Songwriting tips from a clueless enthusiast
This is an unpublished piece but it includes what are hopefully helpful ideas in listicle form.
I have been songwriting since I was a teenager. This does not make me qualified. But it does mean I’ve been thinking about it for a long time.
Oh, how I loved my songs back then – back when they were inspired by darkness, unrequited affection, or a sweeping landscape. It was all esoteric lyrics and even less tangible melodies. It was cathartic to sit and play the five-octave, light-touch Yamaha I had since I was 8, singing the lyrics that I’d written – or even rewritten once or twice – that only would make sense to me. At least half the time, nobody knew what Cobain/Vedder/Buckley was on about – why should my lyrics be any different? It’s about the music, man…
My creative writing training at uni did little to change my inclination – it was all about stream-of-consciousness, word association, found pieces, hypertext, fragmented sentences all in lowercase… In retrospect, it was all about the steps before writing something… worth reading.
I loved my songs dearly, but I knew deep in my core that they were not fit for public consumption. Songwriting was my secret hobby. Deep, dark, broody, precious, a little bit sexy, and empirically terrible. But there was part of me that wanted to believe – so, so badly – that people would like them and that it was only my fear standing in the way of these tunes seeing the light of day. Oh goshdarnit, if only I could get out of my own magnificent way!
Then Edinburgh 2012 happened (a story for another day, I promise) and at one of my lower/est moments, I realised that if songwriting was still something I wanted to try, then fuck it – now’s the time.
I wrote songs about the festival in question. I wrote songs based on stories I’d heard. I started digging through scraps of lyrics and actually piecing them together. I wrote a couple of snippets, and one complete number, for Keira Daley Vs the 90s. In that show, I also blew the dust off a song I wrote at 15 – which remains one of the most fun things in the world to perform because it is so, so unbelievably bad. When the band was kicking along, and the beats and chords were thrashing out in a way that’s better than I had in my head all those years ago, there was part of me that was vindicated. The part of me – that’s still 15 – thinks it’s fucking awesome.
Since then, there’s been the Slapdash Song Night! monthly songwriting challenge – this means regular assignments with accompanying deadlines. And I’ve also aired some of my other recent songs at the show. So there’s been a mix of last-minute rush-jobs, well-considered extended pieces, and a few things in between. Most of it has been on the comedic end of the spectrum, but some hasn’t. The reactions have been varied, as have the genres. And the inspiration has been forced to arrive time and time again because the show won’t wait until your most amazing idea strolls into town.
How does all this crap help you write songs? What are my tips? How do you structure a song? What are chord progressions? What makes a good melody or a crap one? What’s a hook? Is an earworm the sign of a good song or an irritating one?
There are places to go for music theory and legit songwriting techniques (if you recommend any, please write a comment below). This is not that place. Everyone who’s worked with me knows I’m the musical equivalent of dyslexic – the written representation (which I have been looking at for decades now) does not sink in. That said, I’ve got a lot better at writing basic charts. And at beatboxing rhythms to musicians.
But here are the things I have learned about songwriting as 1) a private, self-indulgent songwriter; 2) a once-a-month, assigned-a-topic-and-a-deadline, come-hell-or-high-water songwriter; 3) as a performer of my songs and others’; and 4) as an audient of many things, from jazz and soul to music theatre and cabaret, via rock and/or roll.
Ten things I’ve learned about songwriting
- Listen to everything… but music. If you love music, I’m sure you’ve already listened to heaps of it. So switch off the tunes and start listening to other things – internal and external. You never know where the inspiration might come from.
- Listen to your environment. Right now, I have a half-written song based on the sound of my best friend’s shower – two years ago, when I was staying at her place for a few days, I noticed there was a riff formed by the sounds of the water hitting the handrail. That riff stayed with me until I found a song for it – this year. The sound of my skateboard rolling down a concrete path that I remember from when I was a kid is another one I want to use. If a tune comes to mind, record it on your phone and label the file so you know WTF it is in six months’ time – I have a file category of recordings specifically for this.
- Listen to people. I wrote a whole song about insomnia based on one friend’s account of trying to work through it using all these tactics various health professionals had given her. Sometimes people say one line that has a great rhythm or that swirls around in your head – sometimes the line is something you say or think. There’s a reason this line sticks out to you and there’s a good chance it’ll hook you in a song too. Write or record it on your phone and label it. Write lists too – sometimes this is a fast-track to getting a song down.
- Feelings are great – use them wisely. You need a story and a hook more than ever if you want to write something strongly emotional. Find something relatable or else nobody cares. Use your feelings in someone else’s story, for example. Or take some time and then make fun of yourself. Get specific, get epic, get ambitious. Use your emotions as a gateway to empathy or understanding or insight that someone else might find helpful or entertaining. Make that the song.
- Be kind to the vocalist – whether it’s you or someone else, be considerate of what is humanly possible, what is humanly repeatable, and humanly listenable. This is my totally unqualified and un-asked-for note to all contemporary music theatre composers. Not all of us have the luxury to let our whole lives revolve around hitting one insane note or singing one insane song every night. Your muse might be Idina, but your medium is more likely to be a mere mortal. Music can be beautiful, challenging and complex without being a hellscape nightmare to perform (or listen to). Workshop your stuff and make it fun for us all. While I’m on it, keep this in mind for all instruments involved. Know what’s possible and know the limits – both of these help you create.
- When you do listen to music, listen to what the other instruments are doing, not just the vocals – I’ve long been obsessed with listening this way because it brings me so much joy. And as a songwriter, I believe it’s a way to emotionally manipulate your listeners on a less conscious level. For example, the cello in a Sondheim might do something like this – it’ll hang around in the middle, subtly keeping the vocals buoyant and the high strings grounded. Then it’ll be exposed solo for an exquisite bar and followed by a line from the singer that will be important and deeply moving. Your eyes will well up and you think it’s all about “being alive”, but I hazard a (totally unqualified) guess that IT WAS THE CELLO PLAYING YOU ALL ALONG. This is not limited to music theatre or classical stuff – check out what the bass is doing in a Chili Peppers song – you may think you’re grooving to the beat (and of course you are) but still, Flea owns that shit.
- It can be easier to write words first, music second, but don’t be afraid if a tune finds you first. It just might take a bit longer to find a home. Sing it into that recorder, baby. As for lyrics, embrace assonance as well as rhyme. Why? It gives you something fun to do/strive for mid-line (because great rhyme isn’t enough of a challenge).
- Find someone properly skilled who can help you realise your ideas. I suck at playing my compositional instrument (I play piano like a drummer – I happen to sing like one too, not that that’ll stop me), so I feel very, very lucky to have musicians who are willing to work with me to bring my occasionally insane, occasionally vague, but mostly overly ambitious ideas to life. That said, the clearer and more detailed you can be – even if you have to write it down in words/metaphors/YouTube clips – the easier it is to stitch the patchwork together.
- Fuck key changes – there are other ways to build drama. About 90% of those standard pop ones where nothing else changes feel unnecessary or lazy to me. The song I wrote that got the biggest, most positive response this year had a tonne of just variations on one chord (not that I recommend that as a songwriting technique by any means). My instrumental ability is quite limited, which means I have to get creative with fewer colours. Which leads me to my final point…
- Inaccurate rip-offs can become songs in themselves. One of my ‘virtues’ as a songwriter has been my terrible musicianship. My approximation in picking apart other people’s chords and chord progressions by ear means that I’m already a degree away from a straight-up cover. Then all I need to do is change it a bit more and, suddenly, it’s gone from cover to pastiche/parody. Inaccurately add another element by someone else and you’ll go from mash-up to mish-mash to, eventually, something else altogether. Whaddya know?
In the end, like anything else, do what works. If you have a beginning, middle and end, and you enjoy playing it, you’ve got a song. And even if it’s just for you on your tinny, 5-octave Yamaha from 1989, that’s something worth having.
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