How to write songs
With all the “how to write songs” tutorials out there, I figured it might be time to share what little I know on the subject, too. So here’s me, weighing in on something I may or may not know anything about.
As I said in a previous post, this world is filled with people of marginal accomplishment who hang out their shingles as experts and then commence to shoveling with both hands. Years ago, when I used to go to music conferences, and I was obliged, by the simple fact that my then-employer was paying my freight, to show up at the day events too, and not just sleep all day and then go hang out in bars and nightclubs after sundown, I sat through an awful lot of music-related panel discussions and mentoring sessions. And I noticed a number of people who showed up with binders, taking copious notes and asking questions, directed toward one industry expert or another, with the consistent tenor of those inquiries going something like: “How exactly do I plot my career path from nobody to major star, or touring musician, or successful songwriter?”
One of the biggest problems we face, as either fans of music or people who make money from it, is this: There are far too many people who approach creating art using an approach where instructions are followed to exactitude, and often the business around art is set up to encourage those careerist creatives — often at the expense of artists who use more intuitive and less cynical methods of making art. Some arbiters are pretty good at weeding out such careerists: In the visual arts, galleries generally don’t allow people to exhibit paint-by-numbers works, save for those pieces that blossom from a wellspring of hipster irony. But in the music and film and publishing worlds, the pipelines are loaded with by-the-numbers swill fabricated by people who perhaps should be doing something else — like gardening, or accounting, instead of trying to get famous.
And songwriting is no exception.
So, well, I am one of those people who’s come to the conclusion that, while a certain amount of form and applied knowledge is needed to write good tunes, the best stuff, or at least my best, tends to well up from the unconscious, and hence I only need to set the appropriate causes and conditions in place so that the music can arise. Managing that process is the function of the will — sort of like piloting the faerie spaceship through the dreamworld until the destination arrives, making sure that the process comes to some kind of satisfactory completion. But most of what transpires will be governed by navigating through what pops up in your field of vision.
I write on guitar, so that’s where I start. Usually I’ll just begin messing around with chord progressions, or playing sequences of chords to hear how they sound together. Typically I’ll kind of hum along, especially after I find a chord structure that sounds promising, trying different things. There’s usually a melodic path that snakes through the chord changes, and my job is to find it.
But it’s important that I not turn into a dog grabbing hold of a rag or chew toy — if it’s not developing into anything worth pursuing, it’s important that you can let go and try something else. Don’t become emotionally attached to what you’re creating to the point that you’re unable to try alternatives. It isn’t set in stone yet (and really won’t be, ever, because a singer or arranger could take your song and make it into something you never even imagined, e.g. the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”).
And also, I try not to get locked into ritual. That works for some people, but for me, it becomes another arbitrary constraint that keeps me from settling into a creative groove. But if burning a candle or reading a little Yeats or drinking a cup of coffee before settling in to create will help you, by all means go for it.
Usually, I find a verse structure, and a chorus structure, and sometimes the song will call for a bridge. Or perhaps the song will unfold asymmetrically, like something Roy Orbison might have sung. Agreeing on something that may carry forward to final product is appropriate here, but again, we’re still dealing with wet clay and not hardening cement. Sometimes, the song will seem “wrong,” and switching time signatures will make it right, like converting from four-on-the-floor to waltz time. And often it’s good to play around with tempo, along with feel. At this point, maybe some words or phrases are suggesting themselves, but meaningless syllables will suffice.
Okay, now for words (and this is just my method; many writers start with words and then find melodies to fit). It’s kind of strange that I’ve worked professionally as a writer and editor, but I have such a hard time putting words to my songs. Typically where I get hung up is that I get locked into rigid rhyming patterns, so maybe that’s where I can focus my efforts; breaking that particular set of shackles might be a good idea at this point. And maybe being open to anything — haikus, even — can help bust up any creative hammerlock. Working with a lyricist is another idea.
Your song most likely will suggest a mood to you, or maybe there’s something you want to write about. Again, don’t force it; sometimes the best words just come out of nowhere. It’s kind of like reclining on a grassy hill at midnight, plucking stars out of the sky. Sometimes, focused and sustained attention does the trick, trying different lines to see what fits. In fact, that’s the secret to songwriting: Focused and sustained attention to putting together whatever strands of gossamer you can pluck out of the ether; sometimes those strands have a mind of their own on how they will fit together, and your job is to tuck in the corners, or leave them frayed and askew; other times, you’re a bit more hands-on in figuring out where everything should go or belong.
The only other advice I can give you is to relax and let your internal committee of hooligans work their magic, and turn off that inner editor slash schoolmarm slash traffic cop so you can create. “This sucks, what the use, why bother” isn’t really conducive to coming up with good songs. Which may be contradictory to my advice above about not hanging on to ideas that aren’t coming to fruition. Don’t be afraid to walk away and come back when those ideas come back to you. Some of them will, and then you get to persevere and turn them into finished songs. And you can keep track with those ideas with a sketchbook device, like a digital recorder, a tape recorder, or even your computer’s built-in microphone coupled with a program like GarageBand or Audacity. Even cell phones can record audio files.
So that’s the best I can do at explaining what’s really an intangible process. I’ve come to understand that most ideas are floating around in the universe or playing on some cosmic radio station, and our job is to artfully wield our butterfly nets, or else tinker with the knob on our inner radio receiver until the signal comes in more strongly.
If you’re at all curious at how this process can manifest, come to Luna’s Café, at 1414 16th Street on the downtown-midtown grid in Sacramento, this Saturday night, February 20th, commencing at 8:30 or so. Local songwriters Nate Beier, then me, then Rich Driver, then Dana Gumbiner and, finally, Ryan Offield, will be playing songs we’ve written this month for the February Album Writing Month challenge. Six bucks, and you’ll be supporting a good cause, the Sacramento Food Bank.
And now I’d better focus on something I know less about than songwriting, which is finding a job. Anyone got any pointers or, better, leads?
Wish me luck. —Jackson Griffith