I’m not a professional songwriter. Not yet, anyway. But there are people who are starting to think that I am a good songwriter, and so I though there might be some interest in my process for writing songs. Some of this is adapted from the work of Pat Pattison, and I can highly recommend his books if you want to improve your lyric writing. And if you have the chance to take the online songwriting course that he offers for free through the Berklee College of Music, via Coursera, jump on it.
I also learned a lot earlier in my life from the work of Sheila Davis. I’ll link to some books below.
So, how I go about writing a song. I’m a “lyrics first” songwriter, for the most part. At least, I start with a portion of a lyric, based on an idea, and write a verse and, when appropriate, a chorus. I’ll usually try to get the music together for those once I have them, so that the other verses can be written with the music in mind, and so that I don’t have to tweak too much to make things fit smoothly.
But I don’t just sit down and start writing full-blown lyrics. I start with an outline, based on Pat Pattison’s “box model,” which gives me an idea of how the song progresses from beginning to end, “gaining weight” (as Pattison says) as it goes to maintain interest and move the listener close and closer to the main idea of the song. Most of my songs are stories, so the progression is often a time progression, or a change in perspective (but not in point-of-view).
Then, with this outline, I write my whole song out in prose. I just lay down the ideas I’m trying to convey conversationally. So, for example, in the song I’m working on now, She Works So Hard, I have a section in the second verse that’s written like this:
She cuddles close
I barely stir but still I know she’s there
Almost when her head hits the pillow
She’s dreaming of the life that could have been
There’s no rhyme, no rhythm, and only a hint of the structure, but it’s the gist of what I want to say. Since I’ve already written the first verse (and two lines of the second), I know the exact rhythm and rhyme scheme I have to match. Here’s the first verse:
At ten o’clock she stumbles in
Too late to say goodnight to me or to the kids
She sits alone to watch TV
To settle down enough to go to sleep
Trying to grab a moment for herself
Because she always has to live and work for someone else.
The first two lines of the second verse are:
She comes upstairs, where I’m in bed
With dreams of fame and fortune dancing in my head.
Now I get out my two most valuable books. I’m not talking about the songwriting books; I rarely reference those during the actual process. No, it’s my thesaurus and my rhyming dictionary. I’ve linked the ones I use below, but both are a matter of personal taste, and you need to try on some different ones to find out what fits your style. I use the thesaurus to come up with a lot of different words I could use to express my ideas, because the first ones I come up with might not have any usable rhymes. Then the rhyming dictionary will give me a good list of rhyming words to choose from.
After that, it’s a matter of playing around with the words. For example, in this song, I like the line “I barely stir but still I know she’s there.” It expresses my thoughts precisely, with the right rhythm and the emphasis in all the right places for the existing music. There’s only one problem: all of the rhymes for “there” that I can come up with result in clumsy, forced ideas for the preceding line. That’s what I get for choosing a word that ends with an “r” sound. There are no good substitutes for the “r” sound, and so you’re pretty much stuck with perfect rhymes or consonant rhymes (for more on rhyme types, see Pattison’s Writing Better Lyrics).
So, although it will hurt, I will probably have to rewrite that line.
I go through like this, moving from section to section, not in order, but as I find ideas for the different sections, turing my prose into lyrics, until the last line falls into place. Then I record a rough version of the song, celebrate briefly, and go on to the next song.
There’s always a next song. I have far more ideas than time. You probably do, too, if you think about it, because ideas are all around you. Just make sure that any time you hear or see or feel or think something that would make a good song, that you capture it. In this day of smartphones, you always have a tool available to do that. I use Evernote for writing things down, and the built-in voice memo recorder on my phone to hum musical ideas. Before I had a smartphone, I has scraps of paper. Sometimes they got lost. Sometimes I found them years later, and they became a song. That’s what happened with I Guess I'll Learn To Live Without You. And Wake Up Call.
There’s something romantic, I guess, about digging up an old idea and giving it new life. But then I think of all the ideas that I probably wrote somewhere and never found. I like my new way better.
Here are links for some of the stuff I've mentioned:
Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison
The Craft of Lyric Writing by Sheila Davis
The Modern Rhyming Dictionary by Gene Lees
Roget's Super Thesaurus by Marc McCutcheon
I Guess I'll Learn To Live Without You on Soundcloud
Wake Up Call on SoundCloud
And an update: Pat Pattison's songwriting course, offered by Berklee College of Music through Coursera, has a session coming up in February 2015. If you have any interest at all in songwriting, do this. Sign up now. Here's the link: Songwriting