Ten Tips to Write Better Songs (Part 1 of 2)


By Ralph Shaw

Today I offer five songwriting tips to help lift your lyrics and make new and mesmerizing melodies.

When a fan of my albums Love and Laughter wrote to tell me that he appreciates my “clever songwriting and wordplay that reward close and repeated listenings” he endeared himself to me in two ways: first he proved there are still some people who engage in active listening and second that there are those who pay close attention to the art of songwriting.

There’s no magic recipe book for manufacturing hits. And it’s a good thing too, for great songs usually contain an element of the unexpected, some surprise to delight our ears. But inventing sweet surprises; that’s the tough part. There is no map for finding serendipity; we can only hope to be in the right place at the right time and to recognize it when it visits. But, despite music’s ability to make our spirits soar, songwriting is still a down to earth craft. And many elements of that craft can be learned and mastered. What makes a well-crafted song and how do we go about writing one?

Here are five of my ten ways to write better songs.

1) Grab the Ephemeral.
Create space for song ideas to come by removing obstructions to your daydreams. Everyone has their own way to do this, find yours: sit in an empty room, travel, meet people, sit up all night, go for a walk, wake up early. Whatever works for you is what you need to do. Make sure you have some means to record song ideas and have the sense of purpose to grab voice recorder or pen no matter how inconvenient the circumstance. Be conscious and aware of your own sense of creation.

2) Write Lots, Edit Later.
Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan are highly regarded as wordsmiths par excellence. But their work style differs in that Dylan would often complete songs in a short period of time (hours or days) whereas Cohen might spend years perfecting his lyrics. But both share the technique of writing more verses than would appear in their final work. Both knew better than to accept the first ideas as being the final product. Only by pushing further will you accumulate the material from which you can choose the very best.

3) Which Comes First – Melody or Lyrics?
The overriding philosophy amongst tin-pan-alley songwriters was, “melody first, then lyrics” and it was held for good reason. It’s important to remember that song lyrics are not poetry. They die or fly depending on the melodic wings with which they are bestowed. The less intellectual nature of music makes it far likelier that perfect words will be inspired by a melody rather than the other way round. When a melody is grafted onto a lyric the tune tends to be uninspired and intellectually driven. But as with any general rule there are notable exceptions: Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern wrote their 1937 Oscar winning song The Way You Look Tonight with lyrics first. And classically trained Elton John formed his greatest songs by putting tunes to Bernie Taupin’s lyrics.

4) Try Chords First.
A favourite way I have of writing songs is to look for a chord progression and rhythmic feel that pleases me. If you get those things right then you have a better chance of laying a decent melody and lyrics on top. It’s also possible that words and melody originate together in a leap-frogging sort of situation.

5) Let the Song Tell You What it Needs
Do learn from your predecessors, but know when to go with your instincts. Don’t add extra verses or a solo because you think that’s what you’re supposed to do. A song can be shorter or longer than what you consider “normal” and may contain other elements deemed eccentric. Remember the “hook” of a song (some unique quirk that makes the song stand out in a good way) is always different from the run of the mill. Do what the song demands.

Next time: Five more tips to help you write better songs!

© Ralph Shaw 2014

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