“Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
A dumb little song, right? “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” will likely be sung and remembered as long as there are voices to sing it. Can you write a song as memorable? How about “Happy Birthday To You”?
Good songwriting is deceptively simple. Just a few words, a few chords. Easy, right? Most successful songwriters spend years and years producing thousands of songs trying to do it.
If you study good songs closely you’ll discover that many contain similar rules and principles that can be applied to your own work. They also apply to instrumentals. Here’s a few I’ve discovered along the way:
KEEP IT SHORT
Most beginning songwriters tend to write overlong – too many choruses, too many verses. Keep it short! Use a timer if you have to. If you can’t ‘say it all’ in it under three minutes you’re probably saying too much. Save some ideas for the next song. Stick to one subject.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Cut mercilessly. Make it perfect, then cut out two more minutes. Destroy your favorite stuff. Take out the fancy words. Pour every good idea you’d ever had into what is left. Keep boiling it down to it’s essence. Repeat.
If after all that the song seems too short, maybe you didn’t have that much to say in the first place. Try again.
DON’T BE BORING
Cut down on the repetition. I can’t say that enough. If you’re going to repeat, keep it interesting. I’ve heard countless seven minute demos where the artist keeps repeating the same chorus over and over again with exactly the same delivery, as if that would somehow make their message stronger. It doesn’t. Don’t be that guy. Get in, say your piece, get out.
Cut out all that space between verses and choruses (where you noodle noodle noodle). Get rid of those long, drawn out intros. It’s just dead space. Get back to the song. Study how other songwriters solve this problem.
Repetition should come not from repeating stuff within the song, but wanting to listen to it over and over, to experience it again and again. If it’s good enough they’ll want to, trust me.
HAVE A PLAN
As a general rule three verses and two choruses are usually enough. If you add more, they better be amazing! Try this:
VERSE ONE – State the subject. What’s it all about?
VERSE TWO – Elaborate on the story or problem (the things that you feel, the things that have happened).
VERSE THREE – Present a new insight or idea that surprises and delights the listener, producing a feeling they’ll want to experience again and again.
Every verse added should help shed light on the subject of the chorus and makes it’s meaning deeper.
KEEP IT INTERESTING
A song is like a story. Start simply, with a good idea, followed by an even better one, followed by an amazing one, followed by a “We are not worthy” one. Keep it interesting throughout. Don’t pile up all of your ideas, instruments, harmonies at the start then blast on through to the end. Leave something to look forward to each time the song is played. Make the listener wait for it, anticipate it.
Watch out for clichés (I feel your love in my heart, my heart is crying, my heart is in my hand – yuch!).
Forget about arrangement at first when you’re writing. If a song is really good, it can stand any sort of arrangement and still work.
DON’T SAY EVERYTHING
Let the listener build the world of the song in their mind and find its meaning as it relates to them. Remind the listener of some wonderful truths about beauty and life they may have forgotten. If you do this just right, you’ll create a feeling of connection – those goosebumps that happen when you hear a really good song, the feeling of “I’m not alone, someone else understands too.”
The best written songs are:
2. Seemingly obvious and inevitable.
3. Connect profoundly with the listener.
A good song is not necessarily fancy or flowery, it just feels true.
Always strive to write a song that’s so good that the world seems a better place just because that song exists.
Your creativity and inspiration come from your unique point of view. Nobody can do it quite like you. The inspiration will come if you just provide is the sweat. It’s interesting, isn’t it? The entire music industry teeters precariously on these tiny little songs written in tiny little bedrooms on crappy little guitars.
Your songs. It’s all on you.
© 2014 Leo Bidne