I hope you guys enjoyed last night’s double post. Here’s another! It seems I’m just pumping them out since I finished the new site.
Anyway, today is Wednesday and according to the schedule I set for the blog that means today’s post should be a “how-to” related post.
Every Wednesday night end up going out to the Ashbary in Willow Springs (in the suburbs of Chicago) and playing at their open mic night. In light of that I think its fitting that I write an article on how to write a song.
There are a few things you should know before you write a song. A lot of people are afraid to write songs or if they write them they are afraid to perform them. To those people let me say this:
Songwriting is not hard. Songwriting does not require talent. There’s this myth out there that songwriters and performers have this certain intangible quality that the rest of us don’t have. They don’t. Songwriting is 1% talent and 99% hard work.
Songwriting is a skill, not a gift or talent. Some people are better than others but I’m willing to bet that those who are better than the others have practiced much longer. When I say songwriting is a skill I mean it in the sense that it takes skill to play sports. And you get better at songwriting the same way you get better at sports.
I’m not telling anyone to exactly what I’m going to tell you. These are rough guidelines. Try them out and take what you need. Now you probably play an instrument if you want to write a song or you may just be learning an instrument. It doesn’t matter how good you are at your instrument, you can still write a good song. Your songs will get better as you practice your instrument and songwriting. In my case I ended up teaching myself guitar. I learned all the open chords, power chords, and those other kind whose name escapes me at the moment (haha, that doesn’t make me look a good teacher). I didn’t touch scales for years. In fact I rarely use scales to this day even after I learned them. I’m an average guitar player. I know how to play. Average is good. I got here by teaching myself. If you find that your music isn’t progressing like you want it to because of your skill level, by all means take lessons. I went to Columbia College for a short time after my stint at Loyola and took only music classes. It was there where I learned scales and other standard methods and practices. Even though I still remember what I learned I don’t use a lot of it. That’s why I’m telling you to cherry pick in your learning. Try something out and see if you can use it. You don’t have to have the skills of Eddie Van Halen to be a good songwriter.
Setting up your Space
Ok, so now you’re sitting down in the place you reserve for songwriting. You did reserve yourself a space, didn’t you? Its important to have a place you can sit down, relax and concentrate in. Some people like distractions while they work. I like to have a lot of things going on around me while I work on something. The one exception to that is songwriting though. But if you are one those who like background noise or whatever, get a TV, a computer or whatever you enjoy in your space. I can’t speak to that method so I’ll let you figure it out. If you’re someone who like quiet I can help you. You need to have a space clear of clutter. There should be no distractions while you sit down to write your song. No cell phones, TVs, computers, or even stray paperwork around. When I first started out I set up a space in my parent’s basement which was unfinished and certainly not inviting in any way. I taped a collage of pictures on one of the walls, set up some spare couches in a square, laid down rugs, set up a few coffee tables that were laying around and voila! I had myself a nice writing/recording space.
Your space should not only be comfortable, quiet, and uniquely yours, it should also set the mood. An office cubicle can be neat, tidy, and uniquely your own but its not a good place to write a song. If you have a space thats nice and clean but doesn’t set the mood you might as well be in that cubicle. Candles are a good way to set the mood. Consider the colors in your space. What kind of vibe do they give off? Pastel green and blue have always been colors that inspire me creatively. What are your colors?
The first hurdle to songwriting is always the hardest to mount. Inspiration is something that can stop you before you even start. You’ve set up your writing environment and now you’re sitting down with your instrument and suddenly you have no idea where to start. Its important to go into writing with a subject in mind. This rule applies only if you are sitting down with the intention of writing a song. Now there are times when I sit down to just play guitar-not write a song- and suddenly inspiration strikes. Thats fine, but inspiration is not going to smack you over the head. If you wait for inspiration you’ll never write any songs. Especially when you first start out. So how do you go into writing with a subject? It seems like a question that shouldn’t have to be asked but its actually very valid. I know from experience that coming in with a subject in mind is easier said than done. A good idea is look to your past. Pass up all the boring stuff and focus on times of heightened emotion. Think of what happened today, last week, last month, last year, and ten years ago. There’s also the option of using something external for your subject. What I mean by external is that you should listen closely to the radio and figure out what the songs you’re listening to are about. Can you relate? Then write a song about it. Even talk radio is a great source of inspiration. You don’t have to write songs about yourself or others. You can write a political song. You can write a song about an awesome piece of furniture you saw at IKEA. I want to go with the example of the piece of furniture for a minute. Sometimes when writing a song about the most random things (like a piece of furniture) you wind up with a great song. This is because you have to work hard to make it interesting. The harder your brain is working the better your song will come out.
Remember this: Inspiration is not something that comes from outside ourselves and knocks us on our ass every now and then. Inspiration is something you have to work for. Inspiration comes from thought processes - not sitting on your ass waiting to be inspired. I cannot stress this enough- if you wait around for inspiration you will never become a songwriter. And if you do you’ll be terrible.
Alright, so now you have a subject in mind and you’re ready to write your song. But how
does the music go? This is another problem songwriters have. If you’re new to your instrument its probably even harder. In terms of your playing there are a few important things to remember:
- Don’t play anything you can’t play - What I mean is that if you’re trying incorporate that awesome chord your favorite rock star uses in your favorite song but you have a hard time playing it almost to the point where you can’t, the don’t. Play what you can. If you can’t play that special chord then use another. You will only end up frustrating yourself and giving up otherwise
- Do experiment with new chords and sounds - this seems somewhat contradictory to the first point and maybe it is. You should definitely learn new chords, techniques, and playing methods. You should absolutely try to incorporate them into your songs. But if you need more work on anything and to use it in the song would harm the quality of the song then don’t use it. Practice it all you can but don’t use it in your song. Struggling through a song will frustrate you and there is a good chance you will give up on the song.
That said, I’ll take you through my method. I sit down and start strumming some chords. Random chords. I play whatever my hand decides to play. I basically just put chords together at random and experiment to see how certain things sound together. Some people advocate for writing in certain keys and using music theory to write a song methodically. Because I am self taught I don’t do it that way. I had been playing guitar for 8 years when I took Jazz Guitar in college. At that point I just didn’t want to change how I did things. If you want to go the music theory route then I suggest buying the book “The Songwriting Sourcebook” by Rikky Rooksby. I have it and I think its an indispensible book for any guitar player from beginner to expert. I still use it every now and then even though I don’t go the music theory route. To be clear though, knowledge of music theory is not necessary to a good songwriter… at first. As you progress you will naturally start to get into music theory and end up learning it without trying. I happened to me. I definitely don’t follow the tenants of theory stricly and thats what I want to stress. You can do it without knowledge of theory. I don’t want to repeat myself so I’ll go on…
Lyrics aren’t hard. People make too big a deal over lyrics. Don’t be a pansy and puss out right at the lyrics part. Its quick and painless, I promise.
First off think of your subject. Now your lyrics should tell a story about that subject. Say you’re writing a song about Mary. It may go like this:
She was so hairy
She had a little lamb
but he didn’t want to get married
See what I did there. This certainly isn’t good work by me but it’ll do for this example. My subject was Mary. I thought about her. What did she look like? Who did she hang out with? What’s going on in her life? Well she’s a hairy chick who had a little lamb that didn’t want to marry her. She wanted to marry a lamb because no other guy would date her due to the hair growing on her body. Sure Mary and her Little Lamb have another song but I added to the story. You can use that idea if you want (not that I think anyone will). Thats how you write lyrics. Its easy. There are some things you should avoid while writing a song. Cliches are one of them This post is pretty long anyway so I’m not about to make a list of them but you can find some here, here, and here. Some cliches are alright in moderation. It all depends on usage. If you use them right then you’ll have no problems.
Sometimes you just can’t think of any lyrics and you need some time to think. In those cases I advise you not to stop writing. In those cases use filler lyrics. Filler lyrics are junk lyrics. You use them just keep the flow of the song going until you can replace them. They don’t need to be good or make any sense. They allow you to finish a song without having to stop in the middle. In many cases your filler lyrics may become part of the final lyrics. Its happened to me and thats just fine. There are a ton of hit songs that were written with filler lyrics that were never replaced.
At this point you have your subject, a few riffs, and a good idea about what the lyrics will be. Now you need to structure your song. There’s no right way to do it. Just diferent ways. Songs have these parts called the verse, chorus, and bridge. Verse, chorus, and bridge are the pillars. But they don’t all need to appear in the same song. Remember what I said about the right way to do it. Think of the verse chorus and bridge as suggestions. There are also a few other sub-parts called intro, pre-chorus, and others that are beyond the scope of this guide. There are a number of different ways to structure these parts into a complete song. Right now we’re going to call the intro “a”, the verse “A”, pre-chorus “b”, chorus “B” and bridge “C”. A few days ago I wrote a song with an “aABABCAa” structure. Yes, I used the intro as my outro. Here some basics:
- … and a ton of other combinations
Those are some of my tips. Just remember that talent = hard work and inspiration=thinking really hard. There is no intangible quality that makes us songwriters different than anyone else. Anyone of any skill level can do it. If you’re an conscious human being then you can write a great song. Have fun everyone!
And don’t forget I’m playing at the Ashbary tonight. Check out the shows page in the Felix section of this site.