Punk Rock Academy

The Song Is Over

By Pee Air

I am a music lover. I listen to music all the time. The thing I love most about music is songs. This may seem like a statement of the obvious, something along the lines of "When I go swimming, I really like to do so in water," but actually, a lot of the stuff that qualifies as music does not fall within my definition of a song. To me, a song has a melody supported by a chord progression. A good song says something in a way it has never been said before. Needless to say, most of the pap on the radio, lyrically, is a tedious reworking of one of a few exhausted cliches. Everybody knows this, and even the most die-hard *NSYNC fan probably suspects it.

However, what is harder to spot is the fact that songwriting has been rendered almost unnecessary in the mainstream radio world. Production and sonic innovation, as well as market research and packaging, have largely eclipsed the need for good, original songwriting. That is not altogether a bad thing. I listen to a lot of music that has nothing with songs and I love it. Electronica and hip hop are good examples of this, but like I said before, what really gets my mouth watering is a nice juicy song.

I am a songwriter. I have high standards for my own songwriting and that of the music I listen to. Some people love my songs and some people don't. I don't really mind. However, since I do have some experience with songwriting, I'm going to try to explain how I think a good song gets written.

Before you even start to write songs, there are four stages of life that you have to pass through. I will detail these here, then I will get into the particulars and the mechanics of actual songwriting.

  1. Listen to a lot of good music. If you are in high school or younger, listen to records or CDs that your older brother or sister, an older friend, or even your Mom and Dad like. You don't have to like the music, but you have to know what's already been said in order to say something new. Absorb everything that comes out. Be curious and knowledgeable about how others have expressed themselves and continue to express themselves through songwriting.
  2. Learn the fundamentals of music theory. Learn how to play an instrument pretty well. Contrary to what most people think, you can't actually write a real song unless you know what relationship chords have to melody. The better you know this, the easier it is to write a song. On the other hand, simplicity is also an excellent tool. However, being simple because you have no choice is a trap. The key is to have all of the musical options at your disposal. You can write a good poem and you can hum a nice tune, but until you can put this tune onto the framework of a chord progression, you have not written an actual song.
  3. Live long enough to have some experiences that affect you in a profound way. Your first haircut may have been a deeply scarring experience and that's important. If you have mastered steps 1 and 2 by the time of your first haircut, then by all means, write a song about it. If not, then wait until your first kiss or your first arrest or slipping on the ice at the skate rink or watching your uncle get gunned down in a church by Serbian rebels.
  4. Learn how to write. Figure out how to express yourself through the written word. This is the lyrics portion of the song, and it is just as important as the music. Just like music, it takes practice. Lyrics are essentially poems. Write a poem, then go to sleep. Read the poem the next day. Does it suck? Revise it. Does its rhythm fit a song? Is it too obvious or too abstract for the mood you are trying to create? Can you immediately think of an already existing song about the same subject, maybe even the exact same line? Throw it out and start over.

Have you been through these four stages? Good. You are ready to write a song. There are now some practical steps to take. This part is tricky because there is no one right way to go about it. Songs happen in different ways. Sometimes the subject of the song is the first germ of inspiration, before the music, and sometimes the mood of the music inspires the subject of the song. Both ways are O.K. For me, the music usually comes first, so I'll explain that method here.

When the music comes first, it usually comes in the form of a chord progression and a little hummable riff or melody. You like the way it sounds, you like the mood it inspires, and you repeat it over and over until it comes to life. Then sit down in front of a tape recorder and just go into a trance, playing the chords and mumbling some words, any words, without quite knowing what you're saying. It helps if you're in a slightly trance-like state and very focused. I feel more in the zone if I'm either extremely caffeinated and haven't eaten that day (usually in the afternoon) or slightly buzzed from a shot of whiskey or a couple of beers at night. Everyone has his or her own muse. I'm not saying these will work for everyone but they do it for me.

Then I go back and listen to what I've recorded and try to pick out a common theme or repeated subjects. Let's say I notice that a few of my rantings had to do with a shark swimming too close to the beach. I go with it. I elaborate on the subject and I start the trance/recording process again. I do this a bunch of times, throwing out the incoherent parts until I have a few good lines.

The next part is very important. I write out the lines and carry them around with me for a few days. I think about what the shark analogy (to go with that example) means to me. Is the shark a symbol for the wild, destructive side of humanity that won't let itself love? Is the shark a floating penis and the beach a wandering maiden? Whatever. When I have some free time, I add to the lines and flesh them out into a good, cohesive poem. For me, this usually happens at work or on the subway when I feel the least pressure to create. It can sometimes take weeks. (Another key to writing good songs is to be always working on a bunch of songs at the same time. You don't want to get too obsessed with one song and smother it.)

After I've fine-tuned the words, I go back to the music and put the two together. This is the fun part because they usually prop each other up like a house of cards. The lyrics tell the music where to go and vice versa. A good song is one in which the music sounds and feels like what the lyrics are about. Usually, there is a break or a pause in the lyrics where the subject takes a breath. This is where I like to put in a musical change, or bridge. This is not always necessary and forcing yourself to put a bridge in every song is also a musical cliche, one that is very easy to spot in bad songwriting. It all has to flow.

Another important thing to avoid is getting caught up in the verse/chorus/verse trap. Let the song take you where it wants. Mix up the structure. Put two verses together and then maybe chop one of the choruses in half and then add a verse and a double chorus and part of the intro or something. Mix it up. Make it dance but do it in such a way that it is not heavy-handed or obvious.

The last thing to ask yourself is when the song is done. When are you finished writing a song? When you are dead. You can always revise and edit a song 'til the day your soul leaves this terrestrial abode, but you have to know when to stop. Once you have recorded a song, it's in the can for posterity, but you can always revise and change and improve songs. That's the beauty of music. The key is to get it to say what you want and then perform it that way until you feel like changing it. There are no rules to this. It's human expression.

If you feel this is too arduous a path to musical success, buy a drum machine and a sequencer and some effects processors and maybe a digital 8-track recorder and a Roland Groove Box, start throwing down some crazy beats and other weird shit and just go to town, man.

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Last modified on Wednesday, March 26, 2008