Songwriting can seem like an exercise in two extremes. Sometimes the words flow so smoothly you can hardly write them down fast enough – almost as if you’re just transcribing for someone else.
And then there is most of the time…
We’ve all been there: Some subject has captured your fancy and you set out to write a song about it, and maybe you’ve gotten a line or two into it and suddenly – nothing. You know what you want to say but you just can’t put it into interesting words that work together. As a result, the story flounders and eventually dies out.
Don’t give up! Some of the best songwriters in history have shared this experience, and we’re fortunate to have a few of their tips to break through the linguistic logjam. Here are some of my favorites:
- Schedule your songwriting first thing in the morning. Rise early and skip your usual morning dose of radio/television; instead, let YOUR fledgling song be the first music to hit your mind that day. It’s well documented that Beethoven wrote immediately upon rising each morning. Perhaps more relatable are modern hitmakers like Rick Lang and Mark “Brink” Brinkman (Brink’s motto is “Drinking coffee and making things up!”). Once I made this change I saw immediate progress, even on song ideas I had wrestled for years. You may not be a morning person, but if you’re stuck you should give this a try anyway. It works!
- Visualize your song as a movie. No matter what story you’re trying to tell, you can (and should) outline it as if each verse is a scene in a play or movie. There’s a logical chain of events in movies (well, the good ones anyway!) that keeps us engaged while the plot unfolds. If you’re stuck, revisit the storyboard and see if it flows logically. If the story doesn’t flow, there’s no hope of getting the lyrics to flow; you may be unsure of what needs to be said next. Each scene (verse) should move the plot along at a pace that enables the complete story to be communicated in about 3 minutes! Often when I’m stuck it’s because I have included too much “character development” in the first couple of verses and haven’t really taken steps to advance the plot. Think of a trout stream: when the current is moving, it’s easy to see the lines where the trout would lie in wait for food carried by the stream; but when the stream widens into a pool, there’s no discernable flow and consequently nowhere to focus your attention. Such is the flow of your song. Keep it moving!
You may wonder how the chorus fits this plan. Think of it as the theme song of the movie (e.g., “Man of Constant Sorrow” in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?). The chorus is not usually advancing the story quite as actively as the verses. Instead, it communicates the “one takeaway” of the song – and if you’re lucky, it’s the part everyone will be singing for decades to come.
- Hammer out one verse and one chorus – any verse, any chorus. It doesn’t even have to be the FIRST verse and chorus, but at least you have the syllables roughed in so a vocal cadence can begin to emerge. Much of this article deals with writing lyrics, but this is a great tip for writing the melody and chord progression as well. I know it sounds like a boring oversimplification, but I keep a “circle of fifths” wheel handy when writing, and I experiment with all the likely progressions in multiple keys until I can “feel it” – with “it” being the emotional connection to the chorus, which tends to be my melodic starting point. The melody and progression for the first verse are intended to grab the listener, and I tend to labor over these much more as a result. Not so the chorus; it should be easy for fans to sing along.
- Flip the script. You’re off to a good start; you’re up early, have a coherent outline, a first verse and a chorus. You might think the remainder would fall into place, right? Well…not always. Most of us have a growing collection of incomplete songs that we’d love to finish but can’t seem to make the words work for us. One trick is to take an awkward line that contains the message you intend to convey, and simply shuffle the order of the words until you find a combination that feels natural. Here’s an example from my song “Winter’s Coming To My Mountain Home”:
Original line: “Right outside my cabin door the snow will start falling soon.”
Revised line: “Snow will soon be falling just outside my cabin door.”
See how this reordering completely revamps the cadence? The cool thing is that you can also use this technique to change the rhyming words without having to change the information delivered by the line. In my example above, I had failed to find a word rhyming with “soon” that advanced my story; the revision led me to rhymes with “door” and one of those fit perfectly.
- Reconsider your attachment to rhyming. I am a HUGE fan of an effective rhyming scheme; strong rhyming connections can make a good story sound great (i.e., memorable). It took me years to learn that perfect rhymes can sometimes weaken the story. I was guilty of forcing unnecessary ideas into lines for no greater purpose than to preserve my perfect rhyming scheme – sounding too much like Dr. Seuss and not enough like me! Once I began to accept “near-rhymes” and to sometimes abandon my rhyming scheme altogether I began to focus on making the story memorable on its own merit. I will admit that I still work hard to have it all – rhymes included – but I’m finding that my change in priorities results in easier, more natural flow.
- Collaborate! This is such an important topic that I’ll be covering it thoroughly in another article. For now, the main point is to exchange ideas with a fellow writer who thoroughly grasps your storyboard – even if the story changes direction slightly with additional input. You’ll almost always make better progress!
I hope you find these tips helpful in breaking through the obstacles that stall your songwriting. Do you have any other techniques you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them!