Read about how to write better songs
Dame Judi Dench’s emphatic response to a question about preparing for performance has great relevance in songwriting too methinks! This lovely little nugget of an answer is concise and emotive – two qualities that are highly prized in effective lyric writing. Her spin on stage fright is positive – she lets us know that it’s a good and necessary thing for performance, in fact fuel. But there’s an element of excitement and danger too.
Because lyrics are words to be heard rather than read, they have to be impactful and easily remembered, but most of all they should evoke an emotional response. Emotive language elicits emotional reactions in an audience. Using it deliberately can help shape the audience’s response to your song.
At first I was afraid. I was petrified.
This is the opening line of I Will Survive, a smash hit for Gloria Gaynor. The songwriters Dino Fekaris and Frederick J. Perren took a word that described an emotional state, afraid, and ramped it right up to petrified. Now there’s no doubt of the extremity of the situation. And this is in a power position in the song – the opening line.
Like a virgin, touched for the very first time.
Songwriters Billy Steinberg / Tom Kelly used this emotive and provocative simile which fitted right in with Madonna’s artistic style and persona.
And Johnny Cash used this deadly simple phrase in Folsom Prison Blues to describe just how badass and hopelessly lowdown he could be
But I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die
Finding the right emotional intensity in your lyrics is a question of figuring out how you want us to feel – remember, we, the audience, love to listen to powerfully emotional songs! Then, review your draft lyrics and move them from conceptual, complex or strictly factual to emotive by hitting the synonym switch! Try substituting words that are ‘just ok’ for words that slap you in the face. Don’t forget the online thesaurus here to open up the possibilities!
Use it on your nouns – is this new love or is it like a virgin?
Use it on your adjectives and nouns – is it a car or a little red Corvette?
Use it on your verbs – do I go to you or am I running up that hill?
Use a whole phrase - my momma don’t like you and she likes everyone
Make us feel something with your song with the words you choose to use.
Talk more soon
ps there are only 5 spots available on the Tahora Songwriting Retreat. Dive in!
I think we’re really lucky being songwriters. We get to say things that many folks will never say out loud in their lives. We can get people to sing them over and over, with every fibre of their being if we do it right. That’s the world we live in. Because a song don’t mean a thing if it can’t make you FEEL something. As a songwriter, it’s the emotion that you need to get right above and beyond pretty much anything else.
So, how do you get your songs to strike an emotional chord?
1. Write Like a Human - sometimes, a songwriter will show me a lyric that I will have no idea has been written by them, because it bears utterly no relation to how they speak. They use words they’d never normally use in everyday speech like old fashioned slang or weird sentence construction just to fit a rhyming template. At this stage, I’ll ask them to tell me IN THEIR OWN WORDS what they’re trying to actually say, and suddenly you get this really interesting or powerful story coming out. And I’ll say that’s what you should put in the song. This is often referred in copywriting circles as the bar stool test. Think of your song as something you’d tell a good friend in a bar - the tone is authentic, real, intimate, conversational, connected, passionate, interesting. Like a human. Make the song like that.
2. Groove Is In the Heart - the rhythm of your song has a powerful impact on how we feel - at a deeply physiological level. It can make us tap our feet, nod in time or dance the night away. In fact, musicians talk endlessly about getting the ‘feel’ right in songs. Partly it’s the tempo and beat you choose, but it’s also the elements you leave out - every 4th high hat, or not strumming constantly through the verse. Whether you ‘push’ the timing of the song bringing a whole bunch of drive or you lay back relaxing the tension can give a completely different feeling to the music. Remember, this is the most repeated aspect of your song and getting it ‘right’ counts - literally. Make us feel.
3. Spice Up the Chords - the chords that you use and the order you use them can hit you right in the heart from the minute the song starts. This can be profoundly simple Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl uses just two - Eb minor & Gb major. The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby uses E minor and C major. But the magic is in how the chords are used. Not always with the root in the bass. Sometimes with added extras - sixths and sevenths - major and dominant. Sometimes missing the third or with suspensions. But wonderful triggers to make us respond emotionally. Learning one new chord can give you a whole new songwriting seam to mine.
4. Contour - the shape of the tune has a huge impact on how songs make us feel. Not just the big money notes but the way a song builds or creates uplift can, well be, uplifting. And there’s comfort in the sound of silence too - making us wait to land on the chorus. I’m not saying every song has to be a box of fluffy ducks - far from it - but I’m more than happy to sing along with the chorus of Radiohead's ‘Creep’ because of the shut down on 'Creep' and the satisfying falling melody on 'Weeeir-do'. Just saying,
The point is don’t tie yourselves up in knots under the microscope of ‘songwriting correctness’. If you create something that makes you feel good or sad or upset - in fact anything but indifferent - then set to and finish it. We need all the emotion in songs we can take!
Talk more soon
ps we’re now taking bookings for both Wanaka Songwriters Clinic Oct 2018 and Akaroa Songwriters Retreat Feb 2019.
3. Intervals and rests.
A word about what's actually not even there in songs. Space! Where will you put your nothing? The space vertically between notes is called an interval, and it can be up or down in pitch. The space horizontally between notes is called a rest and it can be a very short time or several bars worth. It's space that makes us wait and long for the next line or the next beat. Think about where you put nothing in your song. We need some of that too!
Try this exercise today. Here is a short lyrical phrase: I want you in my life forever
Use this lyric above, write and record the following variations a capella ( with no backing - super basic!) on your phone
1. An eight note melody that rises throughout the phrase.
2. An eight note melody that falls and rises throughout the phrase.
3. Try it at 120 beats per minute - an uptempo rhythm
4. Try it at 90 beats per minute - the downbeat version.
Feel the difference! Let me know how you get on.
ps Pleased to announce that the Song Doctor Mailer has been awarded one of the Top 75 Songwriting Blogs & Websites for Songwriters in the world. Well, fancy!
pps Preparations are going well for the upcoming Songwriters Retreat this Waitangi Weekend Feb 2-6, 2018. Thanks so much for all your bookings and inquiries so far - exciting! Prosody, and how to really incorporate it into your songs, is a topic we'll cover in detail on Monday Feb 4 ( first session) Retreat Day 3. Get into it!
It seems blindingly obvious but a song has to say something for an audience to listen. And an audience has to care about what is said before it can hear it.
Note there are two sides to this songwriting coin. What you write and what we hear. This is one of the biggest challenges for a songwriter who seriously wants to improve - to consider what the audience wants to hear and how they should hear it.
What??? Isn't that selling out, writing to order, becoming a puppet for the market?
Not even. It's asking yourself can you create art we want to listen to.
This is Emily Warren. She's a Grammy award winning songwriter.
In a very relevant APRA Songhub seminar, she said this.
Songs are still supposed to be about the truth, like songs ideally are supposed to be an expression of you. The perfect recipe is you’re telling the truth, you’re being honest and you’re putting it in a way that’s simple enough that a million people can hear it and say ‘oh my god, I feel the same exact way, and I can sing along to that'.
If you want to write songs for yourself in your bedroom, then do. That's a wonderful form of self-expression, like writing a sound diary. But if you want us to listen to you, then you have to have something to say that moves us, that we can understand, that makes us dance or at least tap a foot, that is meaningful to us in a bleak moment, that we can sing in the shower, that makes us want to kiss the girl next door. Not necessarily all at once, but your song needs to connect with us wholeheartedly! We need to feel something when we hear your song!
What you say is up to you - the artist. It is your taste, your opinion, your view of the world, your musicality, your experiences that make up your completely unique artistic perspective. No two people can write the same song - there's so many ingredients in the recipe and at least two languages ( words AND music) being created at the same time in a song. Sure, you can be influenced and you can emulate, write in the style of, but you can't write a Bruce Springsteen song anymore than Bruce could write one of yours.
So, unleash yourself! Tell us something - make us an offer we can't refuse!
Don't know how to get started? Try answering these questions as truthfully as you can. Don't analyse your content at this stage - just blurt it out on your screen or notebook.
1. Things I should have said.
2. Things I shouldn't have said.
3. Things I want to say.
Take as long as you like. Write as much as you like. There are no wrong answers. Reckon you'll write yourself some real gold in amongst it!
I look forward to hearing more!
ps we have one remaining spot on our Wanaka Songwriting Clinic Oct 20-22
pps for those who have a whole lot more songwriting to do, join us next year on the Songwriters Retreat, Hanmer Springs Feb 2-6
We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand close to the rumble of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tyres sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.
This excerpt written by American crime writer Raymond Chandler comes from a review of his biography by the contributing editor James Meek in this year’s first edition of London Review of Books, (5 January 2017).
Meek points out that Chandler ‘has a genius for the rare and obscure prose skill of putting exactly the right number of atmospheric elements in place to enable the reader to both grasp a topography and feel a mood’
And that ‘between the dialogue, the action, the fierce eye and ear of Chandler fastening on each cadence and fingernail and accessory of his characters, there are moments of intense experience of place that are both sensual and precise’
What on earth has all this got to with songwriting? Well, basically, everything!
Berklee College of Music’s Professor Andrea Stolpe points out in her book Popular Lyric Writing, that a songwriter’s objective is
‘to cause a significant experience in the mind and heart of our listener. As writers, we have the power to determine the intensity of the experience we cause…. Any idea can succeed or fail in causing an experience with the listener. The effectiveness is not contained with in the plot itself but in the ability of the story to connect emotionally’
She asks the challenging question ‘Are you connecting with your listeners or providing background music to their busy lives?’
This is a great benchmark to use to measure your songwriting success.
An audience has to feel something to connect with your song. Telling them to feel won’t work, but showing them how to see what you see, hear what you hear will help them feel what you feel.
This means using your senses as points of connection, just like Raymond Chandler did so effectively. He told us what the tyres sounded like (they sang), what he could smell (kelp) , what the colour of the window was (yellow), where he was leaving from (Las Olindas), what the concrete felt like (moist), what the weather was doing (fog, moist, dank) and how he was travelling (driving) – in other words he employed every sense he had, plus movement. This increased specificity makes us literally reconstruct his experience for ourselves.
Same in memorable songwriting. Not just any shoes, but blue suede shoes - not just a car, but a little red Corvette, not just a road but a dark desert highway, with the smell of warm colitas rising up through the air. Senses are being seriously stimulated here – sound, visual, smell, taste, touch and movement.
Incorporating sense-bound writing into your material enables your listeners to experience what you want them to. They can connect with your songs more fully through the choice of specific details you provide.
When next you write, intentionally think about what your characters look like, sound like, what they smell, or smell like (!), how they're moving, what or who they're touching, what they're drinking or eating. You might start to unearth some new images and lines you hadn't previously thought of, taking your song from good to great.
Talk more soon.
ps sense-bound writing is something we look at really closely in our song clinics.