If you’re the kind of person who immediately feels that your life experiences could or should be expressed in song, you’re a natural songwriter. But just because that’s true, it doesn’t mean it’s easy. How do you turn your life experiences into music? And how do you do it in such a way that people would want to listen?
It’s a common scenario: throughout your day, things happen to you — things that could possibly make a good song:
- something interesting, amusing or otherwise captivating that someone says to you;
- a short random encounter with someone on a bus;
- something you’ve read online or in the paper;
- a random thought, feeling or opinion;
- something that’s happening in your life that constantly pervades your thoughts.
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But when you try to create a song, you find that the lyrics sound lame, or the melody isn’t happening, or you generally can’t come up with anything that would sound interesting to someone else. What can you do?
The biggest challenge is likely to be working out a lyric. If you can get that working for you, melodies and chords become that much easier. So if you find yourself thinking that that conversation you’ve just had with a stranger might make a good song, here’s a set of steps that can help:
- Write a short story that describes the circumstance. “I was sitting on the bus, minding my business, when this guy sat down next to me and started to tell me about…” It doesn’t need to be long –perhaps a few paragraphs. Maybe it needs to be several pages. You’ll know when you’re done.
- Let your story have a beginning, middle and end. Set the scene, then describe the encounter, and then finish the story with your own thoughts about why you’re even thinking about this.
- Create a category. At the top of a page, write a word or phrase that describes the general theme of the encounter. Perhaps you’ll write “The Environment”, “The Election”, “Losing a Loved One”, “Love”… anything that seems to sum up in a general way what your song will be about.
- Create a word list. Think of any and all words and phrases that might pertain to the encounter you’re trying to write about. These serve 2 purposes: 1) to focus your attention and clarify your song topic; and 2) to form the basic vocabulary for your lyric. The words won’t all be in your final lyric, but the list gives you a supply of words and phrases to choose from.
- Rewrite your list into 2 lists: 1) narrative, descriptive words, and 2) emotional reactions. The descriptive words (“Sat on the bus”, “told me his story”, “window”, “love”, “she left me”, and so on, all provide the kinds of words you’d use in a verse. “How can I go on?”, “help!” “need”, “cry”, “why”, etc., are the kinds of words that work well in a chorus.
At this point, you’ve got a good shot at writing a lyric that makes sense, that’s chronological, and that represents the story as you encountered it. More to the point, you’ve got a good shot at writing a lyric that will resonate with listeners.
Resonating with listeners is crucial. That typically means that you need to write a lyric that expresses some sort of overarching philosophy, opinion or feeling, something that the listener can translate into their own life.
That’s why writing a song about renovating a bookcase won’t generally build an audience, unless that bookcase represents something more: building a better life, putting your life back together, etc.
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