Category Archives: How To Write A Song

How to Write a Country Song

 

 

Recently, Rolling Stone sat down with a number of country music greats such as Keith Urban and Tim McGraw and asked them how to how to write a country song. They came up with a number of rules that should be followed in the songwriting process.

First, you should concentrate on the melody first. A lot of would-be songwriters will compose the lyrics and then set them to music. But if the song is not catchy, something that compels you to sing along with it, all the clever lyrics in the world will not make it a good song,

In the country music world, songwriting is often a group effort. The trick is to have writing partners that you click with immediately so that in some ways it can be like love at first sight.

The big cliché about country music is that the songs are all about heartbreak and break-up. “She done left me for another one.”

You should try to write a song that is a little more upbeat, something that people can listen and sing along to and forget their troubles. Think about the joys of falling in love, not to mention riding around in pickup trucks, hunting, fishing, and partying. These sorts of feel-good songs seem to be doing well in today’s market. Along those lines, some of the country artists suggest that country music is following what rock music used to delve into.

A good country song not only has a good chorus but a good “after chorus,” that being the verse that comes after.

The lyrics of a country song tends to be about real life, the sorts of lives that people who listen to country music live. A country song can tell a story or just capture a mood from everyday life.

A country song uses lots of adjectives to describe something, the more, the better. In that way, the words in a song will paint vivid word pictures in the minds of the people who are listening to them.

A good country song writer will listen to other genres besides country. You never know what rock or R&B song will spark an idea for a good song. Along those lines, you should just listen to people talking whether it is face-to-face or on the radio or TV. You never know what certain turns of phrase will find their way into a good country song.

“Write what you know” is the sort of advice people give to all sorts of writers, whether they are novelists, poets, or songwriters. Write songs based on the sort of things you have experienced and observed.

A good rule for the tone of a country song is to write the verses quiet, but explode with the chorus. This approach seems to be most popular with country music fans.

Try listening to hip hop and incorporating some of its style in your country song. A lot of country people actually listen to hip hop, even in small, country towns.

The one thing about rules in any aspect of life, even in country music, is that you have to learn how and when to break them. Experiment with structure. You can start with the chorus instead of the verses. You can use a two-line verse and a big chorus. Keep trying to find out what works and what doesn’t.

There is one rule in country music that should be never broken, which is not using bad language in your lyrics, especially the F word. You can sing about sex all you want, but do it decorously. Many country music fans tend to be conservative and family oriented. What may fly for rap or some forms of rock will not fly in a country song.

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Can Taylor Swift Show Us How To Write a Song?

 

 

Though Taylor Swift is one of our most talked-about songwriters, discussions of how to write a song as good as hers typically focus too much on her subject-matter and not enough on the craft involved in her work. So let’s take a look at two of Swift’s songs to analyze just how quickly she is able, even in the first few words, to hook the listener through character, plot, and even a few obscure poetic devices.

Of course, mentioning character and plot implies that Swift’s work is narrative—or story-telling—and, often, it is. She began as a country artist, and country music is largely a narrative genre. What’s more, her narrative tendencies have carried over into her pop work, as well. So let’s look at the first lines of the country “Our Song” and the pop “Style” to see how quickly Swift can set up a scene, a character, and a situation, as well as an expectation that will consistently carry through to the end of a song.

“Our Song” begins, “I was riding shotgun with my hair undone in the front seat of his car.” Immediately we have an image. We have the narrator’s gender—for it is dangerous to assume that the singer is the same person as the narrator—implied by “hair undone”: female. We know something about this female: the fact that her hair is “undone” implies that, sometimes, it might be tied up in a ponytail, in a braid, or a bun. Sometimes this person’s hair is done up. So there’s something to contrast the loose hair with—simply because of one word: “undone.” And this suggests, however subconsciously, a dichotomy: formal/informal, restricted/relaxed, maybe even good/bad.

Ok, what else? Well, we have the word “shotgun.” This word carries undertones of danger and lawlessness. But still, it’s metaphoric, idiomatic—the shotgun isn’t real. Yet now there’s a mood. The undone hair, the suggestion of a shotgun that isn’t there. Even if this person doesn’t always follow the rules, there are rules that, in order to be broken, do nevertheless exist. In other words, this person does have constraints, though she might feel adventurous enough, in a non-existent-shotgun sort of way, to want to break them sometimes.

All right, is there anything else? Well, “riding shotgun” also suggests a relationship. She and the car’s driver are close, invested in each other. These two probably have each other’s backs. This is not likely their first date; she feels comfortable enough to be herself—and this also reflects the at-ease feeling we get from her shaken-loose hair.

So, then, riding shotgun implies knowing each other well enough to be able to take care of one another. Incredibly, in the first eight words, Swift has set up a scenario that involves two people whose relationship is comfortable but not boring, relaxed but not mundane, safe but not stifling—and with a tinge of anticipation of possible adventure to come.

And the song will, in fact, proceed to unfold without ever denying nor defying these initial parameters. Amazingly, everything that happens in this song is foreshadowed in these first few words.

So with all this in mind, let’s think about how Swift has created this image. She hasn’t actually described this female, yet we can imagine her. Maybe she has her feet on the dash, maybe her hair is in loose waves or curls, windblown.

But, you ask, if Swift hasn’t exactly described this scene, where did it come from? Well, it was triggered, not described. That is, Swift suggested it rather than demanded it. It was already contained in the mind of the listener and Swift merely unleashed it.

It’s a contemporary archetype, not a stereotype. That’s why the hair has no specific color yet is so vivid, has no specific style yet is real enough to touch. By triggering the image and not describing it, Swift has allowed the scene to thrive without limitation in the mind of the listener. And what’s more, there’s really no way to instruct a writer how to trigger an image, not describe it. It seems accomplished almost as though by magic.

Ok, what else is Taylor Swift up to here? Well, there are a few poetic devices at play, namely assonance, slant rhyme, and internal rhyme. Swift uses a lot of internal rhyme, which is—quite simply—words that rhyme within the line instead of at the end of it. And often, when she uses rhyme anywhere, it tends to be what’s called slant rhyme, or near rhyme, or half rhyme, or off rhyme—you get the idea. Rhyme that’s not too obvious or contrived. “I was riding shotgun with my hair undone in the front seat of his car.” Wow. And the word assonance just means that the vowel sounds are rhyming—as in undone and front. Easy to overlook, yet powerful.

But what does all this accomplish, all this internal rhyme and such? What is wrong with simple end rhyme—or rhyming just the last word in each line? Well, think about it. Any rhyme serves to pull you forward through the story, so to speak—like a thread running through the song that’s caught you and is pulling you right along with it.

But when the rhyme is unexpected and scattered throughout the lines—rather than just predictably and clunkily placed at the end—then the effect is more buoyant, as thought the song is a river and the rhyme is a current propelling you through. Thus—and here’s the real magic—the words gain musicality and are even better able to complement the actual music. It just sounds good.

Ok, now what about the pop song “Style”? Well, even though the song’s a different genre than “Our Song,” notice there’s something very similar going on, once again, in the first few words: “Midnight, you come and pick me up, no headlights.” Notice the alteration of what might have been just a boring, exact, predictable rhyme, but is instead: Midnight; headlights. Amazingly, simply by choosing two everyday compound words, Swift is able to utilize both kinds of rhyme at once: exact rhyme (night/lights) and slant rhyme (mid/head). Again, wow.

But do these first lines of “Style” effectively set up imagery and a scenario—with characters that will be consistently carried through to the end—as we saw in “Our Song”? Yes, certainly. What better forewarning of the clandestine relationship to follow than a car pulling up, at midnight, with the headlights turned off! It’s the equivalent of the first scene of a movie, in just nine words.

So maybe this will give you something new to think about whenever you hear those tired, outmoded discussions of who Taylor’s songs are about. Technique, above subject matter, is the real issue at hand. But—most important—will the above reflections help you to write songs as good as Taylor’s?

Much of what a songwriter does is done subconsciously. If it weren’t, the result would likely be stilted, forced. Yet, in the editing, the writer decides what will remain, and this part of the process is where the attention to craft is most conscious. Did Swift recognize how economically she was establishing her characters and their situations as she was creating them? Or was she thinking about this only in the editing process? When a songwriter’s craft so seamlessly intertwines so many elements, it’s hard to tell.

Just remember, trust in the power of your subconscious. Let these poetic devices play in your mind, unconsciously, as you write. Then, in the editing process, if they are working, let them stay.

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Dissonance in Songwriting

3 Tips On How to Use Dissonance Effectively in Your Songwriting

 

Although many tips on songwriting will focus on lyrics, chord progressions, and the “hook” of the chorus, few articles discuss the one thing that is so fundamental to all good music of any genre — from classical to pop, from jazz to rock.

This one thing is dissonance.

The use of dissonance in songwriting is perhaps one of the most underutilized and least understood concept among songwriters today. Yet when someone uses it exceptionally well — someone like Adele, for example — they stand out.

There are three things to know when using dissonance:

  1. knowing what dissonance actually is (not what you think it is)
  2. knowing how to intentionally (and artfully) create dissonance
  3. knowing when to use dissonance

And if you’re a beginning songwriter, this is definitely for you. Although there might be some technical sounding concepts, the actual application of these concepts is doable for any songwriter, even if you’re just starting.

And if you’re an intermediate or advanced songwriter, this is for you too. This topic will give you a fresh way of looking at techniques that you’ve likely been employing — either knowingly or purely by instinct — for years.

1. Understanding the True Nature of Dissonance (And Why Knowing Its Nature Matters)

For the most part, the human brain does not like dissonance. It makes people wince. The most common moment of dissonance happens when someone is singing out of tune — terribly out of tune — and people in the audience are plugging their ears.

But have you stopped to wonder why singing out of tune hurts our brains so much? It’s actually very interesting. As scientists continue to study the phenomenon, we have learned that our auditory systems really do have a preference about music. Our ear’s preference for consonance (i.e. pleasant-sounding harmonies) over dissonance is not just an easily dismissed cultural or psychological preference.

Let’s break this down into language that anyone can understand. Some musical notes, when played together, produce a very easy pattern for the brain to pick up. They’re easy because the mathematical ratio between the two notes comes close to nice, whole numbers. The perfect fifth, for example, has a simple 3:2 ratio.

A dissonant group of notes, however, has a complex ratio like, for example, 4.56879:11.889 — something very complicated. The brain has a really hard time picking up on this pattern. And as a result, it sends a signal to you that it does not like it. This signal creates tension in your sensory experience of the music.

So why does this matter?

The key word in all of this is “tension.” The ability to produce tension is a powerful tool in the hands of an artist. Writers can create tension by introducing conflicts into the plot, actors can do it with facial expressions, so why can’t songwriters use tension too? Tension is actually a very good thing in music. Some of the best songs ever written make very careful use of this artistic tool.

2. Knowing How to Intentionally (and Artfully) Create Dissonance

In the context of songwriting — i.e. sitting down at a piano or guitar, playing chords, and singing over them to try to find a melody — it’s fairly easy to identify what notes are dissonant. You’ll notice that when you strum a G chord, your voice will naturally want to sing one of the three notes that are in the chord — a G, B, or D. When you’re constructing your melody, try avoiding the notes in the chord for a beat or two. For example, your melody slides up to a B as you play a G chord. For the last beat or two of that chord, move the melody to a note that is not in the chord — maybe a C or an E — and then after a moment resolve it back into a note found in the chord. This will create compelling tension.

The song “Someone Like You” by Adele is a perfect example of this. Her voice wavers from the consonant notes of the melody and flirts with dissonant notes when you least expect it. There’s a reason her song makes people break down into tears in seconds. She injects little moments of tension in a way that perfectly matches the emotional climaxes of the song. When you’ve got harmonic tension matching emotional spikes, you’ve got songwriting dynamite.

Granted, not everyone can sing like Adele, but her flirtation with dissonant notes is not technically challenging. It usually involves moving a step up or down for a few moments.

3. Knowing When to Use Dissonance

In the rules of classical counterpoint, there is one guiding principle that seems to stick around even as it evolves from simple to complex uses of dissonance: don’t hit dissonant notes on the strong beats of measures. The safest way to introduce a dissonant note without making people wince is to slide into it on the weak beats — beat 2 or 4, for example — and use the dissonant note as a link between two consonant notes.

There are exceptions to this, of course — such as the little appoggiatura, quick little grace notes of dissonance that can be used on a downbeat to great effect — but the weak beat rule is a helpful guideline to get you started.

To be sure, this article is a reductionist view of an expansive topic. When you study Fifth Species Counterpoint in music theory — which are the official rules that govern classical masterpieces like Bach fugues — there’s a long list of what constitutes consonance and dissonance.

But the simple technique described above is sufficient for basic songwriting. And the more you play with dissonance and learn to use it tastefully in moderation, the more you’ll learn how to inject tension into your melody and create compelling emotional power with your songs.

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