Sunday, May 16, 2010

How to write better songs sooner

This list may sound a little harsh or negative, and I certainly don’t claim to have “arrived” as a songwriter myself (commercially or otherwise), but I have learned a few things over the years through both experience and observation, and I believe this may save some folks a step or two in writing better songs sooner. Take it as you will.


Don’t start out with any version of the phrase “I woke up this morning.”

Don’t include any of these phrases:
“walking down the street”
“walking down the road”
“trav’ling down this road”
“down on my knees, I’m begging you please”

Don’t rhyme “heart” with “start” or “part.”

Don’t say “inside my heart” when you mean “in my heart” and need an extra syllable.

Better, don’t use the word “heart” at all if you can help it (I think you can).

Don’t refer to the “feelings inside”—where the heck else would they be?

Better, avoid using the word "feelings" at all.

Don’t write about rain, especially as a metaphor for emotions, blessings, etc. Don’t even THINK of comparing rain to tears.

Don’t refer to dreams or flying, or even flying in your dreams.

Don’t rhyme “fire” with “desire.” Best to stay away from both words altogether.

Pick just about any line from the song “Amazed” by Lonestar…and don’t use it.

Don’t use words that neither you nor anyone you know whose first language is English would use in real life, just to make a rhyme and/or fill a space (unless you can do it with a wink). Desperation shows.

Don’t put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble just to make it scan. That’s cheating (I’m talking to you, John Rich & Gretchen Wilson…”keepin’ it counTREE” indeed!).

Never mind that even the best of writers will ignore some or all these guidelines at some point. Some (even many) people have even had success doing it; but you’re not them. Yet. But if you make an effort to write fresh lyrics about real stuff, preferably from your own life, you’ll be one step closer. And at least your song will irritate the rest of us that much less. So until you can laugh with recognition at this article, then it’s for you. Please abide by it. You'll thank me later.

NOTE: This list does not apply to rap. No one expects rap lyrics to be good—at least not in the same way. Or anything close to it.

And praise lyrics are another level of discussion as well. Not because they're above criticism--just the opposite, I think--but because there are so many praise songs that show so little effort at maintaining any kind of lyrical standard, it's hard to know where to start. Besides, the people who write praise songs are often under the impression that their work is directly "inspired" (despite strong evidence to the contrary), so any analysis comes across as a spiritual attack or at best makes one sound like a cynical old coot. Assembling a random collection of religious and quasi-romantic phrases and setting them to music is not strictly "songwriting" in my view, but God uses the foolish to confound the wise, so who knows. God bless us all.

P.S.: On a positive note: there are many popular songs we could use as a standard to measure the quality of our lyrics. One that is way up there in my book is "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" written by Gene Nelson & Paul Nelson and recorded by Kathy Mattea. This is possibly THE perfect country song; one of 'em, anyway. It's simple, it's emotionally provocative, and it illustrates the theme (of the man's "countdown" to his ultimate goal of retiring to be with his wife) in a subtle way that is not just clever--it's brilliant. Eighteen...dozen...ten...four. Brilliant.

I'd be interested to hear what songs anyone else would put in either category of cliched or sublime.

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