Some Thoughts on Songwriting

Posted: March 24, 2018 in Music
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An Understandable Guide to Music Theory front cover

by Chaz Bufe, author of An Understandable Guide to Music Theory: The Most Useful Aspects of Theory for Rock, Jazz and Blues Musicians.

Over the years, I’ve been collecting bits of advice on songwriting, some of which I follow, some of which I don’t. A few of the following suggestions are from yours truly; most of them are from others, and their origins are lost in the mist of time.

Here’s the advice, with that on lyrics first, which seems the area of greatest need.

Lyrics

1. Just rhyming isn’t good enough. listen to any type of popular music from blues to rock to country to corridos and you’ll see (well, hear) what I mean:: the lyrics are cliched or nonsensical in easily 90% of the songs. All their authors were concerned with was rhyming (and, often, being inoffensive), so they reached for the first handy cliches and words that even vaguely rhyme, and produced junk.

2. Speaking of cliches, avoid them; and if you use them, use them in a way that mocks them or is otherwise funny.

3. Say something. Make people think, feel, or both. Make a point (political, social, or personal), express genuine emotion, and/or be amusing. One of these three things is usually adequate, and if you write a song that incorporates two of the three, you should have a winner.

4. Humorous self-mockery often makes for great lyrics.

5. Avoid earnestness (humorlessness, taking things, especially oneself, too seriously). While seriousness can be fine, earnestness never is.

6. Try to use real rhymes rather than false rhymes. As an example, a real rhyme for “bone” is “stone,” and a false rhyme would be “home.” False rhymes are very common in song lyrics, and they’re not the worst thing in the world, but it’s better to use real rhymes if you can, as long as they don’t detract from the lyrical content — if they do detract, it’s generally better to use a false rhyme that better expresses the meaning.

Music

1. Record what you play while you’re practicing or rehearsing. You never know when you’ll come up with a good song idea, and if you record it you can go back to it. (I’m far from alone in losing song ideas [progressions, melodies, comping patterns] I didn’t record but was sure I’d remember.)

2. If you can’t record a song idea (or a complete song — sometimes they just come to you), play it at least a dozen times to get it in your head. This isn’t as good as recording it, but it increases the chances that you’ll remember it.

3. If you’re playing with others, take at least a few minutes at every rehearsal to improvise and see what you come up with.

4. Experiment with different rhythmic patterns. It’s very easy to get stuck in familiar rhythmic ruts; make an effort to get out of them. How? One way is to check out drummers playing different beats on Youtube. A more efficient way is to use a rhythmic reference book such as The Drummer’s Bible: How to Play Every Drum Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco, which includes CDs with close to 200 different beats. In either case, using Youtube videos or a reference book with CDs or DVDs, put on a track with a rhythm you’re not familiar with, and see what you can come up with.

5. It’s also not a bad idea to experiment with using two different beat patterns in a song, one for the verses and the other for the bridge. Robert Cray’s “That’s What I’ll Do” is a good example: for the verses, it uses a standard jazz pattern (swung, but shuffling only on the 2 & 4) and for the bridge it uses a backdoor shuffle (shuffling on all 4 beats, but with the emphasis on the final triplet of every beat).

6. Don’t be oddball just for the sake of being oddball. Unusual rhythmic, metric, or chord changes are fine as long as they work. That is, they should have a musical point. (If your bandmates are enthusiastic about the song the odd changes are in, they probably work; if they don’t like them, or politely say nothing or give tepid praise, they probably don’t.)

General Advice

1. Have a notebook handy so you can write down musical ideas, lyrics, or possible song topics when you can’t record them and especially when you don’t have an instrument handy.

2. Set aside some time every day for a year to write a song, and don’t quit until you’ve come up with one, no matter how poor. Those who’ve done this (I haven’t) say that while over 90% of what they came up with was crap, they also came up with some real gems, and that it’s made songwriting easier for them.

I hope that you find at least some of the above useful.

P.S. Here are mp3s for a few of the songs I’ve written over the years, both music and lyrics. I hope you enjoy them.

And here are a couple for which I wrote the music but not the lyrics:

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