Write a Song
I’m sitting down trying to write a song, but the thing is: What do I write? How do I write a song? I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned about songwriting over the years. The focus is mainly on writing the lyrics in this post. I’ve structured it into the following sub-headings –
- Get a Writing Habit
- What do I Write About?
- Song Structure
- Fill in the Boxes
- The Bridge
- Serve the Chorus
- Going Further
So here goes….
Get a Writing Habit
I’m sitting here first thing in the morning at my desk, starting to write – er – something. I find the best way to write songs, or anything at all, is by having a regular writing habit – sitting down at a regular time every day and write for an hour. It can be anytime of day or night. The thing is, a regular routine will get you in a creative run, developing idea after idea. Just choose a time of day that works best for you, and stick to it. For me this is at 9 o’clock every morning.
I’ll sit and write with pen and notebook first off – I really like the physical contact with the page and it helps the thinking process. Later, I’ll transcribe to my computer and edit it there, but first it’s always with good old fashioned pen and paper. I recommend getting a good notebook – you can doodle and draw things, as well as write in it too. It’s fun! And don’t obliterate mistakes; just a single line through it will do. Then you might find that what you crossed out was actually the right thing, and better than what you changed it to; or not. It lets you see the workings. And remember – no-one else has to see it.
What do I write about?
So what do you do if you can’t think of anything to write a song about? Well one thing to do is just start writing anything that comes into your head – what you’re thinking at that moment “Can’t think of what to write” thoughts, Just start writing – don’t let your inner critic in – just write anything and keep going. Don’t stop. Let your thoughts ramble on and get them down. Sooner or later you’ll find a seed of a useful idea will spring up after a while. Sometimes an idea comes along in the flow and just takes off naturally. Other times it can be just a germ of an idea, which you find promising. Then you can develop it and brainstorm ideas surrounding it. But there are other sources of ideas.
You could find inspiration in a newspaper, a film, maybe something a friend said last night, or something you overheard on the bus or in the supermarket, or the pub. Maybe an idea in a novel or short story you read recently. A Facebook post, a comedy sketch or a stand-up routine point. There are endless supplies of ideas. There is something to write a song about practically everywhere. It’s not all love love love.
Another different way is to pick up a poetry book – some poet you like – and read a poem or two – or more if necessary. You’ll soon come across an image or idea that sparks your imagination – then you can run with that. You don’t have to copy someone else’s work – you’re just using it as a springboard to your own part of the pool of creativity. If you don’t have any poetry books, I heartily recommend you get some – go into your local library and try a few – look for something that inspires you. Believe me, there’s lots of it out there. The world of poetry is rich and varied. Dig deep!
Once you have an image or idea to write a song about – go and list lots of different ideas connected with it or ones that flow from it. Think deep. Just list things, don’t judge them yet. The more ideas the better. Just keep going until you’ve exhausted your imagination on this. I think a list of at least 10 or 12 (more if possible) is good. They won’t all be usable, but quantity is a good thing here. Then you can go through them and assess what’s usable – judge where you can go with the song (or poem). A flow for the song should make itself apparent to you after a while.
One useful way of structuring your idea is to think in boxes. Here’s the Box Method. Write down “Verse 1” and draw a rectangle next to it. Then underneath write Chorus and draw a rectangle next to that, then verse 2 and so on. See the image below.
You can use the structure above, if you like, but there are many ways to structure a song. A 3rd verse could come after the bridge – and a 4th if you want to! You could have as many choruses as you like, too. Though my own preference is that I don’t like to be bludgeoned to death by over-repeated choruses. In pop music there is too much of that for my liking, but everyone has their own taste; it’s just not for me. Another thing is you don’t even have to use a bridge, or middle 8. Some songs don’t require them, others work better with one. Sometimes an instrumental passage will do instead. I won’t go into massive detail here, but there are countless ways to structure a song.
Fill in the boxes
Next you could write details in the boxes like –
- Subject (who or what the verse is about)
- Point of view – Who’s head are you in?
- Past, present or future. – Whether the verse is speaking from the past, present or future. You can have verse 1 based in the present, verse 2 looking back in the past, and verse 3 looking forward to the future for example. Or any combination of these
- Time – You could divide the narrative of your song into different times. Say, at times of day, or weeks or years. They could all be in the past, or present, or future, or mixed.
- Place, Scene or Setting – Your verses could be divided by the place, scene or setting.
- Main Action – More importantly, you should briefly say what the main action is in each verse. It’s action that drives an idea or story along. And songwriting can be a good form of storytelling.
Please note that all this comes before actually getting down to writing the lines of the song.
When I write the lines I try to avoid obvious clichés – they sound like everyone else’s words if you let clichés in, they’re poison. If a clichéd phrase gets into your system, try to think of a different way to put it. Try to think of your own metaphors. You’ll need to explore and visualise what you’re trying to say. The image in the clichéd phrase might be appropriate, but the way you say it matters. We’ve all heard them before in lots of other songs, but its good to try and make yours stand out. Clichés sound like you’re not really trying or working hard enough. And writing a song is hard work sometimes. At other times, a song might come easily. Most times there is real work involved. Get into the craft, and don’t just settle for the first thing that strikes you.
When you write your lines, you need to be aware of the rhythm of them. You might have a melody in your head as you write, but if not, just be aware of the rhythms. Be consistent, otherwise you could end up with some unwieldy lines that are hard to sing. You don’t have to have every syllable on a particular beat, that could get tiresome, but the line has to flow into the rhythm of the music. Just bear the rhythm in mind at all times.
The bridge, sometimes called a middle 8, can be a useful device to break up the monotony of a song. It could take the story somewhere else. The bridge could and should reveal something that we didn’t know about in the verses and choruses. It could be a twist in the story or a hidden motive, or fact, that adds weight and something unexpected to the story. You might take us in a new direction, and even change the whole meaning and focus of the song. However, it’s important to keep the unity of the whole song in tact. Don’t let it become chaotic! But overall, the choice is yours.
Serve the Chorus
Lastly, I think it’s important to try to get each verse, as well as the bridge, to add weight and power to the chorus. Try to give the chorus new relevance after each verse. Each verse should bring something new to the meaning of the chorus, thereby building interest. Now, I’m not saying that I always do all this and succeed in these points every time I write a song myself. But it’s all stuff that should be borne in mind, whenever and wherever possible. It really helps in the craft of writing a stronger and more interesting song.
If you really want to develop your chops and improve your songwriting, there is a book I can heartily recommend. It’s called ‘Writing Better Lyrics – The Essential Guide to Writing Powerful Lyrics’ by Pat Pattison – (Published by Writer’s Digest Books)
Now it’s time to write a song! See you later……