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Art of Songwriting

28 Mar 03 - 09:58 AM (#920491)
Subject: Art of Songwriting
From: GUEST,Steven

Hello, all

I always want to start this thread for a long time. Its about the art
of songwriting.

I have been playing the guitar for about 20 years now. I have been
listening to a wide variety of music. Folk, country, early rock n'
roll, a little jazz and blues. But over the last 7 years now, it's
been around folk music.

But over the last 20 years that I have been playing I never wrote a
song. But over the 20 years, I have played around on my flat top, and
come with a lot great air to great songs. And I said to myself, that
would be a great air for a song to write. But when I would get out a
piece of paper. My mind would be blank. Really hate that.

The art of songwriting is very new to me. No doubt there is a few
contributors to this group that have dabbled with songwriting. And no
doubt you are a professional performer. How do you do it? What is
secret to writing a good song. How do you start to write a great song.

Anyway, if you can help me on songwriting it would be great.

Thanks for your time.


28 Mar 03 - 10:08 AM (#920503)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: MMario

so you don't write lyrics - big deal!

There are lots of poems etc already out there that need music - and there are lots of new lyrics that need music.

and there are tons and tons of lyric writers that can't craft tunes.

different strokes for differnet fols. that's what makes the world an interesting place.

28 Mar 03 - 10:25 AM (#920521)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: Spartacus

I'm just starting to record a record of original songs. Here are some things that work for me:

1. I keep a hand held tape recorder with a built in mic in the car at all times. (a pad and paper, too) I get most of my ideas in the car and it's the only way to keep track of them.

2. I record most of the songs I write. (rough unproduced recordings) and convert them to a cd. This way, i can listen to them frequently, and determine what i do and don't like about them. (i use the notepad to take little notes for lyric changes, music changes, etc)

3. Steal! I steal lots of things. The key is to convert what you've taken and make it your own. If I hear a song I really like, I listen to the first few bars of it and turn it off immediately. By the time i get home and try to emulate it, it's an entirely different song. (maybe I should attribute that to bad memory)

4. Team up! I write with a few friends of mine. We pick a topic, a key, and a time signature and we each write a line. Even if you can't use the final song, you'll have a ton of new musical and lyrical ideas.

5. Here's an exercise I read about that I use frequently: Make a list of 5 adjectives and 5 nouns. Make the lists separately, then put the lists next to each other and combine each of the adjectives with each of the nouns. You'll be amazed. This will keep you from using some of the really over used folk phrases. Do the same thing with verbs and nouns. Verbs are the meat and potatoes of songs. They convey action. You can spend the whole song describing something, but when you animate it, it really comes to life.

Remember that it's a process. I just finished a song I half wrote about 3 years ago just yesterday. I've also written whole songs in about 5 minutes and they remain unchanged. Don't horsewhip yourself into thinking that you have to follow some magical guideline. Let the songs come when they come, and be sure to write down and record every idea you have.

Good Luck!

28 Mar 03 - 10:37 AM (#920540)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: Kim C

I bought a voice-activated cassette recorder awhile back. Do you think I remember to take it with me? Of course not!

I have a friend, who is a professional songwriter, who does that noun-adjective thing. I've never tried it, but I should.

I have another friend, who is a novelist, who carries pen and paper with him just about all the time. If he hears something he likes, he'll write it down.

I do try to write down ideas, even if they are snippets, whenever they come to me. They may languish for awhile, but they're there when I'm ready.

I always like to say, that my songs fall out of the sky. And that's sort of true. Sometimes they materialize in their entirety, and other times I have to walk along and pick up the pieces from the ground. Sometimes they knock me in the head like a ton of bricks.

The truth be known, I don't really know how I do it. I just do it. But everyone's creative process is different. You have to do it however it works best for you.

And yes, sometimes I do write just instrumentals. I'm extremely partial to waltzes. :-)

28 Mar 03 - 01:47 PM (#920616)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: CapriUni

Steven --

While it is true that you don't have to write lyrics to be a songwriter (just look at Richard Rodgers, as an example), if you want to try your hand at it, and teach yourself to do something you've never done before, all the more power to you!

Me? I'm also just dabbling my toes in the shallows of this songwriting ocean, too. But I'm coming it at it from the other side: I've been a writer all my life, and have never really played an instrument beyond the childhood banging on pots and the like. But writing lyrics for songs is a good bit different than writing a poem -- even a poem with a meter that rhymes. Even so, the more I do it, the more I'm getting the hang of it.

My advice, for what it's worth, echoes MMario's -- find a poem already written, and put a tune to it. A poem with a strong rhythm and rhyme is best, maybe even something like a nursary rhyme. Matching each syllable to a note (or two, occasionally) will give you a better feel for the potential melodies that already exist in the spoken word.

As you play around with words (the way you've played around with your flat top), I bet you'll start to find lyrics coming into your head, the way tunes do now...

I just had another thought: Try reading newspaper articles out loud -- particularly direct quotes from people. Reporters don't directly quote everything a person says -- only the strongest things, either because it's the most important idea, and/or (most often, "and") because it's said in a way that evokes a clear image in the reader's (listener's) mind. These are also the criteria for a good lyric, too. So when you find a strong direct quote from someone, try putting it to a tune... It might just turn out to be the chorus of a new song!

Good luck!

28 Mar 03 - 03:27 PM (#920689)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: Bee-dubya-ell

A poet once told me that if you want to write poetry you have to love words. Everybody has heartfelt feelings, but by themselves they don't mean squat. No amount of feeling will make the right words come out. You have to start with words and the feeling will flow naturally.
A lot of people seem to think that songwriting comes as a natural consequence of being a musician and singer - that songwriting is a musical ability. Wrong! Songwriting is, first and foremost, writing. To write songs, you have to do the things that other writers do. You have to develop a love for words and the ways that writers combine and manipulate them into meaningful bits of language. And you have to practice, just like you do with an instrument. And, just like with an instrument, if you can't learn it on your own, you may need to go take some "lessons".

And don't just write "songs". Write poetry and short stories and essays. Hell, this forum is an excellent place to hone your writing skills. I've seen posts here that are worthy of in-print publication. And the "communal writing" things like the "Mudcat Tavern" threads are really nothing but online writers' workshops.

So, put your fingers on the keyboard (or get out a pencil and some paper if that feels more natural) and write something! If it sucks, throw it away and write something else. Don't worry about trying to "say something". Just write. It's all about words.


28 Mar 03 - 03:55 PM (#920719)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: alanabit

There is lots of good stuff here and I agree with all of it. You should also check out other songwriting threads where you can get advice from excellent writers the quality of Jed Marum, Jerry Rasmussen, Rick Fielding and Harvey Andrews.
Remember that a song has to sound good when you sing it. It is the way the words and music create the effect together which is important. You may find a lyricist you like working with. I also think you do not need to limit yourself to writing just tunes or just words. I have worked with people who have thrown in just a couple of lines which have brought the rest of a song to life. Most songs come back to one central line. I look to get that one first and then build all the other lines around it.
From a technical point of view, it is a good idea to make the first line of your chorus or the last line of your verse the one which carries "the message". It does not have to be anything profound or earth shattering, but it should say clearly what you want the song to be about. Try and work it so that this line ends with a word which is not too difficult to rhyme with. I'll give you an example.
One of my favourite Mudcatter's songs is "The Green Heart of Harlow" by Kevin McGrath (McGrath of Harlow). The song is a eulogy of that town (not universally held in high esteem) by an Irishman who settled and lives there happily. Now if you stick "Harlow" at the end of a chorus or the last line of a verse, you have a bugger of a job making it rhyme and scan with anything which makes sense. Work hard at it (and it will be hard work) and you will find some rhymes - but they won't be good ones. What Kevin does, is to end the verses with, "In the green heart of Harlow where the Stort River flows". You should check out his site from the link in the members pages and see what he makes of it.
Keep writing and tell us how you are getting on. Good luck!

28 Mar 03 - 04:01 PM (#920724)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: Sam L

That's a good post there, Spartacus, and good responses generally.

I've been doing more and more of the "stealing", myself, and it works for tunes and lyrics both. I've never had trouble writing lyrics, but tend to do too much, try to make things more like a short-story than they want to be. I've started keeping an eye out for phrases that bear repeating, casual things that have depth and shadings.

And just yesterday I had one of those easy ones come together, or the better part of one. I started with a bit of a tune Peggy Seeger sang on a collection for kids, kept an off-beat minor chord shift I liked, changed the rest, and the lyrics just popped up while playing the melody. The lyrics don't say too much, but have some imagery, and are evocative with the tune. First song of mine my wife ever really seemed to like, and she's right, it's better than what I usually do.

I'd been wanting to start a thread on finishing songs, which is really hard for me, with a few of them. I have some that seem to work, then don't, then back again. And sometimes digging out old tapes of crude first tries, I find out there was something there that I lost in the process. Thanks for the thread.

28 Mar 03 - 06:01 PM (#920847)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: CraigS

Usually I write the lyrics first, sometimes I get the lyric and tune at the same time (sky song), even rarer I get the tune first, then write the lyric - but the latter is how a lot of hit songs were written - a tune and a partial lyric that the rest of the band work on. There is no strict order, but if you can't write lyrics easily the only way to make it easier is to start, keep looking at what you've got, and try to improve it. Listening to music you don't normally bother with can be a good start- try to improve someone else's lyrics beyond recognition. This will naturally lead to over-writing. You listen to a song and write an alternative lyric. Don't worry about trying to write the verses in order - lots of times I start from the second verse, and the first verse comes last. Put the lyric away in a drawer until you can't remember what the original tune was, then write a new tune. Result - new song!

28 Mar 03 - 09:59 PM (#920989)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: McGrath of Harlow

Well, that was a pleasant surprise, alanabit (And here is a link to my song website, if anyone is curious -

One thing a lot of people who write songs agree about is that, most of the time you write a song you are pleased with, it's not so much that you wrote it, you almost caught it as it passed by. You hear a phrase, or it pops into your head, which probably means you heard it, and it chimes in with something you were wanting to say, and it builds from there.

When you have something you want to say, you might do it in different ways - you might write a song; or you might write a poem, or a story, or a letter to a friend, or post something here - and any of those might turn into a song.

I find using the computer handy these days. By that I mean, I'll have a line or a couplet and I know it'll come in somewhere, so I put it down, and then maybe work towards it; and then I can pick up the end and make it the beginning, or the other way around, and spot some lines that might make a chorus. And perhaps the line that bit started off from won't be there at the end of it after all.

And it's a good idea, I think, not to pick up an instrument until the song is shaped and the tune formed. Both might change later. But I think it's a mistake to take your lead from a musical instrument.

28 Mar 03 - 10:24 PM (#920999)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: Jerry Rasmussen

Thanks for the nice compliment, Alanabit.   I'm about the worst person you could ask about songwriting because I don't think I've written more than a half a dozen songs in my life setting out to write a song. About the best I could say when you write words is be playful, savor the words, roll them around on your tongue and try to be visual when you can so that a couple of words can paint a picture..
"livingroom waltz" is a movie with a whole plot, for me. You won't have that many words to tell a story or convey an emotion. And, try writing from the third person. That will release you a little from the navel-gazer syndrome. And, listen to people, listen to how they speak and phrases that are colorful or have a lot of power in them. Listen for the stories that are all around us. Each one of us and our families have enough stories and experiences to keep a songwriter busy for a lifetime.

How do you write the songs? As many ways as there are people. I'm afraid I'm not much help, there... There are other Catters that approach songwriting more directly than me... but don't be discouraged. I still remember the effect of very tentative songs I've heard people bring to songwriter's workshops that moved me.


28 Mar 03 - 11:02 PM (#921019)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: CapriUni

There are two old threads on this topic, if you want to go back and eavesdrop on a few writers trying out lyrics and ironing out the wrinkles (or putting wrinkles in, in some cases): Songwriting 101 and Songwriting 101 (part 2). They are actually two halves of the same thread -- before this spiffy new version of the 'Cat...

And I also agree with Jerry -- Play with language... have Fun!!! Imagine that sentances, and paragraphs and stories, and all that, are great big jungle gyms to climb around on (or swing sets, or slides, or merry-go-rounds) and just let loose!!

To quote one of the best songs ever, from Joe Raposo (who wrote for Sesame Street): "Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear -- just sing (write) -- sing a song!"


28 Mar 03 - 11:48 PM (#921042)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: Mark Cohen

Here are a few random thoughts to add to the excellent advice given above.

1. Listen to everybody's advice, then do what works for you. One method may work for one person, and not at all for another. Similarly, one method may work really well for one song, and not at all for the next 10.

2. The very first song I ever wrote (when I was 6 years old) was a parody. I've written many parodies since then, as well as other stuff. I still maintain (pace Mary Garvey, who hates parodies!) that writing a parody is a great way to practice putting lyrics to tunes. The structure is already laid out for you, and you can borrow some of the phrases.

3. I'd recommend a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. It's about writing, not just songwriting, and I think it's wonderful. The biggest lesson: turn off your editor while you're writing.

4. Another of Natalie's lessons that is very much applicable to songwriting is: use original detail in your writing. The songs I find most moving are often the ones that paint a small but detailed picture, rather than the ones that preach a generalized sermon. Michael Smith's "The Dutchman", Stan Rogers' "Lies", are two that come to mind.

Most of all, have fun!   


29 Mar 03 - 02:02 AM (#921075)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: Blackcatter

Two quick suggestions if you want to write lyrics:

Latch on to the song challenges here at Mudcat. It's often easier to write about some topic that's given you.

Get a rhyming dictionary. Now, don't use it slavishly - don't go hunting for two rhying words and then try to come up with two lines that work, but it can help you, especially if you don't have a top-notch working vocabulary.

29 Mar 03 - 06:24 AM (#921123)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: McGrath of Harlow

Rhyming dictionaries can be handy, but rhyme isn't too important in itself. I think partial rhymes and a verbal echoes that aren't rhymes at all can often work just fine in songs. Metre is far more important, getting the stresses in the lines to balance with each other so it doesn't sound forced.

The fundamental thing is that a song should sound like a natural way of using language, and if there's a rhyme scheme, sound as if that's just a happy outcome that arose while you were saying what you wanted to say, not that you're saying it that way to get it rhyming. (Apart from songs where you're using rhymes for an effect, probably a funny one - Golbert and Sullivcan for example.)

29 Mar 03 - 06:45 AM (#921133)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: InOBU

As to the song challenges... there is the othe point of view. My father was a poet and novelest (as well as a singer) who when asked during an interview, how to write a book said, "you write because you can't help it. If you have to ask how, you wont write very well, write when you have something to say so strongly that you must."

29 Mar 03 - 08:47 PM (#921493)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: GUEST,duncan the drifter

Hi Folks
   I never wrote a song in my life but I'm also hoping to learn a thing or two. I found a very interesting article that might give a person some things to consider.Try   If you check out this page you will see an article on :How To Write a Song:
I hope it helps. I read all the above articles & enjoyed them & I'm going to start writing hopefully until i get it right

30 Mar 03 - 12:32 PM (#921842)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: Thomas the Rhymer

I am compelled to thank you InOBU, for your father's words! Top o the day to ya! ttr

02 Apr 03 - 12:39 PM (#924592)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: Kim C

I wanted to bring this thread back because of something a friend of mine told me, that is very similar to what Larry's father told him.

Howard is a novelist, and a musician, and a blessing. He said that he doesn't so much make things up, as write them down; that they come from some place far beyond himself.

I believe that sometimes, there are stories that beg to be told, just as songs beg to be written.

02 Apr 03 - 02:25 PM (#924677)
Subject: RE: Art of Songwriting
From: McGrath of Harlow

But sometimes it takes an invitation to bring them out. The same way in a conversation you'll think of ways of putting it, and stories to illustrate a point, that you'd never come up with on your own. (The same with a thread, for that matter.)