Songwriting 101- Some Tips and Tricks by Stacy Alexander

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For years, when I was very young, I sang and played keyboards/guitar with a wide variety of musical groups.  ( Never was very good, but that’s beside the point.  😉 )    I’ve been a writer for decades.  One of the challenges  of being a writer back when I made music,  was writing songs.   As with most creative acts, songwriting does require a certain level of skill, so it takes practice.   There are certain thing one can do to improve one’s songwriting skills .

Here are some exercises to try, if you’re interested:

A Song Begins  With an Idea

 Each song begins with a spark of the imagination.  Anything can cause it….an event…a romance…a flower…that crabby waiter down at the local cafe….anything.   It  is natural to express our thoughts and ideas in one way or another.  As a songwriter one’s  creative outlet is through songs.    The purpose of a song is to communicate ideas to others.

Receiving song writing  inspiration can happen at any time.  I never knew when it was going to hit me….and that is just how it is.   If one stays awake, alive and engaged with one’s surroundings,  an abundance of ideas should automatically present themselves. There is never an excuse for running out of song ideas. Ideas are the very beginning….the raw material inherent in every song.

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Cultivate Your Ideas

 

A crucial component that can help  improve one’s songwriting ability is to develop ideas and cultivate them into songs. It can help to catalog one’s ideas by  them in a journal, or by speaking them into a recorder.  iPhones are great for this.   Ideas for lyric are as fleeting  as smoke. A system is needed to capture them.

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I always found that the best way to cultivate ideas was through brainstorming. Brainstorming allows one to think and expand on a given  idea.  The goal is to  build on an original thought. This, of course, leads to new thoughts which eventually leads to that final well developed concept upon which one can write lyrics.

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The Title is Important! 

Once a songwriter has a  crystal clear concept for a given song,  a title should be considered.  Keep in mind that the title is the primary element to any lyric because it is the song’s main topic.   It is so important to get the title right.  This  can make the rest of the writing process much simpler.   The  title should, in effect,  summarize the story that the song is about.  I remember sitting in on a songwriting session that a friend of mine did back when the film, “Children of a Lesser God” had just been released.  I witnessed how he took that title and developed it into a country and western tune called, “Children of a Looser God” that talked about tolerance.  It was such a cool song.  I was quite inspired by it.

In most cases, the title ends up being the main hook that one will find in the chorus.  A good devise to use is to highlight the title by repeating it a number of  times within the song.  There are a lot of different positions where one can place the  song title.   Just play around with it.  One good place  is at the end of the chorus….or at the chours’ beginning . Another is at the end of  all the verses. It’s up to the writer.

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Tell  a Story

 

Every good song should, at some level, tell a story.  There are specific elements that a good lyrical story should  have.

First, a plot is absolutely necessary.  It doesn’t have to be complex and long.  It just needs to portray  the characters with some kind of tension or conflict, such as unrequited love…and perhaps a solution can be found…or hopes for a solution…that will resolve the conflict.

The lyric needs a real reference point as well.  It can be told from  first person, second person or third person. Once the songwriter decides on the point of reference, it should be kept consistent.  In most cases, one should avoid switching the reference point unless the story is about more than one person speaking from different perspectives.

I don’t know if you have noticed this or not, but  good lyrics progress through time in some way.   They have a beginning  point.  Then, something happens in the middle and finally, there is an ending point.  The writer can change any and all of these elements to emphasis certain aspects by shifting around with the order of the time periods.

As  the song’s story line is developed, the songwriter should  make certain  that each and every  line  is written to support the song’s  title.  If a line is written that does not, in some way, support the title, it should be removed.   Can you see now why the title is so important?

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Paint a Picture with Words

 

This painting imparts the emotional feel to any music and  is what makes music such an astonishingly pithy art form. One should keep in mind the difference between telling or saying something  and showing the listening audience what one means. Telling is a stale, academic means of expression. Showing paints a picture in the listener’s mind’s eye.  This makes each song more vibrant, and memorable.

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Rewrite any Story into Lyrics

 

Good lyrics follow specific  patterns that include a number of lines per verse and chorus.  The meter is the number of syllables in each line.  Every  line has a repeating meter.  This is what creates the song’s rhythm.

It can help  to work on a  melody line at this point,  to help match the song’s  lyrics to the musical patterns that have evolved.   A lot of  songwriters believe that the lyric should come first, and that can work.   However,  if one  has a melody already composed, the songwriter’s job is to write lyrics that work with the melody.  When a melody already exists,  it helps the songwriter to understand which  syllables to emphasize.

Develop a Rhyme Scheme for the Lyrics

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As  lyrics begin to take shape and develop a  structure, the writer should keep in mind that the  human ear enjoys the sound of rhymes. There is a lot of bad, bad rhyming poetry out there.  However, rhymes are good when it comes to writing songs.  Most, but not all, song lyrics have specific patterns that rhyme.  The most frequently used position  to place a rhyming word is logically at the end of a line. Here are some rhyming  pattern suggestions:

  1. Each of  four lines rhyme
  2. The first and third lines rhyme
  3. The second and fourth ones rhyme

Of course, this is not a hard core rule.  There are, in fact many other possibilities.  There are merely some of the more popular rhyming patterns that songwriters use.

We’ll Cross That Bridge When We Come To It….

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 In songwriting, the word, “bridge” takes on a whole new meaning.   Most contemporary songs  have at least three different sections that consist of the verse, the chorus and the bridge.    The bridge is a good place to insert a little twist  for interest.  It can contain a new melody and rhythm for an uneven number of bars, or a slight twist in the lyric.  One can compare it to the crisis at the end of the second act in a riveting film.  A rule of thumb to keep in mind when writing songs it that each section, the melody line, the chords, the rhythm and the words are different from each other.  Whatever you write in the verse should not be included in the chorus nor in the bridge.   Whatever is written in the chorus should not be also written in the verse or  in the bridge.

Refine the Song

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Sometimes, it helps to set a song aside and to just walk away from it after working on it for awhile.  It is a rare occasion in which one can write a song from beginning to end on the first try .  Rewriting lyrics polishes them up and adds additional insight into the project.

Songwriting Isn’t Rocket Science

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Try not to over-think when writing.  Do not dwell on minute details.  Try to establish a flow.  Just get something down on paper.  Then, go back and refine gradually, changing a word here and a line there.  Songwriting is not rocket science.  Once a person gets on a roll, it can freely flow and become something pleasant….or dramatic….or whatever the songwriter wants.

Have Fun! 

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Have fun with your songwriting.  Try not to take yourself too seriously and just go with whatever comes to mind in the moment.  You may surprise yourself!

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