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Tips, Tricks and Road Stories


Advice For A Songwriter

September 20, 2011; Terrence Wells Alexander

It's one of those nights again. One of those 3:00 AM sort of nights where you find yourself clutching a guitar, biting the end of a pen, and trying to write out the words you thought of only moments ago, trying to wrench the sounds out of those strings that you heard in your head just seconds before. Every musician, professional or amateur, beginner or master, has had that sort of night. It doesn't matter if you're a blues guitarist, a classical violinist, a jazz trombonist, or a pianist who'll play just about anything. You have an idea and you try desperately to let it out. You try, and you try, and you try. And by the time the sun rises, you've hardly written a lyric, played a lick, or heard a note. As discouraging as that is, you can't let it end there.

How many of you know that frustration, that torture of knowing you've had a brilliant idea, and been unable to realize it? The answer is all of you, absolutely any composer, whether you are an established genius, or a burgeoning songwriter. Sometimes, the music just won't flow from our fingers. It's a terrible feeling. Nobody likes that feeling, but it seems to last for ages. And no matter who you talk to about it, they all have their own tips and tricks of the trade: "Write the chords first. You can't write lyrics until you have a melody." "Know what you want the lyrics to say, and build the music around that mood, that texture." "Just improvise some chords, and write down the changes you like." Anyone you ask will have something to say.

You know all this. You've all heard similar advice, or at least some sort of advice. Everyone has. And none of these tips are wrong. Anyone can write a song any way they please. There is no standardized technique, no perfect method. Everyone writes their own way. Bob Dylan wrote the vast majority of his lyrics as poems and later set them to music. Freddie Mercury could hardly read music, so he wrote chord names, and created the melody when he sang the lyrics. Thom Yorke cannot read music at all, and wrote the majority of the lyrics for Radiohead's 2000 album, Kid A, using Tristan Tzara's method for writing Dada poetry. Irving Berlin had a transposing piano, as he could only write or play in one key. Julian Casablancas always writes the music before the lyrics, despite the fact that he is the singer of his band, The Strokes. There are countless ways to create a song. And since there is no perfect method, there is no imperfect method. Any method at all is perfectly acceptable. This practically ensures that any song you write is distinctly yours, and endowed with your individual style.

However, all of that does nothing to provide advice on how to proceed with songwriting. And there is nothing revolutionary or ingenious about the guidance to come. It is simple, almost frustratingly so. In the back of their mind, every musician knows it already, consciously or not. The only real method to writing a song, writing music, lyrics, or both, is to write, and keep writing. Persistence will eventually result in a song, no matter how long it takes. Even when you have no idea how to begin, begin. You have to find a method that works for you, if you truly want to write songs. And once you find a method, find more. It doesn't matter how many times an idea fails you, or how many times an idea works, you can never be afraid to try writing in a new way. It might lead you to some of the greatest songs that you otherwise would not have created.  Try a new melody, a new rhythm, a new time signature, a new key signature, try anything. Just try.

Now, this may seem like useless, painfully obvious, advice. And in a way, it is. Any youngster could tell you that whether your intent is to write a song, run a marathon, color inside the lines, or say the alphabet correctly, it takes hard work and a willingness to try. However, some people can forget that. Some people want to be inspired, write a song in a fit of passion, and fall in love with their creation. And that is entirely possible. But unless you have some unstoppable flow of inspiration, like a broken dam on the river of creativity, you will have to work at some point. Even those who have written songs in such an energetic fashion will tell you that it is not always like that. And that is why hard work and persistence are invaluable tools to the songwriter.

So say you couldn't remember the words from last night's dream quite right. Write what you can and come back to it later, when you have more ideas or no ideas at all. Say the chord changes you wrote don't sound quite as you thought it would. Work at it. Play with it. Play chord changes so unusual, everyone in earshot will think you're either losing it, or channeling the late genius, Thelonious Monk. Say you wrote a melody for the brass section, with brilliant counterpoint being played by the woodwinds, but you spilled coffee all over the fourth page. Rewrite it. Make it even more brilliant. Because, at the end of a 3:00 AM sort of night, when you can't imagine what you heard in your head anymore, and your family is waking up from all the racket and swearing, but you hit that elusive chord you've been looking for, the chord that falls into place like a long-forgotten puzzle piece, or you write that perfect phrase that not only sums up all the emotion you've been trying to express, but also pulls the melody from your subconscious, into your ears, through your fingers, and onto that page, that's the best feeling in the world. And it doesn't come to those who aren't willing to try and to work for it.

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