I have a piano student who had always wanted to write songs, but just couldn’t seem to get started. When I asked him what he’d like to write about first, he grimaced, “I can’t do it! I’m so uncomfortable!”
“Great!” I replied. “I’m so uncomfortable. That’s your first line.” And he wrote a wonderful, poignant song called, Uncomfortable. If you want to write a song, start from where you are or what you are feeling, and just jump in.
The first step when considering lyric ideas is to get it all down – out of your head, onto paper or into your recording device or app (the Voice Memos app in iPhones is handy). Writers speak of their messy first draft, and the same applies to songwriters. Don’t censor your impulses, just let the ideas flow spontaneously. When you feel you are done, take a break, for at least a few hours. Do something else to clear the palate of your mind, heart and soul.
Then sit back down with your words, read them aloud, and see what you think. Which lines do you love? Which are not flowing well? Have you said what you need to say, or do you need to dig deeper? Or do you want to lighten up the mood a bit? Make notes on your initial impressions, and then get down to work.
If you have started with your lyrics, you will need to begin singing them into a melody. As I have said in Part 3, sometimes it helps to take a walk or drive while singing your lyrics to activate your creative juices in a less pressured environment.
If you have started with a melody, hum the melody and see if any lyric ideas arise from the rhythm of the notes. When the melody dictates the words they are likely to fit really well; but if lyrics arise with a few too many syllables, you can easily add extra notes to your melody.
When writing a popular song, you have two primary kinds of lyrics to consider. The lyrics for the verse, and the lyrics for the chorus. Generally the verse lyrics tell what the song is about. The chorus contains the hook, which is the part of the song we remember best; the chorus lyrics usually repeat, and consist of shorter phrases sung to a memorable melody. The song Every Breath You Take by The Police starts with two verses, each with 5 lyric lines, the last of which repeat in every verse (I’ll be watching you). The chorus reads:
Oh can’t you see, You belong to me. My poor heart aches, With every step you take.
Every Breath You Take has such simple words! Its chords, melodies and structure are also very simple. And yet it was the biggest hit The Police ever had. I’m not suggesting that you write a song with a view to it being huge hit (that’s never a good way to create art), but I do want you to remember that a song doesn’t have to be complicated in order to be really good.
Many songs also contain a bridge. The bridge serves to elevate the song to greater energy or excitement. Every Breath You Take has a bridge at 1:22 consisting of five lyric lines followed by a 16-bar rhythmic instrumental passage.
Some songs also have an instrumental hook such as the Gary Jules recording of Mad World. In Mad World, the piano hook comes as an introduction that repeats in the choruses. Notice also in Mad World that there are two distinct sections to the verses. When that is the case, we call the first section the A, the second section the B:
A: All around me are familiar faces, worn out places, worn out faces. Bright and early for the daily races, going nowhere, going nowhere. Their tears are filling up their glasses, no expression, no expression. Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow, no tomorrow, no tomorrow.
B: And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad. The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had. I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take. When people run in circles it’s a very very…
Chorus: Mad world. Mad World.
There is no bridge in Mad World, perhaps because the verses are long, and the B-sections feel like a bridge. Notice that there are a lot of repeated lyrics, which can be a great dramatic tool.
Generally, there are two categories of songs; there are songs that tell a story, and songs that paint a picture. Sometimes you might want to write a song that tells a story about something traumatic or something wonderful that has happened to you, or as with the song Raymond by Brett Eldredge, your song can be like a short story. Other times you might just want to paint a picture for your listener such as Paul McCartney’s Junk, or create an impression about something such as what it feels like to be in love, or to be the victim of discrimination, or how to live a better life.
Some examples of songs that tell a story:
Eleanor Rigby, by The Beatles
Cats In The Cradle, by Harry Chapin
Runaway Love, by Ludacris and Mary J Blige
Whisky Lullaby, by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss
Just My Imagination, by The Temptations
Fast Car, by Tracy Chapman
Raymond, by Brett Eldredge
American Pie, by Don McLean
Don’t Give Up, by Peter Gabriel
Jack and Diane, by John Mellencamp
Some examples of songs that paint a picture, which can include expressing an emotion, giving advice, or making a political statement :
Over The Rainbow, by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg
Yellow, by Coldplay
Shallow, by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper
Girl On Fire, by Alicia Keys
Thinking Out Loud, by Ed Sheeran
Unanswered Prayers, by Garth Brooks
Running On Empty, by Jackson Browne
Good Riddance, by Green Day
Complicated, by Avril Lavigne
Under The Table, by Fiona Apple
Let’s take a closer look at a song that incorporates all of the song elements I have discussed so far. I first heard Ben Fold’s song The Luckiest while watching one of the best, most positive movies ever made (in my humble opinion), About Time.
There is an introduction at the beginning of the song, with a piano hook, and for the rest of the song Folds is playing simple major and minor chords which he is constantly breaking up into single notes.
In the A-section, Folds paints a picture of a man who makes mistakes, and he also acknowledges that our mistakes are an important part of who we become:
I don’t get many things right the first time. In fact I am told that a lot. Now I know all the wrong turns, the stumbles, the falls brought me here.
In the B-section of the verse, Folds reveals that he is in a relationship. It is also in the B-sections of The Luckiest that Folds provides the only rhyming lines: day rhyming with face:
And where was I before the day that I first saw your lovely face. Now I see it everyday. And I know that…
And the second B-section rhymes eyes with recognize necessitating a few extra notes for the extra syllables in the word recognize:
In a wide sea of eyes, see one pair that I recognize. And I know that…
The choruses are simply: I am, I am, I am the luckiest.
After the chorus, Folds plays his piano hook again, then another verse and chorus. After the second chorus he provides a short bridge:
I love you more than I have ever found a way to say to you.
Up until now I would unreservedly call The Luckiest a song that paints a picture. But in his third verse Folds tells a story:
Next door there’s an old man who lived into his nineties, and one day passed away in his sleep. And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days and passed away.
In the B-section that follows, the lyrics read: I’m sorry I know that’s a strange way to tell you that I know we belong. So although the song contains a short story, the song is not about that story; Folds simply uses it to illustrate his feelings about his own loving relationship. So, The Luckiest is not a story-song.
While most of the lines in The Luckiest don’t rhyme, almost all of the lines in Every Breath You Take do rhyme. So remember that while some rhymes in your song give the song sing-ability and cohesiveness, you don’t have to rhyme all the time if you don’t want to.
Once you have finished the first draft of your song, take another break from it for at least a day or two. Enjoy your time away and trust that you will take a look with fresh eyes when the time is right. Then come back to fine-tune it. The process of editing is often where creative flow breaks down. Editing your song is a daunting task and the failure to face up to it is why many would-be songwriters never finish their songs. Ask yourself if there are any lyrics, chords or melody notes that aren’t quite there yet. Work on it everyday until you feel good about all of it. Don’t let too many days go by without completing your song, as you run the risk of having nothing but half-finished melodies in your repertoire. On the other hand, you also need to be able to intuit when to stop editing and call it done.
Even if you ultimately decide it’s not very good, finish your song. Completing things is a practice of its own, and we only get better and faster at writing, editing and completing our work though consistent practice. The willingness to edit and complete a song makes the difference between a songwriter and a wannabe.
In classical music there are many ways to structure a piece. Generally when you are starting out, you want to establish a primary theme, move to second theme, then come back to the first theme and end the piece.
In my next and final post about composing I will expand a little on chords, then will move on to the next musical topic! I hope you have enjoyed analyzing a few good examples of how to put together simple but effective songs. If you are interested in further study, look up some of the songs from the bulleted lists above on Youtube.com and ask yourself questions to deepen your understanding of the writer’s style: What is the structure of the song? Do the verses have a B-section? What are the choruses? Is there a bridge? Does the song tell a story or paint a picture? Are lines repeating? Rhyming? Do some of the verses add extra lyric syllables requiring extra notes?
But don’t analyze too much or for too long. Rather than continually asking what makes a great song, take that time to create one of your own. Remember that your song will be different from anyone else’s because no one has experienced your unique life. You can create something fun or personal that is as beautiful, important and valid as anyone else’s. So get to work!
With love and music, Gaili