Writing Effective Songs
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"Songwriters and poets suffer from the same affliction . . . they both believe they have something to say."
Do any of the following statements describe you?
- "I spend a large portion of every day thinking about writing songs."
- "I read scripture and think . . . surely these are the lyrics to a song."
- "I write down interesting remarks I overhear."
- "I put a lot of energy into writing songs, and trying to write songs."
- "I see all the bits and pieces of songs I have lying around and it drives me crazy."
- "I go to songwriting workshops given by people who make their living writing songs."
- "I spend time with other songwriters."
- "I read books on songwriting."
- "I think I am a songwriter."
- "I am obsessed with songs."
- "I sometimes feel angry with lyrics and just go with the flow."
- "I feel an overwhelming sense of satisfaction when I finish writing a song. Writing is difficult, but I am always challenged to do my best. Sometimes I feel like songwriting should be called song rewriting, because I spend a lot of time rewriting until the song is right."
If these statements generally describe you, then read on, as we discuss "Writing Effective Songs".
Music and lyrics come from the heart. It's not something you can just do easily. Lyrics are created from events that have happened in your life, for instance - an ex lover, the present, dreams, or everyday life. All the different experiences you have had in your life can be written down as songs if you think hard enough.
The Mechanical Elements of a Song
For the beginning songwriter, it may be helpful to know something about the various elements of a song. Following are some definitions:
- Measure (Bar): a segment of time defined as a given number of beats of a given duration.
- Melody: the part of a song that can be sung alone so that the song is recognizable; the "lead". Elements of the melody include:
- Motif: a short group of notes
- Phrase: Two motifs combined
- Sentence or period: Two phrases combined
- Paragraph: A group of sentences
- Sequence: a melodic phrase that is repeated but is transposed
- Harmony: the notes that compliment or support the melody line. These may be sung or played. In music theory, they are described as the vertical structure. If using a chord progression format, should base the harmony of the song upon the progression and only vary a bit.
- Rhythm: the pattern of beats to which the words are sung. There are two versions: The traditional, where every note is played as shown, and the "swing", used in Blues and Jazz, where, for example, two half-beats go "bomp-bomb" (kind of like heartbeat). A more technically useful definition of swing is best described using eighth notes. Rather than playing "straight", or on the down and up-beats: there is a lengthening of the on-beat eighth note, a pause perhaps in slower tempos, and a rushed offbeat eighth note. This is derived by forming two triplets (assuming 4/4 or "Common Time") and playing the first note in the triplet, a silent second note or "rest" and playing the third note. Swing can create a sort of laid back, lazy feel at slow tempos and at higher tempos can give a driving force that pushes the music forward. At extreme tempos, it can become technically impossible or cause a loss of pulse/beat, but this is mainly only an issue with electronic music forms.
- Tempo: the speed of the song, measured in beats per minute (BPM). A higher BPM number indicates a faster speed, whereas low BPM indicates slow speed.
- Time Signature: 4/4, 2/4, 2/2, 3/4, 6/8, etc. the top number relates to the number of beats in a measure/bar and the bottom number relates to the value of the notes in the bar. i.e 4/4 = four Quarter/crochet notes in a bar. 6/8 = six eighth/quaver notes in a bar.
Different time signatures can offer different rhythmic feelings depending on the beat emphasis. 4/4 is very standard feeling, befitting a time signature known as "Common Time", whereas 6/8 is most often played as if it were 2/4 with the beat divided into 3 equal parts in a triplet or "dotted-quarter feel and is "bouncy" (It is common to many Irish/Celtic dances/jigs as well as "naval"/sailor music such as shanties). More complex music can feature "odd", uncommon time signatures such as 7/8 which vary as far as beat subdivision from song to song but the uneven number of beats per measure creates uneven rhythmic patterns. An example in 7/8 could be counted 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3 (emphasis placed on the 1's), and would feel like 3/4 with an extended 3rd beat. Different eighth note groupings and emphasis are used to vary the feel.
Usually, each song consists of the following:
- Intro: the short instrumental section at the beginning of the song.
- Verse: a section of the song having its own melody, usually following the introduction and occurring again after the chorus. Most songs have two or three verses, repeating the same melody with different words. Verses usually have about eight measures, but traditional twelve bar blues may use twelve measures.
- Pre-Chorus (a.k.a. Channel): a short section that builds beyond the verse and usually leads to the Chorus.
- Chorus: a different section in the song with a different melody, usually following the verses and the bridge. The chorus may be very repetitive.
- Bridge, or Middle 8: a section of the song that is different from the verses and chorus. The bridge usually occurs during a transition between verse and chorus or between two choruses in separate keys; hence, it is sometimes called the "bridge." Because it is frequently 8 bars long, it also known as the "Middle 8," particularly in Britain and Europe. However it is conceived, its primary function is to provide the ear with a kind of "relief" from the repetitiveness of the Verse and Chorus, to provide a fresh perspective within the context of the overall structure.
- Hook: an important phrase in the song, the memorable theme. The hook is usually repeated at various times during the song. Also referred to as the motif.
- Coda: the ending section of the song; usually repeats the hook or an important portion of the song. Maybe integrated into the chorus. In traditional western music, a coda is a separate section of music from the rest that is only played when indicated (written: to Coda), usually only once and often is used as a resolution or ending in songs that involve a repeating loop such as the traditional American graduation song Pomp and Circumstance or other marches that need to be played for varying durations (or other creative uses, or as a method of saving space/ink in written music).
Often, it is worth the effort to first invent a melody from a chord (or string for guitar) sequence around which your song will be focused. Song writing for the popular vote requires a 'hook' as it is known. The hook may be simply a melodic structure, but is perhaps preferably a mix of the melody coupled with a clever line of words.
For instance, in the well known 'Danny Boy' or 'Derry Air' as it is sometimes called, the 'hook' is found where the melody appears to try to surge forward into the chorus and the words "But come ye back" accompany that surge in chord progression.
The reverse process, putting music to words, is a lot more difficult and is also less successful in most formats. (fitting lyrics to a melody can create some "forced" lines or wording in order to fit. Developing a melody after writing lyrics allows you to form the basic rhythmic structure from the syllables of the words, adding expanding and altering to develop interesting melodic movement. Knowing the tone of a particular line or section also allows you to better able match the mood musically for more consistent feeling. Plenty of people find these advantages helpful and it is by no means incorrect or more difficult writing in this fashion. Song writing is a process unique to everyone, do what works best for you.)
But there are certain cases where putting music to words is a better option... for instance, a rhyming poem or free verse with a regular meter can easily be made a song. Basic chords lend themselves well, the I - IV - V progression and iv - IV - V - I chords work.
Popular Song forms
Popular music has several forms that are commonly used. These usually consist of four 8-bar phrases, making up the typical 32 bar form. Typically, this entire 32-bar is a chorus.
- A-A1-B-A (ternary) is the most famous. The hook is typically in A, which allows it to be repeated, setting the hook in the listener's mind. The hook is a memorable, catchy part of the song, and may consist of one or more of the following: the title, a musical phrase, a riff, or a production effect. In section A1 the song develops usually by adding new instruments or increasing energy level in some other way. The B section, often referred to as the bridge, is a musical (and usually lyrical) contrast.
- Example: Over the rainbow, Yesterday, Just the Way You Are, What'll I Do, Ain't Misbehavin', As Time Goes By.
- A-B-A-B (binary verse/chorus) consist of eight-bar of A as verse, followed by eight bar of B as chorus. The 2nd half, acting as repetition , have a slight difference either melodically, harmonically, or both.
- Example: Material girl, "Sunrise, Sunset"
- A-A-B-B (binary): One A phrases for 8 bars, followed by its repetition, then followed by B phrases for 8 bars and its repetition. Repetition may or may not have variations.
- Example: Bouree in E minor
- A-B-A-C: Provide variation with the B phrase and repetition of A phrase with new concluding material in C phrase.
- A-B-C-D: Each phrase provides a variation with new melodic material. This is rarer since it requires more attention from the listener and fewer opportunities to bring home the hook through its repetition.
the other popular form, the 12-Bar Blues, is also common. See Music Theory/Blues for numerous type of 12-bar blues form.
Tools for Your Songwriting “Toolbox”
Some things that will help, but are not required:
- The gift of songwriting. Obviously, if you are gifted in this way, you’ll be way ahead of the game. Some people are born skilled writers. It comes to them like breathing. Others want to write so bad it's killing them, but they can't come up with anything that moves people. Most of us are somewhere in between . . . pretty good writers who could benefit from studying the craft of songwriting. (Those naturally gifted wouldn't be here most likely, for the "ungifted", you are actually just unpracticed. Experience is more useful than being gifted, you will learn all the wrong ways of doing things which will actually give you a better understanding of the craft rather than being "lucky" and making something good but with no idea of why and how you might expand from there.)
- Absolute Pitch. Of course it is a helpful tool but is not necessary. (More commonly called "Perfect Pitch", and is the ability to distinguish and identify the pitch, note, or chord playing by name. This is a gift you are born with or without. An equally useful and similar tool is "Relative Pitch", the ability to distinguish and identify intervals and chord movement from a known starting pitch. Again, you gain more musical knowledge such as scale degree and chord tendencies that you wouldn't just "have" if you had Perfect Pitch. Experience is always better, natural gifts just give a starting advantage while simultaneously discouraging actually learning correctly (taking shortcuts).)
- Some creative bent. "Most people see the sun go down. I see the mountain rise up."
- A good understanding of poetry writing. (Though if you listen to pop songs these days you'll notice a frequent lack of form or rhyme. Decide to rise above and keep making music with meaning, it's your method and chance of sharing yourself or a message with anyone that listens to your song. Don't waste it on materializing women and fantasizing about drugs unless that's your intention, eh?)
- Ability to sing or play an instrument. (Many rich song writers actually don't play anything... its certainly useful and enriching playing music you write but its perfectly possible to write songs without hearing them. Take, for example, Beethoven. He was writing 26 part symphonies deaf. Another option is going the electronic route like many modern artists with software that allows you to put in notes/chords/whatever individually and accurately, then play it back.)
- Collaboration with other writers. (In general the best way to learn and grow as a musician is collaborating and playing with others, its a whole different level than playing solo and typically much more fun)
- Multi-track Recorder (cassette 4-track, computer program, smartphone app, etc.)
- A voice recorder, to record how it sounds.
- Music Theory. While some of the greatest songs being sung around the world today were birthed in the hearts of people who knew nothing about music, if one wants to play in a certain style, they should also follow the style. One should not deviate too much from the 12-Bar Blues, for example, if they are to make a song in the style of Blues, regardless of the song's content. (Anyone with any sort of ear for pitch and pitch relation should be able to come up with something musical given a bit of time, theory allows you to understand why things work but also how best to achieve certain effects, in addition to understanding ways to develop a musical idea rather than guessing/experimenting until you find what you want. A lot of new, interesting ideas can develop this way and you should do a bit of it regardless but knowing some basic theory will speed up the process and help prevent discouragement due to getting "stuck".)
- material from experienced writers/musicians you don't have to listen to anyone else to make your own music, but immersing yourself in the work of other talented people is good for inspiration and seeing what has been proven to work well, as well as motivation
Things that are not required, PERIOD
- Virtuoso ability on an instrument.
- A great singing voice. (you definitely don't have to sound good, but its a good idea to at least develop the ability to sing in tune and correct pitches. if not singing, humming or whistling would do. being able to experiment with musical ideas or prototype things anywhere with no additional materials than your own body is highly useful. you can even record these ideas as inspiration hits to save for later, which is also encouraged. Finally, singing either lyrics or pitches along with a song gives an organic connection to it and helps you better understand whats happening in analysis; and singing harmony or bass parts expands your creativity for adding depth to a simple idea in addition to just being fun.)
- An intimate and vital relationship with your topic.
- A sensitive spirit relative to your intended audience.
- Patience. (Sometimes you block or hit snags. Work through them.)
- A paying job, or normal education. (Don't expect to hit a record contract so soon, pal)
Becoming an Effective Songwriter
You need to know your subject matter, this is imperative. After all, it is difficult at best to discuss subjects that you’re not knowledgeable of—and research, know about the subject matter as much as possible
Write about what you know. If your songs are not meaningful to you, they probably won't be meaningful to other people, and the lack of knowledge on your subject and your lack of enthusiasm for it will show through.
Write primarily as an expression of your own feelings, and who knows better about what you're feeling than you?
Strive to expand your vocabulary. While some phrases may be very meaningful, there are probably words that fit the image you are trying to create more appropriately. Also, if possible, try to live "in" the subject matter.
You need to be vulnerable; to be a good writer, you must remain vulnerable in your writing. If you hide, then the song hides. There is no safe haven for songwriters. If you choose to play it safe and not lay it on the line, your songs will be cliché-ridden, shallow and boring.
You need to practice and you need to be persistent; Yes, sometimes, the words and melody simply flow. But most of the time songwriting is hard work. Songwriting requires work, practice, mentors, study, diligence, and commitment. We should give ourselves to the development of our writing skills.
Practice, sing and write constantly. Write something every day, even if you come up with something that might initially sound trite. You can revise it and make it something good later. Whatever musical impulse lies within will come out.
Important Elements of a Song
The most important aspect of a song is "sing-ability"
- Do the stressed syllables of the lyrics match the stressed beats of the music? (If you write the lyrics first, as mentioned earlier, this becomes less of an issue.)
- Are the words you want emphasized sung with longer notes? (higher or contrasting pitches also bring attention to a word better than lower pitches that can get lost in the rest of the music or repeated pitches that usually create no musical interest unless used a particular way)
- Does it have a smooth melody? (occasional leaps or breaks, if used artfully, are perfectly fine and add interest)
- Are the intervals easy to sing? (Usually 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths and octaves are easiest.)
- Is the melody supported by the chord progression?
- Does the melody fall within the sing-able range of the majority? (Usually, not much lower than an A; not much higher than a D.) (A what? D what? Octaves exist. If you want an anthem this is important, but if your range is atypical or you have a greater than average range don't feel like you can't show it off. People like singing along to songs, but people also like being impressed and appreciate a show of talent/ability)
- Is it too wordy? Too many words make it difficult to focus on the subject matter.
- One Theme: stay focused on the "seed thought".
- Repetition: This makes the song easier for the congregation to retain and memorize. (And potentially boring. Much music is not repetitive, again do you want an anthem or something personal?)
- Imagery: Does it capture an image? Does it paint a picture of how you feel about a given situation at a given moment in time?
- Consistent within itself: Is the melody "saying" the same thing as the lyrics? Try to avoid putting happy sounding lyrics with a haunting melody. Of course, this can be done: for example, songs by Asaki are a good example (they have haunting , but celebratory songs ) (psst, writing lyrics first often makes this easier)
- Is it “catchy”?: Is there a creative chord progression? Is there an interesting rhyming scheme? Is there a creative melody? Is there alliteration?
Making the Connection
- The lyric is arguably the most important part of a song. Be clear. It is primary and fundamental that the audience understands what you are saying. If not . . . it might as well have been an instrumental. (the human voice is an instrument and many musicians use it as such, focusing on musicality of the syllables rather than clear words... Listen to Zac Condon of Beirut, can't understand a thing he says half the time but boy does it sound nice. also many singing styles distort the voice such as growling and screaming in more hardcore music.)
- Does it use the language of the assembly? If aimed at Youth, does it "groove"? If aimed at kids, is it happy?
- Is it simple "ABC-rock," or is it 70's "Art-Rock"?
- Is it intended for small group or a large crowd? Can it be sung by your choice of line up?
- Are there long pauses that could be filled with a lead instrument?
- Could there be more pauses to let your rhythm take a "rest"?
Simple images cut deep like a sharp knife. One of the most common mistakes made by beginning songwriters is trying to say too much. The simplest songs are usually the most powerful.
Complex writing in "code" that sounds like some other good song somewhere doesn't cut it. Many writers play it safe behind vague or complex lyrics. (And many listeners enjoy decoding the meaning of them. Do what you want.)
If you try to say in three minutes or less how you feel about everything in your life, you will lose people. It is more powerful to show how you feel about ONE thing, right now.
Once you've gained considerable experience in writing songs, you may decide to add some elements of symbolism, metaphor, or irony into your work. A song with several layers grows progressively interesting; if there is more to the song than first meets the ear, it will stay fresh.
Sparking the Creative Flow
- Quiet time: The key to expressive songs and lyrics is personal quiet times.
Meditation is a very effective way to do this. There is no more creative expressiveness than your inner voice. Inner voice can both flow and be shaped: you can let ideas come to you and you can alter them. It usually comes when you quiet your mind. As you open to your inner voice, it becomes easier to hear, grasp and shape ideas.
- Difficulties and Devastation Speaking from life-changing personal experience.
This is important in folk-style songs, such as Blues and Country Music. Negative stories with a positive resolution can be very inspirational. Angry lyrics can be the release a listener is looking for.
- Brainstorming If you are a musician, sit at your instrument and just play.
If you are a lyricist, write or sing whatever comes to mind. Even seemingly boring or strange lyrics must be written down, to open your mind to the more interesting and familiar lyrics. It is important to at least consider everything that comes to mind. You can rewrite and reshape the lyrics later, as it becomes more and more clear, what you were trying to say or realized you could say instead.
- Was it just a feeling? Then follow your feeling—do not look for anything else.
Put those feelings into words and music. Either you must look for situations to match the feeling or feelings to match the words, Be emotionally well-rounded: write songs of varying feelings, but realize what emotions won't fit, Don't write funny if you consider your genre very serious.
- Do you just have a melody? Sing something, anything, to it.
Flip the notes around: try the second note as a fifth then as a fourth and third. See what works. Remember that the more familiar always sounds better, so you have to try any new melody you wrote several times before throwing it out.
- Is it just a thought?
Single thoughts are a powerful way to write. The feeling is often already implied. An interesting story, onatomatopiea, or extended reasoning or metaphor, could easily be written around a simple thought with enough hours spent. Every little thought counts, that you have about every phrase, word, and sound. Don't be afraid to try anything that comes to mind. Use the satisfaction from improving your thoughts to continue to improve your thoughts.
- Brainstorm - write down every corresponding thought that comes to mind,
and don’t ever throw anything away. Bob Dylan is quoted in his famous deal with a higher power interview, as saying that he would move onto other songs if a new song wasn't happening. In another interview about Dylan's song Tangled Up In Blue, he said he spent years on the song grafting various women into one character, so sometimes move on, but keep every idea for some use somewhere.
- Write down your ideas and lyrics, and always record a rough draft of your songs.
Listen to the recording. Does it have a linear thread through the whole song? Or is it like this wiki: a patchwork of many separate ideas under one umbrella? Are there any phrases that don't quite make sense? Is there another phrase you could replace it with? Is there anything you cringe at? Do you talk about your muffin in a song about poker?
- Read your lyrics out loud.
Is there a clunky bunch of words? Is there anything that means something very powerful, but doesn't sound that way out loud? What is that powerful meaning and can you just write that instead?
- Is the theme universal, or is it so personal that it could only mean something to you?
Remember theme is the universal meaning behind the details like love, bravery, good, evil, etc. There is always a theme, you just have to make it consistent.
- Do you have a great chord progression? If you have access to a piano, voice the chords with left hand and just improvise a melody with the right.
There are actually a limited number of simple good progressions, and they've all been written already, which explains why you wrote that really cool song, and then realized you took it from so and so, They "took" it too, because we ran out of "new" simple chord progressions centuries ago, and the more complex ones are really combinations of simple ones.
- Or . . . do you just want to get rich?
Well don't waste your time in music; there are a lot of other professions that immediately pay a lot more than 99.99% of musicians ever make. Even many supposedly rich musicians never made a dime, because of too much money spent on production, touring, and distribution. If you want to get rich, then check out any profession with a lot of demand. Yes you can become a millionaire from music, but count the number of hit songs and then think of the total number of songs written ever, and then think of the number of hit songs that were profitable. Also, consider that even if you wrote a hit level song, how do you get the national audience needed to become a millionaire? Record labels don't even listen to submissions anymore. You have to tour relentlessly after you spent years begging friends to come to shows and not even listen your perfectly written songs. And then consider that everyone has an ego, and that your song is not as good as it at first seems. Actually success depends on you opening your ego, unless you just happen to part of a social movement, and then nobody is really listening anyway. One exercise in ego would be to take the first two lines of your favorite song and break it down, then break down the language and poetry of your best song. And even opening up to better writing still doesn't guarantee success, There are countless songwriters that pop up years after their death as being great writing, but yet unacknowledged in their lifetime.
- It's not completely impossible. Just close to impossible.
If you make songs just to get rich, there’s a strong chance you’re going to be terribly frustrated. We have little control over how others receive what we create. And if you try to change to fit what you think they want, you will never be happy with it, and they will never be happy with you. But at the same time, if you are unwillingly to change your lyrics to make more sense, because of some intangible lofty feeling, then you might be fooling yourself, and your success depends on deaf ears.
A Word Concerning Originality...
As songwriters, we don't have to re-invent the wheel; we just need to spin it our own way. A composer fails to be original when he or she does not listen to his or her own musical voice. Composers frequently re-create melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic tapestries that lie deep in their sub-conscious. Initially this is not a problem, since all music must take off from somewhere. We must be able to take it to a NEW place . . . one that it is original to our "take" on the style. Sometimes a composer is successful with a song only to find it has already been written.
Alternatively, it is common for a songwriter to use the same (or similar) well known melody. for example, Gekkoka (Moonlight Flower) and Tsubasa (wings) are both based on a classical piano piece, Midori no haze. However, with variations on melody (one is more melodramatic, while Tsubasa is more upbeat), and different lyrics, they become two distinct songs. Still, one should be very careful about using another person's melody, especially in countries in the developed world, which usually have the toughest copyright laws.
The most commonly reused part of music is chord structure. There are only so many chords and over the centuries people have found many of the chord changes that are most naturally pleasing. You can play about a million songs that all have the chord progression in the key of C: C - Am - F - G or some variation of the order (C - F - Am - G). So long as you have your own musical ideas building off of those chords, your song will still be unique same as the million others. This allows an excellent opportunity to really make your song stand out by using other chords creatively. don't feel confined to a key or set progression, some of the most interesting music uses out of key (non diatonic) chords or chromaticism, and modal interchange. All of those are more advanced music theory, but its something to work towards when you get tired of hearing the same progressions you always do. You can also play in different keys with the same progression: I - vi - IV - V in the key of Bb for example would be Bb - g - Eb - F. These are different chords, but it will have the same "feel" to it as it is the same pattern of tension building and release. It will change the pitch and note range, however (make sure its a key you can actually play or sing in), which can lend a brighter or darker mood and changing keys mid-song can be very effective, if done tastefully, in addition to giving your song a more unique identity.
- Once you have a song that you think is ready for the group, run it past a few objective and mature friends for an honest critique. Don't be afraid to refine it, taking into consideration their input.
- Focus on the process, not the outcome. It's good to have a goal. It's more important to spend your days doing what pleases you. Years of deprivation and sacrifice to reach a “place” most times equal years of deprivation and sacrifice. The “place” is never enough compensation. Just ask anyone who is in the “place” you want to be.
- If you are really strong, you can find your identity in the songs you write, just like any poem.
Meter is something not always fully understood, by learning writers, briefly meter in songs is the measurement of each note, Study the best writers and see where they relieve any chance of metric boredom , by inserting contrasting sections in each stanza.