Jake's Guide to Songwriting
I posted this as a Twitter thread - but you can read it in its entirety here.
Jake Gray on songwriter (a thread)
Are you wondering how to get started or are you just stuck? Or do you need some new ideas? I’ve been there – here’s what I learned
First – I often get asked, “Do you start with music or lyrics?” Yes. I always start with one of those options. I mostly write music on guitar. Sometimes I have come up with a lick or interesting chord progression that I will build a song on.
But for this thread, the focus is going to be starting with a lyric idea. Then we’ll talk about meter, rhyming, and song structure. If you’re stuck, with the question in your mind, “What should I write about?” Start with what is in front of you.
What do I mean? Do you have a favorite saying, something that is “you”? I asked a friend that and he said, “I’m always overcoming me”. That became the heart of a song I wrote called “Overcoming Me”. (We’ll talk about how you build on an idea in a moment)
Another time I was describing the songwriting process, trying to impress with whom I was speaking that a song can be literally about anything. Sitting at the bar, and holding out my beer, I said, “It could be as simple as ‘I’m going to drink this beer’”.
“Then I just need to know the context and the characters.” And that became a song literally called, “I’m Going to Drink This Beer”. This has become one of my more popular audience participation songs, because we’re all going to drink one, am I right?
Once you have the opening, whether it is “overcoming me” or “I’m going to drink this beer” - now, sing it. Whatever comes to you first is probably the winner. But try singing it a few different ways. That is your melody. From this seed you can build the rest of the song.
Once you have the melody of your opening line – what key is that in? A good reference is https://www.guitar-chord.org/key-and-chord-chart.html. (If writing on guitar). You might start with the classic I-IV-V pattern and if you like, build from there.
But before you go there, it’s time to think about where this song is going to go. Think of every song as a two-act play. Think how you might add characters, context, and conflict. For “Overcoming Me” the conflict was with the subject of the song fighting his own shortcomings.
For “I’m Going to Drink This Beer” the conflict was with the drinker and his exasperation with the world around him. Rather than dealing with the noise of the world, he was just going to “drink this beer” and forget about the outside world.
When you have the characters, context, and conflict, that will seed the ideas that become the other lines in your song. Then the “first act” of your song will be describing the character and context and introducing the conflict.
The “second act” of your song will then be based on what you decide to do about the conflict. Will the song have a happy ending? A sad one?
Next – now that you have the song topic and a rough idea about the story that you’re going to tell – it’s time to start by building around that idea. For this we’ll need a basic understanding of meter and rhyming.
Meter – this is the beat/feel of the lines in the song. Think about the syllables in a line – they usually need to match the syllable count of the lines around it. Check the opening of “Mountains Call My Name”: https://open.spotify.com/track/1mvBbyPZqo6IddEFJWQuH5?si=20434ccb6bfd4513
I just want to fly, on the wind
High above the clouds once again
Each line has 8 syllables. The meter is easy to discern
One pattern that I often use is that in a stanza, I will have two lines match in meter, but then have the third line have a different pattern (again, just trying to keep things interesting). Or… it might just be that the idea that I’m trying to capture requires a different meter.
The trick is that the meter must match the other stanza’s patterns. If stanza 1 has pattern of
Line 1: meter pattern A
Line 2: meter pattern A
Line 3: meter pattern B
Then the next stanza will most likely need to follow the same pattern, so the last line of each stanza has the same meter.
Changing the meter can be used to good effect if you’re trying for humor or surprise. For example, from “Sam and Ella’s Café”:
makes the daily soup
It makes you full and makes you
... really anxious
“Really anxious” breaks the meter and also breaks what the listener might have anticipated as the rhyme, hopefully catching them off guard to humorous effect
Rhyming – there is the easy rhyming: “see” rhymes with “bee”, “thee”, “me” and so on. But if you have every line end with the same rhyme this usually becomes boring and sounds childish. You can also use “near” rhymes – words that aren’t exact rhymes, but sound similar.
We saw this in the “Mountains Call My Name” example. “Wind” and “Again” are near rhymes. Additional examples come from the second verse of “Didn’t Care About Money” https://open.spotify.com/track/7yCoWlW2c89cTRFDTsW1XJ?si=a9c75f6c3f1e4d38
Work my fingers down, ‘til they start to bleed
Tearing out my heart, all behind the scenes
Putting in my time, so I can succeed
We all know money don’t grow on trees
A great resource that I use is https://www.rhymezone.com/ It can help you find rhymes and near rhymes – and sometimes I will play with different rhymes to seed my brain to play with how different words might influence the story that I’m telling. (I will also use this if I’m stuck)
Song length: The name of the game these days is streaming. A one-minute song pays the same as a five-minute song. Now – you want to say something interesting and that’s hard to squeeze into a shorter song. That’s part of the art
If you’re a new songwriter, you can go on and on all you want about your “art” - and please do. At the end of the day, you must make yourself happy. But if your goal is to “break in” keep in mind you’re not getting on the radio with a long song – even the next Bohemian Rhapsody.
Structure: Verse-Chorus - Let’s talk about structure. When you are writing your first couple of songs you will probably think “verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus”. And you’re not wrong. But keep in mind some other options.
Chorus/Hook – What is the hook and/or chorus? It should be easy to sing and memorable if you want your audience to sing along. That’s the whole idea, right? This is not the place for your dissertation – this is the thing you want imprinted on your listener’s brain.
You know you’ve “won” when you hear things like I do from my wife, “Damn you – that song was stuck in my head all day”.
That doesn’t happen with a complex chorus.
When you’re first starting out, you’ll want to keep the chorus in the same key – you will normally want to change up the chord progression – other than the chorus being the repeated hook. It needs to be distinct from the verses.
Many new songwriters make the mistake of writing choruses that are indistinguishable from the verse. The melody line and the chord progression is the same. Your listener will more quickly tune out if you can’t keep their attention.
Structure: Chorus first - George Strait does this to good effect on “The Fireman”. I’ve used the same strategy for “Hell is Empty” (a song I wrote for Slade Adams). Slade sent me the Shakespeare quote, “Hell is empty and all the Devils are here” – what a great song seed!
Structure: Pre-chorus – a warm-up to the main chorus. See: Damn near everything written by Night Ranger. They were the masters of the pre-chorus.
Structure: The Bridge – a classic move to keep the listeners interest is to add what is known as a bridge. Again, normally the same key, but a changeup either in the tempo, feel, or chord progression of melody.
Keep in mind a bridge must smoothly transition from its conclusion either into a verse or chorus. One way to do this is to have the last chord of the bridge match up with the first chord of the verse/chorus (whichever you’re returning to)
Structure: Outro – How are you wrapping this masterpiece up? Repeating the hook ad infinitum? (Maybe – but boring). Fade out? I always say fade outs are used when the writer doesn’t know how to end their song. Be decisive!
Structure: The classic – Now that we’ve covered some of the options, let’s look at the classic. I see this pattern used a lot… mostly because it works. Something is always changing to keep the listener’s interest: Verse-Verse-Chorus-Verse-Bridge-Chorus-Outro
Sometimes writers will substitute a musical interlude in lieu of a bridge – the screaming guitar solo. It’s tempting to try and have it all, but usually there isn’t enough time. There are obvious limits to what you can pack into 180 – 210 seconds… it’s a tight fit.
Although I love the classic structure – I like to mix it up. I don’t want to get caught doing the same old same old all the time. I like to play with structure just to challenge myself. For example, on “Sam and Ella’s Cafe”
Sam and Ella’s Café structure is:
In this way the 1st verse almost becomes an extension of the chorus… very “pre-chorusy” if you will.
That’s it. Jake’s quick and dirty guide to songwriting. Your idea can be anything – now, sing it. How YOU sing it is the melody. Now, what is the story behind that line. You don’t have to make it rhyme or have structure… yet. But jot down where the song is going.
Once you have this seed, then you can begin playing with the meter and the rhymes. What is your chorus/hook – it should be something easy to sing and memorable. What is the structure? Is there a bridge? An instrumental interlude? What is the outro?
Take it one step at a time. Once you become familiar with the steps and practice it a few times, pretty soon you’ll find you can write songs much faster, which should only boost your creativity.