Saturday, December 29, 2012

How to Write a Song

Song writing has become one of the greatest joys in my life. It’s an incredible feeling when you see someone’s heart touched by the inspiration you received, regardless of whether you think your writing is up to the level of what you might hear on the Christian radio station or whether your recording ability is able to bring out the best in your work. That’s why I love to encourage other beginning songwriters to keep writing even if their writing is weak at present. I don’t want to place myself on some pedestal as if I’ve figured it all out. Not hardly! I only wish to share what I’ve learned so far and some wonderful resources for songwriters.
I think the main thing, the first thing, is inspiration. This isn’t some magical thing or a skill to be acheived or something that only really spiritual people can do. One of my favorite songwriters, Dennis Jernigan, calls himself a “song receiver” rather than a song writer. God is the source, not ourselves. There’s always a thrill in my soul though, when an idea for a song comes, and I know it’s from the Lord. I have never been able to sit down and *decide* to write a song – not a good one anyway. That song seed may come while reading in God’s word, or listening to a friend in need, or hearing a sermon, or seeing a beautiful sunrise, but it’s that idea, that seed of a song. Sometimes songwriters call it a “hook”. Often, I’ll have a picture in my head and a phrase that begins to describe that picture and the emotions wrapped up in it. Usually, that phrase has a melody or suggests a melody. One article on songwriting that I read, suggested speaking the lyrics you’d written aloud and hearing the music already in them, the highs and lows of the voice that are naturally there. I think it’s a lot like that, though it might happen without those actual thoughts.
Once I have that seed or hook, most of the song usually comes quickly after that. There might be a little struggling with the words in the second verse, pulling them into the rhythm pattern that I’ve laid down in the first, but usually, it’s all there, in that picture, and I’m just trying to describe what that picture means to me. When it’s right, it makes me cry. That sounds a bit silly, but it’s true. It’s kind of like when you hear someone else giving utterance to what you’ve held in your soul but couldn’t quite articulate. That’s what it feels like. :)
Most of the time, the melody and at least a vague impression of the acompaniment is all together by that point and I just have to work through getting down on paper what I hear in my head, musically. But sometimes, such as with “Watching the Sky” as I mentioned in my earlier post, I am stuck and need a bit of help. I am so thankful to have other songwriter friends and relatives to call upon. It can be a bit scary to share an unfinished song with someone else. They might laugh at your wording in your bridge when you thought it was especially poignant. (Love, you, Cheri!) But, as you hear their constructive criticism, and take it into account, whether or not you take their advice and change anything, your song will be stronger for it.
There is generally a structure to songs – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus – and usually a meter and rhyme pattern that you keep throughout the song, but don’t be afraid to let the song lead the way and sometimes even break those rules. This is one thing I’ve seen often in the work of a beginning songwriter – a forced-ness, especially in strictness of rhymes, that leaves the song feeling sterile and without emotion or meaning.
For instance, I could write a song about being a mom of a two year old little boy whom I love, but who wears me down. LOL It could go something like this:
I have a two year old little boy.
I can’t really say he’s my pride and joy.
But God is using him to grow
His image in me, this I know…
gag. blech. yuck. LOL Do you see what I mean? It’s sterile, stilted, forced – words shoved into a certain number of syllables per line with a trite little rhyme at the end. There’s no emotion, no vision, no anything.
Now, what if we go at it from another point of view. Let’s get the picture clear in our minds. I can imagine that mother, exhausted at the end of the day, even in tears, as she looks at her little boy asleep in his bed, deceptively sweet and quiet HA! – completely overwhelmed at what being his mother means, begging God for just a few hours of good sleep before her little dynamo is up and running again, while at the same time, loving him so very much and clinging to God for His strength and wisdom. You can feel what she feels, imagine what she’s thinking. The chorus of that song might go something like this…
Lord, help me be all that he needs from me,
A gentle mom who kisses scraped up knees,
Yet strong to teach him right from wrong and to live what he believes,
Even when there’s no more energy…
Lord, help me be all that he needs from me.
It’s not perfect. I’d probably need to do some tweaking. Cheri might laugh at the scraped up knees line. ;) But it does a better job at capturing what that mom is feeling. Looking at that chorus, I could see how each verse could then grow with that little boy, the first one being him at two years old. Maybe a second one at seven when he’s so full of anger and his mom has to hold him still and whisper God’s word into his ear while he fights and yells. Maybe a third verse when he’s seventeen and nearly a man and her worry as he makes his way into the world a little more. I think in the bridge, I’d bring in that verse in Isaiah that I love that talks about how God will be my children’s teacher. Now that’s a song that just might have a little bit of potential to be a powerful song – one that connects with a lot of people. I’ve already got melody and some accompaniment in my head, even.
You can see that I broke some of those rules. Three verses rather than two, and then there’s the rhyming. I used me, knees, and believe as rhymes even though they technically aren’t. But those near rhymes give it a less stilted feel and they work.
So, how’s that for a Musical Monday and Tutorial Tuesday all in one? Have you ever wondered how songwriters write a song? Do you write songs? I’d love to hear them if you do!
To finish up, here are just a few places on the web that I’ve found especially helpful and inspiring in my songwriting. I hope they’ll be of help to you too.
Tips for Song Receivers
How to Write a Song HQ
Christian Songwriters’ Network

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