On Songwriting

Dinosaur David BDinosaur David B Posts: 17,926
edited September 2012 in Songwriting
One of our younger members asked me the following question, and since I wrote a lengthy answer, I decided it might be worth creating a topic rather than just sending a personal message to one member.

The question was:
Dave, I was wondering if, one of these days, you could write something about sharing your views in songwriting, hooks, catchy-ness, and melody, how to write these, what's your approach on your new project, etc, It would be very informative and just awesome. I hope you can find the time to do it.

My response:


I wish I could tell you how to do it, but I'm not the songwriting genius of the family. That's Amy. And frankly, as schooled a musician as she is, her songwriting sense and staggering ability to write catchy pop hooks choruses and melodies is largely "a gift" she was born with, the way Paul McCartney was born with it.  I can write the odd "good song," but her songs have a level of sophistication on all levels that mine will never have. The best I can do is collaborate with her -- that way, when I come up with cool riffs and progressions, she can take them to even higher levels in the context of the song.

Sure, it helps that she studied jazz theory, arrangement, and composition, but I think that only speeds up a process that she was born with. For example, I may be trying to figure out what the next chord in a progression is, and where I'll find it instinctively because I can hear it in my head, she'll know what the chord is because  theory dictates what it can and cannot be -- AND she'll hear it in her head, AND she has perfect pitch. So she'll get there way faster than I will.

That said, I will continue to post in my New Project thread where applicable (I'll post this in the songwriting area), and I CAN discuss a few things I did that can help in a general sense:

I spent a lot of my formative listening to a great deal of Beatles and 70s Elton John, Paul Simon and the Beach Boys.  It gave me an innate melodic sense in my musical brain that predates playing an instrument, but is still in me an comes out WHEN I play. So I suggest  immersing yourself in listening to ANY great pop writers you like. Even stuff like Burt Bacharach, or Motown would work great, but the ones I mentioned were the ones who's music spoke to me most in my childhood, and they combined pop with rock. These guys were absolute MASTERS of all things melodic, catchy and hooky. I will contend that it's a lot easier to assimilate pop form from such sources than it is to assimilate it from well written Dino rock/metal, because it's a simpler, and purer form, and generally more melodic.


On a more active level, when you listen to that stuff and try and analyze why it works. Check out some of this stuff too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hook_(music)  Learn to identify what you want. A hook, maybe a sub-hook.  A chorus that makes you want to sing along. A melody that gets stuck in your head. Amy's songs are so filled with these elements that the songs get stuck in your head are literally still playing in your head when you sleep.  :%:  It can be maddening, when that happens, but you also sure-as-shit know you are on to something catchy if it won't leave your brain.

Remember: a great song will always work with just a voice and a piano or acoustic guitar. It doesn't require a whole band or any production value at all to succeed. Obviously, once you add great players, vision, and production, you can end up with something timeless. But the progression and the arrangement should stand alone and succeed with just voice and piano or acoustic.  

The other thing you can do as a musician (and we do not see it enough on DRG) is adjust your mindset to put THE SONG up on a pedestal. Make the song king. RESPECT IT and the craft. As plenty of terrible players have made their names because they write great songs, you can make a strong case for prioritizing songwriting over virtuosity. You won't get there if everything has to be guitar-focused. Defer your guitar, your ego and everything else to what the song needs/wants. Usually, a song will tell you where it wants to go.

Let's say you come up with some heavy riff you think is really ballsy verse riff, and you're trying to figure out what goes with it, and you want something equally ballsy for the chorus. But after trying a few things, you find what works best isn't ballsy, but rather something with a much more poppy major-scale feel (think of opening riff of Boys are Back in Town vs the chorus).  Even if you never thought you wanted the song to go in that direction, don't fight it. If something "feels right," even if unintended, there's a reason. Go with it. Better to write an unintended hit than to take a song somewhere less effective to serve some other purpose such as ego or stubbornness.

The real key (rather than just wanting to be being a great guitarist) is WANTING to write great songs that work the day you write them, and are still working decades later. Not being all caught up in having to be "heavy" everywhere, or having the focus being on how well you play your instrument.  Think like an overall musician or an artist rather than as just a guitarist.


Dave
Post edited by Dinosaur David B on
In the midst of the sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament.
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Comments

  • inmyhandsinmyhands Posts: 11,668
    I play guitar because I'm a songwriter first, a singer second and a guitarist third. This is God's truth. I started writing music around four years of age. When my friends banged on a little keyboard or whatever they just randomly hit the keys and enjoyed themselves. I, on the other hand, created a piece I could replicate on demand. If my mom said, "That was really nice, Ricky", I would repeat the exact same piece over and over. Note for note. Dad used to say I was strange. "Kids don't do that". What they didn't know was that I was also singing the lyrics in my head. I never thought about singing them out loud. They always seemed kind of personal or private or, "just for me". When Dad bought me an acoustic guitar in 1961 the doors just opened up. I still have a copy of the first song I ever wrote, (minus the original words which were something about a deer scared to death that probably had to do with Bambi. I loved that Disney film). Years later I realized the melody had a very heart wrenching quality about it and rewrote new lyrics worthy of the melody. It became a song about an old man who basically lives like one of the homeless, but, has dreams about what life could have been had fortune favored him.

    The best songs never come on order. I've done pretty good on requests from performers but, quite often, I deliver a song I've already written that fits their requirements. Writing a song from your deep inner center always turns out better. A song about physical pain when you're in physical pain. A song about success when you've just achieved a goal you thought unattainable. A song about war when you've just won a battle or suffered the loss of a loved one on the battlefield. A song about angst or unfulfilled dreams or the pain of unrequited love when you realize a relationship has run it's course. Emotion, at least for me, is the key. The first, second and third most important ingredient. The melodies are dead on to create the stage the words appear upon and the words sound as real as the scream of a dying infantryman or the heart pounding excess of true love.

    If you want to be a songwriter write whenever inspiration hits. Don't think you can recapture it at a later date. You can't. A lot of crappy songs have been written by folks trying to recapture an emotion from their past. The fact that you've lived it means nothing. You have to be right in the middle of it to recreate it to perfection. A scream from your throat during gut wrenching pain will sound far different from a scream based on the memory of that time you experienced gut wrenching pain. Your mind protects you from the full scale of past emotion events. I guess it figures once was enough. My advice ..... write what you feel in the moment. Don't attempt to write on prior experience. Don't write to order. Amass enough material so you can go to your file and find one already written in the right time and at the right place that fulfills the request you've received.
  • IsaacIsaac Posts: 3,088
    I find that the most helpful thing when writing music is to expose yourself to all different sorts of music. You never know what you're subconscious is going to spit out. At this point I've become attracted to an increasing amount of music because of the different ways that people can envision and construct songs. I'm learning what works for me and why it works for me, and I'm doing my best assimilate everything I find interesting.

    The song is becoming the bottom line for me. When I first started off writing I followed the standard Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Solo break/ thing, and now solos are really an afterthought for me. I put them in when they're a logical extension of the song, but not every song needs a solo. Coming from a Rock/Metal background I really did have to learn that, and it took other forms of music to do it.

    A trick I've inadvertently used a couple times is to re-harmonize repeating sections of songs, placing things in new contexts, like a tempo change and riff change under the same chorus, or taking and earlier riff and reintroducing it later on with a harmonic twist, or under a new set of dynamics. I love stuff that keeps you on your toes. As much as I love listening to traditional metal like later Iron Maiden and AC/DC, I could never write songs like that, if I know where they're going to go. I'd recommend checking out the album in my avatar Storm Corrosion. Steven Wilson and Mikael Akerfeldt a wildly different and idiosyncratic way of approaching songwriting, and even though I've heard the album dozens of times, it still keeps me on my toes.

    Dave has mentioned alot of great songwriters in his post. I'd recommend everything he said, and as a suggestion, if you want to sample some more out-of-left-field type song writing, I'd recommend the aforementioned Steven Wilson, Portishead, and Kate Bush to start off with.

    As far as dino songwriting goes, I'd go back and listen to the big 3, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath, and really pay attention to the dynamic shifts in the music and the composition in the riffs. Everyone has aped Blackmore and Iommi in rock and metal, but no one writes riffs like Physical Graffiti-era page.


    [quote author=inmyhands link=topic=14277.msg217843#msg217843 date=1347327534]

    If you want to be a songwriter write whenever inspiration hits. Don't think you can recapture it at a later date. You can't. A lot of crappy songs have been written by folks trying to recapture an emotion from their past. The fact that you've lived it means nothing. You have to be right in the middle of it to recreate it to perfection. A scream from your throat during gut wrenching pain will sound far different from a scream based on the memory of that time you experienced gut wrenching pain. Your mind protects you from the full scale of past emotion events. I guess it figures once was enough. My advice ..... write what you feel in the moment. Don't attempt to write on prior experience. Don't write to order. Amass enough material so you can go to your file and find one already written in the right time and at the right place that fulfills the request you've received.
    [/quote]

    Agreed. If I have to come back to an idea at a later date I find that the original momentum just stagnates. I've got so many songs that are half written, it's unreal. If I absolutely have to come back to an idea at a later date, I try not to think about the song or play any of the ideas, because I find the more I hash it over, the more those ideas become permanent, immovable things, and it's hard to work from that point.
  • My personal experience stitching together and making up songs.

    I'm not much of a guitar player, so I play to my strengths. I set aside time, and work on a song like it's an assignment - of course while noodling around one tends to stumble upon an idea which might write itself into a full fledged song, but I'd like to put more effort into it, let it sink in and see if I still like it a few weeks later.

    I don't follow songwriting rules, but I do have some goals from each song. Among them is, to write something that the previous song didn't do, to always keep in mind the vocalist's strengths and write to it, to always remain catchy, and to try stay within the broad boundaries the band has set for itself (simple Sabbath-worship riffy heavy rock with sprawling tunes).

    The others in the band can take care of their own parts really well, so there's less work for me while arranging, but I always tell them if I had anything in mind for their parts.

    While writing though, I show the parts to the other guitarist first - and this is easy because we live in the same house and our mancave is also our home studio, so we work out different guitar parts, harmonies, rough solos etc. This becomes the demo that gets sent to the others along with what riff is intended to do what (verse, chorus, coda, solo etc). And then we get together and work on it. Everyone brings in their ideas for the song, the vocalist comes in with lyrics.

    The point is to write a lot. At every stage you're going to weed out the weak ideas/songs - while writing on your own, at the demo stage when the rest of the band hears, while working with the band in the jam room, after playing it live a few times, or while preparing for the album and you want to pick just the best tracks that'll make the album cohesive and strong. I discarded about 6-8 songs at various stages, and the 4 best songs made the cut for the album. This is also why for most bands the debut album is very strong, because they have much more material to choose from.
    Check out my band: Bevar Sea
  • Rick's notion of using an emotion as a springboard is a great one. I certainly do not discredit it, but I don't know that I've personally ever written that way in my life. One of the best songs Amy and I have written together is about a disillusioned soldier coming home from war. That isn't about either of us, personally. It's also the first decent song I actually contributed lyrics to.  I have never really had to be a lyricist. I've always felt the words should come from the person who has to sing it, and that was never me. Though I don't mind collaborating, if that process is stuck.

    The point is that everyone's process can be different, and even within the same individual, the process can vary from time to time.  And inspiration can come from anywhere.

    As much as I love process, and am willing to discuss it, I think the point of the initial question was more about structure. 
    How do you write something that is catchy? How do you find hooks?

    I am going to have to think about how to analyze, define, and verbalize that, because it's something that I do intuitively.  I'll also ask Amy and see what she says.



    In the midst of the sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament.
  • Agreed. If I have to come back to an idea at a later date I find that the original momentum just stagnates. I've got so many songs that are half written, it's unreal. If I absolutely have to come back to an idea at a later date, I try not to think about the song or play any of the ideas, because I find the more I hash it over, the more those ideas become permanent, immovable things, and it's hard to work from that point.
    I understand the point here, but again, this contradicts what I often experience. There are some exception songs that came quickly, but I usually don't write whole songs in one spurt. I pick up a guitar and, on a good day, something worth working on occurs. Usually it is just a riff or a progression. Typically, it is not a fully fleshed out song. It is just a song part.  When I worked alone, what I would do then is put it down on tape before I forget it (plain, old, low-tech analog cassette tape), which is critical, because my memory for these things sucks. Usually I will then see if I can come up with more to go along with it, and usually that doesn't happen immediately. If I was really inspired at the time, I would go back to it the next day and try again. But if I'm drawing a blank, I just leave it there on the tape for later. Months can go by. I often forget about it. Then I'll either go back to it later and try again, or more commonly, I'll stumble across another cool guitar part and go to put that down on the same tape, and revisit what is already there.  Sometimes the parts can be connected (So Far to Go started as two different song ideas) . Sometimes hearing the old part with fresh ears will spark fresh ideas.  I know a lot of guitarists write this way.

    The bottom line is that there is no right or wrong to songwriting process. There is only what works for each individual.
    In the midst of the sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament.
  • IsaacIsaac Posts: 3,088
    [quote author=Dinosaur David B link=topic=14277.msg217865#msg217865 date=1347362806]
    Agreed. If I have to come back to an idea at a later date I find that the original momentum just stagnates. I've got so many songs that are half written, it's unreal. If I absolutely have to come back to an idea at a later date, I try not to think about the song or play any of the ideas, because I find the more I hash it over, the more those ideas become permanent, immovable things, and it's hard to work from that point.
    I understand the point here, but again, this contradicts what I often experience. There are some exception songs that came quickly, but I usually don't write whole songs in one spurt. I pick up a guitar and, on a good day, something worth working on occurs. Usually it is just a riff or a progression. Typically, it is not a fully fleshed out song. It is just a song part.  When I worked alone, what I would do then is put it down on tape before I forget it (plain, old, low-tech analog cassette tape), which is critical, because my memory for these things sucks. Usually I will then see if I can come up with more to go along with it, and usually that doesn't happen immediately. If I was really inspired at the time, I would go back to it the next day and try again. But if I'm drawing a blank, I just leave it there on the tape for later. Months can go by. I often forget about it. Then I'll either go back to it later and try again, or more commonly, I'll stumble across another cool guitar part and go to put that down on the same tape, and revisit what is already there.  Sometimes the parts can be connected (So Far to Go started as two different song ideas) . Sometimes hearing the old part with fresh ears will spark fresh ideas.  I know a lot of guitarists write this way.

    The bottom line is that there is no right or wrong to songwriting process. There is only what works for each individual.
    [/quote]

    Honestly, the way you've described is generally how most of my songs get written. I should clarify. I find that lyrics are the thing that I tend to leave alone and not think about them until the rest of the track is laid. Lyrics are an especially arduous process for me, and they're usually best if I write them in one shot. I leave any solos to the very end as well.
  • T-MANT-MAN Posts: 271
    Analyzing songs is an incredibly effective way to improve your songwriting. Take a song like “All You Need is Love” by the Beatles for example. Learn the verse and chorus chord progressions and the single-note hook melody in the chorus. Analyze the in-key chords and out-of-key (“subbed/borrowed”) chords in the verse and chorus. Learn how the subbed chord(s) function. What happens to the progression when an in-key minor chord is subbed with an out-of-key major chord? What does this do to the chord progression? Should your melodic thinking change in regard to the established key center, etc? 

    IF YOU WANT TO BE A SONGWRITER, DON’T RELY ON INTERNET TABLATURE, PRINTED TABLATURE DVDS/YOU-TUBE VIDEOS, MIMICKRY OF FRIENDS/GUITAR TEACHERS TO LEARN SONGS.

    Listen to music on headphones with a pencil and paper handy with no distractions. Figure out the chords section by section through repeated listening. Work slowly. Learning the first two or three chords in a song is often, (but not always,) enough to establish the key. Write out the chord progressions to the verse, pre-chorus and chorus sections for as many songs as you can. Pick from a variety of genres and be diligent. Set goals, be dedicated to becoming a better songwriter and never stop analyzing music. 

    Understanding how music works (I.e.- “music theory”) and thoroughly analyzing a great variety of songs will greatly improve your songwriting skills.
  • It certainly helps to know which chords resolve to what.


    I asked Amy about this a bit last night to see if she could explain in concrete terms what makes choruses catchy, and what makes good hooks.  As I suspected, the answer wasn't an easy to articulate.  The most practical, usuable things she said were (and I'm paraphrasing):


    * A hook can be anything -- a guitar riff like Smoke on the Water, for example -- but the best hook is a great, catchy chorus.
    * Simple melodies that repeat -- the simpler, the better.
    * An equally simple lyric or lyrical idea, that even someone with no singing skills can sing along with (no matter how poorly or off key).

    For example "You, shook me all night long," "Run to the hills, run for your life" (both of which follow the vocal melody) or "The boys are back in town," "Here I Am, Rock you like a Hurricane" (both of which do not) You don't want overly wordy lyrics, or overly busy melodies.

    These ideas have an underlying theme and message: If you are truly invested in writing catchy songs that will have mass appeal, put your guitarist brain and ego on the back burner during this part of the process. Tell your guitarist brain: "Take the day off, and let me work this out without you. I promise you'll still get your glory moment in the song." 

    Instead, think like a songwriter and/or a vocalist and prioritize the song.  Or a fan.  Would I sing along with this? Does it stick in my head? Analyze the songs that you DO actually sing along with on the choruses and note what the common factors are. Then apply them to your songs.  You are likely going to find they are those simple, repeating melodies combined with simple lyrical ideas.
    In the midst of the sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament.
  • RED_SGRED_SG Posts: 2,058
    [quote author=Dinosaur David B link=topic=14277.msg217865#msg217865 date=1347362806]
    There are some exception songs that came quickly, but I usually don't write whole songs in one spurt. I pick up a guitar and, on a good day, something worth working on occurs. Usually it is just a riff or a progression. Typically, it is not a fully fleshed out song. It is just a song part.
    [/quote]

    Same for me. I usually come up with what will be the ''main riff'' or intro of the song. Then I might come up with other parts of the song quikly, but usually I find that they're not as strong as the main riff/intro so I leave it on the ice a bit. I keep on jamming the main riff, fool around and noodle a bit and then I slowly come up with the rest of the songs. Paul Mcartney used to keep is ''spark'' ideas on the ice for at least a day to see if he'd remember them the day after. To him that was a good sign if the song was catchy or not. I'd say it usually takes me an average of about a week or two to come up with a ''song structre'', when I'm inspired. Sometimes I have the melody down by that time, and I start recording the song. Other times I just have a structure with intro and all the other parts  down with brief ideas, like ''this part could have some akward percussions going, as if I was jamming with a tribe in the jungle '', or ''this part should have the lead guitar sound like a  cartoon scene, as if the scene was  in a superhero's laboratory'' or ''I want this to sound like indians dancing around a fire'', or ''this should sound like I'm under water''  and other crazy images like that. I use that ''image'' composition technique a lot actually, more than personnal emotions. Not that my life is boring, but it's been very stable for the past 5-6 years and the whole image thing has served me well musicaly and since I don't write lyrics, I find that it's a great way to compose instrumentals.
  • inmyhandsinmyhands Posts: 11,668
    95% of the songs I've written have come all at once and held me to my desk and instrument until they were complete. The other 5% were pieces with many movements. An idea would spring to mind that was more like a book with chapters and each chapter could be written on any given day over a period of time. These always felt more like compositions than songs. Fast here, slow there, dark here, sparkling there. I think of songs as music and lyrics that usually take less than seven minutes to perform and maintain a recognizable "face" from start to finish. Compositions, to my way of thinking, are much more involved. A song might be something like a skit while a composition would be more like a play. It's just my way of thinking when I'm writing. A simple comparison would be Beatles songs like "Yesterday" or "Back In The U.S.S.R." compared to a more full bodied composition like "A Day In The Life". "A Day In The Life" might have been written over many days, weeks or months while "Yesterday" was something Paul heard in a dream and wrote down when he woke up.
  • And A day in the Life is a John song and a Paul song pasted together.  Yeah, Paul woke up with the Yesterday melody in his head, and he was sure it was some pre-existing song he just couldn't recall where he had heard. After asking around, he was finally convinced it was his own melody. Working title: Scrambled Eggs.

    And Elton John used to get handed lyrics from Bernie Taupin, and come up with the music pretty quickly.  He wrote Your Song in 15 minutes.  :%:


    I don't claim to be able to explain where songwriting genius comes from or how to tap into it.  
    In the midst of the sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament.
  • IsaacIsaac Posts: 3,088
    I'd highly recommend the TV series Classic Albums to get some insight and stories on how some artists wrote particular songs on famous albums. I love getting a peek at other musicians creative processes.

    Check out this site too: http://www.miketuritzin.com/songwriting/
  • MedicTJMedicTJ Posts: 701
    I am certainly no authority on this...and I'm still learning...even at age 42 and having been writing and recording music for well over 20 years.

    But to me, melody is key.  That's the hook.  When I write something, it's almost always the thing I hear first in my head and then I just layer everything else underneath it to support it.

    And although I'm mainly an instrumental artist, it doesn't mean that the guitar has to hold up everything.  I'm a huge Rush and Iron Maiden fan.  Bass guitar can have a huge impact on melody along with supporting the backbone of any composition, and there are a few songs where the bass is so prominent that it actually carries the melody outright.  "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen is one tune that comes to mind.
  • Mike_HMike_H Posts: 769
    I am just starting to write songs now, in my 40s .....
    This was a good read, I hadn't seen it before because I never really spend much time on the Songwriting part of the forum.
    Perhaps this topic is worthy of a sticky or something of that nature for future reference?
  • Easily done. There's relatively little in this forum so, sure.
    In the midst of the sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament.
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