Songwriting 101

No, I'm not a songwriter, but as a professional writer and former musician I can provide some insight to what makes a quality song. Judging by many of the CDs I listened to in the last couple of weeks there apparently are many, many people who desperately need some direction.

Good songwriters, like good storytellers, feel the need to communicate. They have a message to impart or a feeling to share. If you don't feel this "need" then your songs may be flat and uninspired. Need alone is not sufficient. Songwriting takes both work and, face it, talent. If you have a little talent, then lots of work might make a good song.

I cannot tell you how to write a "hit" song, but if you read and think about what's below, you can write a better song.

There are only a few themes in human existence for you to write about, such as love, death and taxes. Therefore you need to bring a new angle into your writing - if you cannot contribute a new slant, a unique experience, or a new way of expressing an old emotion, then don't bother.

Life isn't "about" drinking beer - life may happen while you are drinking beer, or even as the result of drinking beer, but don't mistake the activity for the experience. Life is about getting laid and the consequences thereof, at least in our country music world.

In order to write interesting songs, you need to be interesting. That's what used to be called "paying your dues." When you start a story do people gather around or wander off? There may be a clue there.

Song is a medium of emotion, bring some along, please.

Don't mistake a fast tempo for energy. Your song must have energy, which is typically expressed musically in emotion.

You absolutely must have a command of the language in which you write or critics will label you trite and banal, because you will inevitably be repeating what has been said exactly the same way time and again.

If you don't know precisely what the following terms mean and how to apply them without even thinking about it, then you are writing with one tongue tied behind your back. Try taking a poetry class. You should have full command of rhythm, metre, repetition, assonance, alliteration, metaphor, and hyperbole, at the very least.

Buy a thesaurus and read the damn thing. Look up common words you want to use and be amazed and delighted at all the wonderful nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives that you may employ instead. Don't just stick them in, but understand the nuances and enjoy the resulting flavors you can use. It is similar to cooking, use some herbs and some imagination.

Songs are comprised of both lyrics and melody. You don't have to be good at both, contrary to popular conception. See for example: Lerner & Loewe, Rogers & Hammerstein, Lennon & McCartney, Elton John & Bernie Taupin, and more. Many others, such as Phil Spector, Don Henley, Bruce Hornsby and Paul Williams, wrote in collaborative teams. See the next point.

Honestly evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, then if necessary find someone whose skills complement yours. Realize that you may be a wonderful musician and singer, but not the greatest songwriter... that is not a crime. Instead use your energy to find wonderful songs by others which you can bring to life with your creativity.

I've written much about song lyrics, but the music, the melody is vital and should not be neglected. I talk about the poetry of lyrics, but I rarely read poetry, but I do listen to symphonies and chamber music. Rhythm and melody are what creates genre and musical style, so obviously they are critical.

©2004 Bill Groll