Work-Shopping Your Songs

Once you've written the song you're only at the starting line.

Ultimate Guitar

Words. Rhythm. Tone color. Instrumentation. Arrangement. Tempo. Time signature. Melody. Counter melody. Harmony... The list of "song ingredients" is almost infinite and can be a bit overwhelming. After years of experimentation here's what works for me.

Obviously, song writing is a deeply personal persuit. Different things work for different people. The secret is to experiment endlessly and to almost never be satisfied. This takes a good amount of self disipline and work ethic.

A title. Often times a title will inspire a story line, a hook, or a melody. Come up with a hook using a title you've seen on a book, movie, magazine, etc., or use a cliche'. For example: Guitar picks are "A Dime A Dozen." The cliche' is useful as a song title because it is immediately familiar to a potential listener.

From "A Dime A Dozen" invent a catchy hook or melody line. Usually simple melodies are more infectious than the complex. At this point, write lyrics which support the title. You now have a "chorus" from which to work. This is where the verses come in. Write verses which support the chorus but with a different yet complimentary melody. I refer to this method as writing a song from the inside out. Assuming we now have a "lump of clay" with which to work, we can start work -shopping the idea.

O.K. I'll bet the song is in common (4/4) time. Try the song in 3/4 with a waltz-like feel. Try it in several different styles such as reggae, country, blues, jazz (this will require you to "color" your chords a bit), classical, etc. Often times I find the song will seek it's own style, which is often different than the style in which it was written. Sing the song in differing styles. Sing with a false accent, or as a barbershop quartet. Sing it solo, or as a duet, sing it like Mick Jagger, David Lee Roth, or Englebert Humperdink, and always remember to sing it like "you"!

Once the song "settles" into a style you can begin to give it the appropriate instrumentation. I once wrote a song which, after a lengthly "work-shopping", was in the 1920's style. I added clarinets, trombones, saxes, and a banjo. The point is the 1980's elecric guitar "dive bomb" has no place in a song of this style. The lyrics were also true to the era as it addressed prohibition: side note (songs don't always have to be about a girl). This gave the song an authentic feel and caused many listeners to believe it was actually written in the 20's! Through extensive work-shopping I have written songs in almost every style. This also serves to keep your songs and the songwriting experience fresh and interesting. It helps to prevent my next point, "assembly line" song writing.

Once you've penned a few songs using this method, start breaking the rules! Push yourself. To continue to use only one method of songwriting makes for the mundane. Attempt to write a song where the words to the chorus differ every time. Write a song where the words don't rhyme. Write in a linear fashion from front to back, back to front, as well as inside out. As I mentioned earlier, utilize different subject matter. Do we really need to hear yet another song of forlorn love? Write a song which consists of only verses, or write an instrumental. The possibilities are endless.

The art of songwriting is just that, an art. Try to avoid the step-by-step method (although I realize this article is largely that! ) Push, pull, twist, shake, rattle, and roll all of your ideas to exhaustion. It will yield some interesting ideas and I guarantee you will suprise youself.

Remember, not every song you write will be "hit" material. Don't fall in love with your work and don't be afraid to scrap an idea that won't produce results. It's only a song, you can start another. Songwriting should be enjoyable, so keep it that way. I have only touched lightly upon this complex process but hopefully it will help to "prime your pump" (hey, there's a good song title). Good Luck!

23 comments sorted by best / new / date

    a dime for a dozen i pay a dollar for two and dan the pie do you half to put every one down look at the positine he can spell qwas
    It is Dubya's fault. Gas prices are the highest they've ever been, not because of Iraq and Afghanistan, but because Dubya and his father are Texas oil tycoons. The rich get richer and the poor keep getting f***ed over. High prices on oil are supposed to "help" the economy?!? What are you smoking? By all means, cut out the middle man... he's making all the money that you're not making. If you can find picks for a dime a dozen by all means, buy them until they're out of stock! Then you can turn around and sell picks a quarter for a dozen... instant profit... think about it! You'll be the new middle man and you did it all without sticking your nose into another countries' business! Not that guitar picks will make you wealthy, but the next person can buy them from you and sell them for $.50 per dozen and make even more money. That's double what you were making, but at least you made your money back and then some. It takes money to make money, so we can all keep paying $.25 per pick (Dunlop Tortex) or we can buy 'em in bulk, sell half of 'em for the same price we paid and then, we practically paid NOTHING for the picks we still have. Capitalize!
    nice job. man it would be nice if picks really were a dime a dozen, but they're really not that expensive anyways.....
    maybe he buys his guitar picks straight from the manufacturer... that would cut out the middle man. sounds pretty smart to me. but you cut out the middle man!!!! it's people like you who hurt this rapidly weakening American economy. its not Dubya's fault. ITS GUITAR PICK BUYERS LIKE YOU!!! anyways... 5 stars.
    SuperEgo35: i pay $.33 for a damn guitar pick, where are you shopping?
    it's a FIGURE OF SPEECH. plz tell me you knew that good article 4 stars man.
    I've never heard doing songs expressed that way. It was refreshing to read, thanks!!!
    this qwas a stupid article. howd they even accepth this? its blatently uninformative and homosexual.1 star
    great, 4 stars. a great example of this is Battle of Evermore by Led Zeppelin, sounds like a Middle age song
    not bad, but could be better. like how you only went into depth on one way of "work-shopping" but either way, it wasnt bad. it was very vague as well, but stil not bad at all, 4 stars keep up the good work
    Iron Maiden's pretty good at making the song sound authentic. "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", at parts, really does sound like an old-time pirate song.