There is no doubt that popular music transcends arbitrary barriers of age, culture, and language. My students and I share the same passion, although not the same music. Music speaks to their generation just as must as it has to mine. In fact, most students probably listen to more music than I did growing up. As a result, students have internalized the structure, syntax, and rules of music far more than that of any writing genre. This prior knowledge is simply too valuable for the writing teacher to ignore. Analyzing the songwriting composition process will enable students to apply the relevant strategies to their own writing of narratives, poetry, essays, and reports (and maybe even songs).
As an amateur songwriter and English-language arts teacher, my experience in learning the craft of songwriting has constantly informed my writing instruction. Here are 20 tips I’ve picked up over the years about how to apply the techniques of songwriting to writing in any genre.
Background: Paying Your Dues
1. Experience Matters
You don’t have to become a heroin addict to play the blues. However, knowing that blues usually follows a twelve-bar (measure) pattern provides an important foundation for a songwriter. Knowing the different blues genre of Chicago Blues, Delta Blues, and Texas Blues will help the songwriter follow the rules and stylistic features of the chosen genre.
Prior knowledge in writing content, genre, and style informs composition. For students lacking this experience, it is essential to “frontload” as much as possible to provide an equal playing field and give these writers what they need to be successful in a given writing task.
2. Reading to Write
Bob Dylan (Zimmerman) graduated from high school in a small town in Minnesota and moved to Greenwich Village. During his apprenticeship, Dylan played clubs and learned a catalog of folk and blues songs; however, he spent much much of his time reading everything that he could lay his hands on. In his autobiography, Chronicles Volume One, Dylan comments on his reading: “I was looking for the part of my education that I never got (p. 36).” His body of work shows the impact of this reading on his music.
Dr. Kate Kinsella of San Francisco State University summarizes the reading-writing connection research as follows:Reading widely and regularly contributes to the development of writing ability. Good writers were read to as children. Increasing reading frequency has a stronger influence on improving writing than does solely increasing writing frequency. Developmental writers must see and analyze multiple effective examples of the various kinds of writing they are being asked to produce (as well as ineffective examples); they cannot, for example, be expected to write successful expository essays if they are primarily reading narrative texts.
Teaching the reading-writing connection will help your students significantly improve both their reading and writing.
3. Learning the Tools
You’ve got to learn the tools to practice the craft. Not every instrument is conducive to songwriting. It’s hard to play the trombone and sing at the same time. Tools are the means to an end and are self-limiting. Having written songs with the guitar for years, I know that there are limitations to the instrument. Learning piano has expanded my songwriting potential. Some tools fit some genre and some don’t.
Teachers generally do a fine job of teaching the structure and identifying characteristics of the various writing genre. Teachers generally do a poor job of teaching writing strategies, sentence structure, grammar, usage, and style.
4. Learning Writing by Writing
Burt Bacharach: “Music breeds its own inspiration. You can only do it by doing it. You may not feel like it, but you push yourself. It’s a work process. Or just improvise. Something will come (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”
It’s simplistic, but true: you get better at something by practicing it. And this includes writing. Practice needs to be regular with both subjective and objective feedback. Writing fluency comes from daily writing practice, not from occasional on-demand writing assignments.
Brainstorming and Prewriting
5. Content is Writing
A songwriter with nothing to say cannot write a song. Even the most simplistic love song says something. What the songs says must ring true, even if it is completely fictional. Successful songwriters study the content of songs, newspapers, poetry, literature, and life. Paul Simon: “It’s very helpful to start with something that’s true. If you start with something that’s false, you’re always covering your tracks. Something simple and true, that has a lot of possibilities, is a nice way to begin (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”
Studying literature, history, and science is all writing instruction. A student with nothing to say cannot write a poem, an essay, or a story.
6. Location Matters
Jimmy Buffet: “You know, as a writer, I’m more of a listener than a writer, cuz if I hear something I will write it down. And you find as a writer there are certain spots on the planet where you write better than others, and I believe in that. And New Orleans is one of them (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”
The collaborative classroom can be ideal for creating a productive writing climate. All of the resources are there: computers, dictionaries, thesauri, the writing teacher, the peers. Rarely do students compose as well at home as they do in the classroom. The classroom can be optimally suited to the social nature of the writing process.
7. Emotional Connections
Bono: “You can have 1000 ideas, but unless you capture an emotion, it’s an essay (http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=458609330&blogId=481041893).” Sting: “Songwriting is a kind of therapy for both the writer and the listener if you choose to use it that way. When you see that stuff help other people that’s great and wonderful confirmation that you’re doing the right thing (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”
All too often, students mimic their teachers in order to please us and demonstrate that they have harvested our pearls of wisdom. Students often have little understanding of audience and even less passionate commitment to their writing subject. Developing the emotional connection to their writing in an authentic voice is key to connected and committed writing.
8. Titles and Hooks
Most all songwriters begin their songs with a catchy or meaningful title-one that provokes curiosity. A writer on a songwriting blog comments, “After you answer the question, ‘What is the title of my song going to be?’, your next job is to think about hooks. Here you need to decide what the central point of your song is and create song hooks around this thought. Briefly, a hook is anything that will help the listener remember the song. With many songs, it’s the melody, the chorus or even some of the lyrics. It might even a be a sound effect added to make the song more interesting (http://hubpages.com/hub/How-To-Write-A-Song-Title).”
Teach how songwriting titles and hooks capture the essence of the writing topic and thesis statement. Every stream flows from the one source. Good writing is essentially deductive in both narrative and expository forms.
Many songwriters flesh out the lyrics by asking questions of their song title. After coming up with the title “I Won’t Back Down,” Tom Petty could have posed the following questions to develop his lyrics: Why won’t I back down? What’s happened in the past to make me have this attitude? Are there exceptions?
Student writers can use the process of self-questioning during brainstorming. Using the topic or thesis as a prompt, students look at the direction of their essay from a variety of points of view. Using the conflict as a prompt, students look at the direction of their narrative from the major and minor characters’ perspectives.
10. Structural Foundations
Songs follow well-established organizational patterns. Verses (same melody, different words), choruses (same melody and words), perhaps a bridge (a different melody and lyric), and perhaps a pre-chorus (a short section at the end of a verse leading into the chorus) are the songwriters’ foundational structures. Robbie Robertson: “It would be nice to abandon the verse-chorus-bridge structure completely, and make it so none of these things are definable…Make up new names for them. Instead of a bridge, you can call it a highway, or an overpass…Music should never be harmless (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”
Similarly, narratives follow the elements of plot and essays have introductions, body paragraphs, and conclusions. All good writing has structure. Even most all poetry follows prescribed structures.
Some songwriters write the lyrics first, then follow with the melody. I tend to write both lyrics and melody together, though I have completed songs in many different ways.
Beware of straight-jacketing students with the components of the writing process. Some students prefer to spent significant amounts of time pre-writing; others would rather jump right in and draft. Some students revise and edit as they draft; others like to do multiple drafts and/or edit at the end. Word processing enables many options.
12. The Rules Do and Don’t Apply
The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” follows the structure of many pop songs; however, it breaks every rule of chord progressions. “Each verse sung by Lennon follows the same basic layout, but each has a different way of ending. The first verse, which is twenty measures, ends with a repetition of the F major chord progression before returning to the home key. The second verse, two measures shorter than the first, ends on the C major chord rather than repeating the F major progression. The third verse is the same as the second, except that there is one more measure (to accommodate the ‘I’d love to’), and the verse does not return to the home key. Instead it leads to a bridge, a 24-measure long glissando-like crescendo starting from low E to an E several octaves higher. Random cymbal crashes are interspersed near the end to ‘challenge your sense of meter’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Day_in_the_Life).” Paul McCartney instructed the accompanying orchestra musicians to play notes beyond the range of their instruments to intentionally break the rules.
Each writing genre has its own rules. A Shakespearian Sonnet has its own rhyming pattern, a persuasive essay has a counterargument, and a story must resolve its conflict. However, knowing and applying the rules permits intentional deviations for special effect.
Songwriters advise aspiring musicians to study the techniques of those they admire and emulate their styles. Because everyone has his own unique voice and experiences, no two compositions will be the same. Chord progressions are not copyrighted. The chords for “Louie, Louie,” “Wild Thing,” “I Like it Like That” and hundreds of other hits are all the same.
Some English-language arts teachers believe that discovering one’s voice is the result of a self-guided journey. I would argue that for students to develop voice, they need to practice voice in specific teacher-directed writing assignments. It is not plagiarism to mimic the writing style of good authors. Additionally, teachers need to help students practice different voices for different purposes.
14. Time to Percolate
Carole King: “If you are sitting down and you feel that you want to write andnothing is coming, you get up and do something else. Then you come back again and try it again. But you do it in a relaxed manner. Trust that it will be there. If it ever was once and you’ve ever done it once, it will be back. It always comes back and the only thing that is a problem is when you get in your own way worrying about it (http://www.buffalostate.edu/library/rooftop/past/docs/2008-10-15_Songwriters_on_Songwriting_excerpts.pdf).”
Neil Young: “I don’t force it. If you don’t have an idea and you don’t hear anything going over and over in your head, don’t sit down and try to write a song. You know, go mow the lawn…My songs speak for themselves (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”
We live in the real world. Our students do as well. The SAT 1® allots 25 minutes for an essay that counts 240 points out of the 800 overall writing score. College professors give timed essays. Bosses want that report due by 3:00 p.m. or else. We need to equip our students to face these time constraints in their writing. Certainly, some on-demand writing practice makes sense, but the best practice to develop writing fluency remains untimed, day to day writing practice in a variety of writing genre. Good teachers provide time for writing reflection and revision. Good teachers allow students to face writer’s block and practice problem-solving.
15. Let the Writing Write
John Lennon: “Song writing is about getting the demon out of me. It’s like being possessed. You try to go to sleep, but the song won’t let you. So you have to get up and make it into something and then you’re allowed to sleep. It’s always in the middle of the night, or you’re half-awake or tired, when your critical faculties are switched off. So letting go is what the whole game is. Every time you try to put your finger on it, it slips away. You turn on the lights and the cockroaches run away. You can never grasp them (http://home.att.net/~midnightflyer/jl.html).”
Good writing instruction provides students with enough practice so that a degree of automaticity has been achieved. Writing fluency is familiarity with the structures, rules, and patterns of writing. Writing fluency is the conversation between author and the writing. Writing fluency does not mean effortless writing; sometimes content knowledge and writing dexterity can challenge the writer as much as would sheer ignorance.
Revision and Editing
16. Read the Writing
Tom Petty: “You’re dealing in magic–it’s this intangible thing that has to happen. And to seek it out too much might not be a good idea. Because, you know, it’s very shy, too. But once you’ve got the essence of them, you can work songs and improve them. You see if there’s a better word, or a better change (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”
“I edit as I go. Especially when I go to commit it to paper… I edit as I am committing it to paper. I like to see the words before me and I go, “Yeah, that’s it.” They appear before me and they fit. I don’t usually take large parts out. If I get stuck early in a song, I take it as a sign that I might be writing the chorus and don’t know it. Sometimes,you gotta step back a little bit and take a look at what you’re doing.” — John Prine, quoted by Paul Zollo in “Legends: John Prine,” (American Songwriter, Jan / Feb 2010).
Revision is the hard work of writing. It involves a conversation with the text and audience to ensure coherency. It appropriates everything in the writer’s tool kit. It also necessarily reaches out to others for feedback. Frequently teachers expect that inexperienced writers will be able to revise with little guidance. Simply modeling how to add, delete, substitute, and rearrange a paragraph does not mean that a student will be apply to apply these skills to her draft. Young writers need objective and subjective feedback from both teacher and their peers. Writers conferences and response groups at all stages of the writing process will provide the feedback necessary for revision.
17. Grunt Work
Neil Diamond: “Performing is the easiest part of what I do, and songwriting is the hardest.” George Gershwin: “Out of my entire annual output of songs, perhaps two, or at the most three, came as a result of inspiration. We can never rely on inspiration. When we most want it, it does not come (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).”
Writing inspiration is an unfaithful friend. Mature writers certainly welcome her visit, but the more we depend upon her, the less gets done. Much of any writing is simply grunt work. The more experience and tools that a writer has acquired, the more choices are afforded to the decision-making process. The grunt work of word choice, transitions, examples, and more are the last few puzzle pieces that just don’t seem to fit. I, personally, take more satisfaction out of placing these puzzle pieces (even if I have to shave off the edges to make them fit) than the ones that come without effort. Still, no writer is completely satisfied with his own writing. Indeed, few writers ever revisit their own works after publication.
18. Collaborative Competition
One of the reasons that John Lennon and Paul McCartney enjoyed such a fruitful songwriting collaboration was because John was right-handed and Paul was left-handed. Thus, both songwriters could sit facing one another, eye to eye, without the guitars banging up against each other.
Teachers can do much to establish a collaborative writing culture. The Web 2.0 culture provides both vulnerability and anonymity that writing teachers can use to motivate students in their writing. Most all writing is a social venture and teachers can appropriately guide this experience in and out of the classroom. Online postings afford students the opportunity of time and reflective thought through the students’ own self-regulated filters. Students can choose what to and what not to share. However, in-class face-to-face time is necessary to provide the unfiltered audience and conversations that balance the ones on the web. Teachers control the climate of in-class writing and can model and sometimes referee the collaborative efforts.
19. Publish to Write
Hearing the sound on the published record or CD guides the songwriting process, but the studio experience and interaction of the musicians can certainly change the composition. Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones says that he never finishes a song before entering the studio, in order to allow some room for creativity in the recording process. There are also happy accidents. John Lennon accidentally left his volume turned up on his guitar and leaned it against his amplifier while tape was rolling. The screeching feedback began and Lennon kept the mistake as the introduction to the Beatles Number One Hit: “I Feel Fine.” This was the first time that feedback was incorporated into a song.
Teachers need to let students in on one of the secrets of successful writers: writing rarely turns out precisely as planned. The variables of the publication process often determine the end results. Some things are simply beyond the writer’s control. Constraints of time, mistakes, and misunderstandings contribute to the final writing product. Students will be frustrated at times by their published work, or by fellow students’ responses, or by the teacher’s grade and comments. Writing is about as subjective as we get in academia, despite our analytical rubrics and our objective pretenses.
20. Writing for a Pay-off
Paul McCartney: “Somebody said to me, But the Beatles were anti-materialistic. That’s a huge myth. John and I literally used to sit down and say, Now, let’s write a swimming pool (https://isound.com/artist_blog/quotes_from_the_best_songwriters).
Our students frequently write only to please an audience of one (their teacher), and the resulting pay-off is simply a grade. Hardly motivating and largely perceived as being irrelevant to their lives. No wonder there is often little authentic voice, creativity, or passionate commitment in our students’ writing. The solution is to make the pay-off a motivator for student effort. Survey students to find what publishing ends would motivate their best efforts. Online postings, video reads, peer reviews to name a few.
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