Friday, February 10, 2012

The Business of Songwriting....

I write....a lot. I write poems, I write stories and I write songs....or at least I thought I did, until recently.

I've learned a lot in the last year and a half, including the fact that the pieces I have written could be songs, if I reworked them. They're just a bit on the wordy side. Being someone who is good with words makes rewriting easier for me than for most folks, but it can be vexing at times. When I'm writing a story or essay I can choose how I want to say things because I have time on my side. I have several paragraphs or even pages to express myself. I can make a point and then go into detail about it, give different examples and differing points of view and then drawn a conclusion. It's a bit more trying when writing a poem, because you only have a few stanzas to use (depending on what style of poetry you're using) and then there's that whole rhyming thing to contend with. But still you have some time and space to work with if you feel the desire to elaborate a bit. But a song? Now that's an entirely different animal.

Most songs are somewhere between three and five minutes in length. Three to five minutes....that's not much time, especially if you're telling a story or trying to make an important point. Go ahead, try it. Set a timer for 3 minutes, pick a topic and start talking. I bet you don't get much said before the time runs out. You can give yourself the full 5 minutes if you like, but you still won't finish your speech. Unless, of course, you know what you're going to say before you start talking. It takes a lot of thought and "word sense" to be able to write a lyric. You have to be able to get your point across in very short sentences that, most of the time, rhyme with one another. You also have to make sure you stay on topic....there's not a lot of time to meander around in a three-minute song. You have to get right to it so people will know what you're singing about, how you feel, what you're gonna do about it, and how it all turns out. I've heard it said that if you haven't gotten their attention in the first 30 seconds of the song, they'll change the station--"they" being the public a.k.a. your audience.

There are a lot of tricks to learn along the way, too. First things first, buy a dictionary and a thesaurus and learn how to use them. You should also get a good rhyming dictionary so you can find some interesting rhymes to use instead of writing "moon, June, spoon" songs. Next, buy yourself some good pens and pencils and extra erasers and lots of paper, notebooks, note pads, etc., and place them everywhere around the house. Yes, you can use your computer, but you can't always take it with you. A small notepad with a pen or pencil can be put in a purse or pocket or even in the glove compartment or your car, just in case an idea for a song strikes you at an odd moment--trust me, it will happen. Not to mention the fact that you can't accidentally delete a notebook from existence.

Next, find a place to write....a place where you can be left alone and have peace and quite. Yes, you can write while you're cooking dinner or during your lunch hour at work or while watching a movie in your living room or while watching the kids on the playground. As a matter of fact, those are some great places to get song ideas. But later, when you want to put the finishing touches on that lyric or when you want to write about a specific topic that you really need to think about or if you want to write about something private, you're going to want a place where you can be alone without any distractions. Also, make sure you have a filing system of some kind for your papers so you have a place for them when you're not writing.

When you finally do sit down to write, you'll find that it's not as easy as it seems. Most people think that a song lyric and a poem are one and the same....nope. Ask any professional songwriter and they'll tell you, "A song lyric is a song lyric and a poem is a poem." Yes, there are song lyrics that started out as poems and poems that have been set to music, but in general, they are two different things.

OK, so you're sitting in your little private space all alone with lots of peace and quite, notebook in front of you, pens at the ready, pencils sharpened, erasers lined up neatly, your dictionary, thesaurus and rhyming dictionary within reach on the book shelf above the desk, a few great ideas in your are ready to write a hit song! Now all you need to do is....

Decide what form you are going to use, what your point of view is, focus on where, when, what, who, why, and how, and figure out how to be specific and still make it universal to everyone. Now you have to rewrite it....even the most prolific and successful songwriters rewrite. Almost no song is recorded as a first draft. You can always make it better. Once you've got the lyric all worked out, you need to identify the emotion of the song, what the mood of the music should be. This is obviously easier if you read music--I do not, so I have to rely on other composers to write it for me. They in turn have to rely on my description of what the lyric is about and what I see as the mood of the song.

Another important thing to remember when you write a song is who will be singing it. As with writing the music, this is easier if you are the singer--which I am. But the majority of songwriters aren't the singers of their own songs. You have to remember that the singer has to be able to relate to the song....the singer becomes the song.

But I think the biggest hurdle to get over when writing songs is the same hurdle you'll find in just about any creative process--pride. Everyone has it and no one wants to really admit to it. Criticism is hard to take in general, even if it's constructive. But when it's criticism about something you created yourself, something you put your heart and soul hits harder and it stings a bit more. No one wants to hear that their creations aren't good enough. But if you're going to be a professional songwriter, you have to learn to filter out the mean stuff and listen to the rest. Surround yourself not with people who will tell you how great you are and how everything you write is perfect, but with people who will be honest with you. I have found a few really great people that I have been writing with--composers and lyricists--and their opinions are very valuable to me. What they say isn't meant in a mean way and I know they are giving me advice about how to make my songs the best they can be....and it's always my decision whether to use the advise or not. I can take their constructive criticism because it's for the good of the song. That's what really matters.

I want to write songs that will speak to others when I can't....songs that will help people express their feelings and say things they can't find the words to say themselves....songs that make people feel something and remind you that you're still alive. Real feelings that real people can relate to....that's what I want from my songs, and that's what I hope you will hear when you listen to them.

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