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Songwriting: Don’t Be Afraid To Ask

by Joel Mabus

                Whether you consider songwriting an art, a craft or a pastime, it is worthwhile to improve your skills. It is helpful to bring a few basic issues into focus. To analyze the process of songwriting, and to figure out how you and your songs fit into that process, it becomes very helpful to ask yourself some questions.

          The first question to ask yourself is “Why do I want to write a song?”  Are you writing for fun or profit?  Is it that you feel a need to communicate with others?  If it is communication you are after, have you considered short stories, essays, or poetry? With a song’s requirements for a relatively rigid structure (rhythm, rhyme, etc.), sometimes a complicated idea or complex emotion can be tricky to express in song, when another, freer medium might be better suited to the task. And if you are writing for profit — if you intend to sell the song in some manner — you should give some thought as to who might buy it before you start to write it. Know your market. Be realistic in your expectations. And don’t put all your eggs in one basket: most hit songs are written by people who write songs for a living. That should tell you something.  Don't be a “one hit wonder.”  Be prepared for the long haul.

          So lets say you are writing for aesthetics — for the fun of writing or the joy of song. Is it the writing process that you enjoy or are you focused on the finished song as a goal?  Is it the journey or the destination?  Or both? You need to know what is most important for you. You could take some shortcuts in the process — borrowing a melody or writing within an idiom, for example — if getting to the finished song is important. Or you could hone your songs for years without completion, if that is how you find joy.  Most successful songwriters I know appreciate both the process and completion.

                 Do you want or expect other people to sing the song, or are you writing for yourself – to flex your own talents as a singer or musician?  If you have a special vocal skill — say you can yodel entire melodies or have a 4 octave range — know that you are in the minority. If your song incorporates these special skills, it may make for an impressive performance piece, but it won’t be the next “Kum-bay-ya.”  On the other hand, writing a song so simple that ANYBODY can sing it, still needs “that special something” that will make anybody WANT to sing it. There is a fine line between “simply just so” and  “just so simple.”   So what is “that special something” that elevates a song?  Ah, that, indeed, is the million-dollar question.

          The words are crucial. A well-turned phrase or a clever rhyme can last long after the song is finished. But the song as a whole should be served by the word-play, not the other way around. Rhythm and rhyme are at once a songwriters best friend and worst enemy. Searching for the best word that rhymes with that other great word you really want to use is like doing a crossword puzzle with no clues. And trimming your clever phrase and re-ordering the words to fit the meter of the song while still sounding “natural” is a high-wire act worthy of the Ringling Brothers circus. But these constraints that challenge you and tug at you and throw up stone walls in front of your face  — they are profound gifts to you as an artist. These obstacles to everyday speech force you to dive deep into your unconscious mind. They force you to question your purpose and your attitude. These barriers become hurdles which urge you to jump higher — reach farther. To use another metaphor, it is the honing process that makes the words sharper  — the grinding stone of rhythm and rhyme turn dull everyday prose into poetry.

          A truly great melody can drag along some forgettable lyrics with it and no one seems to mind. In the folk tradition think about “Wildwood Flower” or “Redwing.”  Or just go to the opera sometime. Likewise a supremely great lyric can survive a so-so melody. Consider the Elizabethan ballads you’ve read as poetry in textbooks. But the really great songs are balanced songs. They stand on both legs - words and music.

                Sometimes guitar players who write songs tend to rely on their chord changes to define their melodies. While some great songs have been guitar-driven, too often a strong splashy rhythm over a set of simple changes can mask a weak, under-developed melodic line. One measure of a melody is how it sounds a capella. Test yourself from time to time as you are working up a melody by putting aside your guitar.

                The better you are as a musician, the better you will be as a songwriter. Never be satisfied with your musical knowledge. Ask your instrument questions. Practice more. Learn more theory. Ask better musicians to help you. Try new things. Listen to music of other genres — or other cultures. Learn to use OPM (other people’s music) to help you better develop your own. Let me say it again: practice more.

          Which brings us to the most often asked question about songwriting: which comes first - the melody or the lyric?  Well, it can work either way — but it makes a difference. When Richard Rodgers wrote with Lorenz Hart, Rodgers delivered finished melodies to Hart, who then filled them in with astounding lyrics. Years later, Oscar Hammerstein would usually give complete lyrics to the same Richard Rodgers, who would then set them to music. To this day, critics are analyzing the marked difference in Rodgers’ style with the two different collaborators.

                If you are writing the words and music yourself, consider the metaphor of two legs. When you walk, one leg swings forward while the other foot stands planted. Consider a snappy phrase. Now make up a little melody just for that phrase. Now take that melody a little further, just humming. Now fill in those hums with another phrase. Now you have a line. Sit down and write another line to follow — figure a rhyme scheme — keep the meter consistent. Now work on the melody for that second line. In fact figure out a melody for the whole verse. Start writing other verses to that melody.  Define a consistent structure. Do you need a bridge?  Should you have a chorus? What point should the chorus make?  Write a few lines. Try out a new melodic strain. You are walking on two legs.

          But where do you walk?  Where will this song take you?  Will it be a place of sharp detail, or a dream-like impression?  Is it a safe place or is there danger?  Is it a place you want to visit again?  Will you invite other people along?  How have others traveled this road before you?  Will you follow or lead?  No easy questions. No easy answers.

          Have a nice trip.


©Joel Mabus 2001

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