After years and years of singing other peoples music, I started to make my own. It is crap. I’m not exaggerating. But I have to allow myself to do crap and maybe, in time there will be some gems in it. Songwriting has been so far a mostly unpleasant experience. The other day I saw a bit of light. Yay!
At the moment I am at a stage where I can’t even decide what genre should I sing in. I said already that pop is for 15 + people. Okay. Then what, reggae, jazz, rock, heavy metal? Folk? Country? Guess what, most of the half baked songs that I’ve written are country, at least lyric wise. Is it a sign from above that I should head to Nashville? Probably not.
I’m a trained writer, you’d figure that writing lyrics should be easy. It is not. A totally different ball game. Some similarities though; in scriptwriting you’ll find that you want to hide or sort of camouflage your main character. Why? Because him or her is always you in some ways. You will want to hide the hero, because you are afraid that YOU might seem ridiculous. All the other characters are much more clear and easier to write. Apparently it is the same in songwriting. Songwriting is a pretty strict way of writing, it has it’s own logic, you have only so much space to say what you need to say and yet, I’m trying desperately not to say anything, not to reveal who I really am. Silly I know. My head goes, oh no, I can’t write that, what will people say. What people? I’m in my living room or kitchen with no one around. Solution? Get over it!
Just for the record, for this you don’t need to know how to read music, we are not trying to compose here a symphony. Might help to know, but I bet you can write songs without that skill. What you need for writing songs is an instrument, some paper and pen and lot of patience. For an instrument, well anything that allows you to play harmony on will do, go grab your ukulele!
To be more expressive, most songs in pop, country, rock and folk, don’t have a too complicated harmony. Three chords can make a hit! Even one chord, if it’s the right one! To simplify songs mostly they have triads, no added 7 or 9. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions, but don’t complicate your life just yet, okay?
Should I now give you tips about songwriting? I have none. But I can give you the tips that I got when I started. That is the good old KISS, keep it simple stupid.
I started with simple triads, nothing added. Played around on the guitar, someone calls it “playing nothing”, which is easy, because my guitar playing skills are pretty much none existent. You can write a song if you know just a few chords!
Then I chose if I wanted the song to be in major or minor. You gotta start with the defining triad, I mean if your song is in C major, you start your song with a C and hopefully finish it too.
What next? Find a few other chords that fit that C, stay in the same tonality, if you can. (Tonality is a system/language of music in which specific hierarchal pitch relationships are based on a key “center”—and the root of the tonic triad) It makes your life easier. That is the chords in C are C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and H diminished. (Bdim if you use the American system). Now forget about the diminished chord and use the others, but like I said, just a few of them.
Here is a great example of what you can do with 3 chords in a song, if this would be in C, the chords would be, C, F and G. There are only 2 chords in the verse. Takes U2 a while to get to it, bare with them! Don’t get confused by the choir. (Oh, they sound lovely! )
Back to your song. Now what? Now, to keep it really simple, try to write your own song with those 3 chords. Once you played around and got into a “pattern”, hum a melody of some sort on the harmony. Anything. No need for words here unless they come “automatically”. You might want to separate the verse and the chorus in the beginning, focus on one or the other. Eventually it doesn’t matter.
Once you got a good thing going on, record it! Listen to it. Yes, it might not have yet the potential of a hit song, but you wrote a song!
Now the lyrics. Advise? None, or again, stick with one thing, one idea for the lyrics. Like if you write about loneliness, write about loneliness, don’t try to put also your lost dog in it and your a recently lost job, unless you use them as a metaphor for how lonely you are. Keep the theme and the subject simple, just one thing. Don’t be too harsh on yourself if you don’t rhyme, if your lyrics are actually a poem or a short story, it’s okay. Maybe they were meant to be. (Just the other day I set out fixing my script, instead I wrote some vague lyrics about a man hunting for acacia trees, who eventually ended up with a chestnut tree. Great metaphor there, huh? )
By no means am I saying that this is a profound guide to write songs. No, this is far from that. The thing is, you need to start somewhere and setting the bar low might help. Getting just a few tips, instead of reading dozens of books, might help too.
Keep in mind that most likely you know how to write songs. You’ve been listening to music all your life, haven’t you? You might not have paid attention, but there is probably a map in your head about how many bars go into a chorus and so on. Just try to flush it out. If what I wrote is confusing, another way to get around it is by trying to copy from a song that you love. Listen to your favourite song, what is happening in it. How many bars? What happens in the chorus and so on. You learn by mimicking others. But you have to remember that if it’s too similar to the original, you can’t publish it or you might get sued. Use that for practice!
If you really want to “know” the stuff there are zillions of books out there about songwriting. I have a few of them, but I found them mostly confusing. If you want to spend money, here:
This one is in Finnish about writing lyrics:
There are also MA programs about songwriting if you really want to learn the craft. But as always, I think you can learn it perfectly well by doing it. The key is to start. Then as you improve you can forget about all the rules or make your own rules.
Oh and once you write that hit song that sells trillions, you owe me! 😀