Tips on Songwriting
Step #1 – THE THEME
Try and say something in a new or original way. Instead of saying “I want you back”, Toni Braxton said, “Unbreak My Heart”. Instead of saying “I love you”, Ne-Yo’s song “When You’re Mad” explains how he loves her even when she’s mad.
This is a very simple difference but it can be the difference between a tired subject or a fresh angle on a common theme.
Theme’s that usually work best are those that engage the emotion of the listener, the reason “love and relationships” is so popular in music is because most people think about those subjects a lot, and understandably like to listen to music that communicates their inner fears/hope/experiences on those subjects.
Step #2 – THE TITLE
A good title should be instantly memorable, it should put a picture in your mind of an event or situation and it should lend itself to a catchy melody, or one that’s suitable for your music style.
A good title will naturally lend itself to a catchy hook, finding that title can be hard, especially when so many songs have been released over the decades … how can you find a new one?!
One way is to keep your “antenna up”. Be aware of what people are saying around you and if you are writing for a teen market, take a look at teen magazines, if it’s urban you want then check out urban mags. Words and phrases are everywhere … you just need to pick up on them when they come!
Finding a title that paints a picture all on it’s own is also very important because it will create a deeper connection with the listener. The best songs create images in the listeners mind or evoke an emotion, your title will help achieve this.
Elton John’s “Sorry seems to be the hardest word” instantly evokes an emotion that can be identified by all of us … a time where we have experienced how hard it can be to say sorry even though we know we should!
Step #3 – THE LYRICS
A good lyric paints a picture, it says things in a new and unique way whilst dealing with topics that most of us can relate to.
Country music often has fantastic lyric writing. One clever technique is to create a story that suddenly flips and means something completely different the moment you hit the chorus. This is just one technique for engaging the listener, or keeping them on their toes.
Another is to word things in a new way, like the song we mentioned earlier “Un-break My Heart”. Keep the chorus lyrics the same so as it remains easy to remember. You could also keep the pre chorus, or bridges the same too.
Avoid too many words such as “Love, Baby, Girl etc”. If used too often they can sound shallow and cheesy. Keep your rhyme patterns equal and intuitive. Too many rhyming words can be off putting. For example:
“Looking at you, I see the truth, baby it’s true, there’s only you”
This sentence is smothered in rhymes and sounds clumsy.
The following would work better:
“Looking at you, the truth I see, there’s no one else, you’re all I need”
If using this rhyme pattern with the second and fourth lines rhyming, you should keep the same pattern in verse 2 so that your song lyric has a continuity throughout.
Another popular rhyme pattern is to match the 2nd and 4th lines, along with the 1st and 3rd lines:
“Read my mind, and you will know, the love inside, will never go”
A good place to start your lyric writing is to scribble down lots of words and phrases that are relevant to your song theme. Use this as a kind of pallet from which you can draw ideas from at a later date.
For example, if my theme was about feeling like a star, I might start by writing everything that comes to mind about being famous or rich …
celebrity, fame, money, limousine, jewelry, car on cruise, back at the pool, diamond, gucci etc etc.
Anything at all to get brainstorming. These can then be mixed up and called upon when you are forming your lyrics, just like you would use colours when painting a picture.
A good tool to use is a rhyming dictionary. There are many good ones on line and can be found via search engines.
Step #4 – THE VOCAL MELODY
The vocal melody is extremely important as this is usually what the listener will remember and hum whilst in the shower!
The idea is to create depth and interest whilst keeping the melody simple enough that most people can sing along to it.
The hook must be ‘catchy’ or ‘memorable’. Take Elton Johns song “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word”. Now if you know this song you will understand that just to read those words is enough to ‘hear’ Elton’s vocal melody in your mind.
The vocal melody is simple and catchy enough to be memorable without needing to hear any music … now that’s catchy!
Always add colour: By this I mean create more than what is already there. If there is a D Major chord being played, try singing a note other than those in a D Major chord.
If the music has long chords, sing with a faster rhythm. If the chords are played low, try singing an octave higher to add more colour.
This technique of adding colour can be applied with the melody itself. For example, if the verse has long vocal notes, try switching it in the bridge to short rhythmic notes and change again for the chorus. Apply the principle of adding colour to your music and vocals to create a richer and more interesting melody.
Always ask yourself honestly, “do I lose interest at a certain point in this song?”. If you do, rework the melody to give the listener something to keep their interest.
Step #5 – THE ARRANGEMENT
A lot of otherwise good songs are ruined by poor arrangement. In fact it can be the one area that is neglected and considered not important.
A good arrangement is very important and is more complex that one may first think.
You may want to have a standard three and a half minute song, and you’d be wise in doing so seeing as most hit songs run at this length ( Maybe it’s the optimum length for a human brain to absorb information without getting bored?!)
let’s assume your going for a three and a half minute song, that doesn’t give you much time to squeeze everything in, and in what order should you place things? What good ideas should you leave out? These are tough questions and ultimately come under one heading “The Arrangement”.
The average song will have the following arrangement (although this is only a guide):
Up tempo Song
*Don’t make the intro too long, stick to 8 or 16 bars.
*Listen back to your song from the beginning and ask yourself if it flows naturally, or if there are sections that lose energy/interest.
*Get to the hook/chorus quickly to ‘grab’ the listener.
Step #6 – THE PRODUCTION
In some R&B and Pop songs the production has in some cases taken over in importance to the vocal melody. This is not surprising if you have been in a night club and experienced certain songs and the power of the production.
Times have changed, especially in R&B and Hip Hop. It is no good to send a demo to a label saying, “please imagine this with proper production”, because the production is 50% of the song.
That is almost like saying “here’s a great piece of music, please imagine it with a good chorus”!
The production is more than putting the right effects on the instruments and balancing them out, it is the overall mood of the track and determines how professional it ends up sounding.
Odd sounds that seem irrelevant to many people like for example, a vocal breath, can transform a song if used in the right context. A song that would go unnoticed can suddenly inspire interest if the right sound is used correctly … A named ‘super producer’ commented that non tonal sounds, like hitting a table or ashtray can add a great deal of interest and energy to a song.
Most people will hear a song and make a judgment as to whether they like it within seconds based on the overall sound. They may get to love the song but unless the production is inviting they may never listen to it twice.
The biggest mistake people make is to present a song with a list of excuses. The plain truth is that a song is a combination of sounds and the listener will hear them all as one and no excuse will change their first experience of the song or how they emotionally respond. Get the production right!