To many songwriters and music fans, the title above seems pretty self-evident. Most successful songwriters weren’t taught how to write songs, and besides, songwriting is a form of self-expression, so what’s to teach?
Perhaps surprisingly, speaking as someone who ‘teaches’ songwriting, I’d go a long way towards agreeing with this statement. There is no formula for writing a song, and although there are methods and techniques that are in common use, these are so varied that it’s impossible to identify one that works in every situation. But if we assume that most songwriters don’t write their best work on the first attempt, it follows that if songwriting can’t be taught, it can certainly be learnt.
How, exactly, do we learn? If popular song is a form of self-expression, it could be viewed as a kind of language, with its own grammar, structure and rules. We can learn a (second) language by buying a phrase book or working with a teacher, but it’s easier just to go and live in the relevant country – and of course we learned our first language just by growing up hearing it every day.
The first teaching method is to ensure that the student has heard lots of songs, and by ‘heard’ I mean really listened in detail. If you love a particular songwriter’s work, it’s worth putting the hours into working out exactly how their songs are constructed. How many bars are in the intro? How many times per bar do the chords change? What rhymes, images and syllable-counts are used in the lyric? Is the melody mainly scalic (consecutive notes), static (repeated notes) or intervallic (leaping between notes)? We don’t necessarily have to copy all of these characteristics all of the time, but a little bit of this sort of geeky analysis can help us to understand what we love about our musical influences. By analysing repertoire, we can build up an arsenal of songwriting weaponry from which to choose when we’re writing. Our song could begin with four bars of Pearl Jam-style half-bar chord changes, have an opening lyric with some Joni Mitchell-esque visual lyric imagery, using descending scalic melody sequences reminiscent of JS Bach. And because we’re only copying compositional characteristics (as opposed to the actual music or lyric) we’re still being creative. This method can help us to break existing musical habits: paradoxically, using someone else’s techniques can make our own songs sound more original.
The second teaching method is to apply all of the above to our own songs, and learn about our personal songwriting styles. We all have subconscious musical rat-runs in our songwriting. One of my own students recently discovered, through self-analysis, that he’d written an entire album where every melody phrase started on the second beat of the bar. Once he’d realised this he could choose to allow or avoid the tendency; in this way he developed new creative options in his songwriting, making his albums more interesting for the listener.
The final, and perhaps most important teaching method, is disappointingly obvious. In a word – practice. Songwriting is a musical (and literary) skill and it gets better the more you do it. A guaranteed way to make your songwriting ten times better is to write ten songs and trash your least favourite nine.
But this is all unnecessary, cry the naysayers. The Beatles were never taught songwriting – they just wrote from the heart. Well, not taught perhaps, but they certainly learned. Strumming along to Little Richard and Carl Perkins records in Liverpool living rooms – and six-hour covers band sets in Hamburg clubs? Repertoire analysis. Co-writer negotiations between Lennon and McCartney? Self-analysis. And the journey from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’? Practice.
So no, you probably can’t teach songwriting. But every time we listen to the radio, go to a gig or play a cover version, we’re learning to write better songs.
Every song is different. Different words, different chords, different melody. If parts of a song sound similar to another, the musicologists get busy and the lawyers move in. But when you think about the way songs are constructed, you might say that they have more similarities than differences.
Dig out the chord sheet and lyrics for the last song you wrote, and play it through. Chances are, it’s in 4/4 time, lasts between three and four minutes, features the title in the chorus, has 4-bar sections, and stays in one key throughout. The chord changes probably occur on the barline or the half barline, and there will be two or three verses with rhymes at the end of each line – all sung by a first person character. Even if it doesn’t have all of these characteristics, it probably has most of them. Almost all successful songs do.
There’s no law that says we have to write songs within these constraints, and yet we keep coming back to them. Why should this be? One theory is that there’s a form of evolution going on, through a version of what Charles Darwin described as variation and selection. The logic goes like this: thousands of new songs are created every day with different characteristics. Music fans ‘select’ – through CD purchase, gig attendance, downloads, viral sharing etc – the songs with the characteristics that appeal to them the most. Most new songs don’t become popular, ie, they ‘die out’, while only a minority ‘survive’.
But evolution can’t exist without reproduction, so how do songs ‘reproduce’? In interviews, songwriters love talking about their influences. When we write songs, we’re affected by all the music we’ve ever heard. Chuck Berry begat the Rolling Stones, and the Stones gave birth to Primal Scream, who had a baby and named it Kasabian. As Darwin might say, songs inherit characteristics from their parents. When we write songs, we add new creative ideas to the mix; if enough people like our new song, it might become a success, and go on to influence other songwriters. Variation, selection and reproduction.
Of course, extreme ideas are constantly being tried. New songs might have long durations, non-rhyming lyrics and unusual time signatures, particularly in specialist genres such as metal or prog. But take a look at any list of classic favourites. Hardly any of them feature these more exotic characteristics, but they very often have some slightly quirky feature that makes them different enough to avoid cliché but not so ‘far out’ that music fans walk away.
Through the efforts of all songwriters, song evolution is constantly trying different mutations, and music lovers keep selecting the ones that they like the most. The result is a form of music that is always changing and refining itself, with each new song being a unique individual but resembling its ancestors in some way. Influential songs have themselves evolved from other successful songs, and so on back into history, presumably all the way to the prehistoric cave gig that started it all.
As songwriters, we already subconsciously know the ‘rules’ of song form, having absorbed them through a lifetime of listening to music. Over hundreds of years of songwriting and listening, songwriters and fans alike have learned these rules and passed them on. Eventually we’re not even aware of them – we just assume we’re going to write an intro, verse and chorus, and be finished before the egg timer pings.
Does this mean that we’re not creative as songwriters? Are we just recycling the same song over and over? Far from it. A haiku has seventeen syllables. Most movies last longer than one hour and less than three. Video games have goals, progression and achievement. Novels are usually more than 100 pages and fewer than 1000. All of these art forms have their own rules, geniuses and classics. Form doesn’t restrict creativity – it defines it.
Most of the really great songwriters listen to lots of other songs. We can’t escape our influences – they live on in every song we write. Darwin may have missed the birth of rock ‘n’ roll by around 75 years, but he sure seemed to know a lot about songwriting.
Here’s a psychology experiment. Tell a group of mates that you’re going to ask them to sing the verse of a well-known song, and that they have to start singing as soon as you reveal the title. Get them to breathe in deeply and be ready, and then tell them the title is… All Right Now. Everyone will sing the chorus, even though you had asked them to sing the verse.
You’ll find this trick works with any title-based classic – try it with All You Need Is Love, Sweet Child of Mine, Smoke On The Water, No Woman No Cry or Blowin’ in the Wind. Why should this be? I think it’s because the title of the song has put the chorus into people’s minds, and these particular songs use the title in their choruses. Rock music history has proved time and time again that music fans like songs with big choruses more than they like chorus-less songs. Take Radiohead – a band that (I’m sure we can agree) has done some work that’s pretty challenging and ground-breaking, including lots of songs that don’t have anything you’d call a ‘chorus’. But if you look up their most popular songs on Spotify or iTunes you’ll find the chorus-heavy Creep right at the top of the list every time. Try the same with 1970s prog rockers Yes, or their contemporaries Genesis. At the top of their respective lists you’ll always find big-chorused tracks such as Owner of A Lonely Heart and Invisible Touch rather than the more complicated ‘album track’ material. Whether you prefer these popular singles or the less well-known stuff is a matter of personal taste, but the message from the download charts is clear – lots of people like big choruses based on a simple title.
We already know that well-loved choruses are usually higher in pitch than the rest of the song, meaning we tend to put more energy into singing them (see TG215’s ‘Rules of Thumb’). But we can learn from their other characteristics too. Have you ever thought about that word ‘chorus’? The original ‘Greek chorus’ was a group of singers who would comment on the action in the theatrical plays of ancient Greece, summarising the story for the audience or revealing the characters’ innermost feelings. In songs, the job of a ‘chorus’ – to summarise meaning for the listener – can be just the same. For a straightforward example look no further than The Beatles’ She Loves You; the verse provides background plot about the characters’ relationships, and the chorus simply chants a summary of the song’s meaning. Not all songs do this of course, but run the numbers: it’s amazing how often a chorus follows that ancient Greek wisdom.
So we know that many successful songs have big choruses based on a simple title, are higher in pitch, and summarise the meaning. Now reverse-engineer the logic. You want lots of people to listen to your songs? Write big choruses based on a simple title that are higher in pitch and summarise your meaning. Simples!
Or it would be, if we did not fear cheese. Lots of songwriters say that they don’t want their music to be thought of as ‘obvious’, ‘cheap’ or – for some the worst crime of all – ‘commercial’. So we sometimes stay away from simple successful ideas like repeating the title in a chorus. Is this ‘cheesy’? Not many Van Halen fans would use that word to describe Runnin’ With The Devil, Jamie’s Cryin’ or Jump, all of which have title-heavy choruses. REM-lovers are pretty pleased with Everybody Hurts, and no Chili Peppers show would be complete without Californication.
There are techniques we can use to break these ‘chains of cheese’ that can push our creativity into unproductive self-doubt – and our songs away from popularity. If you’ve got a good title, try singing it over and over, trying out different notes and phrasing until you hear something you like. Push your voice so you’re singing towards the top of your range, and if it isn’t working or doesn’t feel right, try changing the key or underlying guitar chord and see what comes out. This will give you the pitch peak and might go some way towards suggesting a chorus hook. And while you’re chanting that title, perhaps a summary of the song’s overall meaning is starting to form in your mind. Look behind you. Standing at the back there’s a bunch of Greek guys in masks…
If you raised a faint smile reading the paragraph above, it’s because the first line of the poem promised rhymes that never appeared. We’ve all heard hundreds of limericks, and the form requires a specific AABBA rhyme scheme, where the first, second and fifth lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines rhyme as a separate couplet. That expectation of rhyme has been hard-wired into your brain by all the limericks you’ve ever heard.
A similar expectation is built into the brains of music fans through years of listening to popular songs. There are examples of successful non-rhyming songs, but these are pretty rare – almost all songs use rhyme in some way. For the songwriter, rhyming your lyrics really goes with the gig. And if you’re writing in the English language, pretty soon you run into the universal songwriter’s problem: all the best rhymes have been used.
A large part of the craft of writing songs is the ability to be a problem-solver, and rhyming could be viewed as a simple word puzzle, where our task is to find the solution. Let’s say you want to convey a classic song idea such as “You’re the one I love”. There are only three ‘perfect’ rhymes available for the word ‘love’, and they are ‘glove’, ‘above’ and ‘dove’, all of which have been so heavily used by songwriters for hundreds of years that they’re near impossible to use without sounding clichéd. One solution is to choose a ‘forced’ rhyme that doesn’t quite work so well, such as rhyming ‘love’ with ‘enough’ or ‘of’. This works some of the time, but again it’s a well-known rat run for songwriters. The love/of rhyme appears in thousands of songs, such as the 1928 jazz standard I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby, which rhymes the title phrase with the slightly tortuous ‘That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby’.
And these rhyme challenges are the same for all of us. The word ‘heart’ is the only really useful noun in English that works as a decent metaphor for ‘feeling’, ‘spirit’, ‘my emotional self’ etc. And the only useable rhymes (apart from the obvious rude one) are ‘start’, ‘art’, ‘smart’ and ‘part’, plus related two-syllable words such as ‘apart’ and ‘restart’. This limited palette is endlessly recycled by songwriters, but the Heart-shaped well shows no signs of drying up. The difficulty is that some of the rhymes can force the song into particular phrases. How many times have we heard ‘back to the start’, ‘tear us apart’ and ‘playing the part’? It’s a fine line between classic and predictable.
Sooner or later – usually sooner – every songwriter runs into what I like to call a Rhyme Trap. This is where you write one line, then end up actually changing the meaning of what you’re trying to say just because you need the next line to rhyme. The character in Oasis’s Supersonic seems pretty macho, and perhaps isn’t the kind of guy who would drink ‘gin and tonic’, but the rhyme works, and the phrase sings well, so Noel chooses singability and rhyme over meaning. He’s a bit of a serial offender – the character in She’s Electric has a ‘cousin’. In fact she’s got about a ‘dozen’. By the third line, the verse’s AAA triple-rhyme structure has run out of perfect rhymes, forcing the ending with ‘oven’ (this is called a double assonance rhyme, poetry fans).
So what’s a poor songwriter to do? Going back to our example, we could simply tweak the phrase ‘You’re the one I love’ until it reads ‘I’m in love with you’. This leaves us with the much easier problem of rhyming ‘you’. Suddenly our rhyme pallette is enormous, giving us well over 30 perfect rhymes including ‘blue’, ‘clue’, ‘do’, ‘shoe’, ‘through’, ‘to’, ‘view’ and ‘who’. Fleetwood Mac’s Big Love shows this technique in action; the song sidesteps the ‘love’ rhyme trap by putting the word in the middle of a line, so that the lyric reads ‘Looking out for love in the night so still / Oh I’ll build you a kingdom in that house on the hill’. No hands in gloves, turtle doves or skies above to be found here. So, if there’s no solution, change the problem. Or take those tricky rhymes and wobbl’em.
Lyrics are not poetry. And a poem is not a lyric. Poems have their own ‘music’, made by the natural rise and fall of the vowels, the rhythmic flow of the syllables and the breaks at the end of lines. As songwriters we can use melody to control how the audience receives our lyric. Melody has the power to give a few simple words a powerful emotional impact, in a way that neither a poem or an instrumental tune can achieve on its own. But how do we choose words that show our melodies in the best light?
To make a lyric singable, the vowels have to work properly. When a singer performs a song, the audience hears vowels more easily than consonants. Try singing the two-syllable word ‘calling’ over any two musical notes in the middle of your vocal range. Sing it out loud and long, and enjoy the feeling of those big vowels passing over your teeth. Now, using the same two notes, try doing the same with the word ‘quickest’. Doesn’t feel as good, does it? ‘Calling’ sings really well because the ‘aaaaa’ sound opens up your mouth and gives you a meaty vowel, whereas ‘quickest’ sounds unmusical because it contains more vocally restrictive vowels and tougher consonants, especially when you get to the ugly ‘st’ at the end of the word. And sure enough if you research the lyrics of any style of music, the word ‘calling’ is much more likely to appear than ‘quickest’, even though they’re both pretty common words. Songwriters tend to favour words with big vowels that avoid tongue-twisting combinations of hard consonants. As a rule of thumb, we should avoid sibilant words (with lots of ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds) whenever we can.
And listeners prefer single-syllable words most of the time. Read that last sentence back and try to sing it. Whatever notes you choose, it all starts to come crashing down when you sing ‘listeners prefer single-syllable’, but the phrase ‘words most of the time’ sings really well. You can stretch a monosyllable out over lots of notes (this is called a ‘melisma’) – for example the word ‘fire’ in Kings of Leon’s Sex on Fire is spread over three notes – but it’s impossible to make a two-syllable word fit a single note. Overdoing melismas when they’re not needed is generally considered a crime against music, but let’s not lower the tone with talk of Mariah Carey.
Let’s test our syllable-count theory on a couple of classic songs. The Beatles’ We Can Work it Out opens with the lines ‘Try to see it my way / only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong’. That’s 18 words, 17 of which are monosyllables. Hey Joe begins with ‘Hey Joe / where you goin’ with that gun in your hand (x2) / I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady, you know I caught her messin’ round with another man (x2)’ – 39 words, 34 monosyllables.
If lyrics are not poetry, neither are they the same thing as prose. This means you can take serious liberties with the English language and get away with it, as long as it sounds good when sung. Having melody on your side means you can say things in a lyric that are grammatically incorrect, such as Paul McCartney’s famous line “…ever-changing world in which we live in” (from Live and Let Die). You can cram in some dodgy rhymes, such as Kurt Cobain’s ‘self-assured / dirty word’ (from Smells Like Teen Spirit).You can make up words, as in ‘Pompitous of love’ (from Steve Miller’s The Joker). Or just use any old sounds. Be Bop A Lula. Na Na Na. No Diggity. Goo goo g’joob. And if the phrase sings well, it might notmatter if the song’s overall ‘story’ doesn’t make much sense, such as Deep Purple’s Black Night or Oasis’ Don’t Look Back In Anger. To misquote Duke Ellington, if it don’t mean a thing, all you gotta do is sing.
For the songwriter, the best and most obvious way to make a lyric singable is simply to sing it and see if it works. A lyric that looks great on the page may not work so well when you shine the cold light of melody upon it. Even if you’re not a singer yourself it’s worth singing out loud when you write – regardless of the quality or tuning, if you hear the words in context it’ll become obvious where the tweaks are needed. And if your lyric doesn’t read like the finest English poetry, no-one in the mosh-pit is going to complain.
If you ask songwriters how they create melodies, you’ll get a pretty vague answer. Something like ‘well, I just get inspired by the lyric’ or ‘it’s whatever sounds good when I sing it’. Of all the creative decisions we make when we write songs, melodic choices are perhaps the most mysterious. We don’t really know where they come from, so we sing whatever feels right and take it from there.
Many of us, as chord-literate guitarists, come to melody writing in this self-taught way, and on a good day it helps us to write melodies very freely and quickly. But on a bad day this instinctive approach can turn out meandering or predictable melodies, leaving us struggling to write something that the listener will remember. Sometimes the chords distract us from thinking about the all-important shape of our tune.
Songwriters who create melody are in control of two things – the pitch of the notes and the rhythm of the syllables. Every time we sing a note, the note that follows it can be higher, lower, or the same note. Movement between notes can be adjacent (scalic), as in ‘We don’t need no education’, or a larger leap (intervallic), as in ‘Rooooox…anne’. Think about the pitch shape of your songs: what are your habits? Do you tend to linger on one note, do you write scalically, or do you sing lots of ‘leaps’? What direction do your phrases usually take – starting high and descending, staying on one note, or rising from a low note to a higher one as you sing the line? These tendencies help to define your personal melodic writing style, so it’s worth listening back to your old demos to see if any patterns emerge.
And pitch is only one half of the melodic story. The way syllables fall against the beat (scansion) is an essential part of what makes the audience listen to a melody. Let’s say we were working on the lyric “I’m falling through the sky”. One obvious setting of this line would be for ‘I’m’ and ‘sky’ to be long syllables, and all the other syllables to be short, much as if we were speaking the phrase in conversation. But that’s just one approach. We could ‘run up’ to the final word with a lot of very short syllables, before screaming the word ‘sky’ to the heavens on a single long high note. Or we could play around with the word ‘falling’ so that its big ‘fall’ syllable descended over several notes, stretched over the vowel. (There’s songwriting fun to be had here writing a descending melody over the word ‘falling’). There are dozens of other rhythmic interpretations, for this and every other lyric, and the first idea we try may not necessarily be the best.
A strong melody needs to strike a balance between complexity and simplicity, and it needs to sound good when sung with the words. If your lyric is very wordy, with lots of storytelling and imagery, you might want the pitches of the melody to be fairly static. Take the verse of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Its machine-gun syllables deliver complex lyrics at high speed using a one-note melody. Contrast this with the chorus of Pearl Jam’s Alive. The lyric ‘Oh I, oh, I’m still alive’ is sung over a complete octave from E to E, and these six vowel-heavy words are stretched out over two whole bars.
So what happens if you don’t like the melody you’ve written – when you feel you’re stuck in a rut? One way out is to try a new method and see what happens. If you usually write melodies by singing over strummed chord changes, and you’re finding that your melodies seem a bit static or unadventurous, try using a keyboard to suggest bigger intervals. If vocal improvising over chords isn’t working for you, try speaking the lyric out loud without music – the natural rise and fall of the vowels might suggest a melody and its rhythm (my favourite example of this is Paul Simon’s ‘Old Friends / sat on their park bench like bookends’ – say it out loud and you can hear the melody within it). And if you can’t get the lyric to scan properly, try singing it over a drum loop to make the scansion more naturally rhythmic. As with all songwriting, process can affect product – so it can be fun to experiment and discover how different starting points might stimulate your creative brain.
Ah, the song’s finished. That last tricky rhyme in the bridge is complete, and that bit of the chorus that was just slightly too dull has now been fixed with a magnificent melodic flourish. Ready to record the demo, and take it to the band to rehearse it up for the next gig. So how does it start? The verse goes Am, F, Am, F – just keep strumming until you’re ready to sing, right?
Well, you could do it this way. But have you ever known anyone listen to a song and say ‘I love that bit at the start when he strums those open chords before the vocal comes in’? Think about the intro from any well-loved guitar classic – Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Sweet Child ‘o’ Mine, Hendrix’s Purple Haze or Metallica’s Enter Sandman for example. Every one of these is instantly recognisable from the opening bar, usually because of a great riff, unusual effect or extra melody. The Doors’ Light My Fire certainly starts with some quirky chords (G, D, F, Bb, C#, Ab, A) but the melodic arpeggios of Ray Manzarek’s organ part turn an inspiring sequence into a masterpiece.
So, assuming we all agree that interesting intros are better than dull intros, how do we write a good one? It could be said that there are five categories of intro, which I refer to as ‘riff till ready’, ‘steal the chorus’, ‘no relation’, ‘take a break’ and ‘straight to the point’.
Riff till ready is perhaps the most common type in rock, and it’s popular because it gives your audience something exciting right from the start. Riffs can be based on the chords of other sections of the song (e.g. Blur’s Song 2 or Alice in Chains’ Them Bones) or they can be original material (e.g. The Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women). There are various approaches you can take to writing riffs (see TG217) but the most important rules are to keep it simple and don’t be afraid to repeat it.
Stealing the chorus is all about playing a trick on the audience. If your intro is based on the chorus melody or chords, the ‘real’ chorus will seem more familiar to the listener, helping them to remember it more easily. You can get away with just playing the chords (Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, for example) but it’s usually more engaging if you use the chorus chords as a template to give you ideas for a riff or melodic line.
Some intros bear no relation to the parent song, so can be a completely different piece of music. We’ve already looked at Light My Fire, and there are many other classics with intros that are more famous than the song; the intro riff of Paranoid disappears once the verse begins; Johnny B Goode provides 12 bars of double-stopped excitement and is never heard from again. And what about the guitar itself? If you can make your guitar sound more interesting it’s more likely that the intro will stand out. Eddie Van Halen has used a flanger (Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love); Paul Simon, a capo (Scarborough Fair); Keith Richards, an open tuning (Brown Sugar); and the Edge, a delay (Where The Streets Have No Name).
And just because we’re all guitarists, that doesn’t mean we have to take the intro every time. U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, Paul Simon’s 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Radiohead’s High and Dry and ZZ Top’s Gimme All Your Lovin’ give the drummers a moment in the sun – plus an opportunity for you to tune up, get your bottleneck ready, apply a capo or take a sneaky drink on stage. And you don’t have to rely on the drummer if you want to take a break. Take a listen to The Animals’ We Gotta Get Out of This Place – not only does bassist Chas Chandler provide a memorable 4-bar intro riff before the vocal comes in, he keeps it going for a further 8 bars before the guitar part enters.
And if you’re out of ideas, who says you need an intro? Certainly not Queen (Fat Bottomed Girls, We Are the Champions), Don McLean (American Pie, Vincent) or Iron Maiden (Can I Play With Madness?). Other artists that have been known to get straight to the point include Elvis Presley (Hound Dog, Heartbreak Hotel), The Pretenders (Stop Your Sobbing) and The Beatles (All My Lovin’, Hey Jude, Help!, Can’t Buy Me Love, She Loves You). Sometimes having a brilliant song and a world-class singer is all you need. You had me at hello.
Writing a complete lyric is a big job. You’ve got to think about your characters, the imagery you’re using, and the timeframe and location of the song’s ‘action’, before you even start on the technical stuff like syllable count and rhyming. But writing a title on its own is easy – it’s only a few words after all. And for some people it’s the perfect way in to the songwriting process.
Think for a moment about any song you like, and focus on its title. Is it interesting on its own? If it’s quirky and unusual, does it ‘draw you in’ to the world of meaning provided by the lyric? If it’s a cliché does it still sound authentic when sung? Does it help to summarise the overall meaning of the lyric? Titles can be a very powerful way of getting listeners to engage with a song, but they can also help us to write songs by providing that essential early spark of an idea, on which we can build a complete lyric. Read more…
This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 220, November 2011. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Noami Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf of the article.
This is a songwriting column, and we’re all guitarists. So it stands to reason that we’re writing songs on guitar, doesn’t it? But much as we love our instrument, it may be quietly restricting our creativity.
We all want to write songs that are original, interesting and unusual, and that’s not easy with such a popular instrument. Looking for a new and inspiring chord? Every combination of four fingers and six strings across four frets (or five if you’re feeling athletic) has already been tried. Need a new chord sequence? Every variation of the basic open major and minor chords already appears in a song somewhere. Read more…
This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 219, October 2011. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Christian Ward. Click the image to download a pdf of the article.
Do you have a favourite song? Do you know why you like it? We all have favourite tracks, of course, but if someone asks us why we like a particular song – that is, the words, melody and chords – we find it difficult to give an answer. Often we’ll talk about where we were when we heard the track: going to school, falling in love, going on holiday, passing an exam or getting a new job. And tracks are great for evoking these memories. But tracks and songs are not the same thing. Read more…
This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 217, August 2011. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Christian Ward. Click the image on the right to download a pdf of the article.
Guitar solos. We love them, of course, but don’t you always have a sneaking suspicion that the audience is just waiting for the singer to get on with the rest of the song? Our secret weapon in this attention war is the riff. These ‘mini-solos’ are easy to play, sound great, and perhaps most importantly, remind everyone that you’re the Most Important Person In The Band.
Riffs are almost always one, two or four bars in length and repeat at various points throughout the song. There are three broad types, defined by their function: solo riffs, call-and-response riffs and underscore riffs.
Solo riffs often form the intro of the song and typically reappear between vocal sections. Notable examples include Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water, Thin Lizzy’s The Boys are Back In Town and Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight. When you’re writing a solo riff, you can be as busy or melodic as you like, because anything you play won’t get in the way of the voice. Take Steely Dan’s Reelin’ In The Years: its four-bar riff is filled with fast triplets. It would be near impossible to hear the vocal over such a detailed guitar part, so the band sensibly provides 16 bars of space to let the riff shine through.
Call-and-response riffs are used to fill the gaps between vocal phrases within a section. Examples include John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom and The Rolling Stones’ The Last Time, which start exactly one beat after the voice. Again, these riffs give you a lot of freedom to do whatever you want musically, as long as it’s the same each time, but you have to get in quick before the next vocal phrase. AC/DC’s Whole Lotta Rosie uses call-and-response for the verses, then adapts the riff so that it becomes the accompaniment in the chorus. Read more…
This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 216, July 2011. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Christian Ward. Click the image to download a pdf of the article.
If you build it, they will come
Most songs consist of a small number of basic building blocks, and the order of these defines the form. Some of the blocks themselves will be familiar to any music fan – intro, verse, chorus, bridge and so on, and each has its own particular characteristics.To state the obvious, a verse has the same melody and different lyrics each time it repeats; a chorus usually has identical lyrics and melody each time you hear it. Intros and outros can have their own original music, but are often just an instrumental version of another section (ever noticed how the intro chords for lots of chart hits are the same as those for the chorus? This is a psychological trick played on the listener so that when the ‘real’ chorus arrives, we feel like we already know it).
This article first appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 215, June 2011. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Christian Ward.
Six rules of (fingers and) thumb
There are no rules in songwriting. It’s your song, and you can do anything you like with it. But! There are principles that occur in a large number of successful songs, and many of the songwriters I teach find these ideas useful when writing new material. They are, in no particular order, Economy, Imagery, Prosody, Universality, Repetition and Originality.
Songs use word economy to communicate lyric ideas. The Beatles’ Yesterday tells an entire story of love, loss and regret in 84 words – and 125 seconds (and it holds the record for the most cover versions of any song in history). Many successful songs start with a killer first line that provides lots of information in a few words. When we hear “Stacey’s Mom has got it goin’ on” (Fountains of Wayne) we know (or guess) that the singer is an American teenager, that he is dating a girl called Stacey, that he’s in love with her mother, and that the mum knows nothing about it. Not bad in seven words.
Music fans listen with their imagination as well as their ears – and lyric imagery is one of the most useful tools we have in stimulating it. So if you say “I met a girl in a night club” you’re halfway to telling the story, but if you add detail you get “I met her in a club down in old Soho / where you drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola” (from the Kinks’ classic Lola – TG205). We see a picture in our minds when we hear this lyric. We also get an inkling of the narrator’s naivety – he’s never been to a bar and doesn’t know why the drinks taste funny.
You can write perfectly good lyrics without using imagery, but a few choice visuals can work wonders in helping fans to remember your song. And images can also be used as metaphor. In Biffy Clyro’s God & Satan, when Simon Neil sings “the see-saw snaps and splinters your hand”, he’s talking about life’s balance between good and evil, not about a children’s playground. But if he’d just sung “when your life doesn’t work out as you hoped” the lyric would have been much weaker.
Prosody is a catch-all term to describe music and lyric working together to give meaning for the listener. If your chorus says “I Predict A Riot” it’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to accompany it with delicate open-tuned fingerstyle guitar and a tempo of 60 beats per minute – the feeling of the lyric doesn’t go with the music. Conversely, “You never close your eyes any more when I kiss your lips” (from You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling) is such a tender image that you won’t want amps up to 11 and a Screamo vocal.
Some songwriters believe that melody and lyric are even more closely related – that positive lyrics go with rising melodies and negative ones with descending melodies. There are plenty of classics that disprove this theory, of course, but again it’s surprising how often you find really successful songs following the ‘rule’. And while we’re at it, have you noticed that the chorus melody is almost always higher-pitched than the verse? It makes people want to join in and tells them that this is the ‘point’ of your lyric.
To state the obvious, successful song lyrics appeal to lots of people – this is often described as Universality. It’s no accident that more than 80% of the biggest hits of all time are about love and relationships, because it’s something that all humans relate to. But it’s not all hearts and flowers. Elbow’s One Day Like This suggests that if we can all just feel good about ourselves for one day, we’ll put up with the rest of life’s troubles (and the chorus opens with the wonderful image “throw those curtains wide”). And listen to Lennon’s Imagine – who wouldn’t agree that there should be more love in the world?
Repetition! What is it good for? Absolutely everything! Say it again. It might not seem terribly ‘clever’ to simply repeat the title in your chorus, but it’s amazing how well this simple device can work.
Perhaps the most difficult part of songwriting is achieving originality. As listeners, we need to hear that quirky extra ingredient – the sound, riff, melody, chord pattern or lyric we haven’t heard before. Over to you.
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