Some people think songs just “happen”, that they just ooze out of the songwriter. There are lots of songwriters who are suspicious of those who make the effort to wrangle words, melodies, and chords into cohesion. Worrying about structure worries them. Even thinking about consistent line lengths and rhyme schemes confounds them, many believing that to do so just might kill the magic.
And you know what? They may be right. Er, to a point.
They’re certainly right about one thing: there’s undeniable magic in the songwriting process, from the emergence of an idea, to the shaping it into a presentable form, to the audience’s reaction. If you consistently get from the start of that process (a strong idea) through to the end (unqualified audience enjoyment) without ever once being conscious of any technical aspects of songwriting, I would urge you not to change a thing! You don’t need me to tell you how you might improve your songs. You need a manager, booking agent, producer, and maybe a stylist, bodyguard, and limo driver (I’m not being flippant: you are blessed, and the world needs more songwriters like you).
Neil Young said “What happens with the lyrics is because they happened. It’s not because you thought of them. That’s the last damn thing you wanna do is think of something. That is death…” Clearly Neil feels deeply connected to—and counts on—his unconscious muse when he writes songs. My friend and fave songwriter Jules Shear shies away from any analysis of his “method” because he’s afraid it will somehow scare away his muse. By contrast, Leonard Cohen says “One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not.”
Like Leonard Cohen, the rest of us have to approach songwriting more consciously. We just aren’t as lucky, maybe aren’t as talented, and definitely aren’t as experienced as many veteran writers, who will tap into huge reservoirs of memory to write something original. The Beatles never consulted a songwriting book, but they spent years of their teenaged lives immersed in music, obsessed by songs and songwriters, listening carefully to how music was constructed, and those years of paying attention came out in their writing.
No, the rest of us just might need to shape our writing as we go or write a second or third draft to get our song to work. That said, am I suggesting songs consciously crafted from top-to-bottom are better than those unconsciously written from the heart? Not a chance, chum.
Music is about feeling. Nothing else matters. If you write songs that connect, while you ignore every so-called “rule” of songwriting, that’s fantastic. On the other hand, if you can write fully-crafted songs, paying attention to every detail and nuance of structure and technique and your songs still connect with an audience, that is equally fantastic.
Here’s the thing, though: because music at its heart is about feeling, I favour the less-technique approach. Re-writing? Yes, please. But not to satisfy some rules, but always to satisfy a feeling. As a songwriting teacher, of course I’m aware of all kinds of tricks, techniques and strategies for making your music work, but I think a little technique goes a long way.
Learn the techniques, learn about structure, but learn mostly by listening. Immerse yourself. Play other people’s songs, allowing yourself to become influenced. That influence will come out in your writing. Then use your head to re-write, to re-examine the work you’ve done. Make sure it says what you want it to say. Make people feel something! Be brave!