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Writing Songs

'The Heart of a Poet and The Skin of a Rhino....'

Richard Ebbs Spring 1998


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For many people, finding the initial inspiration for a song is perhaps the hardest part. Most of us experience 'writer's block', when it seems that the muse has deserted us for good. Worry not. (That usually makes it worse). Relax- let's find a few tried and tested paths around that block...

Ted Hughes, one time British Poet Laureate, once said 'the progress of any writer is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system' -I think know what he means. (Wendy Cope, another British poet, could not resist writing a poem to the 'tune' of 'A Policeman's Lot' from the point of view of the unhappy policeman assigned to patrol the unconscious of Ted Hughes, with the quote presented as an introduction to the poem. Her poem is very funny indeed but it also serves to demonstrate how almost anything can be used as a springboard for an effective poem or song). If you're going to try and outwit the internal policeman then I guess you must be an anarchist, so an anarchist's strategies are in order! I prefer to think of inspiration as 'the Muse' and I see the Muse as being like an angel who wants to talk through me, and so put something new and beautiful into the world. If I don't listen, then she loses interest, but if I do listen, and wrestle to give that inspiration a good shape, then the bond between us grows stronger and she seems to want to give me more and more stuff! So to keep the Muse onside, the first thing to do is to make an effort, to try, in whatever direction seems appropriate! That's the main thing. Here's a few specific tips and tricks though.

Obviously we are all influenced by the culture around us, so listen to new songs, or old songs you haven't heard before -listen hard and feel the song and/or make mental notes of any good tips and tricks you notice. Read some poetry you haven't read before. If something that you hear in a conversation, on the TV or radio, grabs you, then jot it down. Expand on that at your leisure, and if it's a catalyst for lots of ideas, get them all down. It's important not to let these flashes of inspiration slip away, because in a few minutes time chances are you will have forgotten the words you had in your head completely. Use films or newspapers: Buddy Holly wrote 'That'll Be The Day' after watching the 'The Searchers' (a classic western) and apparently Bruce Springsteen's album 'The Ghost Of Tom Joad' was based on what he read about Hispanic immigrants in the Los Angeles Times. Try putting the radio on in the next room, just quiet enough so you can't hear the lyrics properly. Then flip through a magazine without reading it. You might find that from out of the mixture of images and music (that have no connection to each other) a title, a phrase, a hook, or an attitude jumps out at you. Use this as a basis for a new song. Or open a dictionary or thesaurus at random and explore whatever jumps out at you. From a single word, free-associate... -see where that takes you.

Songs evoke emotions, so whoever writes the song must first contact the emotion. What specific experiences (or ideas) trigger emotions in us? 101 things in daily life of course, covering a huge range from wonder, elation, passion, compassion, to futility, anger and loss. Sometimes just staring at a picture of a particular person can evoke feelings and memories of the person. What do they remind you of? Maybe there's even a melody that pops into your head when you think about them. It's almost always a good idea to try and express the emotion simply at first at least -even though you may well plan some really clever arrangement of the song, leave the cleverness 'til later. If you are determined to be clever early on in the process of writing the song, don't lose sight of the emotional focus- stay tuned in to that.

Past experience is a prime source of inspiration for most people. You have to really 'get inside' the experience once again though, to really express it well. Some people also find it useful to express the feelings there from the point of view of another person, as though you are writing a play or writing a story with the main character expressing your own experience but written in the third person ('he' or she'). Or you might want to write about someone else's experience, that's actually outside of your own. Either way, you need to 'get into the shoes' of your protagonist. Know their favourite colour, their upbringing, whether or not they eat fish, how they talk and move. Even if you don't use all of the information you play with, the process is important in making your characters 3D. And if you spend all your time at home twiddling on the guitar then you're not going to have an awful lot to write about...

Most of what goes on in our brain (thoughts, feelings, images, sounds, decisions and more) is unconscious. Buried away in our unconscious minds are memories of things we thought we had forgotten, -a huge amount of richness associated with all our experience that we may only re-experience in dreams unless we make the effort to give a voice to what's in there. Billy Joel's 'River of Dreams' and Paul McCartney's 'Yesterday' are both songs that just 'came' to the writers in their sleep, and many scientists (Einstein for one) claim to have solved major theoretical problems when they were asleep, so clearly the unconscious mind is very powerful. But most of us need to train ourselves to be tuned in to what's going on there. Always keep a pen and notebook by the bed. Try taking a song that you're working on, or an idea, to bed with you. Mull it over as you drift away. The veil gets thinner when you're half asleep, and who knows, you might even be lucky enough to write something as popular as 'Yesterday' when you are out for the count (in which case it's time to give up the day job).

Most writers of literature force themselves to write at least a certain amount every day, whether they feel inspired at first or not. If you do this and approach it in the right way, you often find that the inspiration does come, and come more often, so one way around writer's block is just to say 'screw you, writer's block' and just get on with it. Try writing at least three times a week, and write a song about anything. You can improve rough ideas later if there's a hint of promise. The point is that it can be useful to get your brain out of the habit of thinking it needs inspiration or special conditions. It's easy to think that you may be suffering from a lack of imagination, when with a little effort you can in fact exercise the imagination anywhere at all. Some of Dylan's best songs were written in less than an hour, so it's said. It must be nice to be able to do that, but it's my guess that the great man himself would be the first to admit that in the early days he learned how to write songs, and sweated like the rest of us to be master of his CRAFT. Doubtless he learned from other people too (Woodie Guthrie, Dylan Thomas?) before finding his own unique voice. There's the old adage about art being '90% perspiration and 10% inspiration'! For most of us that's probably true. If you train yourself to write something at least every three days or less then it seems that the Muse will want to talk to you more. (But the process of learning how to craft good commercial songs might well take years of hard work. -Sorry, but a bit of realism's no bad thing).

To outwit the inner policeman and make contact with the Muse we often need to let go of our perceived boundaries, and let our instincts override our minds. This being the case, beer or marijuana may be useful (for instance) but only if such things help you to communicate. Creatively speaking, there's not much point otherwise? New experience is often a good source of inspiration. Try playing an instrument that you don't normally play. Sometimes the sound of a different guitar or a new keyboard sound will inspire you to think of new material. Find a coffeeshop/hangout/bar/bowling alley that you haven't been to before. Go alone, observe and open yourself to everything you see and hear. Learn a new chord, a new progression, or cover a new song -set yourself new musical challenges.

Down in the underground tunnels there's a blinding flash at the workface- the Muse has used a stick of dynamite to reveal lots and lots of glitter in amongst the smoke. So let go of everything until you've mined the seam completely! Don't worry about finding the perfect nugget now -you've struck the mother lode (ie it's better not to 'edit' too much at this point) -let's just get all these rocks out before the roof collapses. You can crush the stones and pan for the nuggets at your leisure (and make some darn good well-crafted jewellery out of 'em too, hopefully). If things are working (and you are finding some good ideas/lyrics) then don't worry about punctuation or capital letters or whether it's in a complete sentence or whether it rhymes or (sometimes) whether it even makes sense. Lose your inhibitions. It's better out than in.

Some people talk about finding a 'writing space'. That is, a space that's free from distractions where it's easier to focus on what you're doing. I do this by walking- I try and put my poet's hat on and go out in the rain, if the hunger's there (and there's fewer people about then and the rain can make interesting rhythms as it drips and gurgles and splashes)! Otherwise walking on a mountain, or on the beach might do the trick for you. The idea is to find some kind of activity that will give your mind the freedom to roam. Go for a drive on a quiet road, do some housework, but while being active let your thoughts play around with your song idea(s). (And get them down on paper or tape, ASAP).

If you make contact with other writers in your area then you might get both inspiration and support from that. If you can handle their constructive criticism of your material(!) then that too might be useful. In my home town (Leeds) there is a wonderful wednesday-night get-together in the back of a pub ('Leeds Unplugged') for anyone with an acoustic instrument who wants to play or sing. I've made some good musical friends there. Maybe there's something similar, or a songwriter's group, or occasional songwriter's workshop, near where you live. (If not, then maybe you're just the person to start things rolling). Criticism can be useful, but if you don't get that from someone else, it's useful to really try and stand outside of yourself, leaving your ego to one side, to really ascertain whether what you are creating is good or not. Try also to put yourself into the shoes of an audience from time for a quick reference check...

Having said a lot about finding inspiration in other people's work and using all sorts of 'tricks' to find new ways of writing, we shouldn't forget what any great writer would be sure to tell you, which is: 'be yourself'. Perhaps the most important thing in a song is it's 'truthfulness'. A film can be fiction, but still 'true'. The same applies to songs. No one else can be who you are, feel what you feel, or say what you say in the way that you say it, so don't let your respect for other artists get in the way of expressing yourself. Why get too caught up in comparing yourself with others, when you are unique? Feel good about the fact that what you are creating is adding to the world (and not just taking from it)...


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Most of us have experienced every single one of these emotions at least once in our lives- usually a lot more than once:

excitation, coolness, joy, contentment, discontent, regret, relief, aggravation, cheerfulness, dejection, lamentation, amusement, tedium, wit, hope, hopelessness, fear, courage, desire, indifference, dislike, satisfaction, wonder, pride, humility, vanity, modesty, compassion, enmity, love, hatred, anger, irritation, exasperation, indignation, fretfulness, fierceness, malevolence, sullenness, petulance, prickliness, gratitude, revenge, jealousy, nostalgia, homesickness, sadness, grief, despair, desolation, wildness, frenzy, intoxication, enchantment, delusion, warmth, empathy, delight, joy, comfort, contentedness, satisfaction, enthusiasm, exuberance, euphoria, wonder, awe, amazement, ecstasy, pleasure, bliss, passion, inspiration, radiance, rejoicing, lust, humility, devotion, compassion, calmness, serenity, sentimentality...

Flick through a thesaurus under Emotion and you realise that there are many hundreds of emotion-words, each relating to a feeling that is often quite distinct from any other. But, most of the time we won't want to use these words in a song lyric -the trick is to find the perfect phrase (usually with 'word-pictures' that show rather than tell) to evoke exactly the emotion that we want it to evoke. 'Every day's an endless stream of cigarettes, and magazines...' for instance, to help build up a feeling of homesickness. By getting inside the emotion (and the experience that brought it on) we can find ways to illustrate it in graphic terms.

When you are happy, maybe you are out having a good time with no time to write about it! Is that why there's so many sad songs knocking about? Most of the time, people prefer to hear 'up' songs. Even the blues is cathartic -the traditional blues lyric is about facing hard times, but, surprise, surprise, it's done in such a way that somehow it makes you feel better. You find your foot tapping and you relate to it, but no way does it make you feel worse! If you want to get your good feelings into your lyrics, then maybe you really need to force yourself to get it down.

As Patti Smith pointed out, rock music is about sex. And almost everybody likes sex. There's more to life, though (you get sore, for one thing) so in order to express all those myriad emotional possibilities you've got to a) realise that those possibilities exist b) realise that you too have experienced almost all of them at one time or another, and c) you've got to get inside them- and get inside them so well that you're not just painting with a broad brush, you're expressing all the subtleties there...

The vinyl frontier: to boldly express what pretty much everyone has experienced before but no one has expressed in quite the same way before...


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Songs and poetry.

Songs are like poems, but there are subtle differences. Sometimes a song can actually be a poem put to music, and sometimes song lyrics stand up perfectly well on the printed page (or work effectively when recited as poetry)- but these are exceptions. (qv the lyrics of Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen). Most of the time song lyrics don't really stand up on their own as poems, and that's because the lyric does only 50 percent of the work of a song. A lyric must function in a strong relationship with the music, with both parts working together to produce a whole. The aim is generally to produce an emotional reaction in the audience by having the lyrics and the music complement each other as effectively as possible. The lyric, like a poem, seeks to imaginatively express and idea or emotion in a condensed, yet powerful way, and the music should help it do that.

Sometimes Charlie Parker would watch a friend walk in the door of a club when he was on stage, and he would try and 'play their tune', that is, he would try and intuit exactly the mood of the person at that moment in time, and express that musically to the best of his ability. When putting lyrics to music (or vice versa) the words (and melody) must do this together, so that with the music all parts of the 'package' are entirely congruent. (And this extends to the way a song is performed, too- a church choir singing 'Feels Like Teen Spirit' isn't likely to cut the mustard). The right musical phrase can give that spare and lean lyrical phrase exactly the right meaning. And the wrong musical phrase can give the perfect lyrical phrase exactly the wrong meaning.

Another significant difference between poetry and song is in the way singers tend to shorten or lengthen the words in a song to fit the melody and rhythm. The way sung words 'scan' tends to be very much determined by the melody and rhythm, whereas in poetry the length of words and the emphasis given to particular words is down to the words themselves without reference to music. As an experiment try reading some song lyrics as poetry and notice how the length of the sounds many of the words will change. Many of the qualities of poetry that are amenable to analysis are also found in songs, however, so the odd good book on the craft of poetry-writing can be very useful to a songwriter, helping with a better understanding of the possibilities for rhythm, rhyme and ways to use language in terms of metaphor, imagery and so on. A better understanding of these kind of poetical tips and tricks can be useful, but if what you write has no soul then it won't work in a poem or a song. Another thing to remember here is that some words are very hard to sing well (while speaking them may be easier). Try writing a few lines with the word 'orange' in every line and singing that! Not so easy!


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A good popular song compresses an awful lot into two or three or four short minutes of time, both musically and lyrically. When not using repetition to good effect then much of the art of writing lyrics (as with good poetry) is in finding the perfect, gem-like phrase that ever so succinctly expresses a view or feeling that might in fact be quite complex. Say for example you describing someone who seems to be destroying themselves, pointlessly. You can say 'he was wearing himself out, day after day, for not a lot' for example! Or, you might describe that person as 'a cracked polystyrene man, who just crumbles and burns' and go on to say 'the gravity always wins' -perfect! (Thanks to Thom Yorke of Radiohead). This kind of skill in finding the perfect image or metaphor, and re-phrasing the basic sentiment in a vital, arresting way is what tends to make the difference between art and something uninspired and uninspiring. Maybe it will take a lot of sweat to find that perfect effortless-sounding phrase, but stick with it!

some lyrics are so crap they make you want to take a nap- they'll make the cat head for the cat-flap


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Meaning and Metaphor.

In the Webster's Dictionary, 'metaphor' is defined as 'transference of a term to something it does not literally apply to'. The most common metaphors are the ones we use when with the words 'like a' as in 'he ran like a bat out of hell'. The English language is full of these idiomatic expressions that have images in. They help spice up the language, although most phrases like this are used so often that they aren't new anymore, so in songs, metaphorical 'word-pictures' should be fresh and new as you can make them unless you think you can make money from old rope (-if you are going to use cliché metaphors, try and do it with irony). Sometimes a single metaphor in a line (or two) can be very effective, as in 'I am a rock, I am an island', but often it can be a good idea to extend a metaphor. An example of this is in Mary-Chapin Carpenter's 'This Shirt' where the whole song is about an actual shirt that she wore a lot- she describes where the shirt travelled to with her, how she used to use it as a pillow, how she used to keep a rolled up pack of cigarettes in the sleeve, and so on to the present day where now she wears it to do the housework in. And so the actual shirt becomes a metaphor for love... [thanks to Irene Jackson's excellent songwriting tips pages for that]

The poet Keats used to say 'load every rift with ore', by which he meant 'make every line so dense with good stuff that the reader (or audience) is continually engaged and thrilled and interested'. Expanding the metaphors is one good way to do this. 'Love is a temple', you might suddenly think. Not bad. The image of a temple invites you to see it in your mind's eye and perhaps (if your imagination is up to it) remember the feelings of reverence or worship that you might have experienced in a temple before. But rather than leave it there, and use the line as is in a song, treat it as a good start, a lead-in to something better. Take it further and imagine yourself or your protagonist in that temple. What happens there? How can you describe the goings-on in the temple that express something more about the particular circumstances in which you find yourself, the situation that you want to compress into your song? How about 'you say, "love is a temple, love's a higher law", but first you make me enter, and then you make me crawl' maybe? (Thanks to Bono from U2). That's a lot more interesting.

In that example, Bono uses word pictures to express the feelings. He doesn't tell us how he feels, as in 'I felt taken in and then abused'. Instead he lets the images show us how he feels, and to 'show' is almost always better than to 'tell' in a song. Another 'device' Bono uses (and which he seems particularly fond of) is to use lyrics that apparently recall past conversations: 'you say "love is a temple"' and so on. This adds dramatic tension to the situation being described and it also creates a bit of distance between the narrator (the singer) and the situation.


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The clichés of language are so common that we often take them for granted. When someone says 'it was like a red rag to a bull', chances are that we've heard the phrase so many times before that we hardly stop to picture the scene. If that metaphor was new then would be a different matter- we might see the red rag and the bull in our mind's eye and think 'that's evocative' and it might make us chuckle, give us pleasure. But, clichés, on the other hand, tend to put us to sleep. How often do we hear lyrics that have fire for passion and cold for indifference, for example? 'Her love was a flame that burned me to ash', 'her heart was a frozen lake covered with snow'... OK there are images in there and it's almost always good to try and use word-pictures in songs, but these metaphors are obvious, and they've been done to death, you might say. It's not difficult to write down a long list of all the commonly used English cliché metaphors (as a list of things to avoid). What's needed are new ways of saying things, that really stimulate an audience's senses in a vital way, rather than fostering the same old habitual ways of thinking. We could say 'make hay while the sun shines' or we could say 'tear our pleasures with rough strife, through the iron gates of life' (from a poem by Andrew Marvell). The first (cliché) quote is boring while the second quote is really powerful. So avoid clichés unless you want to 'twist' them or use them with irony, like this 'I seconded her emotion, but she took me for granite. I worshipped the quicksand she walked upon...' maybe?


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Poetical Devices.

Space doesn't allow me to go too deeply into the technical side of poetry. This kind of knowledge can be very useful to songwriters, but it's probably best if I leave that to the experts (I'm not one). A good book on the craft on poetry-writing will talk in some depth about rhythm, rhyme, structure and ways in which we can use language for effect in a poem (or song). Personally I tend to get a bit lost in the terminology (eg family rhyme, additive and subtractive rhyme, assonance rhyme and so on), but on the other hand having examples presented and explained properly is a good way to absorb the possibilities.

Some of the more obvious poetical devices I've noticed work well in songs are these: i) internal rhyme can be very effective, as the unconscious is very responsive to the interconnectedness of sounds within a line (ha ha). An example from literature of internal rhyme is 'the sails at noon left off their tune' (from The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner by Coleridge). There's a Hendrix song called '1983 -A Merman I would Rather Be'... 2) Playing with different rhyme schemes can be useful too: for instance, if we have four lines, with two sets of lines that rhyme with each other, then we can arrange these 'aabb' (where the first two lines rhyme with each other, and lines three and four rhyme with each other), and we can also arrange them as 'abab' and 'abba'. 3) Placing words at the end of a line is a good way of giving them special emphasis. 4) Rhyming words is also a good way of giving them emphasis- for instance, in a song where most lines don't rhyme, the ones that do tend to jump out at you. A rhyming couplet (two lines together that rhyme) at the end of a verse that otherwise has no rhymes, for instance, has an extra strength about it.


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Many folk songs are in the past tense, whereas almost all contemporary rock/pop/singer-songwriter type songs are in the present tense. Exceptions to this tend to be songs that tell a story ('narratives') such as Neil Young's Cortez The Killer: 'he came dancing across the water, with his galleons and guns...'.


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We were looking at Bono's lyric 'you say, "love is a temple, love's a higher law", first you make me enter, but then you make me crawl' before. The 'viewpoint' is interesting here. The image (of love as a temple) is presented in the context of a conversation between two people, and relationships tend to be interesting because they are always dynamic. What's more by having the second person say 'love is a temple', and not the songwriter himself, the song does not appear so self-absorbed. This kind of distancing can be useful in the process of a writing a song. Sometimes simply changing every 'I' to 'you' can work wonders, helping you to embody your own thoughts and feelings more easily when you write. This can also improve the song too. Generally it's a good idea to stick to the same viewpoint- 'I', 'you' singular, 'he', 'she', 'we', 'you' plural, or 'they' (The last two being less common). Sometimes it's good to change the viewpoint, though, for instance having the verses of a song in the second person ('you') with a chorus in the first person ('I'). Another possibility is to get rid of all personal pronouns: 'this flower is scorched, this film is on, on a maddening loop... paperweight, junk garage, winter rain, honeypot...' (from Country Feedback by REM).


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A hook is a particularly strong, catchy or amusing lyric that it's usually good to repeat a few times in a song. It's a way of engaging an audience in a song, triggering a sense of familiarity and underlining the meaning of the song. People remember a hook! They will whistle it and hum it for the next few days if it's good. A good hook helps make a song more powerful and it's good advertising too (for you and the song! -Hooks and jingles have got this in common). Reel 'em all in with your metaphors Dr. Hook. You can put the hook in the chorus, as in James' Taylor's 'Shower The People', the chorus of which goes 'shower the people you love with love, show them the way that you feel...' or you can put the hook in the verse. You could put a hook in a 'bridge' section but that might be a bit of a waste as it will almost certainly have more power (and be repeated more often) in the chorus. Finding a good hook is often a good way to start writing a song.

Each verse of 'Are You Strong Enough To Be My Man' by Cheryl Crow ends with the 'hook' question 'are you strong enough to be my man?'. Carole King's 'Will You Still Love Me' has the words '(but) will you love me tomorrow?' also appearing at the end of each verse. Paul Simon's 'Sound Of Silence' uses the hook (title) phrase in the last line of each verse but varies it each time: '... within the sound of silence ... and touched the sound of silence ... disturb the sound of silence ... echo in the wind of silence ... whisper in the sound of silence ...', so there's lots of variation possible. Some people say that without a good hook line you can't have a great song...


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As I'm sure you will have noticed, many song titles are taken from the hook, which is usually the strongest line, or part of a line, in the song. What do you call a song that has the line 'I'm sinking in the quicksand of my thoughts' in? 'Quicksand', of course. Or a song who's hook is 'are you strong enough to be my man?' How about 'Are You Strong Enough To Be My Man'? That's OK, but sometimes song titles with an edge of mystery that make new listeners curious about the song can be a good idea, like 'Four Seasons In One Day' or 'Locomotive Breath'. If you are looking to write 'hit' songs then generally you want something that people can remember easily. On the other hand though, you might only want to put out CD albums, with no singles taken from them. In which case 'Frou-Frou Foxes In Summer' might be the perfect name of your song...


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Repetition And Variation.

Repetition can help an audience remember something important in the song. It can also help foster a comfortable feeling of familiarity and make lyrics easier to remember (for them and for you!). It can also add non-verbal rhythmic component to the lyric, for instance: 'I went to the water, I went to the mountain, I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain' (from 'Closer to Fine' by the Indigo Girls). Each phrase there is the same length, with stresses in the same place in each phrase. (Sorry -for more on 'stresses' I'll have to refer you to a good book on writing poetry again! -Suffice it to say that a stressed syllable is one that naturally has more emphasis when sung or spoken: for instance, if you say 'the cat', the word 'the' is not stressed, and the word 'cat' is stressed).

Repetition can contribute to the effectiveness of a song (if it's not overdone), but a song generally needs both repetition and variation, since variation prevents the song from becoming boring. In the same song ('Closer to Fine') the verses are longer, and in a different tense to the chorus: 'I'm tryin' to tell you something 'bout my life, maybe give me insight between black and white . . .'.


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If your song is a story, then it (usually) should have a beginning, a middle and an end, with no sub-plots to confuse the audience. A strong start helps a lot to pull the listener in, so try to start the lyrics with some tension. It should be clear who is doing the talking or thinking, so try and establish the who, and if necessary, the what, when and where, ASAP. Then the sequence of events should be arranged meaningfully, perhaps with some kind of conclusion (stated or implied) at the end of the song. Usually it's also a good to try and keep the language style the same throughout. Ending on a hopeful note can also be good for the audience 'feel good factor'.

Here's an example narrative song:

First verse.

I'm dissatisfied with my current relationship.
I take out a newspaper advertisement in search of a more fun-loving partner.

First chorus.

(The newspaper advertisement itself).
(eg I'm looking for someone who likes pina coladas, etc).

Second verse.

I'm reading a letter from a woman who has responded to the ad.

Second chorus.

She is repeating the newspaper advertisement in her letter to indicate that she likes all the same things I do, including pina coladas.

Third verse.

I meet the woman who answered the ad, and to my surprise and hers, she's my current partner!

Third chorus.

The happy discovery that each of us likes pina coladas and a fun time.

The plot-development strategy is to state the problem in the first verse; the first chorus shows the opposite of the problem, which the character longs for instead. The second verse serves to thicken the plot; the second chorus also serves this purpose. The third verse is a resolution with a surprise element, continuing into the third chorus. The plot builds as the song progresses, and it leaves us smiling. (The song is 'The Pina Colada Song' by Rupert Holmes).


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Lyrics in different styles of music.

Lyrics seem to be more important in some styles of music than in others. In country music it's usually pretty vital to have good strong lyrics, with the song usually as a narrative of some kind. Many country writers write the lyric first and then write the music afterwards (starting with the melody). Elton John does this too, since the lyrics to (his older songs, at least) were written by Bernie Taupin first before Elton John found musical arrangements for them. In pop or rock, on the other hand, most people find a chord sequence or a melody first, and then write the lyrics after- often pop and rock lyrics are less easy to hear anyway, but also they often seem to be less than crucial when prominent, being more part of a whole with the music. In most really great pop/rock songs, though, everything works together. The music and the lyric are both top-notch. In rhythm-oriented styles of music like rap or dance music (in all it's myriad forms) usually the rhythm track is produced before the song is even written. Sometimes the lyrics are then written with some kind of 'hypnotic' intention in mind, with the 'meaning' of the lyric well subsumed under the rhythm. As a result these kind of songs often don't follow any of the classic lyric writing forms.

Vocals in classical music are likely to be part of long compositions with several different movements. If you were to listen to a contemporary music radio station playing pop, country, R&B or rock, you would probably expect to hear songs that will hold your attention strongly, with frequent and regular changes in lyrical, musical, and rhythmic texture. The form of the songs would usually fairly predictable. On an album-oriented rock (AOR) station, on the other hand, you would tend to hear songs that are longer than those on Top 40 stations, with a subject matter that may be more 'literary' or adventurous in other ways. In musical theatre, the songs reveal the personality of a character and help to tell the story. Since theatre is a visual medium, the attention of the audience is already held, so the song doesn't need to 'reach out and grab you' as much as a song that you hear elsewhere.

Whatever medium your work is intended for, there are both restrictions and freedoms in the way that medium works. The expectations of the audience (and those of the industry moguls) differ for each one, so the more you understand the medium in which you want to work, the better you can write for that particular form.


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Musical angles on songwriting. ('Styles', key changes).

Playing around with styles can obviously go a long way toward expressing more of the emotional possibilities in music. If your lyrics are angry, then maybe you need something loud and fast in the music too (or slow, growling, and pent-up...). Some artists (including many famous people) work more or less in one style only, and this works for them- but, look at people like the Beatles or Elvis Presley -they played fast, slow, ballad, rock and roll and blues music, and, in the case of the Beatles, a lot more besides.

So let's say that you're working on a new piece. First you get the hunger. The need to say something. You get a few words down on paper, something to build on. What is the best way to express that musically? What musical style works best with the emotional tone of your words? It might be a happy experience you're thinking of, or it might be a sad experience. There may be anger, there may be jealousy, or wonder, or loneliness (and so on). Keeping track of that emotion within yourself, pick up your geetar (or sit down at the piano, or whatever) and play a major chord. Then play a minor chord. Which of those two chords takes you nearest to the expression of the emotion you feel? OK so you know whether the first chord you want to use is major or minor. Go through all twelve major or minor chords and ask yourself which one is closest. (If it's a Bb, you might want to play an A with the capo on fret 1 on the guitar for simplicity's sake). What about the rhythm? Fast? Slow? Double time? Triple time? Played violently? Played softly? Forget about what anyone else might think! Don't worry if it's not commercial! Ignore the internal policeman! But do listen to the deeper voice that tells you if you're getting closer to an authentic expression of the emotion or not -but do it for you, not for anyone else. If you can do this the rest should follow...

Some people start with the melody (and then find the chords). Some people start with the chords (and then find the melody). Some people start with the words (and then find the chords, and then the melody). Some people start with the words (and then find the melody, and then the chords). Try using one of the approaches that you don't usually use... but remember that people generally relate to 'feel' first, melody second and lyric last...

Try varying the singing pitch (the 'register') in the course of the song, especially where the musical sequence stays the same. Thom Yorke of Radiohead does this well-check out 'Creep' for instance. 'Shooting up an octave' (as I call it) can be a good trick! (Knowing your singing range is useful when you're trying to do this -just use a piano or guitar to go through the notes from high to low and sing with each one to check which notes you can comfortably sing). Bearing in mind that the simple chords we tend to use are made up of three notes, when working on a new song, you might try checking out what note it is exactly that you start with in the melody. Say you're playing a G and your first sung note is also a G- try starting on the B instead (the 'major third') or the D note (the 'fifth'). Do you know Paul Simon's song 'Old Friends' on the Bookends album? The first two chords are Fmaj7 and Cmaj7, where he sings 'old... friends...' using the notes E and B. These two notes are the 'major seventh' notes of the first two chords (moral: you don't have to limit yourself to the root, the third and the fifth...).

To get some ideas for new chord progressions try transposing songs you can already play into different keys- write out the 'old' chords on a piece of paper with the new chords written against each old one a set interval apart each time, and then play those new chords differently. You might also want to change the tempo- you can turn a 4/4 rock song into a folkie or country style by switching to 3/4 (6/8) and vice versa, for instance. If you can read music then try turning the page of music upside down, switch clefs, play a song backwards, or randomly dot some notes. The result is usually on the strange side, but it might just open up new melodies and sounds which you probably wouldn't have discovered otherwise.

If you've written a song where you like the lyrics but somehow the song as a whole isn't working, try scrapping the music and start again with something that works better. Maybe you have some old tune lying around unused that would fit the bill. Or, you might have a really good chord progression/melody where the lyrics just don't work with that particular arrangement, so scrap the lyrics- and start again with something that fits the mood better (or use some other old lyrics just waiting to be given a new life...).

Try using major chords instead of minor, or minor instead of major. Look for places where a key change might be appropriate in the song, perhaps taking everything up a tone (as in 'Bobby McGee', or 'Crazy') or perhaps taking everything down a tone (as in the 'bridge' of Paul Simon's 'America'). In the choruses of Waterloo Sunset (by Ray Davies of the Kinks) the chord change is from the G of the verse to an E minor in the chorus. But in the bridge we get an E instead of an E minor, and that's a simple but very neat trick. A middle eight, or bridge, can be a bit like the 'twist' in a Shakespeare sonnet, adding a lot of interest (because of the variation). Remember how in the Beatles 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' the bridge goes 'and when I touch you I feel happy inside ....'? This gives the song a real lift.

One way to find an appropriate key-change chord to start a middle section is to hold the sung melody note that would be the first note of the normal sequence, and then play around with chords until you find another one to fit that note. Then even if you devise a new melody to go across the middle section, the listener will find that the jump works because the note they EXPECT isn't a discord. For example, say you have a song where you normally you sing an A note over a D chord at the beginning of a verse. For the chorus or bridge, try holding that sung A note and play an F. Both the D and the F share an A note in the chord. This is where things can get interesting- since all 'straight' chords have three notes in, then there's quite a few options among those straight chords. Eg. The C note of a C chord is shared by Am and F (in the key of C), but it's also shared by a G# and an Fm chord (in other keys), and then if you get into chords with four notes, that C note is also shared by D7, C#maj7, Eb6, Bb9 (a 9th being a 7th plus a 2nd), Bbm9, Gsus (G with a 4th and 7th in) Gmsus, and so on (into the realms of 'jazz' chords with five or more notes in...). This trick can be used in a middle-section melody that uses the same (or almost the same) notes as the non-middle-section melody, as in The Everly Brothers' Dream, where the main sequence has chords of E, C#m, A, B. In the middle where the song goes 'I could make you mine', the notes are A, G#m, A, B, E, and in the next line ('only trouble is, gee whizz, I'm dreaming my life away'), the chords are A, G#m, F#, B, with the F# chord substituting for the A that was used earlier. This changes the key and provides lots of interest. Then there's Buddy Holly's 'Every Day', where if you play it in A, the middle eight section starts on a C chord, -both chords sharing the E note which is used in the vocal.


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Song Formats.

As with almost everything else that can be said about the tips and tricks people use for writing poetry, music and songs, there are a number of commonly used ways of structuring songs, but there's no reason at all why you shouldn't do something completely different if it works... There are many fantastic songs that use the verse/chorus/verse/chorus (or verse/verse/chorus/verse/verse) formula, and there are also many brilliant songs that won't have anything to do with such rigid structures at all. It's up to you. The common verse/chorus/bridge formulas have been tried and tested, that's all.

Intros sometimes happen at the beginning of a song. I'd say that it's usually best to keep your intros short. (And A&R people with 20 tapes to listen to probably won't have the patience for a long and self-indulgent intro- chances are they will give up before even getting to the first verse). Sometimes an intro can be effective by giving a glimpse of the chords of the chorus.

Verses usually (but by no means always) have rhymes in there somewhere. Check out a good book on writing poetry for the possibilities of different rhyme-schemes if you think it will help. Verses can be long or short or in-between, obviously.

Choruses generally have a bit more energy than the verse, often with a hook line or hook part-line in. Songs often conform to the one-verse-one-chorus or two-verses-one-chorus formulas, often with a one-off bridge passage appearing somewhere in the middle, but it can be good to try and subvert this formula in any way that you can! Try changing the viewpoint in the chorus (say, from second person 'you' to first person 'I'). Try changing the tense (say, from past to present). Try changing the mood...

A bridge is a musical and/or lyrical break in the song, often inserted after a couple of verses and choruses. It can provide a change of pace or mood to the song once the repetition of the verses and chorus start to become obvious to the listener. Sometimes there's a key change in the bridge, sometimes just a different chord progression in the same key. Quite a few songwriters steer clear of bridges. I don't! There's possibly even more scope for changing viewpoint, tense, or 'feel' in a bridge than there is in a chorus. Remember how the feel of 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' changes when it goes 'and when I touch you I feel happy inside...'? This works a treat.

Extros are the lead-outs or endings to a song. Like an intro they can be too long and self-indulgent if you're not careful. You might want to fade a song out (on the recording at least) but a tight (and maybe unexpected) ending leaves an audience with a sense of excitement (where they clap and make a noise). Remember that songs can have verses, choruses, and bridges or none of those things. Quite a few contemporary bands like Radiohead, for instance seem happy to use the old song-structure formulae sometimes, but at other times the structure of a Radiohead song might be very irregular and unpredictable. So if it works, do it!


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Get out into the world! If you've got a talent share it. Also, even very small scale performances given to real other people (as opposed to just yourself) are a kind of apprenticeship- they help connect you to what you're doing and connect you to an audience, and people's feedback can be very useful. Also you learn a lot about 'projection' in performance. A wonderful song can be ruined if people can't hear you because you're singing to your feet.

Keep in mind when you perform why you're up on that stage. Feel your way back into the inspiration that motivated you to write a song in the first place. If you think about him/her/it while you perform, this should do a lot to improve the way you perform the song. A simple song, honestly delivered, by a performer who is there, meeting the eyes of his or her audience can be 'the business'. A clever song, delivered by someone putting too much up front, while thinking about something else, will not connect with an audience. Audiences are generally pretty damn good at picking up at where a performer is coming from. So be yourself. Be there. And put some passion into it.

Don't try and go beyond the limits of what you feel comfortable with. An audience may pick up on your fear, but that's OK. Adrenalin can help a lot, and it's legal. They don't want to attack you. They want to see you do well. They want to listen. Put your focus into whatever it is you want to communicate to them. You've been working on this stuff for months- rehearsing your lines, struggling to make things right and refine your craft, and now you've got three minutes to make it count (what else does this remind me of?) -so affect your audience, and move them. The more direct your purpose, the clearer you'll come across.

Using relaxation techniques before a performance can help a lot. Sitting quietly doing nothing, or doing a brief set of breathing exercises, or some other meditation, can help to 'centre' you, calm you down and tune you in to whatever it is that you want to do.

Sometimes it's good to take risks in performance just as it can be good to take risks in your writing. Be honest when you're doing it though (in the way that an actor is honest, perhaps, such that if you're not centred then you just can't do it...). Maybe embracing that showy/hammy/exhibitionist part of yourself (that most performers have) and saying YES to it is all you need to get you cooking on gas. Enjoy what you're doing when you're doing it. An audience relates to a performer who is enjoying themselves.


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Example Songs.

I've chosen a few (fairly arbitrary) categories here- 'the reported conversation', 'the imagined conversation', 'fragmentation', 'the narrative', 'the questioning song' and 'the rallying song'. It's not difficult to find other ways to categorise the angle from which a songwriter seems to approach a song from, though- but hopefully these examples will help to stimulate the critical faculties...

If you hold copyright to any of the material in this section and it is your wish that it does not appear on the site, then please let me know and I will remove it...


'The reported conversation'.

In this category we find lots of songs that create the context of a dialogue between two people to create tension and evoke emotion in the audience by inviting them to step into that scenario.

All I Want Is You (Bono of U2).

Tense: present.
Predominant personal pronoun: 'you'.
Implied target/audience: an actual other person.
Situation: conversation with a lover.
Attitude: impatience with promises of commitment?
Verse rhyme scheme: abab, abbc, abbc, abbaccc. (Varied).
Song format: verse, chorus, verse, verse, chorus, extended-verse, chorus.

Notes: Bono is fond writing songs that are like reported conversations. It's a 'love song' but the singer contacts the emotion of the song by apparently stepping back into the conversation or conversations that he had with this other person, singing the song as though it is a dialogue between himself and the other person, quoting things said previously back to them. There's a nice shift of emphasis in the way the verses are about 'you' whereas the choruses are about 'me'. There are lots of metaphors in the song, but the songwriter puts (his) metaphors in the mouth of the other person:

you say you want
a diamond on a ring of gold
you say you want
your story to remain untold

all the promises we made
from the cradle to the grave
when all I want is you

you say you'll give me
a highway with no-one on it
treasure just to look upon it
all the riches in the night

you say you'll give me
eyes on a moon of blindness
a river in a time of dryness
a harbour in the tempest

all the promises we made
from the cradle to the grave
when all I want is you

you say you want
your love to work out right
to last with me through the night
you say you want
a diamond on a ring of gold
your story to remain untold
your love not to grow cold

all the promises we made
from the cradle to the grave
when all I want is you
all I want is you

Charity (Skunk Anansie).

Tense: present.
Predominant personal pronoun: 'I'.
Implied target/audience: an actual other person.
Situation: an angry monologue directed at this 'browbeating' other person.
Attitude: anger.
Verse rhyme scheme: aabb, aabb.
Song format: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus, chorus, extro.

Notes: this is an angry song, where the singer is recreating the emotion of anger felt when they gave someone else 'a piece of their mind', reporting an angry exchange of words between themselves and the other person (who had clearly pissed them off somewhat). The language is very direct:

why do I sense, benevolence
you stand tall, at my great expense
thick words of gratitude, what a price to pay
stuck in my throat, I sell every word I say

but I don't your charity, twisting me round
I don't want your charity, keeping me down

why does your world, keep burying
gouging much deeper, than it's ever been
rubbing still harder, salt on my hurt
licking my burns while I grovel in your dirt

but I don't your charity, twisting me round
I don't want your charity, keeping me down
keeping me down, oh, oh

you pity me with your tasteless gestures
gratitude so kind
but your bludgeoned, intentional objectives
are screwing with my mind
screwing with my mind

but I don't your charity, twisting me round
I don't want your charity, keeping me down

but I don't your charity, twisting me round
I don't want your charity, keeping me down

but I don't your charity, twisting me round
I don't want your charity, keeping me down
down, down, keeping me down
down, down, down
your charity, it's keeping me down


'The imagined conversation'.

In this category we find songs where the words chosen seem to be from conversations that the writer has had with someone else in their mind- things they might have said, things they would like to have said, or things that they think about saying if they get the chance to another person who isn't 'actually there' but who is clearly on their mind a lot. You find this approach quite often in the 'unrequited love song'!

Catch The Wind (Donovan).

Tense: present.
Predominant personal pronoun: 'I'.
Implied target/audience: an imagined other person.
Situation: unrequited love.
Attitude: sentimentality/romanticism. (Some people try and avoid sentimentality in their lyrics like the plague- I've become that way inclined myself..!).
Verse rhyme scheme: abbcbddc, abbcdeffc, aaabcddb (non-regular except for rhyming lines four and eight in each verse, which adds emphasis to the hook).
Song format: verse, verse, bridge, verse.

in the chilly hours and minutes
of uncertainty
I want to be
in the warm hold of your loving mind
to feel you all around me
and to take your hand
long the sand
how can I miss well try and catch the wind

when sundown pales the sky
I want to hide awhile
behind your smile
and everywhere I'd look your eyes I'd find
for standing in your heart
is where I want to be
and long to be
ah but I may as well try and catch the wind


when the rain has hung the leaves with tears
I want you near
to kill my fears
to help me to leave all my blues behind
for standing in your heart
is where I want to be
and long to be
ah but I may as well try and catch the wind

Creep (Radiohead).

Tense: present.
Predominant personal pronoun: 'you'.
Implied target/audience: an imagined other person.
Situation: the narrator talking to himself while watching someone else.
Attitude: envy and self-loathing brought on by unrequited love?
Verse rhyme scheme: irregular and varied.
Song format: interesting! -The same chord sequence happens throughout the song, with variation in the vocals (in the direction, you might say, of 'choruses/bridges') achieved by changing the melody/raising the pitch. Thom Yorke is fond of this kind of variation in vocal lines and it can be very effective.
Notes: the emotion in this song is a feeling of inadequacy- very self-depreciating. It might be a song about unrequited love, but if it is, it's also about the feelings of insecurity that can result from that:

when you're on the floor
who could look you in the eye
you're just like an angel
your skin makes me cry

you float like a feather
in a beautiful world
I wish I was special
so fuckin' special
but I'm a creep
I'm a weirdo
what the hell am I doing here
I don't belong here

I don't give enough
I wanna have control
I wanna perfect body
I wanna perfect soul
I want you to notice
when I'm not around
so fuckin' special
I wish I was special

so special
strong enough
to run run run
run run run

whatever makes you happy
whatever you want
you're so fuckin' special
I wish I was special
but I'm a creep
I'm a weirdo
what the hell am I doing here
I don't belong here
I don't belong here


'The narrative'.

Narrative songs are stories with a plot, that usually have a beginning, middle and an end.

America (Paul Simon).

Tense: present, although it's a kind of past present in that the events clearly took place some time ago.
Predominant personal pronoun: 50/50 'us/we' and 'I/me'.
Implied target/audience: anyone who wants to listen to the story?
Situation: being on the road, far from home, experiencing strangeness and excitement.
Attitude: implicit questioning in wry observation (where is the real America..?).
Verse rhyme scheme: unrhymed.
Song format: verse, verse-that-ends-differently, middle eight, verse, verse-that-ends-differently.
Notes: there is no use of metaphor at all in this song. Everything is described 'as is', like a collection of video clips or photographs, with fragments of conversations in amongst the imagery. The listener is invited to feel the emotions of the singer as he simply (not!) describes the scene very effectively, rather than by using 'I felt like...' lines. (Except for 'Kathy, I'm lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping, I'm empty and aching and I don't know why...' -this works- the image of the narrator telling his partner how he feels while she's asleep is very poignant).

let us be lovers we'll marry our fortunes together
I've got some real estate here in my bag
so we bought a pack of cigarettes, and Mrs Wagner Pies
and walked off, to look for America

Kathy, I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
Michegan seems like a dream to me now
it took me four days to hitch hike from Saginaw
I've come, to look for America

laughing on the bus
playing games with the faces
she said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy-
I said be careful his bow-tie is really a camera...

toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat
we smoked the last one an hour ago
so I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine
and the moon rose over an open field

Kathy, I'm lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I'm empty and aching and I don't know why...
counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
they've all come to look for America
all come to look for America
yes they've all come to look for America.....

Cortez The Killer (Neil Young).

Tense: past.
Predominant personal pronoun: 'he'.
Implied target/audience: anyone who wants to listen to the story.
Situation: invasion of a country by a very different race with superior firepower.
Attitude: regret, wonder.
Verse rhyme scheme: abcd, abab, abcb, abcd, abcb, abab, abcb. (Varied, usually with lines two and four rhyming with each other).
Song format: verse, verse, verse, verse, verse, verse, verse.
Notes: again, there is a succession of images, like video clips or photographs, with a strong sense of place in the images. Note how the strong (and regular) rhymes in the 'carried them to the flat lands' verse add emphasis to that verse.

he came dancing across the water
Cortez Cortez
looking for the New World
and a palace in the sun

on the shore lay Montezuma
with his coca leaves and pearls
in his halls he often wondered
of the secrets of the world

and his subjects gathered round him
like the leaves around the tree
in their coats of many colours
for the angry gods to see

and the women all were beautiful
and the men stood straight and tall
he offered life and sacrifice
so that others could go on

hate was just a legend
and war was never known
the people worked together
and they lifted many stones

and they carried them to the flat lands
and they died along the way
and they built up with their bare hands
what we still can't build today

and I know she's living there
and she loves me to this day
I still can't remember when
or how I lost my way

he came dancing across the water
Cortez Cortez -what a killer...


'The questioning song'.

Asking a question of someone can often be a lot more acceptable to them than prescribing some alternative view or course of action, and similarly in songs we find that phrasing sentiments in the form of questions is a neat way of avoiding any sort of soap-box proselytising stance (which can be a pain!). By posing a question we ask someone to look inside themselves, and that's where the feelings are.

Desperado (The Eagles).

Tense: present.
Predominant personal pronoun: 'you'.
Implied target/audience: an actual other person.
Situation: this song is also a reported conversation. The narrator has apparently known the other person for a long time, and is trying to persuade them to look after themselves better by giving them friendly advice.
Attitude: compassion, empathy.
Verse rhyme scheme: irregular.
Song format: verse, chorus, verse, chorus. (Second chorus different to first).
Notes: here the song is a plea to one particular person. The audience is invited to empathise with that person, as though the same questions could well be asked of each individual in the audience...

why don't you come to your senses
you've been out riding fences
for so long now
you're a hard one
I know that you've got your reasons
but these things that are pleasing you
can hurt you somehow

don't you draw the queen of diamonds boy
she'll beat you if she's able
the queen of hearts is always your best friend
it seems to me some fine things
have been laid upon your table
but you only want the ones that you can't get

you ain't gettin' no younger
your pain and your hunger
are driving you home
and freedom, oh freedom
that's just silly people talking
your prison is walking through this world all alone

don't your feet get cold in the winter time
when the sky won't snow and the sun won't shine
it's hard to tell the night-time
from the day
your twisted fate has found you out
and it's finally turned the table
ain't it funny how the feeling goes away

why don't you come to your senses
come down from your fences
open the gate
it may be raining
but there's a rainbow above you
you'd better let somebody love you
(you'd better let somebody love you)
you'd better let somebody love you
before it's too late


'Fragmentation or 'cut up'.

The lyrics of quite a few contemporary songs consist of lots of apparently unrelated images, the net effect of which is to evoke a particular emotion or emotions in the listener by catalysing a set of audience reactions in an attempt to re-create the state of mind of the songwriter. It's as though these (usually visual) images are metaphors for the state of mind that gave birth to them.

Country Feedback (Michael Stipe of REM).

Tense: present.
Predominant personal pronoun: 'I'.
Implied target/audience: the singer himself?.
Situation: on the edge of breakdown?
Attitude: confusion, self-doubt.
Verse rhyme scheme: unrhymed.
Song format: the same chord sequence happens throughout the song, with variation in the vocals (in the direction, you might say, of 'choruses/bridges') achieved by changing the melody/raising the pitch. (As with 'Creep' above).
Notes: this is a poky little number. The lyrics are like a poem, where the narrator has collected lots of observations and images, and pasted them together into his own private painting. (That moves an audience, nevertheless).

this flower is scorched, this film is on
on a maddening loop
these clothes, these clothes don't fit us right
and I'm to blame

you come to me with a bone in your hand
you come to me with your hair curled tight
you come to me with positions
you come to me with excuses
decked out in a row
you wear me out you wear me out

we've been through, fake breakdowns, self hurt
plastic collections, self help, self pain
EST, psychics, fuck off

I was central, I had control
I lost my head, I need this, I need this

paperweight, junk garage
winter rain, honeypot
crazy, all the lovers have been tapped
hot line, wanted out
it's crazy what we could have had

it's crazy what we could have had
it's crazy what we could have had
I need this, I need this

it's crazy what we could have had
it's crazy what we could have had
I need this, I need this


'The rallying song'.

This kind of song has become a bit passé these days, but you do still find people singing what used to be called 'protest' songs in clubs and at political rallies and so on. The aim would seem to be to get the audience angry or indignant at injustices as a spur to action.

The Digger's Song (aka The World Turned Upside Down, Leon Rosselson).

Tense: Past.
Predominant personal pronoun: 'They'.
Implied target/audience: potential recruits to the class struggle?
Situation: description of how 17th century English anarchists were shat on.
Attitude: righteous indignation.
Verse rhyme scheme: abacc, abacc, abacc, abacc, abacd, abacc, abacd.
Notes: there's no use of metaphor in this song. It's like a speech put to music, and what Yorkshire folk might call 'plain speaking', at that. The singer is presenting a potted history of the 'Diggers' to the audience in a way that a preacher might tell a bible story to a congregation- the story is presented as a moral tale in order to educate the audience and encourage them to act in a 'better' way, perhaps. Each verse is five lines long with a 'rhyming couplet' (two adjacent lines that rhyme with each other) at the end of each verse for added emphasis. But, this rhyming couplet doesn't appear in the fifth and last verses, which probably a new emphasis by going against the audience's expectations.

in 1649, St. George's Hill
a ragged band they called the diggers
came to show the people's will
they defied the landlords, they defied the laws
they were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs

we come in peace they said, to dig and sow
we come to work the land in common
and to make the wasteland grow
this earth divided, we will make whole
so it will be a common treasury for all

the sin of property, we do disdain
no man has any right
to buy and sell the earth for private gain
by theft and murder, they took the land
now everywhere the walls spring up at their command

they make the laws, to chain us well
the clergy dazzle us with heaven
or they damn us into hell
we will not worship the God they serve
the God of greed who feeds the rich while poor men starve

we work we eat together, we need no swords
we will not bow to the masters
or pay rent to the lords
for we are free men, though we are poor
we diggers all stand up for glory stand up now

from the men of property, the orders came
they sent the hired men and troopers
to wipe out the diggers claim
tear down their property, destroy their corn
they were dispersed but still the vision lingers on

so you poor take courage, you rich take care
this earth was made a common treasury
for everyone to share
all things in common, all people one
we come in peace, the orders came to cut them down


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Say for example that you have the word 'routine' in your mind when you are trying to describe an aspect of somebody's behaviour. But, you don't like the word routine, or maybe you need to find a word that has the same meaning but which rhymes with 'prove'. In the thesaurus by 'routine' you might find 'addiction, habit, custom, rut, beaten track, groove'. Groove! Of course! Similar meaning to routine but more interesting because there's a visual component to it (and it rhymes with prove).

Rhyming dictionary

Some people say that it's a 'cheat' to use a rhyming dictionary. I disagree. Using tools (including 'techy' tools like computers) and working from the heart are not mutually exclusive activities. Some great songwriters (Steven Sondheim, for example) have used rhyming dictionaries.

Book of English Idioms

I wrote a song called 'Riddle' once (about being alive). So I looked up 'life' in the index of my English idioms book, and found all of the common aphorisms, or figures of speech, in which the subject of 'life' figures prominently. Hence the verse: 'it's in this old dog yet, it's what you make of it, the fact of it is that this lease of it, this slice of it, this bowl of cherries is the very spice of it...'. There's seven different idioms in there (with the word 'life' removed from all of them). A book of idioms can be useful in other ways too of course, helping you to expand an idea or express it in a different way. People tend to relate well to idioms -no doubt they are in common usage precisely because they are like fragments of communal poetry, often using a strong visual image- 'like a fish out of water', for example (but you need to be careful to avoid using the same old clichés).

Notebook/diary/scratch pad

If the muse starts talking to you, listen. You might be on the bus or in the pub or doing your shopping, so if you've got a pen and some paper to hand you can write down whatever flash of inspiration you've had there and then. Most likely you wouldn't have remembered it by the time you get home, so get it down and don't make the muse feel like giving up on you. I often jot down lines of songs or poetry while I'm watching TV! Every month or so, I collect all the scraps of paper I've used and word-process whatever is there on the computer, jigsawing different lines together in whatever way seems appropriate. This might seem strange but it works for me.

Hand-held tape recorder

This can be useful for humming melodies into when they come to you. Or maybe sounds that you hear in the street or other people's conversations can be used for inspiration (as long as they don't know you're recording them!).

Recording device

Computer/four-track etc. Hearing a rough recording of a song that you've written or are in the process of writing distances you from it in a really useful way. Because you're not singing and/or playing at the same time you've got much more space to listen to the song and invariably you'll hear things that you didn't notice before. Maybe you'll realise that you'd be better off singing it a touch higher or lower, maybe you will realise that you should have a chorus after verse two and not verse three. You should get a much clearer picture of which lyrics work and which lyrics don't. Having the ability to make quick no-frills recordings of the things you are working on is a must for any serious songwriter.

It was Oscar Hammerstein II who said 'to be a songwriter you have to have the heart of a poet and the skin of a rhino'. So, may the Muse be with you, and may your record deals be truly awesome!


guitar image

A one-page guide to songwriting.

Listen to the muse!
For inspiration, delve into
Poetry. Novels. TV. Radio. Films. People's conversations. Newspapers. Magazines. The Internet. Other people's music. Dreams. Past/present experience.
Free-associate. Take your thesaurus for a walk. Drink some beer. Have a spliff. Go for a walk. Put your poet's hat on. Feel. Be honest. Be simple.
Write every day. Keep a notebook. Get it down. Especially get the hooks down.
Use word-pictures. Show don't tell. Compress the material.
Putting your thoughts into the mouth of someone else (shifting from 'I' to 'you').
Putting your thoughts and feelings into an imaginary conversation.
(Or get rid of personal pronouns completely).
Changing the rhyme scheme- so there's no rhyme, or an aabb rhyme, or abab, or abba, or abac, or abcb, or abcc, or aaaa... (and so on).
Changing the tense between verse and chorus.
Changing the vocal register between verse and chorus.
Changing the mood between verse and chorus.
Changing the viewpoint between verse and chorus.
Playing about with different verse/chorus/bridge structures.
Changing the tempo.
Changing the key, so you play (and sing) the song either higher or lower.
Starting the melody on a different note (eg third or fifth instead of 'root' note).
Finding a chorus or middle-eight key change by singing the first note of the normal melody, and playing with chords until you find a new one that fits. (Or you could find out the name of the note you're singing and use your knowledge and a bit of paper to go through all obvious/semi-obvious chords that contain that note).
Feel and be inventive.

Have fun. May the Muse be with you.


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