Read how to write better songs
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!
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.
One problem that can confront songwriters is the balance between simplicity and originality.
Simplicity is fundamental for lyricists. Simple words tell it straight.
You, me, I, love, we, good, hot,
skin, heart, girl, lips, kiss,
time, gone, sad
The words are unequivocal, clearly understood by most folks who speak the language the songwriters do. They're easy to sing.
They cut to the heart of the matter. What could be simpler than I will always love you, help! or let it be?
The issue is that songwriters have been using the same words in so many songs, it can feel like there’s no room at the simple table for anyone else.
There are two strategies that songwriters have to get around this (either consciously or intuitively): use different words or use words differently.
And yes, I’m hugely simplifying things here, but it might be a helpful framework when you’re stuck down the well.
Strategy One is: Use Different Words.
The reason this can catapult your songs into the realm of unexpected and delighted surprise is that stretching your vocabulary carves up conceptual space more precisely according to linguist Geoffrey Nunberg.
It can also push you into using words that are more specific and relevant in particular situations your lyric describes. Therefore, it can make your song more authentic.
It can mean Prince using Corvette instead of car.
Or rather than Bob Dylan saying jobs, he says
Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters’ wives.
Or Eminem on pushback,
You think I give a damn about a Grammy
Half of you critics can't even stomach me, let alone stand me
Different doesn’t necessarily mean difficult.
Changing just one word in a song can be the difference between raw or wild - both could be useful but one might work better.
It can be adding an adjective like yellow dress, leather jacket, Venetian mask, Spanish leather.
However, it can also mean atmosphere instead of air or oxygen instead of air. The syllable count goes up but that might not be a bad thing. It might make your song fresh as mint sauce on a roast lamb!
The tactic here is making friends with your online thesaurus. Full of visual prompts, it can shower your frontal cortex with words you hadn’t considered - all good song fodder.
Sure, stay local to stay vocal, but if you’re feeling your songs are cheesy or that it’s all been said before, sharpen your chisel and try some synonyms.
Thanks so much for all your feedback and queries. Keep 'em coming!
Talk more soon,
ps to level up your songwriting, come to the Next Level Songwriting Retreat I'm presenting 22-25 January in Tahora. We have just two places left. Jump in!
pps thesongfoundry.com's Ed Bell's just released a very practical book you may find helpful called How to Write A Song (Even If You've Never Written One Before and You Think You Suck).
One of the ways to contribute to your song's rhythm is to intentionally stack the patterns of stress in your lyric's syllables. Oh yes, words are unspeakably groovy! The very word 'rhythm' comes from the Greek word for 'flow' (so does rhyme fyi, but that's really no surprise).
If you're writing songs in English, this particular language puts little stresses on particular syllables. The stressed syllable sounds a bit higher, louder and longer.
For example a word like banana is heard as ba na
The middle syllable is the stressed one, nudged higher, longer and a little louder.
You lean on it. The syllable - not the banana!
Hearing where the stresses land becomes important for lyricists to take note of. Otherwise, you can put the wrong em-Pha-sis on the wrong sy-Lla-ble. That reduces intelligibility, feels forced at worst, or just contribute to a sense of 'off'. Not a sensation you want to create for your audience.
Professional songwriters will often line words up so there are stress/unstress schemes within song sections, much like rhyming templates. Not to be bound by some arbitrary rule-a-rama, but to align all the macro and micro elements of song structure to mesh like a mother! Thus, the song rolls off the singer's tongue and into your heart.
Finding where the stressed and unstressed syllables are in a word is pretty solid. Say it out loud. Or get a first language English speaker to, if you're not sure. (irl or online).
Finding where the stressed and unstressed words in a sentence is a little trickier because the meaning in context can change how certain words are stressed.
It's the difference between Help! I need somebody
and I really need your help
or I really need your help
and I really need your help.
This figuring out where the stresses land is calling scanning. The reason you want to do this is to match the stresses in the lyric with the stresses and important 'positions' in the song's music. Not all positions are equal!
Songs will often exaggerate the natural 'music' of speech. So both rhythm (how long a note is and where it lands in the bar) and pitch (how high or low the note is) plus volume contribute to underlining the importance of particular words and syllables. It also depends on what you're trying to say in your song.
But take a leaf out of Dolly Parton's large song book, especially this one covered by Whitney Houston.
The sentence I will always love you becomes.....
The emphasis on I ( long, high and loud, mate!) and you (long, loud and given lots of decoration) is extremely underscored musically. One is in no doubt which words the songwriter wanted our focus on.
So there are actually two kinds of stress to notice. One is the cadential stress - what happens in words when we speak them naturally and the other is rhetorical - what are the important words in the context - here it's I and You.
Give prominent musical positions and attention to the natural accents and the critical words in your lyrics and you're off to the races! Or risk squashing the banana!
Talk more soon and I'd love to know what you'd like to read about so please send in suggestions and I'll have a go at covering them.
best wishes and good health!
ps applications are now open for Next Level Songwriting Retreat Jan 22-25 2021
pps if you'd like to get up close and personal online with your songwriting project, I'm now working with Soundfly as one of their mentors.
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.