Recently we’ve been inundated with letters from poets who have either expressed an interest in song writing or poets who have been writing lyrics for a good part of their lives. Therefore, we’d like to take this opportunity to respond and offer some helpful information. And for those of you who love to write poetry but who have never tried songwriting, who knows, you might discover your next calling!
While male songwriters have always been ubiquitous, the postmodern musical industry has seen an increase in the number of female songwriters in the past five decades or so. The sixties really gave way for an emergence of female artists—Carole King and the rise pop feminism; Joni Mitchell with her weepy, confessional tunes; Janis Joplin whose Beatnik, Avante-Garde style lyrics lent great appeal to the hippie movement; and Dolly Parton, one the best songwriters to emerge from the country renaissance of the sixties and seventies, just to name a few. Carly Simon was the popular sex symbol seventies with her craft lyrics, and the nineties produced Sheryl Crow and Tracy Chapman, whose folk-based songs about real life was the poetry of every day. Today, young girls are inspired by successful singer-songwriters such as Taylor Swift, Colbie Caillat, Katy Perry, and Pink.
CREATIVITY AND ORIGINALITY
Though there are no steadfast rules governing the dictates of the creative imagination, there are elements of style that can distinctly shape a song and make it yours and no one else’s. Who could forget the raspy twang of Bob Dylan’s voice when he croons the sardonic lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” or the subtle nuances of Ella Fitzgerald’s version of the Cole Porter classic “Night and Day.” Whether or not you appreciate the glitz of a jazzy standard or the somewhat rough edges of folk-rock, there is a uniqueness about these pieces that has rendered them timeless classics.
The elements that give a song its distinct flavor can be broken down into two essential forms: that of music and that of lyric. Music, undeniably, is the element that lifts a song off the ground and gives it the majesty of flight, but the element that can turn a mere leap into a soaring glide is the lyric. The words of a song are not just words, but instead they relay the impassioned story of a fellow being, the clever wit of a humorist, or the sad, heart-wrenching tale of one who has been wronged. And that is only the beginning.
The following strategies and concepts were designed to help songwriters become more innovative and conscious in their craft. I hope that you find this information helpful in your pursuit of an age-old art form.
THE BLANK PAGE
One of the hardest things for any writer to deal with is staring down the dreaded blank page. The initial stages in writing are often the most difficult. The thing to keep in mind is that once you have a word on the page, you are free to change it later. The most important part of writing is moving your pen or pencil. It is fear that keeps writers paralyzed and unable to put down anything at all. This fear most often comes from feeling that we, as writers, have nothing of value to say, which is simply not true. Here are some useful methods for combating the blank page:
Free Association Start writing a list of words of absolutely anything that comes to mind. Begin with the objects around you and let those objects draw upon personal experiences that you may have had with those objects. For example, if you are sitting on your couch in front of an old, oak coffee table you might write table, coffee, morning, work, tired, sleep. The next step is to fill in the gaps. Try connecting those words to create verses for your song. The next step is to put a character or an emotional background in the scene and let it play out in your mind. In the above example, you might have started the verse for a traditional blues song:
Woke up this morning
Black coffee on my old oak table
A tired day starts pouring
I’ll sleep when I am able
The Chorus First Sometimes the chorus comes first, especially for those individuals who write while playing their instruments. This method of fighting the blank page requires no initial words. The writer simply starts humming a melody over a chord progression and gradually molds the vocal sounds into a chorus. The advantage of writing a chorus first is that you now have a focal point from which the verses can later develop.
Sleep On It There are times when, despite all efforts, there is just nothing really happening. One method some writers use to cope with writer’s block is to put the pen down for the evening and to sleep on it. Make certain when doing this, however, to place that pen with some paper (and possibly your instrument) right next to your bed so that in the morning you can write down your first thoughts. Sometimes, this way of creating songs can yield some very imaginative lyrics.
One problem many writers have when attempting to write lyrics for their songs is that they feel uninspired. This is, in a sense, an extension of writer’s block. Inspiration comes in different ways for different songwriters. Some artists find profound meaning in everyday occurrences, while others wait for the right moment and try to encapsulate it in their song. There is one common denominator in both methods that must be addressed in order to avoid the loss of inspiration and that is, simply put, a writer must be prepared. If your muse should catch you without pen and paper, you may miss a perfect opportunity to jot down some lyrics. It is often a good idea to carry around a notebook for those moments of lyrical inspiration.
EDITING YOUR LYRICS
If you are like most artists, you probably don’t enjoy the process of editing your work. Editing your lyrics, though it may seem tedious, can be an essential tool in your growth and development as a songwriter. It is important to keep in mind that, as writers, nothing we write is sacred and is therefore subject to change. Editing your material can bring new dimensions to your work that you simply cannot get from a first draft. There are some songs that seem to flow perfectly from start to finish. These songs may require little to no editing; however, it is important to keep the constant questions of your internal editor nearby for those times when you feel the song needs improvement. Here are some pointers to help you in this process:
Avoid Using Clichés The overuse of certain phrases and expressions can make your work sound dull and ultimately ineffectual. Try to avoid using too many expressions like, “baby, I love you” or “is this love I’m feeling?” Understand that while expressions of this sort may have a time and place in any song, they have been used countless times and have therefore been drained of the original color they once had. Unfortunately, this often causes your audience to feel no real emotional reaction to your song.
Use Clear and Sharp Images Using precise and clear images give you an incredible advantage as a songwriter; people will be more likely to remember your songs. Some artists feel that you can get bogged down trying to create sharp imagery and lose the emotional impact, or soul, of the song; however, if you can achieve a balance between the two, it will have a very positive effect on your writing.
Rhythm and Rhyme These two poetic devices can be very useful tools for the songwriter. While subtle rhyme schemes can add a delicate nuance that draws a listener further into the song, heavy, deliberate rhyme can sometimes cause a listener to guess the lines of the writer’s verse before they happen. Rhythm, an essential element in music, is another very effective way of communicating an artist’s ideas.
MARKETING YOUR SONGS
One of the most difficult tasks of any songwriter is learning how to deal with the business side of things. An organized songwriter with a clear, concise marketing agenda will be vastly more successful than an individual who is uninformed, or even unconcerned, with the complicated business world of the music industry. There are plenty of excellent books that deal with this particular subject, but here are a few basic principles to get you thinking:
Copyrighting Your Songs If you are serious about marketing your songs you must copyright them with the Library of Congress. Copyright forms can be obtained through the Internet at http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright or calling their toll-free phone number at (202) 707-3000.
Get Organized If you want to take advantage of all the opportunities that are available (or at least most of them), it is very important to stay organized. Keep files of songs you have mailed out, response, contacts, press reviews, and song contests. Stay aware of different songwriting contests by searching the Internet or by looking them up in publications.
Educate Yourself on the Business Learning about the music business by attaining helpful reference material is perhaps the single greatest thing you can do to affect your future as a songwriter. There are numerous publications on the nature of the music business. This information will help you every step of the way—from how to send in your song submissions to dealing with crucial legal matters—and could save you time and effort down the road.
We hope you find this information helpful. Good luck in your musical endeavors!