As a music journalist specializing primarily in songwriting, I get asked all the time to refine my best advice down to a top 10, or 12, or 20 kind of list. Like most journalists, I have certainly written my share of top 10’s but then when I look back at my rough notes there is always a lot of pretty good stuff that gets left out, beyond the first 10. For this particular list; which includes some general skill building advice mixed in with some specific “nuts and bolts” kinds of rules, I decided to not put a limitation on the number of points I would list and decided to just wing it. If you have ever read my journalism or have ever met me, you will know that “winging it” is not really my thing. However, I felt that it would be great to write something that had a more freewheeling kind of approach and see if it made the piece of journalism seem more natural and conversational and more complete. So with no further ado… here are my top 23 all-time cures for the common song.
1. Keep a journal – you can come up with amazing ideas for songs anytime of the day or night and then… Poof! They are suddenly gone. Keeping a journal allows you to have a great place to store your ideas in and be able to find them again readily and easily. Many of my collaborators use their phone for this but at the risk of seeming old-fashioned I still like to keep a journal that I also use as a day timer and a catchall for everything James Linderman. One of the primary differences between a tourist and an explorer is in the documentation of the journey and so to appear more like a songwriter and less like a person dabbling in songwriting, documentation will be a feature in that distinction.
2. A song has four primary elemental stages to it. Pat Pattison, head of the lyric writing department at Berklee College and author of “Writing Better Lyrics” often says that songwriting is – entrance – focus – energy – exit.
3. Songwriting is said to be show and tell but actually it’s more show to tell. The difference between “From the first time I saw you, when I met you as a teenager, I instantly fell in love with you”, and “Indian Summer, Abilene, you were new in town, I was 19, sparks flew” is that the first version tells without showing in the second one tells by showing. The second version is from the Amanda Marshall hit Dark Horse, written by Dean McTaggart, Dave Tyson and Amanda Marshall.
4. Your title should hold all your songs DNA. Title your song based on what everyone else calls it, when they hear it.
5. The first verse rule. (similar to #3) Use the first verse to provide a physical or emotional setting for your characters to interact within. When you provide a setting for your listeners you take them with you to that location. When you do not provide a setting, you merely tell them about something that happened in a place that they now cannot picture. Even if you are narrating a lyric without characters, you can use a very clever device by providing a setting description to narrate within. Your listener will now see you as a person telling them a story from an interesting location.
6. Stay in character – make each line a clear expression of the character you intend to be communicating that information. Make all shifts in point of view, subject context, setting and even time frame completely clear and purposeful throughout the whole song.
7. Yoda speak….Another quote from Berklee lyric writing professor Pat Pattison is “always preserve the natural shape of the language”. Therefore, no “Yoda speak”. If you write, “this destiny for you, I now see” it is not necessarily grammatically incorrect but it makes a listener have to think backwards while they listen forward and the motivation to write the line in this way is usually to produce an easy or cheap rhyme. if you wouldn’t say it that way, then don’t sing it that way.
8. The second party rule. Don’t tell your second party something they already would know. Yes to, “her hair was golden brown” and no to, “your hair is golden brown”.
9. The “No” free zone…Writing should be a place where no idea is considered useless or inconsequential. Cowriting is a “no” free zone. A great phrase to use when ramping up to a good idea from a collection of less valuable suggestions is “were on the right track, but see if we can find more choices” or “now we’re getting there, but now let’s see if we can find something even better”.
10. Write one song at a time. Write one single song; thematically and have every word in the lyric support that one theme. Don’t create five different intents into your single song in an effort to make it epic and grand. Great songwriting is taking a small idea and making it smaller.
11. Odd and even. An odd number of lines in a section of your song will create an open feel and will pull the listener into the next section. An even number of lines will close a section off and allow you to start a new section that will seem like a more independent lyric entity, like the ideas in each section are more complete unto themselves.
12. A good kind of stress….Place the words in your lyric that you want to have the most impact, on the strongest accented beats and underline them. Yes to, “I’m going to lunch with you” and no to, “I’m going to lunch with you”. Where you place the strong stress syllable almost always affects the specific meaning of the lyric line.
13. 4/4 time and 3/4 time are “architectonic”…. which in plain English means that the first beat of each measure is the strongest. Good to know!
14. Use hyperbole… to create more drama in your lyric. “I nearly died crying” is more dramatic than, “I cried a slightly above average amount for this specific level of disappointment” the second statement might be more accurate in context, but will not have the desired dramatic effect you want your listener to experience. Remember, “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles”.
15. Save some of your brilliant wisdom for the bridge. Always try and hold back at least a portion of the moral of the story in your song for the bridge which is where your emotional and moral stance is most commonly framed for your listener’s. Songwriters with a lot to teach in their songs tend to often write, what sounds like one very long bridge and call it a song without remembering that their message can be delivered more effectively if it can be connected to characters in a setting in the verses and and then made memorable by the hooks in the chorus.
16. Target practice…..Practice songwriting by taking pre-existing songs that you like and writing answer songs or parallel songs, line by line, borrowing the structure and possibly some other feature such as rhyming pattern or emotional tone from the existing works. This is great target practice for songwriters, at any level.
17. Edit… Edit… Edit. Once you’ve had the initial creative burst that most songwriters begin a song with, cross-examine your lyrics looking for every possible loophole, useless or irrelevant information, unnecessarily repeated content, or anything that might be confusing or alienating to the listener. You also want to remove lines that don’t live up to the quality of the very good writing in your song. Any line that looks like it was just a “place card” lyric should be replaced with something that will increase the value of the line and therefore the value of the song holistically. Get rid of anything that causes LEGO (listener’s eyes gloss over).
18. Relocate any valuable lines that don’t fit into your song thematically, into your journal (remember your journal from #1). Instead of jamming lines into the song where they don’t belong and don’t help the song be great in general, remove these distractions and put them in your journal to perhaps be a launching point for another great song. Never force a lyric line or idea where it does not serve the overall premise of the song. The song always wins.
19. Room test your lyrics. Try reciting your lyrics to a listener across a room and watch how they have impact on that person. Once you get brave enough, try it with your most honest critic or a room full of people.
20. Be an adventurous listener. Get out there and listen to great songwriting, which is not the same thing as listening to what’s on the radio. Get into songwriting events in your area and listen to your peers, visit songwriting websites, and also check out the winning songs in song competitions that you can find online. Make a list of your favourite songwriters much like you would list your favourite entertainers.
21. Reading in = writing out. Read everything you can get your hands on and write anything that you find interesting into your journal. Reading poetry is not for everybody, but it can heighten your ability to think in metaphor and also broaden your sense of meter, rhyme and form. It is also a great place to learn the fine art of brevity.
22. Have a Jam-tastic Time – Turn your song into a mini jam session trying out different chords, melody lines as well as different lyrics to see if there might be a version that is even better than the one you originally settled on when you thought that the song was finished.
23. Remember “fun” – Remember when writing songs was about having fun, expressing ourselves and feeling how cool it was to be writing songs. Remember when writing songs was NOT about target demographics, getting songs into film and tv placements and writing with artists with an audience and influence. I am ambitious too, but the writing room is a great place to remember why we got into this and hopefully it was to have fun being great and not being desperate to be successful.