"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: How to Write a Song (With Lyrics)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

How to Write a Song (With Lyrics)

Dear Fellow Writer,

Good Friday and all the bars and bottle shops are closed in Oz. The only day of the year when you can't buy a drink for love or money...

Have a great Easter.
Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell


How to Write a Song (with Lyrics)

Rob Parnell

I get a lot of young writers asking me how they can break into the music business by writing lyrics for musicians.

Sad to say, this not a real option or valid career path. Unless you're the personal friend of a pop star who's having an off day.

Gone are the days when lyrics are written separately from the song. 

Back in the 1930s and 40s maybe it was sometimes possible to get by being a poet cum lyricist... 

In the 1970s a certain Bernie Taupin used to write lyrics for Elton John but by the 80s, Sir Elton realized half his royalties were being given away for something any semi-decent musician can do with their eyes closed - literally!

Lyrics are no longer the cherished item they might once have been.

Even the most brain dead musician can do it.

And some of them do it extremely well. Eminem is considered by many a modern Bob Dylan...
You have to understand how songs are written these days to fully appreciate why lyrics have been relegated to second place in the songwriting process.

As Peter Gabriel once said, "Good lyrics never helped a bad song."

Here's a quick run down of how modern songs are put together - in case you ever wondered...

1. Usually an idea for a melody comes first. Either a snatch of chorus - a short phrase of a five or six note tune that calls to be developed.

Actually even this is rare. Only a small percentage of musicians seem able to come up with something worth exploring. It's well known in music that there are no original melodies - we ran out of them in about 1654. 

But as with all things creative, originality comes not from the idea but from its expression. 

So if you have a singer in a band that likes a melody, the rest of the band will usually go along with it, even if the keyboard player is secretly thinking, "that comes from the quiet bit in Brahms third symphony!"

2. Most often the first thing that goes down is the drums.

The rhythm is the thing. Get that right and you're on your way to a hit recording. Consequently it's a darn good idea to get your 'beat' happening first.

Used to be you had to enlist the help of a drummer. You know, one of those noisy guys who likes to hang out with musicians...

But these days a drum machine will do the job - and keep perfect time, too.

Even the cheapest $50 Casio keyboard has a drum machine in it these days, usually with tempo and style functions built in.

3. Then comes the riff.

The riff is usually a 4 to 8 bar bass line that can be repeated ad infinitum or a chord sequence that sounds nice when combined with the melody idea.

Usually working from the bottom up, the music parts are added in layers either by the band or the solo artist recording alone.

First the drums then the bass then the guitar or keyboards and finally the high parts - nice strings or brass parts to punctuate the rhythm or complement the melody.

4. Dance music can usually survive without much of a formal structure but if you're writing a song you generally need more parts.

The chorus is the big sing along part, separated by verses, a bridge or two and often a "middle 8" that takes the song on a short tangent before returning to the chorus. Here's the most common structure:

Intro, verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, mid 8, chorus, chorus, chorus.

In rock and roll there used to be a guitar solo in there too but alas, we don't hear them as much as we used to. There's way more focus on the singer nowadays.

5. Last of all usually, the singer will put the vocals on the track.

Often singers know the kind of melodic progressions they want right from the start but won't be able to get them to fit until the music is down.

Of course if you're a singer who can play, you'll be able to write songs with an accompaniment yourself - which makes it much easier for the musicians to play along. But even then, the recording process will be the same - bottom up, drums, bass, guitar, keys, then final vox and maybe some twiddly bits and "fairy gloss" on top.

6. You're probably thinking: so where are the lyrics?

Usually scribbled on a piece of scrap paper at this point, hastily thrown down just before the vocal take. 

Here's the thing. Singers often know the melody first and then try to find words that fit.

Working the other way round - having lyrics and trying to get them to fit the melody never sounds quite right. One of the main reasons it's not done that way much anymore.

The percussive sound of words is what's effective, not particularly the sentiment. Ask any rapper. It's the rhythm of the words that matters.

If you can get a message in there so much the better, but it's by no means a necessary component.

Music has a way of making words seem profound, no matter what they are.

You don't need a stand alone lyricist to give your music 'weight' or indeed any more commercial appeal. Plus, if the music business had to wait until a full time lyricist came up with something meaningful, the industry would most likely collapse overnight.

Anyone can write lyrics - even musicians, that's the truth of it!

I hope this short guide to songwriting has been illuminating for you.

And please, no more emails to me asking about getting a job as a lyricist.

Simply put, there aren't any - unless you want to write a musical perhaps and be like Tim Rice...

But that's a whole different enchilada.


Keep writing!
 rob at home
"The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon."
Robert Cromier

No comments:

The Writing Academy

Welcome to the official blog of Rob Parnell's Writing Academy, updated weekly - sometimes more often!