It's useful to take a step back once in a while and ask yourself again: what even is a 'song'? As the OED would have you know, a song is a 'short poem or other set of words set to music or meant to be sung', or 'the musical phrases uttered by some birds, whales, and insects, typically forming a recognizable and repeated sequence and used chiefly for territorial defence or for attracting mates'. The latter definition may be sufficient for contestants on the Voice, but the next Voice of a Generation need only focus on the former (unless you're attempting something like this).
If you start me up, I'll never stop...The two most difficult stages of the song writing process are, without a doubt, getting started and getting finished. With infinite possibilities at either end, it's easy to become overwhelmed, dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of music. Being able to play an instrument helps, as you'll be able to translate your impulses into the right language more swiftly, and organise and refine your ideas outside your head. But inside your head, there are so many more things to bear in mind than a catchy tune.
An oft-debated topic is whether it's better to write the music or the lyrics first. It's going to be different for everyone, but both routes should be visited when you're trying to find your process, and revisited when you feel you've lost direction. After all, a change is as good as a rest.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band notorious for their jams, came up with one of their biggest hits to date, 'Under the Bridge', by changing up their song writing method. Anthony Kiedis started the song off by 'freestyling some poetry in my car and putting the words to a melody and sang all the way down the free way', and once guitarist John Frusciante 'came up with three or four different chord options', everything fell into place. The subject matter was very close to Kiedis's heart - his drug abuse that alienated him from his friends and bandmates, and his hitherto unspoken affinity with the city that was always there for him. Sometimes, your words will take on their own natural rhythm, which will charge them with further meaning and purpose, clarifying what the music needs to do to match it.
Alternatively, if you come up with a riff or chord pattern, you could try playing it over and over, and seeing what it brings to mind. John Fogerty, of Creedence Clearwater Revival, makes you feel the sweltering humidity of the bayou with his repetitive and 'swampy' guitar playing. The first song Fogerty learned was 'one E major chord repeated over and over', which set in motion the development of his relentless riff-laden style. When writing, he prefers to 'sit with a guitar... Noodling: doing riffs, doing chord changes, whatever' and chooses vocabulary that fits the mood he's creating. 'Running Through the Jungle' sounds like exactly that - a dark and dangerous journey across a dense, unchanging landscape.
So once you have a theme, a rhyme, a rhythm, or a riff, you just have to keep playing around with it and see where it takes you. How to come across such a thing is an entirely separate matter.
Dream on, dream on, dream until your dreams come true…Musicians, authors and artists alike have pondered for centuries precisely where our ideas come from. People go to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of inspiration. Salvador Dali, when trying to capture those bizarre images our minds conjure up between sleeping and waking, famously employed a method wherein he'd fall asleep in a chair, spoon in hand, and, once he'd nodded off, would allow the spoon to fall onto a plate he'd set on the floor. The noise of this would startle him awake, allowing him to remember and then paint his dreamscape.
Similarly, Keith Richards, the immortal guitarist of the Rolling Stones, 'wrote Satisfaction in [his] sleep', and was compelled to leap from his bed, record the riff and title phrase on his tape recorder before succumbing again to slumber. Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt claims that the distinctive bass line to 'Longview' occurred to him whilst 'flying on acid so hard... I was laying up against the wall with my bass lying on my lap … it just came to me.' To each his own. The subconscious keeps many secrets from us; you just need to find your own way of connecting with it. You may not like everything you'll find there, but much of it will astound you.
But, as fantastic as they may be, sudden flashes of inspiration are for the most part few and far between, and are by no means the most efficient song writing method. Unfortunately, the best thing you can do is develop a solid work ethic. Idle hands are the Devil's playthings - write as regularly as you can, especially during dry spells, and the process becomes easier and more rewarding. Like any muscle, it needs to be exercised, or it'll wane and wither. In Tchaikovsky's opinion, 'a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood'.
This rings true to this day - Ed Sheeran likens the writing process to 'like turning on a tap in an old house; first you'll get the mud and dirty water, but the more you get out, the quicker the good water starts flowing'. You can't expect to write a masterpiece every time you pick up a guitar, and the sooner you accept this, the quicker you'll become a strong song-writer. Jack White is a modern embodiment of this: famed for his Catholic work ethic, he is a serial collaborator, ruthlessly putting out album after album within very short time frames, and has even been known to write and record a song in less than 10 minutes. And this is all from a guy who never touches drugs or alcohol - just coffee, cigarillos and an indefatigable, almost punishing determination. You too will find that new ideas will occur to you if you simply persevere - and once you review how much you've gained, it will make any struggle worth it.
Song-writers often draw inspiration from films, books, paintings and other forms of stories. John Lennon was famously a fan of author, poet and mathematician Lewis Carroll, whose nonsense poems like 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' directly influenced the inscrutable lyrics of 'I Am the Walrus'. Other poetic forms, such as limericks, sonnets and acrostic poems can be heard echoing throughout the history of popular music. Let's compare another of Carroll's poems with another modern composition:
'Life is But a Dream'
A boat, beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear
As you can see, the motivation here was to conceal Alice's name within a poem that still functions in the usual fashion. This is a form of constrained writing – deliberately limiting yourself and being as creative as possible within a confined space. We can clearly see the influence of this in a song born of Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown's solo project: F.E.A.R., a song whose lyrical pattern is dictated by the titular acronym (For Each A Road... For Everyman A Religion). The first letter of every word in every line spells out the song's title. By selecting incredibly specific criteria, you’re exerting just the right amount of pressure onto yourself to force something untapped out from the corners of your mind.
Surrendering to forces beyond your control can be explored by other aleatoric or 'chance' methods, like the cut-up technique. This technique, made famous by author William S Burroughs, and later adopted by artists as diverse as David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Throbbing Gristle and Radiohead, is exactly what it sounds like: collecting and dissecting bodies of text, and re-ordering the fragments. This will allow you to create lines and even entire songs that may never have come to you out of chaos. Proponents of this technique often cut up their own existing work as well as the work of other artists - song lyrics, Shakespeare quotes, adverts, news articles - to create something entirely new. Even if you no longer want to use the first draft of your song, you can still recycle your old ideas in constructive ways.
One of the more frustrating aspects of the ephemeral, fleeting nature of inspiration is not being prepared to capture your idea before it escapes, like water in cupped hands. Keeping a journal is good practice. These days, most of us have the good fortune to own a phone with note taking capabilities, but all the time people are writing ideas on anything at hand: receipts, post-it notes, their hands, or, in J. K. Rowling's case, outlining a billion dollar franchise on a napkin.
God knows, I want to break free...One crucial element to always consider is the difference between convention and cliché. It is difficult to distinguish between the two - but it can be very rewarding to manipulate a cliché to your own ends, and reinvent the convention, making something new that still pays its dues to what's come before.
Professor Eric Taylor describes 'conventions' as simply having been 'derived from a study of what composers have actually composed … and how it has been performed', so these are by no stretch of the imagination 'rules', just tried and tested methods. Broadly speaking, a cliché is born when a convention is followed too literally, too unimaginatively and for too long. Conventions needn't be followed at all, but even if you don't want to use them as building blocks, they're still vital knowledge - at least you'll know what to subvert.
|Song structure||Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle 8, chorus|
|Rhyming your lyrics||Rhyming 'baby with 'maybe', 'crazy', etc.|
|Using metaphor||‘Flying away’ with your ‘wings’|
|Placing a bridge before you chorus||The 'Twist and Shout' bridge, which later devolved into the 'Kaiser Chiefs' build-up|
|Basing your song on a classic or genre-specific progression, i.e. 12 bar blues||Any combination of the chords I-V-vii-iv|
There are some things you seemingly can't avoid using, but you don't have to take the lowest-common-denominator route. If you've not had the viewing pleasure, this Axis of Awesome performance illustrates how ridiculously popular songs plagiarise one another:
While we're on the subject of overused chord progressions (the given example would equate to C-G-Am-F in the key of C major), let's look at two songs which deviate just far enough from this well-trodden path to be regarded as genuinely original compositions: 'The Importance of Being Idle' by Oasis, and 'Poison' by Alice Cooper.
Oasis's hit 2005 single uses a slight variant of this progression (vi-V-I-vii7, or Amin-F-C-E7, also found in Iggy Pop's the Passenger), but what makes it stick out is the hooky accidental in the verse melody. Noel Gallagher interrupts the final E chord of the pattern with a B7, creating a lovelily lilting lift to the dominant – especially on 'boy, you la-zy' – which gives us a jazzy demonstration of the song's key theme of not getting around to doing things right away. Careful placement of key words really hammers home your song's sentiment.
In 'Poison', a hard rock anthem in which the king of shlock horror characterises the love of a woman as a harmful, even fatal substance, and details the perils of an intoxicating attraction. To add to the sense of foreboding, the progression begins to modulate, changing key midway through the verse. Then the beat finally kicks in, leading us to the bridge, and the progression modulates each time, going from G to C to A, building momentous tension until we finally arrive back in our original key of D in time for the titular refrain. The poison is running through our veins.
Both songs play off the expectations the first few chords inspire in the listener – you think you know where they're going, then they throw a curveball which knocks you right off course – and that's precisely what separates these songs from the masses. They are both reimagining familiar chords and making them fit their purpose. Maybe Alice Cooper felt that this progression's growing ubiquity in the charts was contaminating music itself; maybe, in Noel Gallagher’s case, it's a meta reference – choosing the easy option chord-wise to reflect the idleness. But at least there's room for interpretation on both counts, so their use of this cliché is forgivable, leading us on to our next topic.
Well... What's the story?The songs that stick in our minds are the ones we can easily associate with emotions and concepts; they sound like what they say, and say what they sound like. We’re going to look at a song that serves as an uplifting anthem for freedom, identity, and the passing of a cultural torch.
Like all the best musicians, the Ramones had a wide variety of influences, from the Stooges to the Supremes, and the song 'Sheena is a Punk Rocker' from their third album 'Rocket to Russia' draws deeply from these musical wells.
We can immediately hear that this song is in C major – warm, positive and familiar. The first C reveals the presence of surf music, with the flattened first note of the guitar riff at the beginning of each measure. Furthermore, the verse lyrics – 'well the kids are all hopped up and ready to go (they’re ready to go now)' – are reminiscent of the Beach Boys and '50s-'60s rock 'n' roll, as is the bluesy melody and call-and-response harmonies. These kids have got their surfboards, and going to 'the Discotheque a Go-Go', a reference the famous Whiskey a Go-Go in West Hollywood, LA, and, by extension, California: Beach Boy country.
We then cross a short bridge, upon which we hear the leading chord drop to its relative A minor, and we learn that Sheena isn't enjoying the warm California sun half as much as her peers. 'But she just couldn't stay, she had to get away' - she doesn't feel as though she belongs there. It's like a lament, it's sad music for a sad topic, even accompanied by soothing choral 'oohs'. But there's hope on the other side, as we return to C major - 'New York City really has it all' - CBGB's' burgeoning punk rock scene, frequented by the Ramones themselves. Then, as we finally approach the chorus, we rest on a G, setting up a perfect cadence: 'Oh yeah, oh yeah..."
Then comes the glorious, uproarious chorus, with the strongest chords of all (I IV V) played in an ascending order. This is the realisation that she belongs, that she has become a punk rocker (now), and it's the best thing ever. It signifies the triumph of the punk rock phenomenon - the sentimentality of the Beach Boy's 60's summers cannot satisfy the next generation's desire for raw power. Thanks a lot, Iggy Pop!
This song references the past, then ushers in the future. The chords themselves may not be revolutionary - in fact, this song uses the same chords as our Oasis and Alice Cooper songs - but they're an essential part that makes up the overall effect, which did change the world. The clichés were seized by a new vanguard who revitalised them with their own message. Three chords and the Truth.
Songs can appear to have so much in common upon your first listen, or even after you've analysed them on a molecular level, but they still convey different emotions. They achieve this effectively because the song writer sticks to a strong theme, which is reflected in both the music and lyrics. You need to really understand what you're aiming to achieve with this song. Picture it as a world, populated by chords, riffs, melodies and lyrics, all working in perfect harmony. There are things that are good for this world, and things that don't belong. Again, identifying each thing is what's really important - you can always decide to include something that doesn't belong, you just need to understand why and what effect it will have.
Disturb the sound of silenceDynamics and instrumentation are essential weapons in your song writing arsenal. Stating something quietly can speak as many volumes as shouting it from the rooftops. Experimentation with the classic loud-quiet-loud format is the foundation of such bands as the Pixies. 'Gigantic' begins with an isolated bass riff, with background feedback slowly layering on top of it, until all the instruments strike up in unison, making the chorus suitably enormous. On other songs of theirs such as 'Gouge Away' and 'Where is My Mind?' they invert the 'quiet verse, loud chorus' formula, and achieve wholly different effects. 'Gouge Away' has a menacing, insidious refrain, its cryptic bible-referencing verses giving way to persistent, whispered erosion. 'Where is My Mind?' is, by contrast, contemplative, even meditative, as it ponders an unanswerable yet universally relatable question over each gentle chorus. Kurt Cobain admitted that with 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' he was 'trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies.' And if we examine the plodding bass line and sparse guitar work in the verse, we can hear the same space being created - which paves the way for one the hugest choruses possible.
If you're using a typical band setup, try a section with no guitar, no bass or no drums, so when the instruments come back in together, it's all the more effective. You can get creative with the arrangements of just 3 or 4 instruments - who plays what where. Imagine these arrangements as different levels of intensity, so be sure you know what your 1 is and what your 10 is. If you're at 10 for the whole song, there's nowhere to go (except of course 11).
And now the end is near...We have the skeleton, we have the flesh, we have the soul - now all we need to bring your creation to life is character and nuance. These accoutrements may not seem nearly as important as the lyrics or the melodies, but ultimately it'll be the unique touches that get their 'hooks' into your listeners. They may occur to you during the initial conception phase, but in most cases you'll find that once you've played your song through several times, you'll notice finer and finer details that can be strengthened or tightened.
Something you might find enjoyable to work into your song is 'word painting'. Think carefully about what you're singing, and see if you can reflect it in your melody or delivery. This technique can be heard the Oasis song we mentioned earlier - the 'lazy' lift - and in several others, such as the Brian Jonestown Massacre's 'Anemone'. The line 'you should be picking me up' ends with an upwards inflection, and 'instead you're dragging me down' follows suit. Robert Smith sounds genuinely nervous as he sings 'I sha-ha-ha-ha-hake' in the Cure's 'Close to Me', and the way a bottle of beer 'bubble-eh-he-he-he-he-ing' is expressed in Weezer's 'Say it Ain't So' is virtually onomatopoeic.
On the flip side, instrumentation and melody can be used to solidify your song's intentions. A cello judders away at the core of the chorus of 'Good Vibrations' while a Theremin shimmers in and out of focus overhead. Besides the rain effects at the beginning, 'Riders on the Storm' features an iconic descending run down the scale that strongly evokes precipitation. These are classic examples of a song going above and beyond to immerse you in a world of its own making. The more connections we can make between the lyrics, the melodies, the instrumentation and all the other perceptible aspects of a song, the more satisfying it is to revisit and discuss.
Ultimately, to become the best songwriter you can possibly be, you need a broad range of influences, an insight into which building blocks are most constructive, and a conscientious, unfaltering approach to your craft. Keep listening to a variety of music, keep reading about music and musicians, keep reading poetry and literature, and keep watching quality television and cinema. Fitter, happier, more productive. Stephen King once wrote: 'if you don't have time to read, you don't have the time to write', so he must read a LOT. This applies to music too - if you don't keep listening to new things, you won't know what has been and what is being done; you'll end up repeating yourself; you won't progress and grow as a writer.
Identify and then take note of what specifically it is about a song that appeals to you. You could take a leaf out of Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo's book, or rather his 'three-ring binder he calls "The Encyclopedia of Pop,"' filled with his in-depth analyses of Nirvana, Oasis and Green Day songs (these bands will keep cropping up, so even if they're not really your cup of tea, you'll learn a lot by reading about them). Once you've taken every song to pieces, you're free to put them back together any which way you want.
And finally, carry on carrying on. You've made a huge commitment, and received a wondrous gift. Don't be disheartened if your song's not perfect by the end of your first draft, or even if your first song never achieves perfection. Leonard Cohen phrased it beautifully - 'the cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines. Amen to that. And remember, discarding unworthy material is much more productive than not writing at all - at the very least, it'll give you more to practice your cut-up technique with.
Article written by Joe Hotten for Bands for Hire
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Rolling Stone Magazine, 27th January 1994
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