Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

October 28, 2010

Songwriting 101

The title on this post is a misnomer, I'm afraid, as I don't know the first thing about teaching anyone how to write a song. That said, after writing lousy songs for the first ten years of my esteemed career—you've never heard them and you never will—I've finally learned how to write a decent one.

Sometimes the music comes first. A chord progression or melody will strike me, whether or not I have an instrument at hand at the time (usually not). Other times an insistent phrase will pop into my head and suggest itself as a song title, accompanied by a hint of melody as well if I'm lucky. The last two I've written, "Next of Kindred" and "When You Wear Black," fall into that category. Both began with just the title phrase and an embryonic melody.

By the time I get to pick up a guitar and see what takes shape, either the words or the chord sequence will evoke a melody. Or vice-versa: on rare occasions the melody will drive everything else. Some of my songs have spent their birthing time as little more than a melody with dummy lyrics. (What are dummy lyrics? A classic example is the earliest version of The Beatles' "Yesterday," which began life in Paul McCartney's brain as "Scrambled Eggs." Original opening couplet: "Scrambled eggs/Oh, my baby how I love your legs." Not bad, huh?)

My best ideas seem to come when I'm doing something else: working, riding the subway, or trying to fall asleep. For that reason I always keep a voice recorder handy. Oftentimes if you don't catch that first snippet right away, it's lost forever.

As for the structure (that's the verse-chorus-solo-bridge stuff), I like to say what needs to be said and no more, musically and lyrically. For me that generally takes between two and four minutes. And though one typically adheres to an established set of genre-based conventions, it's the little twists and turnarounds that can really make a song shine, and in this regard, serendipity is your ally.

Example: the other week The Benvereens were rehearsing one of my brother's new songs, and on the last chorus we hit the wrong chord. The progression was Em-G-C-D and we both went from Em to C. The song fell apart right there and we stopped and said, "Wait a minute—let's do that again. Change to the C straight away and stay on it, then hit the D." We tried it and guess what? We now have a final chorus with a twist that really drives the sucker home.

Borderline obvious, but worth mentioning: if you plan on performing your tune, either live or in studio, put it in the key that best suits your vocal range. (This may involve some experimenting but when you hit on it, you'll know.) Key-shifting is easier for guitarists than keyboardists, since we have the nifty capo at our disposal. If you're composing on piano, I'd suggest you choose the key that best facilitates comfortable singing and playing. If the key is in the ballpark vocally but the song still feels awkward to play, shift up or down a semitone—that should rid you of most of those pesky black notes. As always, experiment till you hit on what feels right.

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