How Not To Write A Song As someone who regularly stands or sits in front of a group of people to bear his thoughts and soul through songs, I am often asked about how I go about writing songs. This, of course, is like asking someone how to make love or how to raise a child. The topic is so broad and diverse, that a simple answer is nearly impossible. Besides the years of learning instruments, understanding basic music theory, gaining a better understanding of rhyme and meter, and trying to actually learn the craft of songwriting, there is simply the time it takes to write plenty of bad songs before the good ones start to come. There are books written on the subject, and if I ever get the notion, I may write such a book. But, something that I don't see much written about is how NOT to write a song. There are several things that I see over and over again in songs, especially in newer writers, that if avoided would make a song that is more memorable to the audience. Now, for those of you wanting to write the next pop hit or new country single, some of these will not apply. You see, there seems to be a "formula" used now that shows up over and over again in such music. I will highlight some of these as I reach them in this discussion, but these are not the type of songs that I wish to write, and I am hoping that if you are reading this you too are hoping to stretch and grow to a more prolific songwriter. (However, writing a few crappy hit songs is a good way to make some income and then concentrate on the stuff you really want to do, so don't completely write that off just yet...) So, here are a few things that learning to avoid will make your songs stand out in the crowd. If you are simply trying to be a songwriter and not necessarily perform your songs in public, some of these may not be as applicable, but you may still want to keep in mind during your writing sessions. 1) ENOUGH WITH THE CLICHES ALREADY! How many times have you heard a "country" song by one of these new "artists" that when simply read is just one country cliché after the next... EX. Driving my truck down to the river, drinking beer, high school football, young love, hard work, etc... Literally, they will string one country cliché' after the other about country living, sing the chorus about 5 times, and call it a day. Country music is a great example, but rap music is just as bad. How many hoes, strong blunts, stacks of cash, and gold teeth are necessary?? The classic rap songs that I think will stand the test of time are the ones by folks like NWA, Tupac, and Tribe Called Quest-- groups who may have mentioned such things in their songs, but were actually making valid social commentary, and not relying on such clichés to make up the song. Not to mention, since they were some of the first to talk about street life, it was far from cliché at the time. My guess is that if such groups were to start now, there message would be the same, but the content would be more diverse. Now, that being said, the idea that no clichés should show up in your song is not what I am saying. Using a saying or catch phrase in whatever genre you write in can serve you very well as chorus or "hook" in the song. Just try not to use too many in one song, and when you do, try to phrase it or present it in a different way. 2) WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW AND BE AGE APPROPRIATE! This is one that I have had issues with in the past, and I see younger people having similar issues with all the time. Let me give you an example from my own experience and then I will give you examples that I see regularly. Some years back, I had gotten some great press about my songwriting from an "authority" in the music business. He had gotten a copy of my demo tape and did a great write-up on me in order to promote a showcase I was doing in Nashville. I went on stage to a packed house and the first few songs went great. But, as the night progressed, I could feel my audience slipping away. After the show, I met the journalist who had written the article and thanked him for the kind words. His response was , "Had I known you were so young, I probably wouldn't have written the article". You see, I was writing very mature songs, and they didn't match the baby face that was standing on the stage. The audience had a hard time believing what I was saying. How could someone so young speak of hard living, drinking, drugs, lost love, and other adult topics? You see, I was emulating the songwriters I admired---Townes Van Zant, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, etc. And, although I was writing of true experiences in my songs, much of it was as an observer of other people I knew. Yet, I was writing in the first person as though it had happened to me personally. That may be fine on a demo tape to pitch for other people to record, but for me to promote myself as performer, those songs needed to be written in the third person and interspersed with more age appropriate topics like chasing teenage girls or getting drunk for the first time.
If you are 25 years old, write about things a 25 year old should be concerned with--things like leaving home, trying to find your way as an adult, relationships, etc. It needs to be believable to the audience that what you are singing about is something you know or have lived through. Again, you can write other songs if written as an observer in third person, but they need to be done sparingly throughout your set. 3) CHANGE IT UP FROM TIME TO TIME How many times have we heard someone say about a band or artist, "All their stuff sounds the same". Granted, some of the greatest bands have created a "signature" sound and are immediately recognizable (The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, etc...), but still have managed to diversify their catalog. Many times I have heard a young new artist who I think is fantastic, but 4 songs into the set I have lost interest because they have a similar meter and phrasing in nearly every song. It takes time to study and learn different styles of music and then incorporate what you have learned into your own music. If you starting writing songs after hearing Jack Johnson or Dave Matthews on the radio, you may have a hard time diversifying your songs while still emulating the artist that inspired you to write, especially early on. So, here are just a few simple things you can do to change it up. 1) Buy or download a metronome app and USE IT! One of the easiest things to do to diversify a bit is to change the speed of your songs. Play around with it---see how fast or how slow you can make a song and it still work. If all your songs naturally find themselves in a meter of 60 beats per minute, see which ones can be changed up and do it. 2) Change your key! Another simple way to make your songs different is by using varying keys. If you are new to guitar, the use of a capo is a fast, easy way to change keys while still using the basic chords you have learned. If you are more of an intermediate or advanced player, there are some great apps or programs that can easily transpose your song to another key. If you write pop songs in major keys, try switching to a minor key. 3) Change your song structure! Another great way to get something different is to create different song structures, or different rhyming schemes. Here are a few rhyming patterns you could try for instance: A,A,B,B A,B,A,B A,A,B,A A,A,A,B Also, try switching up the order of a song structure. You shouldn't always do a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus. Try starting with the chorus, add a bridge, modulate they key on the final chorus, or do two verses before you hit the chorus. It is a good idea to identify your rhyme sequence and overall song pattern so if you do decide to try something different you can outline it easily enough and see how it works. 4) BE REAL When I first heard the words "Will the real Slim Shady please stand up...please stand up...", I couldn't help but smile. All to often in our over-played Top 40 world, we hear the same trends and topics so much that we begin to think that if we want to make music and write songs, they have to be within the constraints of a certain subject matter. Bullshit. If there is a topic you like, or a hobby you are involved in, there is a group of people out there just ready to be your audience. Some years back, I had gotten tired of some of the "business" aspect of music and wanted to stretch myself a bit. I had recently rekindled my love of traditional archery and hunting, so I was devoting a lot of my time to that. So, I decided to write a few songs about that experience, and about the people and places I had been reading about. After singing them around a few campfires, I realized there was an audience for my new songs. I went into the studio and cut an album, found ways to market it to my audience, and since have sold over 10,000 albums and downloads. If it means something to you, it means something to someone else, too. Write about what you know. If you are a rich white kid living in the suburbs throwing parties and taking xanac, then rap about that. You have no street credentials. You don't sell drugs in order to pay your babies momma. You are just an angry white kid looking to score women and a buzz. That's OK. There are millions of other ass-wipes just like you who will identify and buy your songs. 5) BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF This past year, I hosted a songwriter showcase for a few young songwriters. I visited with all of them before the show and gave some words of encouragement. One young man was exceptionally well-mannered, intelligent, clean-cut, and good-looking. Now, I had not heard any of their music prior or spoken with them in detail about their musical tastes or influences. The clean-cut songwriter performed 5 songs during the showcase that night---all written with a backwoods gruff, mostly about running from the law, drinking moonshine, hard drugs, and women. At the end of the show I told him he did a nice job and said," I bet you like Hank III". "He's my favorite", the kid said. You see, the kid's appearance in no way matched the type of songs he was singing. In fact, his high, clear-toned voice was not a good fit for the rough, low-living music he was creating, either. One of two things had occurred--either the kid yearned to break free of his straight-laced life, or he didn't find his own life worthy enough of writing about. But, he was wrong. You see, know matter what our circumstances are, someone else has been, is currently in, or knows someone in that circumstance and will potentially relate to your song. Also, if you are a performing songwriter, look and act the image you want to portray. Hank Williams didn't sing about drinking because it was cool, he did it because he was a drunk. Know who you are. Write about the things you like and dislike about yourself. Often, what we may see as a weakness in ourselves is actually one of the great strengths in songwriting.