The Golden Rules Of Songwriting
by David Schindler
There is no power on earth like the power of music, and the business of music is, quite simply, a phenomenon. It is one of the handful of great cultural icons that defines our particular part of the twentieth century more clearly than any scientific data or anthropological study ever could. It is a multi-billion dollar monster, not just here in Canada and in the U.S., but all over the world. We buy CD's, watch videos, go to concerts, and purchase instruments and sheet music, while publishers, promoters, broadcasters, record companies and record sellers try to invent ever wilder stategies to get us to lay our money down.
So where is the engine that propels this juggernaut? More often than not, it is sitting in its room someplace with a guitar, or maybe a keyboard, smoking too many cigarettes and wishing it could sing better; cursing at lousy rhymes and wondering who is going to pay the gas bill; banging its head against the wall and trying to find that elusive, abusive magic just one more time.
You see (and I'm sure you already know this), it all starts right here, with the songwriter.
A few years ago, I wrote a short list of rules for myself. I can tell you absolutely that they made me a better songwriter. I haven't written more number one hits (or any, for that matter), or got myself a million dollar record deal with SONY, but these rules do something even more important for me.
They keep me going. They keep me writing. And they keep me trying. I doubt that the gas company will go out of business, and who knows? The next big record could be just around the corner!
Here are David's ten golden rules of songwriting:
1. WRITE FOR LOVE
Songs get under our skin, and they usually enter through the tiniest of wounds. Think back on the most important songs in your life. If you're like me, every one is connected to an incident, a lover, a promise, a good time or a bad time, a kiss on the cheek or a kick in the teeth. You may not be feeling exactly like the person in your lyric, but you can bet your 4 track that SOMEBODY is. If you write what's in your heart, the message will come across loud and clear. Don't be afraid to say what you feel. So your lyric starts out crude? That's what rewrites are for. If there is a kernel of honesty there, it will shine on through.
2. WRITE FOR MONEY
You want to be world class, right? Or maybe you ARE world class. Just nobody knows it yet. Either way, it's not a sin to look to the best songwriters on earth for inspiration, and THEY write for money, so why not you? If you ever expect to publish a song, or even better, hear it on the radio some day, then do yourself a favor.
Study the genre of popular music, and when you write, think about the radio. If somebody is ever going to use your music, they will have to lay out a few thousand bucks to record your song, and many thousands more to promote it. The people who do this like to get their money back, so that they can do it all over again. Don't be a snob, or you will end up with a lot of really terrific music that nobody will ever get to hear.
3. WRITE EVERY DAY
God. What a depressing thought. Even reading this makes my stomach queasy. Still, it comes with the territory. I have played the piano for over 30 years, and I still practice EVERY SINGLE DAY, even if it's only for 15 minutes. Sometime I wonder how badly I would play if I NEVER practiced, and that usually gets me into the chair, but you have to do whatever works for you.
If you have nothing new, or things just don't seem to be working, then go through your idea book (see #5), or try one more rewrite on that old clunker (see #7), or just play through your songbook (see #4).
If you write just ONE page of scribbled ideas every day, in a year you will have about 2 inches of material. In a pile of that size, there HAS to be at least one hit song lurking.
4. START A SONGBOOK
There is a time in the life of every song when it seems to "gel". It may not be finished, but at least it's more or less what you set out to accomplish. When your song gets to this stage, take some time to print out the words and the chords, or even write a leadsheet if you have the musical knowledge, and make your work into a "real" song.
I put my leadsheets into those plastic protectors and keep them in three ring binders. Sometimes, when things just don't seem to be working, I get out my songbook and play through my catalogue. It always makes me feel better to look at my work and tell myself that I really CAN do this, that I've done it before and I'll do it again. The proof is there, neat and tidy, right in my songbook. The songbook is also very helpful when you're "hot". Who wants to waste time trying to figure out the chords to a tune they can hardly remember when they have a raging record producer on the line?
It's much better to be able to say: "Sure, Mr. Foster. I have a lead sheet for that tune right here. I'll fax it over."
While you're at it, you may want to start a book of songs that you love, as well. Not only is this a great idea for parties, but it gives you the opportunity to study the work of your favorite writers. Singing and playing a great song is almost as good as getting a lesson from the person who wrote it.
One of the best tools you can use to organize your songs, is a program called Lyricist. It will allow you to store your lyrics and easily find the songs you want with just the click of a mouse. It can even help inspire you with the use of its extensive rhyming, chord charting and thesaurus references. You can find out more about the program here (there's even a $5.00 discount!).
5. CARRY A NOTEBOOK
EVERY writer should carry a little notebook, and USE IT. Ideas will come at the strangest times, and they can vanish (as we all know) in the blink of an eye. Use your notebook for scraps of lyric, interesting rhymes, and even bits of melody, if you can write notes away from your instrument. Nothing is too trivial to have a place in your book. You'd be surprised how a great song can come from some little two bit idea.
6. LISTEN TO MUSIC
Well. This ought to draw some flack. Some songwriters claim that listening to music only impairs their creativity, and I guess if you are a true visionary, then it might be the case. As a mere lesser mortal, I feel it doesn't hurt me one bit to charge up my batteries on somebody else's tunes. The elements of popular music are pretty simple, really. It's the style and the approach that makes a lot of the music fresh, and it's critical for any serious songwriter to stay current.
Don't be afraid to switch radio stations, or watch the video networks for a half hour every day. You may not always like what you hear (or see), or even understand all of it, but the input will enrich your musical experience, and improve the quality of your own work. Music is communication, and when people communicate, they don't just talk. They also listen. Don't try to shout in a vacuum.
7. REWRITE, REWRITE, REWRITE
I think it was Paul Simon who said, "Good songs aren't written. They're rewritten", and I guess old Paul ought to know. EVERY song has problems, and in your songs, you will know exactly where they are. The throwaway lyric, the cheap rhyme, the part that you stole from "Moon River", because you couldn't decide where the melody should go next, etc., etc. You may not know exactly how to fix them today, or ever, for that matter, but don't let that song whither and die! Don't be satisfied until your lyric is honed and polished to a perfect point. Don't give up until every chord change flows as smooth as silk.
The day will come when you will play your song and suddenly, it will sound like it's just always been here, like an old standard. Then you will be glad you persisted, and so will your long suffering friends and family. And don't agonize over the pieces that didn't fit, because you'll know in your heart of hearts that taking them out was really the right thing to do. Putthe scraps back in your notebook. One day, one of them will become the link that will take you to a whole new song.
8. NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK
The world of professional songwriters is a small one. Hang out. Get to know the players. Go to SOCAN workshops. Join the Canadian Songwriter's Association. Join CARAS. Learn about FACTOR. Get to know publishers, producers, and other writers. A working record producer who likes your material can get your music on the radio faster than anyone else on earth. Give that producer a hit, and you will have a friend for life.
Hang around the studio. Go clubbing. Like the band? Write them a song. Work with collaborators. Surf the 'net. You get the idea.
Joining online communities can also be helpful for this. And online communities are world-wide, not limited by geographical location. One of the most educational communities out there for songwriters is a place called SongU.com. If you're interested in improving your craft, you can even try out one of their courses for free to see if you'll like it.
9. BE RESPECTFUL
So. Rock is too noisy? Rap too violent? Jazz too obscure? Country too cornball? Grunge too...well...grungy? Wake up and smell the coffee. In these, and every one of a dozen other styles of popular music, there are some very wealthy writers who would beg to differ.
Write what comes out, and write it with a sensitive ear and a respect for the art form. Unless you are Weird Al, mocking a style can get you into some big trouble with the fans, who will instantly spot you for the phony that you are.
There is no shame in writing country (or anything else, for that matter). The only shame is in making fun of somebody else's music.
And while you're at it (is this your mother talking, or what?), remember to be respectful of the music business and of the other writers that you meet. We're all trying to do the best that we can, and people have very long memories.
10. BE PATIENT
It took me 7 years to get my first song published, and then I published 20 in 18 months. None of them has made me rich, or even close. On the other hand, I just finished one today that I think might turn out to be a real anthem. So what do I have to show for myself? Well, I have 20 years' production, a body of work, if you will. Some of it is pretty good, and there are about 3 or 4 that I think are first class. If I had given up, then I'd have nothing.
I don't know if my next song will be a hit, but I DO know that the next opportunity is waiting just around the corner, and I'm going to have something ready to show. You can count on it. Happy songwriting!
© 1995 David E. Shindler
Burnhamlea Music of Canada
Reprinted by permission.