There’s probably nothing like the excitement you feel when you get an entire song appearing, more or less fully-formed, in your brain all at once. Forget improvising, experimenting or jamming… you just wake up, and there it is!
There are songwriters who claim to have had songs appear fully-formed in their minds. Paul McCartney’s description of how he woke up with most of “Yesterday” coming to him so easily that he assumed he’d subconsciously stolen it from someone, is exciting to contemplate.
On track to make songwriting a full-time or part-time career choice? Read “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.” It expands on some of the ideas in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting,” with chapters like “How Do I Write Songs When I Don’t Feel Inspired”, “How Do I write Good Vocal Harmonies”, and others.
Because we only ever get to hear about the mega-hits that come into existence that way (no one brags about their bad songs that appeared all at once!), we might assume that the best songs are the ones that didn’t happen by improvising or jamming.
But the truth of the matter is that the fully-formed song is so rare that we’re probably OK calling it, for the most part, a myth. Even though a song might appear practically in its finished state, practically every good song needs some working and reworking to get it to its best.
Most Songwriting is Hard Work
If you find that every song you write is the product of days, weeks or even months of hard work, that sounds about right. It’s why songwriters use the word process to describe the event we call “songwriting.”
And the word process implies several things:
- Experimentation. Trying ideas out, and tossing the bad ones.
- Improvising. Getting together with others and seeing where the partial ideas you’ve already written might go.
Most of the time, you hope that the process is fun. Sometimes it isn’t, and that’s fine. Getting frustrated is not an indication that you’re doing something wrong. It’s simply the by-product of trying several ideas in a row that you judge to be inadequate for the song.
Frustration can turn into writer’s block, so you need to be aware of how you’re dealing with frustration.
Songwriting is not unlike playing a game of golf. Once in a very, very long while, you might be one of the lucky few to hit a hole-in-one. That dramatic event doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve suddenly turned into the best golfer in the world. It just means you got very lucky, once.
And after that day, you realize that you’re still the golfer you always were.
The fully-formed song is probably a little more likely than a hole-in-one, but the truth is that songs that appear in your mind that way are not necessarily any better than the ones you sweat over for weeks.
When all is said and done, most songs, even the very best (perhaps especially the very best) are the results of lots of good, hard work. Good songwriting is a journey – hopefully, for you, an enjoyable one.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process”, along with an all-important Study Guide!
Deciding what your next song could or should be about can stop your creative process in its tracks if you let it. You’ll be happy to know that great songs don’t need to be profound. True, some of the songs we acknowledge as being the greatest ones are about deep, philosophical/social issues:
- “Like a Rolling Stone” – Bob Dylan
- “People Get Ready” – Curtis Mayfield
- “A Change is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke
But other songs have been strongly influential and trendsetting, but based on topics that are comparatively lighthearted and anything but serious:
- “Tutti Frutti” – Dorothy La Bostrie, Richard Penniman, Joe Lubin
- “I Saw Her Standing There” – Lennon & McCartney
- “Be My Baby” – Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, Phil Spector
- “That’ll Be the Day” – Jerry Allison, Buddy Holly, Norman Petty
What makes a song work from a musical point of view is its feel — the mood and rhythmic attraction of the performance. Beyond that, it’s the lyric, and how it connects to the listener.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” covers every aspect of how to write great songs. Contains a Study Guide that keeps you focused on becoming a consistently better songwriter. Get today’s FREE DEAL when you make your purchase. Click below for details.
And so it’s important to know that your choice of words is far more important than your choice of topic when you hope to write a song that makes a connection to your fan base.
Having said that, it’s going to throw a wrench in the works if you just can’t come up with anything to write about. Even lighthearted “Be My Baby” kinds of songs are about something, and what do you do if nothing is coming to mind?
There are many ways to come up with song topics when you’re drawing a blank, so take a look at the following list of four methods and see what interests you:
- Using the “dig deeper” method. Try this: write down a word that represents a category or large, overall topic: like love for example. Then dig deeper and ask yourself, “What about love?” If it’s love, it’s about someone, so write down who the song might be about. Then dig deeper and ask yourself, “What about him/her.” Keep digging. As you dig further and ask yourself more questions, a story will start to emerge, and though you likely don’t have your lyric yet, you’ve got a topic.
- Read the papers. If you read the front pages, your going to find a lot of politics, but every online paper or journal has sections that are more likely to contain interesting people-based stories. Find stories that have the potential for emotional moments, or stories that are likely to be the kind that others might say, “Yeah, I’ve been there.”
- Find quotes. Grab a novel off the shelf, open it and find a random line that’s a quote from a character in that book. I have a book on my shelf called “A Month in the Country” (J.L. Carr). Opening randomly to several pages, I found these partial quotes that seemed to have possibilities. Any one of them will get your creative juices flowing:
- “Just off to praise my Maker…”
- “More than I can tell…”
- “Mustn’t mind my asking…”
- “Say what you’ve come to say”
- Write a short story that starts with one of the following phrases. Don’t think too hard, just start writing. You can do this one over and over, taking your improvised story in any number of directions:
- Though I didn’t know it at the time…
- I couldn’t tell at the time if I was feeling anger or regret. But now that I look back…
- I stood on the street corner, taking in something I didn’t expect to see…
Remember that the topic itself is rarely the part of a song that creates the emotional connection to the audience. It’s almost always the way you word things. Once you’ve got your topic, remember that casual, every day words, the kind you’d use in conversation, are the ones that will make a listener feel something.
And that’s the goal of every song, no matter what the topic is.
Have a great melody, but stuck at the “how to add chords to it” stage? “How To Harmonize a Melody” shows you, step-by-step and with sound samples, how it’s done, with suggestions for chord substitutions that might work as well. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.
Lately I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about musical momentum… that quality that keeps people listening to a song. Without it, songs would just be one nice sound following another nice sound, and though it may seem strange to say, that’s not enough to keep people listening.
There’s a sense of expectation that keeps people listening to a song. For example, when we hear a verse melody moving higher and higher, we instinctively want to hear where it ends up. That keeps us listening.
Are you ready to have LYRICS take a much more important role in your songwriting process. You need to read “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Right now, it’s FREE with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”
When we hear a chord progression start on a I-chord, then move away from that tonic chord, we expect to hear the progression eventually move back to the I-chord in the chorus. That’s another way good songwriters might keep us listening.
What about lyrics? How do songwriters use lyrics to create that important sense of expectation?
Often people will say that verses should pose questions that get answered in the chorus. But rarely does this happen in a literal sense. Songs would be pretty boring if every one of them used verse lyrics that ask questions, followed by chorus lyrics that answer them.
But good verse lyrics do several things that give us the same feeling as if questions were being posed. Here are some examples:
1. Emotional Ambiguity
A good verse lyric describes a situation without being overly clear what your emotional response (as the songwriter) might be. Verses are good at introducing characters, laying out the scene, etc., but shouldn’t get overly specific about emotions.
A good example is Adele’s “Someone Like You”, which uses the verse to set the scene, but as you can see, doesn’t get overly weepy:
I heard that you’re settled down
That you found a girl and you’re married now
I heard that your dreams came true
Guess she gave you things I didn’t give to you
The chorus is where she makes feelings clearer. It’s not so much that she really misses that relationship; it’s more that she doesn’t want to become a complete nothing to this previous love (“Don’t forget me, I beg…”)
2. Powerful Imagery
A good verse lyric uses imagery to describe people and circumstances, but by using metaphors and other poetic devices. By using metaphors, we find ourselves comparing one situation (the metaphorical one) to another (the real one), and that sets things up for an emotional outpouring in the chorus.
Eric Church’s “Record Year” (Eric Church, Jeff Hyde) is a good example of what I’m talking about. He uses the metaphor of a record representing is day-to-day life (“Keeping this turntable spinnin’“), and even though his emotions are clear in the verse, it’s all done in an understated way.
It’s not until the chorus that things heat up (“I’m either gonna get over you/ Or I’m gonna blow out my ears.”) We really get the metaphor, and it deepens our emotional response.
A good verse lyric gives us reasons why the chorus makes us feel the way it does. There’s nothing worse than a verse that starts by describing how you feel, while giving no backstory to base those emotions on.
In that way, the verse and chorus are important partners, each with its own set of responsibilities.
If you take a look at practically any lyric that works, you’ll notice that the best ones offer a very clear up-and-down of emotion through the length of the song, and that’s what keeps us riveted, and coming back.
“Chord Progression Formulas” show you how to create dozens of chord progressions in mere moments. With lots of sample progressions you can use right away. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages.
We all know that songs need to be unique. You can’t take someone’s melody or lyrics and call them your own.
Most songwriters know, though, that chord progressions aren’t generally protected by copyright. So that’s certainly one element of a song that you can take and use, guilt-free.
If you’re trying to develop a lyrics-first songwriting process, but aren’t having much luck, give this ebook a read: “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Right now, it’s FREE with your purchase of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.”
You can also use someone else’s title — usually. Even though titles are not typically protected by copyright, I’d recommend you steer away from calling your next song “Hey Jude”, “Rolling In the Deep”, or “Blowin’ In the Wind.”
Is there anything else that you can borrow or “steal” from someone else’s song that won’t get you in trouble? One of the most helpful parts of a song to take and use might be another song’s formal design.
By “formal design”, we’re simply talking about the structure of a song — the arrangement of verses and choruses and any other optional bits of someone else’s song.
How is borrowing a formal design helpful? In some cases, you may have snippets of musical ideas, but not be sure how to fit those ideas all together. Seeing how someone else solved that can be very helpful in your own process.
If you find borrowing another songwriter’s solutions a bit restricting, you can take parts of songs that are otherwise copyright protected, and manipulate them. Here are 3 quick ideas:
- Take a well-known melody and play it backwards.
- Take bits of lyric and change certain words to create something clever, humorous or thought-provoking. Weird Al does this when he “recreates” songs, and since copyright laws allow for parody renditions of songs, you can have a lot of fun with this without worrying about being on the wrong side of the law.
- Borrowing the feel of a song. Sometimes you get inspired by the general performance ideas that other singer-songwriters come up with. While being mindful that there is a limit to how much you can do this (remember “Blurred Lines?”), you can certainly take the tempo and basic backing rhythm feel and see where it takes you.
Generally speaking, though, the best way to keep the ideas flowing is to be listening a lot to music. The more you listen, the more your own sense of creativity and musical imagination extrapolates on those songs.
Sometimes all you need are lists of chords to get the songwriting process started. The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle includes “Essential Chord Progressions” and “More Essential Chord Progressions.” Use the suggested chords as is, or modify them to suit your own songwriting project.
Songwriting Instructional Videos
To view more videos, visit The Essential Secrets of Songwriting YouTube Channel, and subscribe!
5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics
How the Rhythm of a Melody Changes as a Song Progresses
Why Hooks are So Important to Pop Songs
I’m Gary Ewer. For years I’ve been helping songwriters understand the basic fundamentals of good songwriting. I do that mainly through the free articles on this blog, and also through my 10-eBook bundle. If you lack consistency in your songwriting, and you want to take your abilities to the next level, everything you need to know is in that bundle package, so please take a look at those ebooks. And if you want to browse through the more than 2300 posts in the blog archive, scroll to the bottom of this page.
Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.
Power Up Your Songwriting Skills!
Gary’s YouTube Videos
Gary's latest video: "5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics"