Sunday, February 5, 2012

songwriting lessons i have learned

I have previously mentioned that I do a little songwriting on the side. I'm not particularly prolific. If you look at completed songs, I have three -- and two of them involve co-authors.

There was a time that I wrote prolifically. Back in high school I wrote dozens (maybe hundreds) of songs. But, to be charitable, they weren't very good. I think my more recent efforts are better. There are a lot of reasons for the improvement. But I'm going to focus on three lessons I've learned. Let me note that I am focusing here on the lyrics rather than the melody. There are two reasons for that:
  1. I think of myself more as a lyricist than composer; and
  2. I know very little formal music theory, and so can't express concepts of melody or chord progression in written form. At least not well.
I try not to be too rigid. In many of my early attempts at songwriting, I thought that verses had to match each other syllable for syllable. If the first verse had ten syllables in the first line, then each verse had to have ten syllables in the first line. So I spent a lot of time counting syllables, and trying to add or delete in order to make the count right. This led to many awkward turns of phrase, and many words that were pronounced with the emphasis on the wrong syllable. I have since learned to rely on feel rather than syllable counts. If it sounds right, then it doesn't matter if two syllables are squeezed together or one is drawn out a little longer. Consider, for example, the Lennon/McCartney classic, "I Saw Her Standing There":

The first line of the first verse has seven syllables: "Well she was just seventeen." The first line of the second verse has five: "Well she looked at me." But it works because "she was just" in the first verse is pressed into the same musical space as "she" in the second.

When rhyming, it's more important that the sounds please the ear than that the rhyme is perfect. Take, for example, the first two lines of Billy Joel's "You May Be Right":

That's right. He rhymed "party" with "sorry." But it worked.

Finally, I have learned not to try to spell out every detail. This one I only learned recently, and it was a real epiphany that allowed me to finally make progress on a song I was working on called "Do You Think of Me (Now and Again)?" It's a song about remembering a former significant other. I had been having trouble for the longest time, trying to figure out the details of the past relationship and how to put it in words. Then it hit me: I don't have to. I can be vague, provide enough information to provide context, and let the listener imagine the details. A good example is the Elvis Presley song "Teddy Bear" (written by Kal Mann and Bernie Lowe):

It's a great song. It gets the idea across. But there's not really much detail.

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