In our first songwriting exercise we began with a letter, writing to someone we feel intensely about, regarding something we feel intensely about. The subject could be alive or dead, real or fictional. We wrote either from personal experience or from the perspective of characters in literature or film.The letter and subsequent work attached to the letter, provided the clay from which we carved the lyrics to a song, utilizing the song structure of a model song (i.e. a song we already know engages and moves us, a favorite song.) We avoided the trap of staring at the wall searching for words to appear out of the air. Everything we needed was in front of us, already written down on paper, we just had to remove what wasn’t needed.
In “How To Write A Song,” songwriting exercise #2, we will take an approach that may feel less personal at the start. For many singer/songwriters this can be a quicker way in to songwriting, as it does not require apparent transparency. In the same way an actor can feel a deeper freedom of expression and ability to be private in public while wearing a mask, a songwriter can sometimes find the same freedom when the requisite idea of wearing your heart on your sleeve is dismissed, and personal expression is revealed through the lives and stories of others.
Pick a song you love. Diagram the song. First note what the song structure is. Does it have verses and choruses? Are there pre-choruses? Does it have a bridge? Or is it verses with a tag line in the beginning and/or the end?
Notate the rhyme scheme. Where are the words that rhyme or almost rhyme? Is there a word you would expect to rhyme, but it doesn’t? What is that line? What is its significance in the story?
Graph the melody. Does it start mid-range or low and move up or down in certain parts of the song? Where do the melodies repeat? How many melodies are there in the song? Where does the songwriter stick strictly to the melody and where does s/he improvise? Pick the notes of the melody out on guitar or piano. Notice which notes are being used, how much they are repeated, what registers the song employs, think of them as palettes and try color coding them with highlighters. Notate the beats per line. Become aware of consistencies and inconsistencies.
Next, diagram the story and the events of the song. Decide who you think the speaker is and who s/he is talking to. Be specific. You can pretend they are people you know, or completely make them up. In each verse write down where they are and when they are. Write down the event of the moment. Is there a question or a command? For example, if you take the song “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper, you might imagine that in the first verse, it is late at night and she is a room in a hotel, and she is trying to sleep, but she hears the clock ticking and she can’t rest. The question of the verse might be “Where are you?” or “Why did you leave?” When we get to the chorus, you’ll notice the lyric switches to a direct command. “I am here!” perhaps, or”I will never leave,” “I am eternal to you.” You might imagine that the whole chorus is saying “Come back to me.” What is the time and the place of the chorus? Maybe it is daylight and she is outside getting in her car. Make it up. You are creating a story that will guide you. Each piece of the song should create a picture in your head that you can see, and it should depict a complete moment – an event. You want to transcribe a timeline you can follow; it does not need to be chronological. You might start with this morning, look back on yesterday, and finish with tomorrow. Or the events could be minutes apart.
When you have finished all the diagramming and story writing, you will write either a sequel or a response to this song. You will keep the same exact song structure, and if it helps you to begin, you can write your lyrics to the same melody, which you will radically change later.
In the case of a sequel, you must decide on a very specific event occurring that changes everything for these people. For example, in “Time After Time,” you might decide that the lover she calls to has abandoned her for her best friend, which falls apart, and then he comes back to her to take her up on her offer of unconditional love. The event here would be — a return. Now, put these people in three different times and places and decide what the questions or commands could be – and, very important – What’s your hook? What replaces “time after time?” Is it “There’s a stranger in my house?” or “You gave love a bad name,” or some version of a very different universal thought? The diagram you created of the model song will help spur ideas of what your diagram could be. It does not have to be the same. Notice the changes, the different places, the different times, the questions, and commands, and decide what yours could be. This will help you compose your story.
Instead of a sequel, you can choose to write a response. Take the shape of the song, decide what has happened. In the case of “Time After Time,” you will have three verses, and three choruses. In each verse you will be in a different time and place with a different question. In each chorus, you resolve to the same moment with the same command, so all three times and places of the verses lead you to the same moment which is the chorus. Could it be, in this song, that she abandoned him for some reason, and that he is searching for her? What could his questions and commands be? Does he want to reunite with her, or has she betrayed him in some way? Does he believe her words and embrace them or does he doubt them – if, in your imagined story line, her words are not in synch with her actions, what could be the response?
As you are writing your story, remember that each moment should be a painting in your head, in which every piece of the picture has been depicted on purpose. There is meaning and symbolism in the details of your painting. You may never say what they are, but you can see them and they will inform your lyrics.
As you are writing, some melody may come to you. If so, record it immediately. Always have a way to record melodies that come to you spontaneously. If you feel at a loss for melody, begin to play with the melody of your model song. Notice what notes are being used where, begin to jumble them, invert them, turn them around, change the pattern of the notes. Try another key, another time signature, move between major and minor. You often don’t need much to find a start. Also the melody you begin with can later be changed, improvised and fine-tuned. Once you have the melody for the first line, follow the melodic diagram of your model song. Do you repeat the same melody straight away? Or is there a second melody, before there is a repeat? If the melody vastly changes, where does it go? If it starts up high and works it’s way down low, experiment with starting down low and working your way up high. If that doesn’t flow, notice if when the melody changes it goes way up the octave, if that’s the case, try using the 5th or 6th note of the keys, instead of the octave. Allow your fingers to take you to notes you might not immediately find with your voice. We all tend to have melodic patterns that are in our comfort zone vocally, which can cause many of our songs to sound similar. Challenge these patterns, by letting your fingers do some of the singing – you don’t have to know how to play piano well to pick notes out and decide what you think sounds beautiful placed together in a pattern. Some of the most beautiful melodies in the world have been written by “non-instrumentalists.” Get on a keyboard and play some notes. Just remember to pay attention and refer to your model song. You might be very surprised to find the repetition of note patterns, and you will notice variations that still do not stray too far from an original 10-15 note pattern. Follow the notes. The notes become a mantra that pull us into the song and keep us there. When you create a new pattern of notes, you’ll notice often, that an event goes along with the change in melody. Later, what chords you place underneath the melody can make the notes sound very different, but that is considered arrangement. What makes a song a song that you can copyright is words and melody only. (Sometimes that doesn’t seem fair when arrangement can so drastically change the way we hear a melody, however that’s what the law states.)
Another way to begin to find a melody for your song, is to try singing your lyrics to several other songs. What would happen to the song “Time After Time” if I sang the same lyrics to “Falling Slowly” by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova? It wouldn’t work exactly – that’s good. Try singing the same lyrics to “Something In The Way” by Nirvana. Pick ten songs, see if one of the melodies provides you with a jumping off place to compose your melody to your lyrics, but once you have an inspiration and a place to start, remember to go back to your original melodic diagram of your first song, so you do not end up copying the melody of another song.
Another fun and useful way to invent new melody when you are stuck getting started is to pick a handful of artists you are familiar with, and try singing the lyrics you have composed as if you were each one of them. One person might be the catalyst to get you started on a handful of notes you can shape and improvise into a crafted melody.
And yet another idea is to sit down with a few friends and let them sing you some of your lyrics with the first thing that jumps into their head. Don’t record it, if you don’t want to copy it. Something may inspire you. Perhaps if you generally give each syllable it’s own note, but a friend of yours likes to sing ten notes to each syllable, you will hear something that pulls you into a new direction. You have to make an agreement about this with your friends – that giving each other jumping off places is something you do for one another free of charge, so to speak, or if you use someone’s jumping off place that you give them some form of credit for it. In my classes, we will sometimes take the lyrics of a classmate’s song and improvise around the room, just to push the writer a bit out of their comfort zone. We don’t record it, so it’s not remembered exactly, but the feel of where the song could go melodically is identified and it can be very helpful to a writer – who will then go back and struggle with a very new feel for a melody, sticking to the melodic structure of the original song they were using as a model.
While you are working on this songwriting exercise – at any point – if you are on a roll and inspired, of course, leave the exercise. Go as far as you can go on your inspiration. Part of the intention of any creative exercise is just to get you to that place where inspiration takes over. You can always come back to the writing exercise. However, do not completely abandon your model song. There is a reason you picked the song as your model, and it has to do with flow and composition. If you get inspired and finish your song in thirty minutes, that’s great. Go back and use your diagram and your graphing and hold your model song up as a mirror to your original song and just notice if there’s anything from your model song’s structure that might improve your original song. It might be something very simple, like your original song is verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus. But, when you look at your model song, it’s verse-verse-chorus-instrumental hook-verse-chorus-instrumental hook-half verse-double chorus. So experiment, try shaping your original song into the model song’s structure and see what happens. You can always go back to your original structure, but you might find that something that simple adds a lot to your work. Record your original, so you don’t forget it as you explore other options.