“How do you write a song?”

A Southern Belle asked me to write a little about the creative processes in writing a song.. so here goes.

Warning… there is no such thing as ‘a little’ in writing about songwriting!!

Firstly; there are no rules.  Definitely.  None.

Lyric writing borrows much from poetry using many of the same devices such as metaphor, simile, imagery and symbols to enhance the meaning of a song.  Repetition techniques are also used to create rhythm such as assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) alliteration (repetition of a first consonant), anapests and dactyls (types of stress on syllables) as well as couplets (rhymed lines that are together and may or may not stand alone) and internal and line-end rhymes.  Onomatopoeia (words that imitate sounds) and hyperbole (exaggeration) can be heard in many pop songs too.

it’s fair to say that the more techniques and devices a songwriter knows, what’s in his locker/bag of tricks/toolbox, the bigger the ‘palette’ to create the painting.  That’s not to say that a very simple song can’t work, they do.  Remember. there are no rules.

Everyone is an individual and has different tastes when it comes to art; songwriters are no different.  Through the medium of sound songwriters choose to express their inner-self and external observations about the human condition via a melody set to music; tune and tempo!

I’m usually asked, “What comes first, the music or the lyric?”

For me it’s a bit of both but mostly I write to a chord progression that either I have constructed or co-constructed with someone else or I am given a piece of music to write the melody and words.  This is known as the ‘topline’ meaning I compose the words and melody but in some cases it can be that virtually all the words are done and I’m just checking content and grammar or adding maybe a second verse or even a middle 8 (a bridge part of a song).  Writing in a team is a whole different kettle of fish.  Writing for a particular artist is political kettles and fishes and won’t be mentioned here.

If I’m writing the whole song then I may start with strumming a guitar and exploring chord shapes, inversions of chords (where the chords are played) and I start to build up a pattern of chords.  These chords will effect how I write the topline.  If there are many chords then I might juxtapose a simple lyric and melody over the top so that it doesn’t sound too busy.  Alternatively I would write a ‘busy’ lyric and melody to emphasize the meaning. (No rules!)  The opposite works too; simple chords but complicated topline.

I sometimes write to a beat in my head, a particular tempo or sometimes the words just appear first; a line here and whole chorus there.  The first person you write for should be yourself.  First and foremost I’m always seeking to entertain me.  If anyone else likes the song then that’s bonus and a reward; a sated ego.  A famous English radio DJ, John Peel, once said, “For every person who writes a song there is at least one person who will connect with that song.” so Peel would play everything and anything on his show.

As with a novel, the main idea  of the song is paramount.  With a book you have maybe fifteen pages to draw the reader in by introducing characters and plot.  With a song you get two lines!  Those first two lines set the whole tone of the song and they either pique someone’s interest or they mentally switch off.

Songwriters ‘listen’ continuously almost on autopilot.  I’m listening to myself (how do I feel about this? How does this effect me?) and I listen to the world around me via TV, radio, conversation, printed words.  Much like a computer, input equals output, so if I only watched soaps on TV then all of my songs would be about soaps.  I tend to read and discuss history, religion, current events, sociology and psychology so many of my songs are related to these issues.

Somewhere out there is a line, an idea, a concept that I want to portray.  Sometimes I can write a song and have no idea what it is about until a few years later.  Based on my own life experiences (or another’s) there is always a story to tell.  Using emotive language a writer is trying to connect to another person so that they say, “I understand this, I have felt this too”.

A writer writes what he knows.

This applies to the music too; to understand different musical genres, rhythms and form can help a writer to get the best out of a lyric and melody.  Knowledge of a craft enhances the writer so what you leave out can be as important as what you put in.  It’s in the discerning choices that can determine whether a piece of art ‘works’.

The task of marrying the tonal sounds of the words to the soundscape of the music, one influencing the other, is a way many writers prefer to work and to me this is the challenge.  To place angry words over a soft ballad is not (usually) going to work.  It can when it’s done for emphasis.  Again, no rules.

Okay enough of the technical stuff,  let’s have a look at a song.

My brother David wrote a lovely song full of imagery and beautifully composed called ‘Elizabeth’ and can be heard here..

http://youtu.be/4_GHWE72BOY

David asked a friend to record a piano part but when David got the song back the part had been re-interpreted to a slower and ‘softer’ sound.  Although the part couldn’t be used on the original song David loved the new interpretation but was stuck for a lyrical idea so he gave the music to me.  A short part of the slower version is here..

https://soundcloud.com/paul-psychemac/babysteps-exerpt-for-demo-david-mckendrick-composition

The tempo of ‘Elizabeth’ has a ‘going forward’ movement which inspired David to write his lyrics using his life experiences and a love of Bruce Springsteen and Aaron Copland!  As the original song was about a journey, I too thought that I would use a journey as my theme but I wanted to convey the stripping down of a journey into its component parts as if the process could only be managed in tiny sections.

I used the title ‘Babysteps’ as a concept because one takes furtive tiny baby steps to accomplish a difficult task.  It could also mean taking steps back to your ‘baby’….a traditional rock and roll name for a boyfriend/girlfriend.  I like a lyric that has originality and layers; an obvious overt meaning, further subtle underlying meanings and then an opposite meaning… (‘If the writer is saying this does he believe in the meaning or is he using the song as a vehicle to question the ideas thus making me question the concept too?’)

As this song has a beautiful chord progression I didn’t want the words or melody to get in the way so the verse lines are spaced apart.  Later in the song (once the listener has heard all the chord progressions) I filled out the words to give a sense of quickening within the journey… or a quickening of the thoughts about the journey.

Depending on how the song is sung, the vowel sounds at the end of the lines should sound the same in the verse couplets, some of these are called half-rhymes.  Overall the words are soft, meaning that there are no ‘hard’ sounding Ks etc.  I have used internal rhymes too such as in the second verse.  ‘down the avenue/main street’ and ‘join the queue/a ticket’.  The sounds of the words can be just important as the meaning but if you can make sense of those sounds then I would always consider that to be a successful lyric.

For me, a verse says ‘this is what I’m saying’ and a chorus says..‘and this is what I mean’.  The chorus uses an ‘opposites’ technique,  so ‘take me back’ and ‘way ahead’ contrast and contradict inferring opposing thoughts by the characters involved. The connecting ‘You’ and ‘I’ are used to reinforce the uncertainty between the people involved using an ‘opposite’ technique too. The question at the end of the chorus infers ambiguity.  (I have also broken a rule here.. I have rhymed ‘you’ with ’you’ which is generally a no-no but the rhyme is actually a half-rhyme ‘to you’ and ‘do you’!!)

The last line of the chorus, ‘Do you?’ is then used as a device to flow into the middle 8 section so the question ‘Do you?’ becomes ‘Do you… want me to make that journey..’ Using the word ‘journey’ also completes the concept of the song. I’m literally spelling it out.

The last verse changes the nature of the original idea by using body parts, the arms, heart and head, within the journey as well as reintroducing the bed mentioned in the first line into the very last line (which to some might be interpreted as a sexual reference) …. Using the bed at the start and finish of the song could mean the person is once more thinking about the journey and starting at the beginning again; a cyclic event showing possible apprehension about a way forward.

I tend not to use gender in my songs so that a male or female would be comfortable when interpreting the song.  I am always seeking to be original and I’m pleased that I haven’t heard a lyric using this concept before.

There are schools of thought that suggest it is not necessary to know the writer behind the song.  To some, what motivates a writer; his background, his ethics, beliefs and morals, have influence on the things he creates but to others a piece of art is a stand-alone statement to be judged, ignored or appreciated very much like a person.

In some cases the mystery of a piece can be diffused if analyzed too deeply.  In breaking this song down into the sum of its parts and highlighting some of the techniques used I may have taken away someone else’s interpretation of the song so I can see why songwriters prefer not to disclose too much!

So below is the full lyric.  It could change and develop as songs do, much like people.  There are no rules.

Baby Steps  ©2015  P & D McKendrick

From the bed

To the floor

And out along,

Out along the corridor

Step by step

Down the stairs

And from there

Into the hall

Baby steps, that will take me back to you ‘Cause I know, I know the way ahead…But do you?

From the door to the gate

Down The Avenue then up Main Street

Catch the train at Platform Eight

Join the queue and buy a ticket

Baby steps. that will take me back to you

Cos I know, I know the way ahead….But do you?…

… want me to make that journey?

The one that takes me to your door

Once, you seemed so certain

But I’m not sure, anymore..

From my head to your heart

From my bed into your arms

Baby steps that will take me back to you

Cos I know, I know the way ahead…..But do you?

And here it is!

Babysteps

4 thoughts on ““How do you write a song?”

  1. Well, Paul. When I suggested the idea of writing about the evolutionary aspects of a song, I had no idea what to expect. Good heavens! This is not a blog; this is a handbook for aspiring songwriters! I think it is absolutely brilliant. In fact, the manner in which you laid it out was in a way, like a chord progression.
    After a review of the technical rhyming devices, you described the approach which you, yourself, generally use when you write a song. That was fascinating to me and was what I had hoped you would do. Hopefully, it dispelled a common notion that anybody can jot down a hit song on a napkin while drunk in a bar! The last ” progression” really brought it all together by your inclusion of the two video clips of your very talented brother’s work and your beautiful lyrics of Baby Steps.
    As I read over your blog a few times, I began to think of my favorite song, as far as lyrics and melody go. Then, I applied your process to it and was thrilled to see how well the two fit.
    Kris Kristopherson was, as you know, certainly no novice to writing. After graduating from Oxford, he joined the Army, became an officer and was offered a position teaching Literature at West Point Academy when his tour was completed. He declined, determined to find his way in songwriting.
    His skills are now so apparent to me after reading your piece. “Sunday Morning, Coming Down”, to me, has it all. The use of alliteration with the letter S, the journey, as laid out in the verses, the soft tonal sounds which match the melody, the attention-grabbing first two lines, etc. etc. etc….
    …,at any rate, I find your piece both intriguing and informative, as well as a wake-up call for folks who think just about anybody can write a good song……. thank you, my friend:)). Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marty, it was a fabulous idea and I thank you for suggesting the topic. I’m only sorry I couldn’t be more concise! I read the lyrics to the Kristopherson song (he says he was able to leave his full time job because of the royalties!). It’s full of travel imagery, alliteration and some lovely end line rhymes. A good tale well told. Now if I was a millionaire from songwriting I might be taken seriously 😉 ha ha
      I’m so pleased you enjoyed the journey through a song; I wanted to explain the technical terms but of course most songwriters use them without thinking. I’ve worked with writers who don’t know the names of the devices they’re using and are surprised that these tried and tested techniques (hee hee – alliteration) have a name! If David likes the lyric then we might record it and I’ll stick on here! Thanks again x

      Like

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