Where do songs come from?
“How do you do that?”
I’ve been on a bit of a songwriting tear the past few months. No exact count but I’ve had a few days where I’ve written a song, start-to-finish, and lyrics or the start of two more.
I’ve never really undertaken any of those song-a-day or 30 songs in 30 day challenges. I haven’t needed to. At this point, I have nearly two-hundred complete songs - that I like - and another 150+ lyrics - fragments or full songs.
I have a folder with video and audio recordings of song ideas as well. Actually, I think I have a folder on my laptop, a folder in Google Drive, and a folder on my phone. I should probably organize that stuff, eh?
My problem isn’t writing songs. It’s getting them recorded. I typically do a simple recording on my phone and then I’m onto the next song. My friend and fellow songwriter, Emiko, challenged me on this a few years back and, to date, I’ve failed to answer her challenge. More on this at a later date.
Note: check out Emiko's new single: Great North Road.
My writing process
The question above, “How do you do that?” has been asked in a variety of ways over the years. And again, recently. So, let’s talk about my songwriting process. Yep… I’m going to reveal the secret, so pay attention and heed my advice. If you are being taught some other strategy or technique, it's wrong! 😉
Just kiddin' If you are producing songs and like them, continue to do so. If you like my advice, use it where you are able to.
First: I don’t have a process!
That’s the first secret.
But that’s a little trite and unhelpful. So let me cover a few ideas that may help you. Also, let's answer one of the common questions new songwriters (or those who do not write songs) asks.
Songwriting myths / Things I don't believe
- Songs are "out there" and you are simply discovering them.
I don't believe in some mystical experience - that songs live in the ether or some metaphysical realm and we are "tapping into it." Sorry.. but when I'm struggling to find a lyric, that's me working on a lyric. And when songs come fast and easy, it's because my synapses are firing a particular way.
- There is no good or bad songs, it's all art.
This can be dumped into the same lie as, "there are no stupid questions." Yes... yes there are stupid questions.
Now, I do believe there are no bad words, lines, or arrangements during the songwriting process. You throw words down on a page and re-arrange lines, rephrase ideas, etc. Sometimes my songwriting notebook is a series of illegible scribbles. And I've gone back to some songs and been embarrassed by the ideas I'd thrown down on the page. That's fine... but that's not for human consumption.
- You only write good songs when inspiration strikes.
This may be the greatest of the lies. I touch on it below but there are plenty of times that writing of any type is a matter of forcing yourself to sit down and do the work. And that can lead to great songs.
Okay.. onto the process and a few tips.
Do you write lyrics first or music first?
Let me explain.
When I first started writing songs - I believe I wrote my first song when I was 13 - they were prompted by music. Chord progression or some finger picking pattern I found appealing.
I would turn the chord structure around - sometimes finding a melody that seemed to fit the chords. Often, lyrics would come much later. Days, weeks, years. Yes… years.
But the music would have a feeling. Something that called for fairly specific emotional content. Lyrics would follow that.
My songs Misty Blue and Lady Love were both written this way.
I’ve discovered that songs written this way take me longer to write. Or, they used to.
Later, I was contemplating songwriting in general and likening it to writing articles or other content. I realized that writers hired for TV or writing monthly columns (or weekly or daily) did not have the luxury to use inspiration as the motivation or source for writing. They are required to write on cue.
I’d adopted the approach to written words that Stephen King speaks of in “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.” He admonishes the reader to avoid waiting on your “muse” or inspiration. She’s a fickle-bitch. (or bastard - whatever you want him/her/it to be). Whatever that stubborn thing is, you cannot count on it.
So, he directs you to “show up at the same time/same place, every day, and do the heavy-lifting.”
Do the work... not when you feel like it but on demand, as needed. Like a professional.... hey.. there's an idea.
As I thought about that, I realized that songwriting is exactly the same. Inspiration is great but it is unreliable. I mean, use it when you get it. It's great! It's a high. But, also, if you do the work, it can cause inspiration to happen. And that's really good.
And so, I started writing to themes.
South To Mexico was one of the first songs I wrote this way.
I’d been listening to a lot of Steve Earle, Which, by the way, is about as good a way as is possible to learn about song-craft as anything you can do.
He has a song titled, "A Week of Living Dangerously" about an ill-fated trip to Mexico.
I thought about all the songwriters I know that mention or write about Mexico and concluded, “If I am a songwriter, I need to write a song about Mexico.”
I started jotting down ideas and phrases. They were sort of cliche.
“Smuggling” “border town” “tequila” “senorita”, etc.
I ended up writing two phrases that made it into the song.
“They treat heartache with tequila and loneliness by dancing with those pretty senoritas.”
I loved that line as soon as I wrote it. Still do.
“Smuggling my heart South to Mexico”
And voila! It is one of my more popular songs.
Now I do both. I write down lyric ideas, verses, choruses, topics and phrases I find interesting, etc. I also play around with chord progressions, rhythms, finger-picking patterns, etc.
At times, I record phrases or ideas a Capella, into my phone.
I try to be diligent in moving those into an ever-growing Google document and folder. Although, looking over my PC, I moved more than 20 different song-fragments this morning. It makes me wonder how many songs I’ve lost.
My Songwriting Advice
Here are a few ideas to help improve your songwriting - both quantity and quality.
- Use basic song patterns/ arrangements (do not be experimental).
Of course, you may do whatever suits you. But, you would do well to write a song with the following patterns. Tried and true. Basic. And very appealing to the listener's ear. At least for Western culture popular music.
Verse | Chorus | Verse | Chorus | Bridge | Chorus
Verse | Chorus | Verse | Chorus | musical break | Verse | Chorus
Make your verses simple. 4 lines, rhyme on 2 and 4.
IMPORTANT: It’s easier to take a great verse/chorus combo and experiment with the form than it is to write to no form and make it cohesive.
Also, if you are writing strange experimental songs and people love them, great! Or, if you love them and don’t care that no one else does… great! This is just advice. You may disregard it or accept it.
- Avoid simple rhymes that do not move the song forward.
Just because you ended a line with jog, does not mean you need to write a line about a dog or hog or frog or bog or ????
In fact… see below.
- Avoid rhyming on key words only.
Building on the above idea…
“I went for a jog
I ran into a dog”
It rhymes but, honestly, you can write it differently.
“Out on a run in the cool morning chill
A dog wanders the park, he does what he will.”
Okay.. it’s meaningless. No Grammy in my future with that one. And maybe “cool” and “chill” are redundant.. But, you get your jog and dog avoiding the obvious nursery rhyme cadence of the first option.
Even more damaging is when you find a word that rhymes and simply throw it into the song. Why is the dog there at all. In the first option above, it just fills space. At least in the second, the dog may be conveying a lesson about freedom. Something that the viewer/songwriter is able to pass along to the listener.
Hey.. I’m not advising you to write a song about jogging and seeing a dog… we're talking concept.
- Do not simply repeat verse one’s idea in verse two.
If you write about being lonely in verse one. Don’t write about being lonely in verse two. Write about what loneliness drives you to do or not do. Or a contrasting idea of what you desire or remember. Basically, move the song forward.
If the song is about loneliness, write about two vignettes that convey loneliness without saying loneliness. Move the song along.
Here are two stanzas from my song, Marie.
VERSE 1 (I’m lonely)
You left me alone but I don't really blame you, I don't
You thought I would hate you, don't worry, I can't and I won't
There are questions unanswered though they're answers I don't want to hear
I'm no good at this distance but damn sure no good when you're near
VERSE 2 (and loneliness makes me...)
My friends, they keep telling me, "Man, you sure handle it well."
Conveniently they overlook when I slip into my hell
Close the world out and I don't return their calls for days
Emerge baptized in memories and exorcised of my rage
- Store Your Songs Digitally
Transfer your songs into some type of digital storage. Google Drive or some other method. And try and move them there fairly quickly.
Many years ago I left an open mic and while getting into my car, I put my songwriting journal on the roof. I forgot it there and am certain I have a dozen hit songs scattered around the San Fernando Valley.
The upside is that my writing is so illegible, that it is unlikely they can be replicated and stolen. 😉
Back to King's book, "On Writing." He tells the aspiring writer, "Read a lot, write a lot." I suppose the same is true for songwriting. Listen a lot, write a lot!
Okay.. that’s it for the advice. Now you sort of know how I write songs. It is very powerful information and advice, so use it only for good. 😉
Oh.. here is a video I did on the subject.