How is it that some songwriters reach the level of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash or Joni Mitchell while others languish completely unknown? It comes down to two things.
First, the best in the business understand that their paycheck depends largely upon their network. But what this article is about is the second aspect: pure songwriting ability. Everyone can learn the first, even if you’re an introvert (trust me, if I can do it, you can). But becoming an expert songwriter takes devotion bordering on insanity. Part 1 of this two part series covers three aspects you can start implementing into your songwriting today.
1. Melody creation
A lot of songwriters like to start with a melody because that’s what comes first. Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” started with nothing but a melodic line to which he used the lyrics, “Scrambled eggs, oh you’ve got such lovely legs”. Like McCartney, if what you hear first are a series of notes, try simply using any non-sensible syllables to establish the melody.
If that melodic line doesn’t come, no worries. Melodies that make use of the pentatonic scale are among the most common throughout history. For example, in C, the 5 notes are:
Experiment with these five notes only and write down every snippet of an idea that catches your ear. From there, accompany the melody with common C chords to begin to flesh it out further.
2. How to convey emotional meaning with your lyrics
If you’re better are starting with lyrics, keep in mind that every listener has different life experiences and will interact with a song differently than the next. Your job is to connect with a specific person through feeling, whether it be emotional highs, lows and everything in between.
What is the feeling you’re trying to convey? Who else in your life also feels that way? In what ways have you shared in experiences with others where this feeling came rushing through? How did you describe it to each other afterward?
Songwriting can be intensely personal, but it’s important to realize that if you want others to connect to your song, the easiest way for them to do so is through shared feelings. By painting a picture of the very person you’re trying to connect with before writing a single line can help your lyrics flow more naturally.
Drug addiction is a common theme in a lot of popular songs. But listen to two very different songs about the same subject and you’ll also realize that depending on how you color the subject matter completely changes the feeling your listener will have:
Staind, “It’s Been Awhile”
Aimee Mann, “Wise Up”
3. Create a structure
Most, but not all songs use a variation of the following: intro, a verse (sometimes two) leading up to a chorus, a bridge, followed by another verse and chorus, and then an outro.
Intro – usually catchy instrumental section that grabs the listener’s attention
Verse – story-telling part of the song that builds an emotional connection with the listener
Chorus – the chorus is the part everyone recognizes; even if they can’t remember the words, people can usually hum the melody
Bridge – this is where everything gets shifted and causes the listener to sit up; many times associated with a mood change created by a chordal shift
Outro – quick tag at the end of the song that gives it a sense of resolution
Examples of this structure are: “California Girls” by The Beach Boys (1965), “Penny Lane” & “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles (1967) and “Foxy Lady” by Jimi Hendrix (1967).