23 Sep How to Write a Song That You Can’t Finish
Songwriting can seem like a daunting task to beginners and professionals alike. Perhaps this is why so many can start a song, or come up with a great hook, but ultimately lack the focus needed to finish it. You don’t need to go to music school to learn how to write a song. A songwriter in 2019 doesn’t even have to play an instrument (although it helps). Below are some tips that can not only help you get started, but can help you complete that project you may have put on hold.
Streamline Your Focus With These 5 Songwriting Tips
Songwriting Tip #1 Focus Your Message
What is your song about? If you have more than one idea in your song, then you may have the makings for several completely different songs. While there are exceptions to any “rules” in music, if you go back and scan through the most popular music over the past 50+ years, they all have a simple, cohesive message. Many of us when learning how to write a song simply write too much. This often results in pages of lyrics which have been subjected to torturous re-write after re-write. Did those revisions really help the song? Or were you chasing your tail the entire time because you were still focusing your message?
As the saying goes, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Embrace the idea that the early writing stage can be a bit messy. Writing far more than is initially needed for one song may be the most effective way to get your ideas on paper, and is often a natural part of the discovery process. If you’re a songwriter of that category, then the next tip may be especially useful for you.
Exercise: Ask yourself the following question and be honest with yourself. Do I have more than one main idea in my song? If so, consider making some tough cuts. You’ll soon be on your way to a more concise message.
Songwriting Tip #2 Don’t Be Afraid to Self-Edit
We ALL need an editor. It’s important to test out your material, but first, a little self-editing doesn’t hurt. Keeping the message in your song concise comes from making clear, methodical decisions along the way. You may love that third stanza that you wrote but does it really help drive home the main point of the song, or is it just a diversion? Keep your focus on the main storyline behind the music, and don’t be afraid to cut something if it’s not working. Sometimes the right cuts reveal the gem beneath. Remember that whereas a novelist must write an entire book to gain notoriety, some of the most famous songwriters have managed to carry their message with just a few words. “You Are So Beautiful” and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” are just two examples of hit songs with fewer than 40 words. As the saying goes, less is more. Knowing how to write a song that grabs your listeners attention and is memorable with the least amount of words may just be one the best songwriting tricks of the trade.
Exercise: Try writing an entire song from scratch, chorus and all, that does not exceed 40 words. If you are working to finish an existing song, try cutting the word count down to 40 and see what your left with.
Songwriting Tip #3 Find the Patterns of Rhythm in Your Lyrics
In songwriting, prosody is the patterns of rhythm that occur in your lyrics. Collectively they create an overall shape for each section which also determines the meter (4/4, 3/4) and often the approximate tempo that the song should be in. Understanding prosody is key to knowing how to write a song that falls into rhythmic patterns/stresses that make sense to the average listener. Dissecting the prosody of your song may help if you are stuck or missing a line of lyrics needed to complete a section. If that’s the case, check the prosody of the first three lines and try saying it aloud. At the very least it should give you a pretty solid idea of what the rhythm (and number of syllables) for line 4 ought to be. This is a skill that William Shakespeare himself used in his writing!
Exercise: Go back to your most recent song or start a brand new one today. Are your lyrics falling into patterns of approximately 4 and 8 lines? If so, chances are it will work fine for most styles of pop. If you have an odd number of lines that are not there specifically to draw attention, consider making some cuts or adding material to make it appear more symmetrical on paper. For a more indepth look at prosody, you can also check out this article https://thesongfoundry.com/prosody-songwriting-101/.
Songwriting Tip #4 Pick a Popular Song Structure Formula to Get Started
You don’t have to limit yourself to specific formulas when learning how to write a song. But they can be useful, especially when starting off a new piece. Why do some of the old methods work on the listener time and time again? Virtually all popular styles of music can be broken down into 4, 8, 12, or 16 measure patterns (a measure in 4/4 contains four quarter note beats). The reasons for this could probably form the basis of a scholarly dissertation, but focusing in on popular music from the past century we can trace those patterns back to Blues, which even made famous the term 12-bar-blues. Even today the average pop music listener expects to hear changes that adhere to basic patterns of repetition.
Musical phrases can often be thought of as a question and answer. This is just another reason that even numbers of measures tend to make the most sense for popular music. Sometimes it’s okay to end on a question (or drop that 8th measure, making it asymmetrical) but generally, this is reserved for when it’s being done purposefully, with the intent of grabbing the listeners attention with something out of the ordinary.
Here are just a few popular song structure formats to help get you started:
Exercise: Try writing a brand new song that follows one of these common song structure formulas exactly. Don’t worry about writing the sections in the correct order. In fact, start with any section you want and try moving them around to see how they might complement each other. Sometimes even the most important hook in the song originally started as a bridge or other section, only to later become the chorus. Be flexible and willing to make changes if you think it will make the song more appealing to the listener.
Songwriting Tip #5 How to Write a Song with “Build Factor”: Giving Your Song Shape
Song structure is only one part of the equation. Within the dynamic choices and arrangement choices we make, lies a universe of possibility. But again, there are some tried and true techniques that just make good old fashioned sense. Since humans are visual creatures, this is perhaps one of the easier concepts to convey because you can illustrate the idea on a simple sheet of paper with a single line (see example above).
Exercise: Using the last three songs that you wrote (or three of your favorite songs), draw a simple graph on a piece of paper that roughly charts your songs melody up and down in pitch. If you want to get really gritty create two additional charts for volume and intensity. Do they stay the same from beginning to end or do your songs have a lot of melodic shape and verve? If not, try experimenting with your melody. Try to give it the kinds of shape illustrated in the example above.
These are by no means hard and fast rules to feel limited by, but rather starting points to help you if you are stuck trying to finish a song, or need some new ideas. Innovation and new styles of music emerge when artists bend the rules, or just make up their own. Try to make a firm decision with yourself about which audience you are writing for from the start. Is this a radio friendly pop song or something likely to be forever banished as wicked experimental? Knowing the answer to that question will help you decide when and where to break the rules.
I hope you’ve been able to take away something useful from this article that you can use the next time you are feeling stuck on a particular song. I’d be curious to hear from other songwriters out there. What resources have you used to learn how to write a song? What do you do when you are having trouble finishing a song?
Trystan Matthews is the founder and CEO of 5050songs Inc and Demo My Song®. He is a Berklee College of Music alum, cellist, and award winning music producer and songwriter. He is currently working with artists in NYC for select projects for the 5050songs label.