Another take on how to write a song

Note to beginners: write with the mind, not the hands.

Where do your songs come from? Do they begin with a piano or guitar part you start singing along with? Are they written in your head before you even sit down with an instrument? Are they inspired by an event in your life? Do they come to you in a dream?

If you asked these questions to the great songwriters of our time, they would probably answer “all of the above.” One of the writers of the great Holland Dozier Holland team said all his melodies came from noodling on the piano. This works fine except for when you get stuck, when you paint yourself into a corner, where do you go? A solution may be to stop playing and let the melody come to you. Find the notes on the instrument and build the chords around it.

It works the same with lyrics. Sometimes you get headed in a direction where you can’t get the lines or the rhyme to work no matter what you do. Try walking away from it, take a drive, let it fester, and often the line will come to you.

If it doesn’t, try back tracking. Rework the third act so that the butler takes the bullet. Above all, think of what you want to say and then try to make it rhyme, rather than thinking of a rhyme and force fitting in to your story line.

The first story line you develop may not be manna from heaven. More often its the tried and true, something we’ve all heard before. Try another angle, another slant and you may find you’ll get your meaning across in a way that is fresh and original. As they say in Nashville, “great songs aren’t written, they’re rewritten.”

It’s different with everybody, but I have to get into a meditative, Zen-like state in order to clear my head and tap into the subconscious for those great lyrics. Springsteen speaks of the subconscious as the source for all his lyrics. He says to be careful of writing from the wrong part of the brain. There are the great writers, and then there are the typists.

More often my best lines have come to me when I’ve given up playing the rhyme game, walked away from it and done something else. Some part of your brain is still at work on the tune and the answer comes to you.

Try recording all your noodling sessions. Press record and play the song you’re working on using different chords or inversions and different melodies. Do this as long as you can stand it and then listen to playback; you might have stumbled on to something you never imagined and if it’s not recorded, you can spend hours trying to recreate it.

The Rolling Stones use this method when they create a groove for a song. They roll tape, play a song for an hour and edit together the good parts.

Recording your tunes also gives you a reference when you come back a week later and listen. But be aware of how you react to every line on that first listen. Those lines that hit you wrong are probably the ones that you need to work on.

— Jeff Severson
Jeff Severson Productions, a full service production company exclusively for songwriters.

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