Writers’ Wednesday – A Bit About Songwriting

Writer’s Wednesday is really a wonderful thing for me. I hope you guys enjoy reading these posts. Today’s is going to be a bit long, but I think it’ll be a fun topic. We’re going to talk about a very specialized type of writing – songwriting.

Isn’t songwriting just poetry?

Do poets sing? No, you dolts. Songwriting is not just writing poetry. That is not to diminish poetry in any way – lord knows I love me some poetry. Poets paint pictures with words. They use rhythm and rhyme, even the sounds of the words to create their effects. What songwriters use that poets lack, however, is melody and harmony. That is, the organized shift in pitch of the words (or the accompaniment behind it in the case of rap).

I remember the first time I read a “song” on a page.

It was J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit. Now, for those of you who’ve only seen the abominable film versions, the book is the only thing I’ll be referencing here, which contains nothing about stupid fucking white orcs (in fact, orcs are only remotely mentioned in the book) or romance between wood elves and dwarves. Okay, I digress.

When I first read The Hobbit, I read the lines from the beginning of the book where the dwarves are singing as they clean up after themselves.

Chip the glasses and crack the plates!
Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates-
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!

J.R.R. Tolkein – The Hobbit
This exists. The movies don’t.

Now, if you’ve not seen the films money-grubbing Hollywood abominations yet, you probably have no idea what melody might go along with that meter and rhyme. That’s okay. I’m a rather accomplished musician, and I didn’t either the first time I read them.

Some will argue that this is great because it leads the reader to use their own imaginations to come up with a melody – but it isn’t easy, is it. Like I said, I’ve written quite a few good songs, and I could never come up with a melody for those lines that matched up to what Tolkien described.

What Tolkien wrote there qualifies as lyrics, but without an actual melody, that’s all they are. They have weight, and they’re not impotent, but to reach their full potential as a song, they must have a melody.

But I’m not a musician… How do I write melody?

Well, that’s one of the best things about technology today, in my opinion. There are myriad tools available to those of us in the first world that give even the most tone-deaf among us able to put melody to rhythm and create music. If you have an iPod or an iPad, install and open GarageBand. There is more music production power there at your fingertips than they had at Abbey Road when the eponymous album and Dark Side of the Moon were recorded there.

You can actually play and record convincing guitar, bass, and piano sounds with your finger on the touch screen, and there are AI drummers built in who make recording drums the easiest thing in the world. Plus there are myriad pre-arranged loops. Open up the app, select a software instrument track and play around with the sounds. After a while, you’ll stumble across a melody that works with your words.

Once you have that, you have the beginnings of a song. Now, it might be all you ever get, but sometimes that’s all you need. A single a cappella voice singing a melody is a powerful thing. Just go to any sporting event and listen to the national anthem.

I’m not sure what the Android version of GarageBand is, but if you have a PC, it’s Audacity.

That’s how I learned to be a musician

When I was a little kid – somewhere between the ages of 8 and 10 – I had a guitar and a keyboard that my Grandpa gave me. One was for Christmas and one was for my birthday, but I can’t remember which was which. What I found, though, was that I was fascinated by the sounds I could make. I couldn’t actually play anything yet, but I could make sounds, and sometimes, especially if I just stuck to the big keys on the keyboard, I could make melodies.

I guess for years before then I was learning music by learning to sing along with all of my favorite songs, so I was training myself to recognize melody at an early age.

That doesn’t mean that you have to have my ear for melody in order to write a melody of your own, though. All you have to do is experiment until you find something you like, then write down what you did. You don’t have to know how to write music, just write down which keys you hit, or take screen shots and circle the keys in the right order so that someone who knows how to play can play it for you.

Many great songwriters are less than adequate musicians

Disclaimer: I love every one of these artists I’m about to mention, and I mean them absolutely no disrespect.

Here is a list of my top five favorite songwriters (excluding people I know personally) in no particular order:

  • Bob Dylan
  • Willie Nelson
  • Mick Jagger/Keith Richards
  • Roger Waters
Image of Bob Dylan on the left and Willie Nelson on the right.
God Bless Bob and Willie.

In each case, these guys are not great musicians. They’re amazing artists, prophetic performers, extraordinary entertainers, and superb songwriters, but they’re not great musicians. Bob Dylan – average guitarist, terrible vocalist. Willie Nelson – better than average guitarist, mediocre singer. Mick – Okay singer, terrible guitarist. Keith – Good guitarist (a case could be made for great, but we’re going to leave that aside for now), terrible vocalist. Roger Waters – Mediocre bass player, mediocre vocalist.

God, it pained me to write that, but it’s the truth. There are much better singers out there than any of those men. There are much better guitarists than Dylan, Nelson, and Richards. There are better bass players than Waters.

Let me put it another way…

If you were putting together a super-band, the only way any of those guys get the gig is if they need someone to write the songs.

Right, let’s do this. We’ll assume it’s a rock band.

If you need a drummer, you get Neil Peart, Matt Cameron, Brad Wilk, or Barrett Martin. You don’t pick Phil Collins or Don Henley – unless you want songs written.

Image of Neil Peart behind a drum kit.
Neil Peart

If you need a bass player, you pick Geddy Lee, Flea, Les Claypool, or Jeff Ament. The only way you pick Sting or Paul McCartney is if you need songs written.

If you need a rhythm guitarist, you get James Hetfield, Josh Homme, Pete Townshend, or Billie Joe Armstrong. The only way you get Willie or Keith is if you need songs written. (Okay, I could make a case for getting Keith as a guitarist – how can I not? But you have to admit that everyone else on that list is a cleaner player.)

David Gilmour

If you need a lead guitarist, you, of course, get David Gilmour. If David won’t do it, then you beg him. If he still won’t do it, you beg him some more. If that fails, try blackmail. After you get out of jail, then try telling him that a bunch of Palestinian children’s lives depend on it. When he finds out that’s fake, you’ll have to get Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Slash, or Bjorn Riis – a very clever guitar player who can pull off Gilmour quite convincingly. The only way you pick Keith for lead is if you need a song written. Same thing goes for George Harrison.

If you need a lead vocalist who can actually sing, you get literally anyone else in the music business to sing for you. But for the sake of thoroughness, better choices would include Robert Plant, Ann Wilson, Bruce Dickinson, or Jerry Cantrell (who would also be a better rhythm guitarist in most cases). The only way you pick Dylan is if you want songs. The only way you pick Mick is if you want songs.

Have I made my point yet?

You haven’t got to be a brilliant musician to be a songwriter. You’ve just got to have the curiosity to find out how sound can affect the soul the same way that words can, and that when you combine the sound and meaning of melody with the sound and meaning of words, magic happens.

A lot of people ask me why I don’t teach music. I tell them it’s because I never want to ruin the magic of it. For me it is pure magic. It’s this wonderful thing that comes into me and I get to channel it out and it cleanses me and makes me whole at the same time.

That doesn’t mean it’s not learnable by muggles, though – if you’ll pardon the allusion. I know how to read music like a first grader knows how to read “See spot run.” That is, I recognize the symbols, but I’m not going to win any reading championships any time soon.

On the other hand, I know a lot of musicians who have no natural “ear” for it and rely on the music to play. It’s a learned skill. So I have no doubt that anyone who can write can write a song if they put their head to it.

How to write a song if you’re not a musician:

Step 1: Come up with words that have meter and rhyme, or “lyrics.”

If you’re a musician, then often you’ll write the music first and then put the words in later, but I think I’m writing mostly to non-musicians here, so for you, it’s best to start with the lyrics. Pick a simple rhythm and rhyme scheme. Iambic tetrameter seems to work, as does pentameter. You’ll often find that alternating meter with each line is helpful.

Typically, you want about four lines per verse, sometimes eight, depending on the length of the meter you choose.

For a chorus, you want something simple and memorable, that will be easy to sing along with. It should also be the heart of the thematic subject of the song. Sometimes artists choose to use refrain (repetition of words or phrases) during a chorus – think “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton/Whitney Houston (again, Dolly wrote that song, but Whitney unlocked it! And it’s not that Dolly was a bad singer; hell, she’s got a beautiful voice, but Whitney was a once in a lifetime talent when it came to singing, and she was made to sing that song.).

Rhyming is not necessary, but I recommend it for your first go. It’ll make the melodies come together more easily.

Step 2: Write a melody.

If you have a music app on your phone, use that to play around until you find a melody you like that fits with your words. Find a way to record or write down what you did to make the melody.

If you don’t have a music app on your phone, you can probably pick up a Casio keyboard at a thrift store or pawn shop for less than $20. Play around with it. All of the white keys are in the key of C. Don’t ignore the black keys, though. That would be racist. Play around with all of them until you find a melody you like that works with your words. Write it down or record it.

Step 3: Take it to a musician or learn to play yourself.

Once you have your melody, if you just can’t wait to hear your song, take it to a musician and play the melody for him or her. See if you can commission them to write some accompaniment for it.

If you’d rather do the whole thing yourself, then find an app that allows you to play and record software instruments, import audio, and export audio. In these apps, you can learn to paste loops, beats, and samples to create your own song without ever learning a “traditional” instrument. I guarantee you’ll be surprised at what you can do once you start playing around.

That’s it. You have a song.

Actually, as soon as you put melody to the words, you had a song. The rest is just salad dressing. And I guess I’m being a little too limiting by saying that songs have to have a melody in order to be songs. Rap certainly proves me wrong there. But rap is different than poetry, too, isn’t it. Usually because there’s some kind of melodic bass going along with the beat. There’s some hook. That’s all you need.

I hope this helped, but I understand if I’m making it sound a lot easier than it really is. I’m not trying to say anyone can win a Grammy. I’m simply saying that writers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and the like shouldn’t count songwriting out just because they’re not necessarily musicians. If you’re a writer and you’ve always wanted to try songwriting, follow the steps above and let me know how it turns out. I’d love to hear what you come up with!