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A Few Notes on Songwriting


This set of notes is my talking points and handout for a workshop on songwriting. It's my personal, narrow view of the field; if you're looking for an overview you're better off elsewhere. I don't guarantee that my techniques will work for anyone else -- or even for me in the future!

The last time I did one of these workshops I mainly concentrated on writing lyrics -- verse forms, prosody, that kind of thing. I've gradually come to realize that, modulo the occasional parody, writing lyrics is not something I'm particularly good at. Or rather, when I do write some lyrics they're usually pretty good, but I have no real idea how I do it. If I did, I'd do it more often.

What I am pretty good at is writing melodies. I find that, by the time I have a couple of verses and a chorus written, I usually have a vague idea of where the corresponding melody is going. And I can often look at someone else's lyrics, or a particularly song-like poem, and improvise a melody for it on the spot. I'm not entirely sure how I do that, either, but I think it's more interesting and more likely to be useful, so I'm going to give it a shot.

Starting with the Lyrics

As I mentioned, unless I'm writing a parody, I almost always start out with a lyric. It might be one of my own, or it might be an existing poem. Starting with a poem is hard, because they're rarely consistent enough to set to music. Most songwriters, like Janis Ian, insist that songs and poems are entirely different, and in most cases that's true. (In some cases it isn't -- Bob Dylan is basically a poet who sets his own poems to music, and they work. But he's an exception -- he only pulls it off by being an even better songwriter than he is a poet.) It may be possible to set any poem to music, but the result is more likely to be an "art song" than a filksong. I'll have more to say about setting poetry later, though, because it's a useful skill that can help you with more ordinary songwriting, and it can be an interesting challenge.

In most cases, though, it's simplest to start with a lyric that has a strong, consistent meter, a song-like structure, and preferably rhymed couplets. I often write songs while I'm walking, which helps me keep a steady beat. With a little practice if is possible to write verses with time signatures other than 4/4 while walking at a steady pace -- sometimes a beat comes when you have one foot in the air, but that's ok. The trick is to keep a steady rhythm without starting off with a familiar melody.

I often find that a song's form evolves while I'm writing it. I come up with a line in the last verse that just has to be there, but it has a slightly different rhythm so I have to back and fix everything else to work with it. Or I discover that the tricky rhyme scheme I came up with for the first verse just can't be pulled off as often as I need it, so I move that verse to the chorus and fall back on quatrains for the verses. You don't have that freedom when you're writing a parody or stealing a tune, and even if you're not it gets harder after you've come up with a melody because you get pulled in both directions.

Eventually I get to a point -- usually it's after I have a chorus and a verse or two -- where a melody has started to suggest itself.


I think the most important thing about writing melodies is being ready to write melodies. This requires listening, of course -- listen to lots of music, not just filk but folk, blues, jazz, pop, even opera and operetta. What you listen to will have a big influence on what you write.

But when you're sitting down with your instrument -- guitar, piano, flute, or even voice -- don't concentrate on playing what you've heard, but on playing around with it. Noodle. Noodling is the musical counterpart of the doggerel verse that you write just to get your head full of rhymes and rhythms. Noodling fills your head with notes and chords.

Play little snippets of melody from here and there. Play one verse of one song and one verse of another in the same key and tempo. (One of my first versions of that trick was "Railroad Bill" and "Freight Train", because they both involve the same C7-to-E7 slide.) Leslie Fish's "Lightships" ("We spin long light from the glory of the Sun") does this.

Another good exercise is to take a well-known melody and vary it until it's no longer recognizable. Add a measure to each line, or to one line in a verse. Double a line. Go up where the original goes down. Change it from major to minor, or throw in a chord that doesn't belong. Throw in a line from a totally different song. (This can be a good direction to go if you find that a lyric of yours fits all too well to a well-known tune. Even the pros resort to this on occasion: there's a Peter, Paul and Mary song, "Yuppies in the Sky", that was very obviously "Ghost Riders..." with the serial numbers filed off. )

Play around with chord progressions. Change one note in a chord, and then change it again, and see where it takes you. I wrote my tune for Yeats' "The Cap and Bells" while I was playing around with suspended chords one week. Play around with patterns -- arpeggios, fingerpicking patterns, bass runs. Suspended chords, modal melodies (which you can get by changing some of the major chords in a key to minor, or vice versa). If you play guitar, try some alternate tunings. Drop D is easy. Play with different scales -- that's one that's easier on a keyboard. On a guitar, where different keys have different chord shapes, take a song you know and transpose it into an unfamiliar key. Things like suspended chords and bass runs work differently in different keys. Play melodies. Strum chords. Figure out which patterns work in which keys. That way when you start to hear a melody in your head, you can figure out which key you can play it in.

Try different rhythms. Not everything has to be in 4/4 time, you know. Noodle a waltz. Noodle Balkan folkdance rhythms -- they break down into groups of 2's and 3's: 5=3+2, 7=3+2+2, 9=3+2+2+2, 11=2+2+3+2+2, 25=7+7+11, and so on. As far as I know, Richard Stallman (St. Ignucius) is the only one to have used the dance "Sedi Donka", in 25, as the melody of a filk song. Play segments of 4/4 and 3/4 at random (that trick is used in a German folkdance called a Zwiefacher, which is sort of a running contest between the band and the dancers.)

Noodling is one of those things you can't do wrong. No matter what you end up playing, you can always say "I meant to do that -- I thought it would be interesting." And you'd be right, by construction.

When you hear something interesting, follow it to see where it goes. I've sometimes had little riffs banging around in my head for several years before they finally coalesce into a real melody. The whole point of all this is to have a head full of notes, chords, and chord progressions that form themselves into a melody while you're working on a song.

(I might also mention that spending an hour or so noodling is a great way to entertain people who aren't really listening, and a good way to keep in practice when your voice isn't quite up to singing.)

Setting Poems to Music

If you don't have a lyric handy that you've just written, or the one you have really doesn't seem to follow any of the familiar song forms, or if you've just read, or written, a poem that really grabs you and is crying out to be sung, or if you just want a challenge, go ahead and disregard the fact that most poems really aren't songs, and forge ahead. The result is highly unlikely to be a ballad or a pop song, though.

It's the borderline cases that are interesting. These are the poems that are almost song lyrics, but not quite. Maybe the last stanza is short a couple of lines ("The Stolen Child" by Yeats), or the line count varies all over the place ("Mr. Tambourine Man" by Bob Dylan) or there isn't a consistent metrical structure (most poems written since 1940). That's where it gets fun.

Usually, the solution involves a melody that isn't one of the usual song forms. Some of the possibilities include:

Another possibility is to change the poem. This might be as simple as repeating the last couple of lines at the end (which I did with "The Song of Wandering Aengus" by Yeats), or as radical as deleting a repeating line (Oak, Ash, and Thorn's setting of "The Owl and the Pussycat" by Edward Lear). It might involve leaving out whole verses of a wonderful but long narrative (Phil Ochs' version of "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes). Actual songs may get shortened, too, although the abridgement is often done for humor as well as brevity ("Like a Lamb to the Slaughter" by Frank Hayes).

Tricks of the Trade

This is a grab-bag, in no particular order.

With most good songs there's a moment when it all comes together. You find that perfect final line, or make a little shift in viewpoint, or you're just singing the last verse through for the first time and get a little catch in your throat, or an uncontrollable giggle. There may be lots of work left, but you know right then that this one's a keeper.

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Steve Savitzky <steve @>