- If you want to write a really good song, you're going to have to work for it. Start today. Commit to writing a certain number of songs per week, the way successful authors commit to writing a thousand words a day.
- Good writers read several genres of books. Good songwriters listen to genres of songs. As you listen, think about what you like about a song. Are the lyrics unique, do the song's chord changes perfectly capture a mood, do you like the transition from one part of the song to another?
- Harmony is about the chord arrangements and having harmonic qualities that blend with both the rhythmic feel and the melody of the song. A beginner would want to look into basic major and minor keys and chords which pertain to the given key they are working in.
- C, Dm (minor), Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim (diminished). They are also called by their scale steps, which has the advantage of not being "key-centric." For example, the C is the I (one), the Dm is the II, the F is called the IV, and the G the V.
- The I IV and V chords of any key can be thought of as a meat and potatoes way of writing a song, as these three chords will accompany any melody that stays within the given key. Most pop songs are built around a I-IV-V structure.
- There are infinite ways to structure a song, but there's a common sequence found in most of them (see Tips). As you listen to songs, try to identify the different parts. Check yourself by looking at lyrics online or in a music book; the parts of songs are often labeled in these media.
- Carry a pen and paper with you wherever you go, or better yet, carry a tape recorder or digital audio recorder—melodies can be extremely difficult to capture on paper unless you have a strong music background.
- It would be helpful if you have a musical instrument (e.g. piano, keyboard, guitar, etc.) so that you can explore the music. An added advantage is that you can easily write down the notes (or tabs) when you have a tune. Try recording it for feedback. Guitars plug directly into computer microphone jacks with an adapter.
- You can always go back to your recording. It helps. If you revise it, then record it again.
- If it's super catchy (either a lyrical phrase or a snippet of music), and you can envision it being a repeated theme in the song, you've got the chorus or refrain — the climax or summary of your musical story — and you need to write verses to explain how you know in detail.
- If what you've come up with, seems more narrative lyrically or subtler musically—a part of a story rather than the main idea—you've probably got a verse, and you'll need to write the rest of the story (more verses) and, usually, a chorus.
Set the mood. Make sure your music fits the story. If it is sad, then you may want your melody to evoke sadness (by slowing it down or adding some minor chords, for example) or you might want to add a twist and combine sad lyrics to upbeat music in order to create a sense of tension and ambiguity.
Say something. A song can get by with poor lyrics, and you have a better chance of writing a really good song if your lyrics are great. This does not mean they have to be serious, but they should not be clichéd or ho-hum. Write your lyrics as though you are talking to somebody who you want to impress or to someone toward whom you feel some sort of deep emotion.
- Another useful tool for the songwriter is a rhyming dictionary. There are a variety of ways you can rhyme lines in a song to help tie the lyrics together. Learn about these and other tools of poetry, and try putting them to work for you.
- You can rhyme at the end of every line or every other line, or your rhymes can come more sporadically. You can also rhyme within lines to good effect (think of rap lyrics).
- There are also other poetic devices you can use, such as alliteration ("They paved paradise, put up a parking lot"). The "p" sound is repeated. And, assonance ("...honesty, promise me I'm never gonna find you faking"). The repeated "ah" sound in "honesty", "promise" and "gonna").
- However, do not burden yourself with rhyme! You can get away with making a phrase stand out by avoiding conventional means of fitting it into a song, and many successful songs do not rhyme at all.
- While there are good songs that are so simple that they have no chorus and have the same line length, the same rhyme schemes, and the same chord progressions repeated throughout them, most people get bored with that. The most common way to add variety is to insert a bridge into your song.
- A bridge is a section of music, sometimes instrumental, that differs in its construction from the verses and the chorus, and is usually placed near the end of the song before the final chorus, where a verse would typically be. The bridge can be in a different key—using a different set of chords—than the rest of the song, but it doesn't need to be. It can also be faster or slower, shorter or longer, or otherwise different from the other sections.
- Sometimes a bridge is followed by a shorter chorus, depending on the length of the bridge. Be aware that bridges can also refer to the transitions between verse and chorus, as this is a common usage of bridges.
- "Here's my number, call me maybe." If you've heard Carly Rae Jepsen's hit even once, that will be burned into your synapses forever.
- "Oppa Gangnam Style". PSY's surprise YouTube hit has a hook that, like "Call Me Maybe," has spawned millions of views and almost as many parodies—the sign of a truly infectious hook.
- In Tommy Tutone's song "Jenny/8675309", the hook lyrics may be the numbers 8-6-7-5-3-0-9.
- In the Beatles' song "Hey Jude" the hook may be the ending part, Naaa, naa naa, nana naa naaaaaa, nana naa naaaaaaa, hey Jude that repeats and repeats as it bores its way into your brain.
- Good hooks let people remember your tune from your lyrics, even if they do not coincide. Many people can remember the riff from 'Smoke on the Water' from hearing the title.
Smooth the rough edges. If the pieces do not fit together, try building a transition. Put all the sections of your song in the same key. If your song suddenly changes in tempo (speed) between the two parts, try gradually changing the speed as you enter and exit the section that does not fit with the rest of the song. Try adding a short instrumental interlude that will carry you from one part to the next. While it is possible that two parts should not be in the same song, it could be that you started one part with the wrong meter or wrong kind of beat.
Get feedback. Play or sing your song for people and get their opinions. You’ll probably get a better idea of what they really think after you’ve written a few songs: friends and family may tell you that your first song is great even if it’s awful, but as they hear more of your songs, they’ll probably give you hints like, "It’s good, but I liked that first one you wrote better" or "Wow, that’s the best song you’ve written. That’s a really good song." Be prepared for a critic in the family that will accept nothing less than to hear it post-produced with all the bells and whistles that a band in a studio can offer.
Once you've finished your first song, don't stop. Keep writing and practicing, and you'll find yourself getting better and better. You may need to write a lot of songs before you hit on one you really like, and even after that, you may need to write a lot more before you get another good one. Work hard and have fun doing it!
Never wish for anything -- because you might get it.
Back in 2008, I was on a panel on IFC's website with some distinguished names in the field of online music writing: Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber, Bill Crandall (then at Spinner), and Maura Johnston (then with Idolator). We discussed how the rise of blogging would affect music writing. I was enthusiastic about it -- when media gets democratized, taken out of the hands of all-powerful conglomerates and given to the people, good things can happen. I wrote a book called “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” which is about when that started to happen in music in the '80s: Thanks to new technology and the DIY ethos of punk rock, all kinds of media became more readily available to ordinary people, and they started fanzines, record labels, recording studios, and bands. In other words, they Did It Themselves, and we got to hear a lot of great music that might not otherwise have been heard.
And now, for many years, there have been more independent releases than major label releases. There's been a glut of music, and the proportion of good stuff to, well, let's just call it "the other stuff" is basically the same. So there's vastly more music to wade through. And now the same is true of music criticism: now that anybody can do it, everybody is doing it. That's proven to be a double-edged sword.
I'm always very careful to make the distinction between music criticism and music journalism. A lot of people don't. But criticism doesn't require reporting. You can write criticism at home in your underwear. On the other hand, journalism takes legwork -- you have to get out there and see things and talk to people. And that takes resources for travel and hotels and other expenses. And because music magazines have taken a financial hit in recent years, music journalism has taken a hit too. It's just much cheaper and more page-view-friendly to run a review or a listicle.
And even criticism has taken a hit: For a while now, many music publications -- including really major ones like Rolling Stone, Time, and Entertainment Weekly -- have reduced their reviews to a paragraph or so. That can make for some pithy, witty writing, but it takes more words than that to spin out something truly thoughtful. A lot of music fans are still interested in insightful perspectives on music -- maybe even more interested than ever, since everyone needs help making sense of the incredible variety of sounds that have sprung up in the wake of the internet revolution. There's a lot of room for unique, qualified voices who can provide good reads. And musicians are an excellent source for all those qualities. Musicians think and talk about music all day, so they have lots of practice discussing it. They hear lots of new stuff and find out about it before most people. They certainly know how the sausage is made. And guess what: a lot of them can write really well.
And while most musicians have a platform for their voice -- a full-blown website, a Tumblr, a Twitter account -- all those platforms are far-flung, and they only reach people who already know about the musician. Which is a shame, because, some musicians are really strong writers, like acclaimed jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, or Fiery Furnaces' Matthew Friedberger, or Amy Klein of Hilly Eye and Leda.
In a piece about music writing for NPR.com last year, Maura Johnston wrote "a conversation that spans fans of all genres and artists, and that connects people in surprising ways, should be a goal among writers and editors in 2013." The online musical universe has become Balkanized, with many sites focusing on minute niches. That works well for reaching very specific demographics, which is wonderful for advertising, but it flies in the face of the common wisdom that people's tastes have become more diverse as music of any description has become a mouse-click away.
So I helped found the Talkhouse, a website that features smart, notable musicians from all genres and generations writing about currently released music. Writers don't write like critics -- instead, they show us how a musician hears music. It's organic, relatively free from marketing initiatives, because the writers choose what they want to write about. And, like most music fans today, musicians have broad, often surprising tastes: you don't have to like They Might Be Giants to be amused by Parquet Courts' bassist Sean Yeaton's delirious take on that band; plenty of people will be curious to hear what Laurie Anderson has to say about the latest Animal Collective album; what on earth does Andrew W.K. have to say about the new album from Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices? And Zac Pennington of the art-rock band Parenthetical Girls has an enthusiastic and trenchant take on... Taylor Swift?
There are plenty of musicians who are strong writers -- people who are well-spoken in interviews can generally write well, and some writers are ringers: Rosanne Cash, Dean Wareham, and Bob Mould are acclaimed book authors, and others have written about music before. But it’s the non-professional writers who bring creativity to the task of writing, as proven by the writings of Randy Blythe of the metal band Lamb of God and Ashok Kondabolu of the sadly defunct hip-hop group Das Racist.
So maybe I take it back -- maybe you should wish for anything. This new internet paradigm has already enabled some cool stuff -- like a website that allows musicians to enter into a dialogue with their peers and their music, and for music fans to have a ringside seat to it all. And that new paradigm will surely enable a lot of other creative reactions to the big changes happening all around us. I can't wait to see what they will be.
Talkhouse editor-in-chief Michael Azerrad has written for Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, the New York Times, Spin, Billboard, and many other periodicals since 1987. He is the author of "Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991" and "Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana" and was co-producer of the award-winning 2006 documentary "Kurt Cobain About a Son."
Photo by Haley Dekle
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