How to Write a Good Song
It took me six years of writing terrible songs before I finally started to write good ones. Months would go by, as I would painfully craft these feeble monstrosities, doomed to blindly thrash through the wind and rain, always seeking but never finding. Hungry, tired, and begging to die they would eventually stagger and fall, shattering into pieces that I would later pick up and vainly try to re-animate.
This is all a bit dramatic on paper, but I’m pretty sure that’s what my songs felt like. If they could have, they probably would have killed me so I could never create another creature doomed to the horrible fate that had befallen them. Anyway, I want to give you some advice on songwriting so that you can suffer less and enjoy more. I am not here to spoon-feed you fuckers, ok? My intention is simply to create a guide with which you can develop a method from.
What is a Good Song?
A good song is a song you like: nothing more, nothing less. Even the greatest songs have enemies, even the worst songs have friends. I firmly believe, however, that within this eternal paradox of subjectivity in regards to artistic taste exists a fundamental constant: the closer the artist’s relationship with his or her source, the more widely appealing the creation.
The reason for this is simple: we are all the same at a fundamental level, therefore, the closer we can dig to our core, the more relatable our discoveries will be. Find the water in the well; don’t just wait for rain to fill up shallow puddles. There is a great deal to be explored within one’s self, and we tend to forget that all too often. As artists, we cannot afford to do so.
Where do I start? There are an infinite number of starting points when it comes to writing a song. Get weird. Don’t force it. Maybe you heard a sound in nature that inspires you, or maybe the memory of an old friend sparks a feeling you’d like to translate through a nostalgic melody. What it really comes down to is articulation after meditation on inspiration. What inspires you, and how are you going to translate whatever that is through music?
If your writing process has become stagnant, remember to stay open to new ways of generating material. Chances are good that you will fall back on old methods once they have proven to be effective. Keep it fresh.
*List ten ways to start writing a song. Now list ten more…
So you have developed a kick ass idea, but you are not sure where to go with it. Congratulations, and condolences. Before you crawl into a corner and cry like a little bitch, you need to figure out why you are stuck in the first place. Are you burnt out from writing that first part? Take a break. Are you locked into a certain approach (i.e. theoretical)? Get weird. Are you thinking too linearly? Eat some drugs. There are many reasons to get stuck within a song, and you need to know why you are stuck in order to break free.
Thinking about a song too linearly can be a serious culprit in limiting your song’s potential. If you always write your songs start to finish, you need to reconsider your approach. Furthermore, if you always write your songs one after the other, you need to reconsider that shit too. Sometimes the best songs come together in fragments from past ideas. Scrap a bridge for one song, and it might just be the perfect verse for another song you’re working on. Be patient.
Ahh yes, sometimes songs have words too. First you have to determine if you are writing your own lyrics or not. If you know a good lyricist or plan on setting your music to a poem, skip this shit because it doesn’t matter to you. Nothing matters. Life is killing us all and we never seem to find the time to care. There, write a song with that. You’re welcome.
For those of you writing your own lyrics, guess what I’m gonna say? Figure out what works for you. Experiment. Write some lyrics, then write music to them. Write some music, then write lyrics to it. Then write both at the same time. Then write neither.
Do your lyrics sound good? Are you cramming too many words in and losing focus on what sounds pleasing to the ear? Sonority is important. Let it flow, baby. Sometimes the sound of the word is more important than the word itself. Words are like notes in that even though their usages are based on rules, at the end of the day they fit where you want them to fit.
*Everything rhymes; it just depends on how you say it
Form and Assorted Spices
Once you have some good cohesive ideas generated, you are going to need a form for them to slip into. Think of the early form as a big, fluffy comforter. Let the different sections of your song shift around and get cozy in that poofy motherfucker.
Pay attention to how the energy moves throughout the piece, and make sure you know how you want it to flow. For example, do you want the second chorus to create an abrupt halt in the flow of the piece? If so, how can you accomplish this? Does it halt abruptly when you don’t want it to? If so, how do you correct this? The list goes on.
As you are cooking up your form it is important to have some spices handy. If you want people to like your shit, you gotta make it tasty, right? Right. Correct. Keeping a song interesting is perhaps the most important aspect of songwriting. No one likes a bland song, and there are so many spices to use that it would be foolish not to strive for something savory. My favorite spices are those that evolve the verses. The Beatles are masters of the verse evolution spices. Here’s a list of three of my favorite examples:
1. The harmonies in the second verse of “Dr. Robert”
2. The soaring, distorted 16th note riff in the last verse of “Back in the USSR”
-This song builds extraordinarily well. Study the shit out of it. Note the depth and the replay value here.
Evolve your verses. I cannot stress this enough. Evolve those verses to keep them crisp. These are all gross examples, and the trick is really to do this more subtly throughout all sections of your song until it becomes an undulating mess of excellence.
*Always leave the listener wanting more
*It’s not always about adding something. Sometimes it’s good to take things away or to simply express something differently
Steal good ideas. The examples above are good examples of the types of ideas you want to steal from other artists. The subtler the ideas you steal are, the better. Even the most innovative approaches to composition are based on pre existing material in some way. The best songwriters are those who can integrate a large amount of subtle ideas from a wide variety of styles and artists and create something new out of them.
The subtler you go, the more complex and wide reaching the results become. Think of yourself as a mad scientist, combining molecules to create new substances and compounds with your own signature on them. Dive deep into the vast well of the collective, see what you find, and use it.
We humans like to cling to stuff. We’re like magnetized, metallic rabbits hopping frivolously around a junkyard, and even though everything is going to be crushed mercilessly by that giant machine that crushes stuff, it is on that junk we cling. Sometimes we even get crushed with it.
Whenever analyzing your song, remain slightly removed from it. Imagine you were someone else. Try to remove bias and find those trouble areas. Ask for help, and don’t take criticism too personally, for most people will just bullshit you and say it’s good anyway. If someone offers you some criticism and you get offended just make sure to keep your cool enough to remember what they said. Your song probably does suck anyway.
There, I told you some stuff I’ve learned about songwriting. Hopefully I have breathed some life into your creative potential. Hopefully your creations will suffer less than mine have, but I can’t promise you anything. If you skimmed this whole article and you find yourself here, alert and ready to take on the one paragraph you felt you had time for, remember this: if you continue to build awareness of your inner self and your songwriting process, you cannot fail to eventually generate amazing material. Set your intentions, articulate your inspiration, get weird, keep it fresh, add spices, remain unattached to the outcome, and if all this fails and you end up creating a hideous abomination, kill it with fire.