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


By Ralph Shaw

Last time I gave you the first five of ten things you can do to improve your songwriting.

Here are the final five tips to help you master melody manipulation and wonderful word weaving:

6) Write From a Place of Emotion.

A good place to start is by writing your song from a place of strong feeling (although it’s not a prerequisite, volumes of wonderful music have come out of emotionally neutral states.) I find that writing from your gut has a way of clarifying the thought processes. However it is quite possible, even likely, that the message the audience hears may have nothing to do with the original intent of the writing. When Chris Difford of 1970s band Squeeze wrote Tempted by the Fruit of Another he was writing about his discovery that their bass player had been approached by another band. Listening to the song you just assume it’s his girlfriend who has been tempted to leave. Howard Kaylan, of the 1960s band The Turtles, wrote Elenore with deliberately flawed lyrics as a way to get back at his record company’s demands for “another Happy Together,” their previous hit. However such inept lines as: You got a thing about you and You are my pride and joy etcetera (who uses etcetera in a song?) came across as heartfelt expressions of teenage exuberance and the record buyers loved it.

Another example is one of my own songs: Movie Stars, High Rollers and Big Shakers which began life as an emotional rant about an aborted Las Vegas performance possibility. I was happy with the chords and tune but the lyrics of the song made it unsuitable for every occasion. On the suggestion of another songwriter I rewrote the lyrics to be about a failed Las Vegas marriage and then the song came together. Do yourself (and me) a favour and get the song from iTunes: for just one dollar you’ll experience a rip-roaring and smile inducing musical ride accompanied by the superb trumpet of Bria Skonberg.

7) Simplicity is King.

Remember when you first felt joy? Or love, curiosity, sadness, playfulness, jealousy, laughter and rage. Probably not, since those moments happened early in your childhood. What was the state of your vocabulary at that time? I’m betting it wasn’t full of words like verbosity, erudition and loquaciousness. Our fundamental emotions are connected to simple ideas that are expressed best through short and childish words. Laugh, fun, like, love, blue, bird, sky, happy and now, tend to work better than their hoity-toity counterparts: hilarity, enjoyment, comparable, endearment, azure, feathered creature, firmament, contented and presently. The same goes for your melodies: beautiful and uncomplicated tunes will connect best with most listeners (although sadly, with a century of copyrighted song already behind us, the best tunes have pretty much all been taken.)

8) Declutter Your Song.

It’s distressing to cull those beloved verses that once meant so much and may have taken hours to complete. But if they no longer serve the song then you have to let them go. You’ll know you’ve done the right thing if you feel lighter and better off for having eliminated the excess. It’s like decluttering your home of junk. Songwriting doesn’t reward pack-rats and hoarders. Know specifically what your song is about and make every lyric serve the main message of the song. Watch for unnecessary repetition. If there are lines being sung more than once, ask yourself for what purpose. Repetition can be a powerful way to hammer a message home or it can be a powerful way to induce boredom.

9) Don’t Quit Till It’s Done and Know When to Quit.

One of the greatest mistakes new songwriters make is in thinking their song is complete when there is clearly much work still to do. I’m not the only one to have grimaced while listening to some expensively produced drivel from a singer-songwriter who has gone ahead and recorded a song that still sounds like a first draft. When you think your song is finished keep playing it to yourself. Be hyper-alert for any line or verse that gives you a small but uncomfortable feeling of something not quite right. Be ultra-vigilant for melodic lines that sound like they could have come from any one of a thousand songs. Get super-critical of parts that niggle. Ruthlessly hunt down awkward phrases and make whatever changes necessary. But leave the good stuff alone! Many music and lyric choices don’t make intellectual sense, they just feel right. Develop the wisdom to know the moment when there’s nothing left to add or cut: that’s when your song is finished.

10) Creativity Works like a Muscle.

Make a habit of creativity and exercise it often. Know that much of what you create, especially in the beginning, will probably never be worthy of performance, but that’s okay. It’s more important that you do something. Make songs that take the listener on a journey. Figure out how chords and melodies create tension and release. And craft your song to include those climactic moments. The best way to learn is by actively listening to other people’s songs; memorize them, dissect and analyze them, and thereby become a more effective self-critic.

© Ralph Shaw 2014

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