Do you remember the first song you ever wrote? Where did it start? Maybe with a melody you had buzzing around in your head. Maybe it was a feeling you were trying to describe. Maybe you wanted to connect to someone with music. Maybe you found a chord progression you liked.
One thing I was made painfully aware of early on in my songwriting journey is that most new songwriters (myself included) are guilty of one common trait: too many ideas.
When you just start to get a taste of writing everything you think and feel into a song, it's pretty addicting. In the beginning, it's hard to have so many ideas and no real guidance on how to organize, compartmentalize, and prioritize those ideas to serve the music.
There were a few key principles that I needed to learn to really shape and refine the songwriting process:
1. The song comes first
That's right, even before your original idea or intentions for it. Once a song starts to take shape, it is now at the helm, steering the ship. You are merely the rudder making sure the vessel is staying on course.
This idea is one of the hardest to apply to your writing — and the most necessary. Your ability to serve the song will make the difference between a song that you're proud of and a song that fans will be proud to sing with you.
During my senior recital, I planned one song to be an anthem — big and open — but my professor reminded me of what the song and the show needed. It needed to be stripped down, me and a piano. In my mind, the ideas behind that song were way too important to limit to my voice and one other instrument. But what I didn't realize until I tried it was that stripping it down made those thoughts whisper with intensity. I realized I didn't need volume or a big arrangement to make a bold statement. I needed to serve the song, and that song was an intimate conversation between my inner demons. What better way to serve the show and serve the song by giving them enough space to breathe?
Serving the song doesn't always come naturally. A lot of times, it actually feels anti-instinctual. It could mean cleaning up your riffs, ending a song differently, simplifying your lyrics, changing the key, or altering the form to be more cohesive. It's uncomfortable, but if you can take a step back and remove yourself emotionally for just a moment — just enough to re-approach it with a fan's emotions — you'll get a better result.
How will you know if you need to serve the song? What do you do to learn this skill?
First, write with sacrifice in mind. Songwriting is a palms-open practice. If you try to hold on too tightly to any idea, the music won't be able to touch it and do its work.
Second, be aware of when you're trying too hard to make something work. This is the biggest red flag and sign that you may need to change something to serve the song.
Finally, know that it gets easier with practice. I was taught that songwriting is 10% writing and 90% rewriting. The more you make intentional time to look for ways to serve the song after you've finished writing, the more you'll start to do it naturally in your first draft.
2. Less is more (sometimes)
You may have an entire world inside you that you want to express in a single song, but trust me, your song will be more impactful if you can zoom in and focus on a single detail of that world. A single idea.
Contrary to what our instincts tell us as storytellers, you don't need a full plot in every song. In fact, by doing that, you eliminate any opportunity to go into the details that make that world feel real or relatable.
The first thing I had my songwriting students do when we went over their songs is eliminate unnecessary words or lines that didn't serve purpose. They absolutely hated it, but eventually started doing it themselves before we went over songs together. That simple clean-up made space for more powerful language. It also brought clarity to the ideas and prompted more precise language.
Musically, you could say the same thing. Too much clutter means there is no room for dynamics. Big heavy songs only feel that way when they can contrast the silence or the softness, so it's important to learn how to write both.
When it's time to go full-force, by all means, more is more. Just be sure to incorporate some spots where "less" can speak, whether it be in your song, your album, or your live show.
3. Avoid abstractions
This principle brought out the stubbornness in me...
I wanted songs to be interpreted by the listener. I didn't want to box them into an idea by making it too concrete. I learned very quickly that most of the time, that's just lazy writing.
"Show, don't tell" is, by far, the best thing that ever happened to my writing, from a technical standpoint.
Telling someone you love them doesn't mean a whole lot unless you show them. How do you do that? With your senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.
When they hear the nervousness in your voice when you tell them you love them, they know.
When they see the seriousness and softness in your eyes, they know.
When they feel the strength in your hand as you hold theirs, they know.
Get the idea? So, how do you show your ideas in your songs?
Showing with lyrics
Instead of writing about emotions or ideas that can't be pinned down, try to describe them with imagery — something that ties back to one of the five senses. Instead of talking about how pretty that girl is, describe her hair or her smile with metaphors, similes, or other literary devices.
When you'd like to describe a feeling you had during a specific time in your life, why not pick a day to describe in detail: where you were, what you saw, what you smelled? That would bring your world to life and your initial feeling would be experienced by the listener because that's the world through which you experienced it too.
Using concrete imagery works because it's a common thread between the writer and the listener. The listener won't know exactly what your love is if you just describe it as "love." If, instead, you describe it with something they can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch, they can immediately make the connection between your experience and theirs.
This idea is especially challenging if, like me, you think in big-picture concepts and philosophies. It's easier to live in the abstract than it is to ground your thoughts on something solid. Sometimes, I think that would contaminate the idea all together. But, when it comes to sharing ideas in song, choosing the concrete almost always results in a stronger song.
Showing with music
You also don't have to limit this idea to lyrics alone. Creating more concrete ideas can also be done through the music, primarily through the use of prosody.
In short, prosody is a songwriting tool that links your lyrical ideas to your melodic ideas. The most common example is Garth Brooks' song, "I've Got Friends in Low Places." When he sings the word "low" in the chorus, his melody dips way down so you can hear the synchronicity between the two. These two elements — lyrics and melody — are working together to achieve some common goal.
Sometimes, that idea is stretched even farther...Pat Pattison, the author I told you about in the last blog post on how to tackle writer's block, said prosody is "the appropriate relationship between elements, whatever they may be." In this regard, there is a little flex in the definition. This looser definition of prosody encompasses musical sounds or textures that support the emotional idea behind the song, or syllables that are stressed to emphasize important words, or the way a rhyme scheme is used to accent certain ideas.
Songwriting is cathartic. That's why we do it — to express the world that is taken into our minds and hearts every day. If it's done right, songwriting is also exhausting (in the best way possible). Serving the song, making space for the music to do its work, and nailing down our abstract thoughts is not always natural for human beings, but if you can lock in these skills, the music will be bigger than you ever could have imagined.
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