules’ or ‘absolute truths’. But a song can technically tick all the boxes and still not appeal to an audience.
Terminology - perfect fourths and fifths, being ‘in tune’, having perfect pitch, perfect rhyme, hitting the ‘wrong’ note – applies a little pressure! And the countless mathematical qualities in music from time signatures to the number of accidentals in a key can also put you into ‘gotta get it right’ mode.
Arming yourself with great technique and theory is hugely useful – a lifetime resource. But, and there is a big but. If you feel you always have to ‘get it right’, you never give yourself permission to fail.
That’s a worry because songwriting is asymmetric – an astronomically high number of misses for every hit. There are cul-de-sacs and dead ends, ideas that don’t fly, songs that people like more than others, duff records, bombs, flops and things that seemed like a good idea at the time! Madly imperfect!
You need to fail to make your best work. And have fun doing it! You actually need
to enjoy the process (intrinsic motivation!) or your sense of play, your creativity – the very fuel of your fire - is stifled. You procrastinate, fearful of critique. You ruminate, pointlessly. You become resistant to risk, feedback, new suggestions, collaborations or live performance. You shut the shop on yourself.
To turn this around, know these things:
1. Perfectionism is an abstraction. It is like infinity – you won’t get there because there is no there. Set benchmarks for yourself you can imagine and party hard when you meet them!
2. Shit happens – the things of life that look like accidents or bad luck. No, the world doesn’t hate you! It’s just a case of being human. Prepare a little for inevitable setbacks – cue checklists, insurance and spare strings!
3. There will always be people better than you. And worse! The reality is that your songs won’t connect with everyone. So find your audience, your own artistic niche and your tribe – supporters, colleagues, your natural network.
4. Listen to the positive as evenly as the negative feedback. Keep a success portfolio to track your progress (things you did better than before). Then you can balance rumination with hard evidence when things go awry.
5. If you can’t get perspective, get diverted. Sleep, exercise, take a bath, hang out with (non)musical mates, talk to your kids, volunteer somewhere. Regroup, shake it off and go write a new song.
with very best wishes
Repetition is endemic in contemporary song. Not only is it an important feature, but in popular music, it's a defining feature. It totally dominates rhythmic arrangements, but it's also rife in harmony with repeating chord progressions, melody with it's motifs and phrases and song form (verse-chorus) before we even take a good look at the lyrics.
Yet this very clear and present device can lead to disparaging comments by audiences and musicians alike, where repetition is confused with banality, a lack of originality or even juvenilia.
To counter this, consider how repetition does indeed bring joy to songwriters and listeners both, and contemplate how you can work it more effectively.
Firstly, music and the capacity to appreciate or create it is present in every single human cultural group. It's part of us. As humans, we are the ONLY species to entrain. That means we can synchronise to a rhythmic source outside the body. We can clap or nod our heads or march or dance to repeated, evenly spaced beats. We join in. And if you change the tempo, we can (mostly!) lock in and go faster or slower. And we do this from a really young age. We like it.
Secondly, we can synchronise single discrete pitches (notes) into chords by harmonising our voices. Oof! We like that too.
Rather than banal, harmony and synchronicity - two forms of repetition - are highly evolved in humans.
Thirdly, all human cultures have developed certain music making tools - instruments - from wooden drums to reed pipes, Moog synthesisers to hurdy-gurdys, with which we make sequences or patterns of melody and repeat them.
Repeating rhythm, harmony and melody with our voices, our bodies and our cool tools has evolved - it's been selected for. You can be perceived to be technically 'shite at music' but still appreciate all these things, simply because you are a human.
Fast forward to current songwriting practice and the balance of high level repetition with variation and release is a multi-billion dollar industry. Not only are the individual components of songs repeated, but the more popular the song is with an audience, the more they want it repeated.
Songwriters who can use repetition deftly not only enhance memorability of a song, but can supply nuanced expression, to highlight and intensify certain emotions, from disenchantment to erotic fervour. There's joy in repetition indeed.
From simply repeating a word for rhetorical importance, often the title, to making sure the words of repeated chorus still make sense after the second verse has shoved the song's plot along, repetition is constantly contributing to connecting with listeners. From repeated vocal hooks, like David Bowie's stuttering 'ch-ch-ch - changes' or David Byrne's 'fa-fa-fa-fa' syllable repeats in 'Pyschokiller' to Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine's 'I know I know I know I know...' repeat 26 times, repetition can really and truly make a descriptive point!
How can you use layers of repetition to give your songwriting more impact?
ps We had a great time at the NEXT LEVEL Songwriting Retreat in Tahora over the weekend. Thanks to all the songwriters that came and gave it their all: Juliet McLean, Nick Feint, Farley Hokopaura,Tim Jardine, Hanne Jøstensen, Nycki Proctor, Rachel McAlpine, PH Lim, me and Nancy Fulford. Love your work! Thanks to Debb Stewart, Kerry Turner and their mate, Alix for the lovely catering and cossetting at 3 Bullock Farm, Tahora.
The next event will be a FIRST LEVEL Songwriting Retreat
over Labour Weekend, 22-25 October 2021. And you can book now!
pps Songwriting School, my online songwriting weekly tuition session, is on it's way next month! Get into it here.
Illustrations by Leanne Shapton
The free filesharing platform WeTransfer runs a series of creativity profiles and while waiting for an upload, I spied a story from resident New York illustrator Leanne Shapton. Stuck in COVID apartment duress with her daughter, this 46 yr old woman outlined her transition from cooking illiteracy to not-so-bad-more -than-getting-by-preparer-of-food-for-the-whānau in her essay/exhibit, I Could Drink A Case of You: A Joni Mitchell Grocery List.
Initially cringingly bad at cooking even the basics, Leanne catalogues her culinary progress and memories alongside lyrics from albums devoured during lockdown and presents a charming series of illustrations of Mitchell's lyrics that specifically mention food or drink.
There's a ton and in terms of highlighting sensebound writing, you couldn't really get a better archive. You can taste and smell these words from 'Singapore slings' to 'muffin buns and berries by the steamy kitchen window'. Truly food for thought!
Which brings me to the (almost related) topic of feedback.! I frequently come across songwriters wondering how to get it or how to avoid it or how to recover from the results of feedback that may be well meaning but has effectively crush their will to live.
In this article for Bandzoogle, I cover why it is important to utilize feedback as part of your songwriting took kit, but discuss how to curate a feedback loop that's relevant to your career stage. Needs vary wildly depending on where you are in the songwriting ecology. You can learn to be strategic about developing a supportive and open feedback loop and save yourself a lot of grief!
Finally, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
See you in 2021 if not before.
with very best wishes
ps the Next Level Songwriting Retreat @Tahora 22-25 January has sold out. However, you're welcome to contact me about going on the wait list. It's gonna be a great start to 2021!
pps Songwriting School is coming soon!!