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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Writing Songs

Creativity serves us well, as a source of ideas. Sometimes it comes from the cross-pollenation of ideas between disciplines. Sometimes it seemingly comes from the blue when our minds work when we are asleep or when we are idle, mentally. And sometimes creativity is a visceral thing, springing forth from situations of trauma or intense joy, as our souls try to heal themselves or simply work to process what they have gone through.

This last source is so often the one that makes us sing.

When I get overwhelmed or troubled, I usually turn to the piano to work out my angst. And heaven help me if I don't have something to record it. I have captured these improvisations from time to time, and some days there are two or three.

I like to write songs, because I'm somebody who feels things. They are a great outlet. You can find some of my songs on Soundcloud. Check out Not Enough Time for instance.

Starting Songs

How do I write songs? I start three ways. The first way, I have something to say. If it needs to get out, melody and words will occur to me simultaneously. The second way, I think up a melody and I then need to put words to it. The third way, I write a song instrumentally, and I record it and play it back, writing words and framing phrases as I sing to it. But these three methods are only how it all starts.

Once it's started, then it needs to be completed.

Songs are typically made up of sections. You probably know these: verse, refrain, bridge, intro, outro, hook, etc.


Verses are the body of the song, where most of the matter of a song occurs. But what's in a verse?

A song can tell a story. Then the verses do the telling, scene by scene. A good example of this is Rocky Raccoon, by the Beatles. No doubt that's what is going on in that song!

A verse can tell a point of view; a later verse can alter that point of view. One verse can have my point of view, and the second can have your point of view. A third verse can apply to a group.

Verses can be similar in form and structure. For instance, Joni Mitchell's Clouds has three verses with similar structure. The first is about clouds, the second is about life, the third is about love. This is a common pattern, because, as listeners, we want to see where the songwriter is going with it. The similarity forms a comfort zone, a familiarity that helps us absorb each verse. Also, a principle of songwriting is: if you repeat something, do something different with it. So, for instance, you might bring in the drums and the bass on the second verse, for example. This is called buildup.

Sometimes having a similar structure can simply mean repeating the same words at the beginning of the verse (like Dear Prudence).

There is plenty of creativity in verses.

Verse patterns can also be interesting. Countless songs have two verses of vocals and the third verse is taken up by the solo. Then, the fourth verse often returns to vocals.


Usually a hit song will have a refrain, or chorus. A refrain is most commonly a headline phrase, like Here Comes the Sun. A songwriter will save the most catchy melody or chord change for the refrain. It is generally the most memorable part of the song, and this is by design.

Sometimes the refrain is a round, or a four or eight bar phrase that gets repeated. Think Hey Jude. Even when the refrain is not a round, it can get repeated, so be prepared to rework the end of the refrain for the purpose of dovetailing with the beginning of the next repeat.

Usually you won't repeat the refrain the first time you introduce it. Repeats of the refrain are simply more common at the end of the song, because you want to leave the listener with the best and most catchy part in their mind when the song is done.


The bridge, or middle eight, can link the verse to the refrain, or just be a nice contrast with the repetitive nature of the song. Sometimes the bridge is the jewel of the song. In my song Tagman, the bridge is a flash of virtuosity.

Often, in the bridge, I modulate to another key, for instance the relative minor. Then the trick is to modulate back into the main key of the song.

I like the texture of the bridge to be different from the rest of the song. This can mean a different rhythm (say, triplets), a more edgy drum beat, or even a totally different treatment like a classical version or a blues version.


The intro of the song is the part that gets the listener's attention. This is usually something novel. In Wish U Were Here, Pink Floyd begins their song with an AM radio-compressed guitar solo that another guitar, seemingly more live, begins to jam with. Now that's novel.

Some songs don't have an intro, like Ruby Tuesday, by the Rolling Stones. It just begins with the first verse directly. Other songs use the hook as their intro, which is quite common. Think Day Tripper, Satisfaction, and I Want To Tell You.

One particularly useful kind of intro is the rhythm intro, where the drums begin the rhythm of the song and it gets amplified with each repeat. Here, songs like Steve Winwood's Higher Love and Rob Thomas' Her Diamonds are good examples.

Some songs have two intros, like Queen's Somebody To Love. You get an a cappella section followed by a short piano intro.


Many songs use a modified intro as their outro. This provides a sense of closure, and is often poetic.

I think an outro is essential, because I tire of songs that just repeat a round at the end. Well, Hey Jude did it and others followed ad nauseam. But it seems like the sign of a song that isn't finished, when it just fades out at the end. But even epic, classic songs like Procol Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale do this.

The traditional musical term for outro is actually coda.


A hook is a riff that catches the ear directly because it has a novel rhythm and melody. Rock music is so full of good hooks. The opening bars of Tom Petty's Mary Jane's Last Dance certainly suffice as a simple example: a guitar riff that helps to build the rhythm of the song while catching the ear. The Beatles' Day Tripper also has the quintessential prime example.

But a hook must be integral with the song. If it is stand-alone then the song can seem manufactured, or formula.

I traditional music, the hook is often called the motiv.

An Example

Here I will take apart one of my songs. It's a bit like the reverse of what I did to put it together, and it's also a bit like how I put it together in the first place. But you can take apart any song, really. I think it makes me a little odd: instead of listening to a song in an unbiased way, I take it apart. "Oh, listen to that bridge!" "Wow - third verse a cappella, very interesting!" That sort of stuff. I probably drive people crazy with this.

The song Not Enough Time shows I have some organization when I write my songs. To the right you see page 1 of the lyric sheet. These were not just written the way you see them here. They were changed, listened to, endlessly edited, tried out, and rearranged.

First, I usually just get a verse idea in my head. Then it's just a problem of making sure its a good lead-in verse. For this one, the really big problem was getting the second two lines of the first verse right.

Then one day, it just occurred to me that dictionary could be pronounced the British way, and it all fit together. I was trying to get the cadence of accents of the syllables to fit into my meter.

One day, probably a year after I wrote the basic verse melody (which also fits the round) I figured out a nice bridge format. Then I sat down at the piano and put some chords down. Pretty soon I could play it reasonably well. This is the first step in becoming comfortable with a new section in a song.

The second lyric sheet has very few lyrics, but it highlights another problem with Not Enough Time.

How do you end a piece?

I referenced a concept before called an outro, which is a modern term for coda, the end of a composition. At the end there might be some kind of definitive statement. The Beatles used to sometimes end their songs on an unusual chord, like the fourth of the scale. This is used to great effect in And Your Bird Can Sing.

Interspersed in the lyrics is a reference to a round. This serves as the refrain in this piece.

You see, the more I played with the verse, the more I wanted to sculpt it into a 4-chord round.

Modern commercials are the home of the 4-chord round these days. And it does kind of make me a little ill. In the case of this song, it took probably three years before I had it right enough to produce.

Here you see the score sheet for the round. The piano part is very foursquare. That's to contrast with the rest of it, which tends to be syncopated.

Vocals 1 to 3 are harmony vocals that define the chord structure of the round: D - A - Gadd2 - A.

The 3 flutes are additional orchestration that adds color to the round.

The bass is highly idiosyncratic and natural. It bounces at first and then proceeds in small scales. Note that the bass has a different ending for the second repeat of the round.

The drums add a fast beat to the round, giving it energy. The kick and snare are flammed: in other words doubled.

The other two vocals actually wrap around the round, stretching into the next repeat. This is a nice trick if you can carry it off, and it makes the round seem much more natural.

Here we have the structure of the song. I always write a structure sheet out so I can remember the chords. If you forget the chords, all is lost!

Also notice the exact timing of the song is given, in mm (stands for Maelzel Metronome) and it is the number of beats per minute. In this case, it is the number of quarter notes per minute.

Here I give the round as D - A - G - A twice in a row. This also serves as the chord sequence of the verse. Except that the back end of the verse has a quite different set of chords.

The bridge is notable, with a chromatic bassline in the tail end.

The secret chords of the coda are revealed here, and they are quite a parallel harmony indeed.

For the back end of the verse, I did some harmonization using multi tracked vocals. This required some planning beforehand, to get the chords right, particularly when the G is compressed into a G2 chord, since the third of the scale (B) becomes replaced with the second (A) in the chord.
Here you can see that I did three vocals. My trick is to double-track each of the backing vocals to give a bit of chorusing to the sound. It makes the backing vocal fatter and slightly more ethereal.

Other vocals were multi tracked, and required a bit of preparation as well.

When you look at the structure, you see that the round serves as the intro, and the second round backs up the solo.

If you listen to the song, you might notice the backwards guitar solo in the second round, just before verse 3. I reversed the entire section, recorded three solos to it, and chose the one that sounded the best when I re-reversed the section (with the solos) back to forwards.

It is a bit disorienting to listen and practice to music that has been reversed. You should try it sometime. It really has a spooky feel to it.

This serves to show a bit about how I write songs. Most of it is hard work and meticulous planning. And the real ideas come after quite a while of letting the piece percolate into you brain.

I have a confession: this song is not typical. Most songs I can crank out in a couple of days. But songs always sound better when you sit back and listen to them after leaving them alone for a while. And new ideas are easier to come up with too.

When I write songs now, I usually start by singing them into an iPhone while driving. I use VoiceNotes for this, because it is simple and very handy for capturing ideas. Then, when I get home, and I have a moment of relative silence, I create a piano backing for the song. This I record using an iPad or some other handy tool, just so I can comp up the song in GarageBand. Quick and dirty.

I have used tools like ProTools in the past, for multitracking. I find that modern hardware has more than enough horsepower to do the same task without expensive outboard DSP cards.

I do love living in the future.

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