I went back and rewrote a good bit of this post about songwriting–it definitely needed it! I thought it made sense a few years ago, but I’ve tightened up the writing and made it much more readable. Click to read about how I write “problem songs” and what their purpose is!
For today’s revamped creativity post, I went back and thoroughly reworked this 2011 music post about songwriting. It makes about 400% more sense with much less rambling! YAY!!
Boring songs do not get listeners. And yet, what do I find myself writing when I have such an awesome idea for these lyrics and it’s gonna be totally amazing? Thaaaaat’s right–a boring song.
Or what about when I find a melody that’s just crazily beautiful and I gotta find words to go with it right now or I’m gonna burst? Yup–I end up writing a boring song.
What prevents such awesome lyrics or beautiful melodies from being interesting? Well, I find that when you focus too hard on the lyrics and message of a song, the melody and chords–what really carries the message to your audience’s minds–go by the wayside. Ultimately, you end up with a really weighty song, like a cake that’s dense and chewy instead of light and fluffy (and yummy).
Conversely, when you work really hard at the melody and chords of a song and forget about the lyrics and message, the words of the song seem not to match up to the beauty of the music. It’s like trying to match a lovely, subtle striped pattern with a garish, huge polka-dot pattern; the delicacy of the former is overshadowed by the brightness and boldness of the latter.
Can You Quantify “Boring Music” or “Boring Lyrics?”
Well, I’m not sure, but I’m going to try. Here’s some examples of how a songwriter can bore audiences to death, at least in my opinion:
When your melody/chords sound like they repeat themselves ad nauseum, or the lyrics just don’t sound natural, your audience is going to be turned off (trust me, been there, done that :C ). You can just tell when their minds start to drift away and stop relating to what you’re singing about. Any time your music and lyrics are not in balance, any time they tug against each other for attention rather than supporting each other, your song becomes a drag to listen to.
Well, What Makes “Interesting Lyrics” and “Interesting Music?”
I believe the following examples are ways we as songwriters can make our songs more interesting to hear:
Wait, This All Looks a Bit Formulaic
I admit, this seems more like a mathematical formula or scientific theory rather than the stereotypically ethereal and beautiful practice of writing music. And I agree, sometimes good songs just form–they pop into existence in minutes, and it feels as if its chords and its words fit perfectly together without any help from you. But sometimes, especially if you’re struggling to write a new song, it’s hard to figure out what will be listened to and what won’t be.
That’s why I started coming up with this listing, as a way to educate myself about the creation of music (especially music that includes lyrics). Songwriting, at least for me, is kind of like speech-writing combined with music performance–you’re trying to get across a verbal message, but at the same time couch it within melodies and chords that are easy on the ear. How do you get someone to listen to a speech? You make it relatable and meaningful without being heavy. Same thing with a song–it must mean something and be memorable.
Boring songs, suffering from either lyric failure or melody/chord failure, do not have to stay boring! Thankfully, music and lyrics can be rewritten and revised till they both support each other, and an interesting and lovely song emerges. Believe me, it’s possible to make a previously boring song into something magical to listen to!
What makes a song “work?” What makes a song resonate with people?
Musical artists have been trying to capture that idea for centuries, and yet it still seems like it’s more luck than anything. Sometimes you just have a wonderful idea, not a winning formula.
As a longtime poet, composer, and songwriter (since the age of 12), I’ve written a lot of songs that either just don’t captivate me or don’t get a whole lot of response, even though they have a lot to say. Then, I’ve written songs that other people absolutely love and enjoy. Studying my “better” songs versus the less-popular ones has brought me to understand something about music that I never really thought about before.
Songs people enjoy are ones they can relate to best.
Seems too simple, right? I thought so, too. But as I thought about how I listen to music, and what kind of music I like, I realized more and more it was right. As a songwriter, you have to make your song relatable to others, and to do that, you have to balance between being too personal and too generic. So, I came up with lists of what makes a song too personal (as in, I can’t really listen to it because there’s so much detail I don’t relate to), or too generic (as in, it doesn’t have a point and/or doesn’t feel like it’s saying much of anything relatable to my life).
Note: Even though I ain’t professional yet and am not formally trained in “songwriting,” I have had a lot of experience playing, writing, rewriting, reworking, and eventually performing my songs.
You know your song is too personal when…
- Your lyrics are cluttered with many specific place and people references, like a diary entry
- You’re having trouble stretching your melody to fit around all these specific place names and friend names
- There doesn’t seem to be enough room within the “2-verses, 2-choruses, 1-bridge, final chorus” song template to say all you want to say about the situation
I’ve fallen into the “too-personal” trap a good bit with my own songs. When others hear lyrics that are more about you than about how your situation parallels theirs, they can find it hard to relate to your song. Personal details flesh out the story you’re telling or the imagery you’re crafting, but don’t load the song up with tons of personal details that are too specific to you. It’s hard to sing along when you don’t know the story and can’t imagine it!
You know your song is too generic when…
- The verses seem “empty” when you sing them, like there are too few words, but there are plenty in there
- You’re not sure anymore which episode in your life you’re drawing inspiration from for the song
- It seems like you’ve heard something similar on the radio, somewhere along the line
While trying to come up with an awesome new song for my church, I was falling into this trap over and over again. Everything I wrote felt forced, trite, and stupid–I kept thinking, “This verse could have been written by anybody! It sounds good, but it’s…not me, and it’s not about me. Grr!” I was trying too hard to write something people would like, and I was going too generic to do it. When audiences hear a song that’s too generic, the usual comment is that it feels like it’s been done before. And it likely has been!
So What Makes a “Relatable” Song, Anyway?
I believe it’s all about being just personal enough and yet appealing to all listeners’ emotions. (Good songwriters know how to strike that over and over; I hope I’ll get there one day, though many people have already told me they hear themselves in my songs just as much as they hear me. But not every one I write is a hit, and I have to remember that–it’s a balance you have to recalibrate every time.)
The following list of tips are the ones I follow when I’m writing a new song. To make this list, I thought, “What makes ME love a new song?”. The resulting list seems to work well and cover all the bases. (It’s more about crafting lyrics than melody, but there’s ways in which crafting one definitively influences the other.)
A Relatable Song…
- …References emotions/repercussions coming from a specific event, rather than referencing the whole event itself
- …Describes a state of being, even a transitional or transformational state of being (like coming to terms with death, entering a new relationship, etc.)
- …Uses visual imagery to describe a place, intertwined with feelings that the place evokes
- …Matches the mood of the melody (bouncy, somber, peaceful, tormented) with the mood and tone of the lyrics
- …Contains the main emotional idea of the song within the chorus, and expands upon the main idea (and how it came about) in the verses
Though writing a “good” song may not always be quantifiable, I think we can weed out some of the too-personal/too-generic problems that hurt many beginning songwriters. It’s not about trying to “market” something, but trying to make something that others genuinely respond to. When I weep or laugh aloud at the end of the first playthrough of my song, I know it’s pretty good. When others weep or laugh aloud at the end of the first performance, because they have felt that way before and know exactly what I’m singing about, I know it’s really good.
Though I love to write music, I admit it–I’m terrible at writing fast and catchy songs.
Most of my music is slow; I write lyrics that are heavy with meaning, couched in melodies that unwind across 20 seconds rather than 5 or 10. And, as I’ve observed during performances, not everybody enjoys slower-paced music. In fact, given my druthers, I’d like to write faster, more dance-like music, since that’s what I listen to the most. Slow music that isn’t mine bores me, unless I’m not actively listening to it and doing something else while it plays in the background.
But it is quite difficult to write a “fast song”, something that you can dance to, that doesn’t have vapid/meaningless lyrics. If it’s fast, according to today’s stylistics, then it nearly has to have very few words (because nobody can spit out hundreds of words at a fast pace, like a machine gun, unless they’re rappers). I don’t like the idea of a song having very little meaning just because it’s upbeat–that’s like trying to feed yourself on cotton candy alone. Yeah, sure, it tastes good, but it’s not very filling.
Some Ideas for Crafting a Faster but Meaningful Song
I’m not sure, at this point, how to get over this particular hurdle in my songwriting. But I have a couple of ideas:
- Use a synthesizer or a beat generator to mix up a fast, dance beat that I like, instead of trying to generate one on my own
- Come up with two short sentences that describes the idea I’m going after in my song
Why use an artificial generator for my beats? Simple–I ain’t good at rhythm. My pitch is great; rhythm…eh, not so much. Not sure why, but it’s hard for me to put together a rhythmic sound that doesn’t sound old. Giving me a playground of various beats can help me figure out what I like and don’t like, and what could be good as the background for my song. Sites like QWERTYBeats.com, and even a game like Sound Matrix can help out quite a bit!
The two-sentence idea makes me get to the point of my song, instead of winding up to it over the course of two verses and two choruses. I’m famous for writing long-winded stuff–if I’m forced to condense it into two coherent and meaningful (yet short) sentences, maybe I can craft that into a dancey tune that still means something.
I’m still working out the kinks on this idea, but you can be sure I’ll update you on my odyssey toward writing thoughtful songs that are catchy and dancey too. 🙂 After all, creativity IS a process!
As a piano/vocal songwriter from the age of 12, I’ve written songs about the things I see in life that make me happy or catch my interest. But more often, my songs are about things that bother me; expressing my sadness or frustration in song has been one of the key ways I vented. I am definitely not alone in that, either, since many songwriters use music to talk about important social and political issues. Writing music about problems–confronting our problematic “giants” within the context of a melody–seems to be human nature.
Why Write Songs About Problems? Because It Helps
Songs are a great way to work out problems, as I found out at an early age. I could sing and bang the piano keys about my problems more readily than I could even talk to somebody about what was going on. Through music, I could put it more eloquently…and I found out through performances that other people identified with what I was singing about, even if it was sad.
Within a song, somehow, it seems easier to deliver a message that people will readily listen to. Even if the message is controversial, it seems less so when wrapped in melody and rhyme. And often, such a song can be the instigator of positive change, as it raises awareness about the problem–one such song is Jesus, Friend of Sinners by Casting Crowns, available through the video below:
The “Problem Song” Writing Process
In the act of writing a song about a problem, it forces me to condense my message and really “get to the bottom” of what I’m trying to talk about. It makes me dig around in my conscious and subconscious mind–why does this problem bug me so much? Once I start trying to explain my point of view as if speaking to someone else, I finally find the little nugget of truth hiding underneath the layers of my own thoughts, and that truth becomes the basis of my song. Then I write about how I see that truth, how that truth affects me, and the song begins to emerge.
Self-discovery and expression collide and combine once I finally sit down to the keyboard (either to type or to play). As I write the words, sometimes I find myself adding the melody with it; as I hum the melody, sometimes I find myself adding the words where they best fit. Either way, I am changing the word choice and rhythms to flow better together. This is a highly instinctive process of addition, deletion, and rapid editing until I find the “right” way the song is supposed to work, how it’s supposed to deliver its message.
Once I feel that the song is done “right,” I perform it for myself, in many rehearsals. Generally, the way I know that a song is good enough is if it either raises the hairs on my arms, or it makes me cry. (Yay for built-in quality control!)
The most challenging part of the whole “problem song” process, for me, is the first performance of the song for anybody. I am challenged to deliver my message as if I am a keynote speaker, and in a way, I am. I need to keep their interest, sing clearly, and express the nugget of truth with emotion and description, to help someone else understand how much this means to me. My song should go out to the audience and travel straight from their ears to their hearts, giving them the message in a way that makes them think without being hostile to the idea in my music.
How Can You Confront Your Own Giants with a Song?
I find that writing a bullet list, outline, or even just random notes about things that concern you is a great starting point toward writing your own songs (or poems, if you aren’t musically inclined). Amid the detritus that you will inevitably produce (as everyone does), there will likely be a phrase or sentence you write that will point you in the direction of your own nugget of truth.
From there, try to dig into it, to completely explain that nugget of truth as you see it. Your own poem or song will emerge from your pen or your keyboard–and you just might be surprised at what you’ve come up with!
As a singer-songwriter myself, one would think that I’d thoroughly enjoy listening to others writing and performing their own music as well. But oddly enough, when I listen to other singer-songwriters (like listening to 90% of my boyfriend’s collection of music), I end up feeling a little competitive instead, even though I like the music.
Here’s a small sample of what ends up running through my head:
- “Hmm, how would I have written these lyrics/this chord progression/this melody differently?”
- “Ooh, nifty turn of phrase! I like it!”
- “I think the song could use another verse or two to tell the story…”
- “The use of the minor chord there really heightens the musical tension!”
Singer-songwriter music is definitely not something I can sit and chill out to like he does–I’m too caught up in thinking about it academically rather than experiencing it. To be honest, I used to think I just didn’t “enjoy” this kind of music the way I enjoy faster-paced, musically dense songs.
And yet, my academic appreciation of music is in itself a form of enjoyment. I can’t really turn off my “Music Major Mode” that makes me dissect songs like this, but I can use it to observe how others write songs…which, in turn, can make me a better songwriter. I can study others’ combinations of melody and chord to set a musical mood, or think over how the choice of words in the lyrics tells the story completely and concisely.
This, I think, is extremely important for anyone who writes music–you HAVE to be willing to listen to what other musicians are doing in your chosen genre, and listen critically, observing what they have done and learning from it so you can make your own original music. (This also helps ward off plagiarism–once you’ve heard what other people have done, you can go and do something different with your own music.) Researching and studying how others write music like yours doesn’t have to be boring–in fact, it can be really rewarding and inspiring!