A Beginners’ Guide to Songwriting
As there are so many frequently asked questions I receive through this site I thought it might be useful to set out a few standard answers in the blog section to save everybody time. I shall deal firstly with the issue of songwriting, a subject about which I know virtually nothing but am constantly quizzed upon by those presumably even more talentless than I. Of course, remarkable ignorance of a topic has never prevented me from expounding upon it at length before and I see no reason why it should stop me now.
1. Mood, Environment and Ambience
The first step in the manufacture of a successful song is the manipulation of the composer’s mood. Critically, he (or she but for the sake of convenience I shall stick to the masculine singular) must be hungry. Very hungry. Try missing breakfast. Then lunch and dinner (and if applicable) supper. Keep this up for two months (liquids will be required – but avoid vodka). The nascent writer should now be ready to begin. If he should feel too weak to maintain an upright sitting position he should have a couple of pints of stout followed by some Diocalm. Now he must carefully attenuate his surroundings. Turn the lights down low, draw the curtains and handcuff the cat to a convenient radiator pipe. Light a scented candle or if he wishes a cigar. The scene is now set and the hour of inspiration is upon him.
2. Keys and Tempi
Our budding musical poet must now make his first creative decision. Which key should he select for this, his premier opus? Well, there is a simple solution here. E major. This is the only true key worth messing around with. All the greatest songs are in E major except “Yesterday” and “Where Do You Go To My Lovely?” which are in F major – only a semi-tone away so who’s quibbling? Then he must choose a tempo. Tempo is another word for velocity which literally means the amount of time it will take for the beats and words in a song to be used up when fired from a loudspeaker at a membrane such an eardrum or a pair of tights. Usually a medium tempo will be required in order to balance the opposing forces of the excitement quotient and the decipherment index. If our composer is actually ravenous to the point of imminent expiry then a high tempo may be chosen.
3. Subject Matter
We will now be ready to impose a subject matter onto our mid-tempo E major framework. Subject matter is to the song what filling is to a toastie or if you will, toasted sandwich. Unlike key and tempo the writer here is free to choose from a vast range of possible options. He might wish to sing about his house. Or his fridge. Or if he has neither of these his sleeping bag or his ditch. It really doesn’t matter. However most successful compositions address only one of two subjects. The “bitch/bastard has left me” theme and the “Oh, look at that flower – it puts me in mind of my dead Mother” theme. If our lyricist sticks to these he can’t go far wrong.
The name of a song is the second most important thing after the fact of it existing at all. In fact it might be said that it is more important than that, in that without a name a song might be said not properly to exist. “Song 2” by Blur is a good example of this in that the absence of a real title means that other than some drunken oafish student screeching, “Woo-Hoo!” every time it is played on the tawdry union jukebox the song itself represents a kind of vacuum or “anti-song”.
A title will work best if it is closely linked with the “Subject Matter” (see above). For example “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead is a GOOD title because the song is indeed about a paranoid android. Ditto “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand which takes the form of a polite request to an attractive girl to escort the singer to a restaurant and “I’m a Cuckoo” by Belle and Sebastian which is perfectly self-explanatory. The beginner should probably avoid deviating from this technique lest he finds himself in terrible semantic bother. “Atmosphere” by Joy Division serves as a great lesson here in that that particular song, confusingly, is not about the atmosphere at all (we must remember Ian Curtis would have been blissfully unaware of global warming in 1979) but instead is about an imbecile having an argument with his deaf girlfriend.
5. Metaphor and Simile
Here are two very dangerous and often misunderstood approaches to the communication of ideas in a song. Metaphor happens when a writer tries to say one thing but says something else entirely different by mistake. For example the writer may say, “my cup runneth over”, meaning, “I have filled my cup far too full” but many a listener will interpret this to mean “I have the shits” or possibly, “I haven’t bought a round for three hours and I’m completely pissed”. We can see here, I believe what a potentially damaging thing metaphor can be.
Likewise, simile, where the writer might liken his girlfriend’s face to an item of furniture (e.g. “When she smiles at me she looks like a sofa”) can mislead the listener in ways not intended by the author. Many people, including myself were completely perplexed the first time we heard “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, “Your Love is Like Las Vegas” by The Thrills, and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by every other fucker under the sun.
Structure, by which we mean the scaffolding of a song, is an often terribly overlooked part of the business of songwiting. As in a human skeleton, certain parts must come before certain others or the whole venture will collapse like a cheaply built high-rise public housing project. If we put the skull at the bottom, for example and the breasts at the top, our “human” is going to walk around with a very sore head and cold nipples!
So, where does our Mozart begin? Well let him look back on what he has established so far. He has the key of E. He has a medium tempo and he has a title that closely corresponds with his subject matter and a refreshing absence of metaphors. Firstly he must sing the title repeatedly until he starts to feel sick. Then he must make up some gobbledegook that lasts about thirty seconds before repeating his title interminably or until he passes out. This is an example of the classic “verse/chorus” structure. He may wish to add a little colour or “complexity” by inserting a bit of frantic yelling toward the end of minute two. This is called a “middle eight”. Some examples of BAD structure can be heard in “She Belongs to Me” (all gobbledegook, no title), “There She Goes” (all title, not enough gobbledegook) and that shit one about the bicycles in China (basically, all shit).
7. Strangeness – Obscurity versus Clarity
Having established his title, subject and structure our composer might now wish to consider the very useful device known as “strangeness”. Let’s say he wants to sing about his feelings for a friend. Let’s say his friend is called Sean, who is mean and makes our author sad. He might write “Sean, you cunt, where’s that twenty you owe me?” and be well pleased with that. But imagine he employs some strangeness here and changes the word “twenty” to the word “leopard”. Do we see how much more powerful it will be? Remember, “leopard” here is not a metaphor; it is simply “strange”. Think how much more prosaic these great hit songs would have been in the absence of applied strangeness. “When a Man Loves a Human”, “Ain’t No Building High Enough”, “Don’t You Desire Me, Baby” and “You’re Pitiful”.
We have so far dealt mainly with lyrical and narrative concepts but let us now turn to our tune. Our songwriter will have developed already many of the important facets of making a hit but now must address a key component in his song’s “listenability” – the melody. A melody is a sequence of notes (remember all in E major) at least one of which is different from the others. An example of this is “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” by REM where one note is employed in the verse section and another two added for the chorus (“title”) section. Alternatively the writer can use a different note for every word until he runs out and has to start again. Remember there are only eight available notes so for the sake of avoiding repetition it may be advisable to have eight or less words in each section. If we applied this to the aforementioned REM track the verse would resemble a kind of nauseous carousel ride of insanity and thus be vastly improved.
Harmony is a complicated musical device whereby notes entirely different from those in the melody are played or sung simultaneously. A ubiquitous example of this can be found every time people sing “Happy Birthday to You” and invariably some knob-head pipes in with a fancy cadence on the last line and makes you want to throttle him. From this we can see that “harmony” is, like metaphor and simile, a thing best avoided. British group The Beatles famously employed harmony so frequently and obsessively that one of their members was attacked with a knife and another shot on his front path.
10. How to Test a Finished Song’s Quality
A song is “finished” when the writer can’t think of anything else to add, dies of hunger or is told to shut the fuck up by his Mum. How then can a nascent songsmith find out if his debut creation is a “hit” or a “complete disaster”. Well, if he has followed these steps carefully and precisely we may be certain it is the former. However it is a wise precaution to “test” the song before foisting it upon people in a public arena. A “test” might take the form of playing the song to a friend. Do they blanche? Or turn bright red? Do they back out of the room? Are they instantly involuntarily sick? If so it may be advisable to “tweak” or subtly alter some of the song’s components. Add some strangeness perhaps, delete a note here or there or add a semi-colon before the word “spectacles”. In this way a song can be slowly modified, improved and refined. For example “Loser” by crap Scientologist hippy tit Beck was originally titled “I’m a Lame Excuse for an Artist and My Mum’s Got Fleas”. The modification may be subtle but we can see its obvious effectiveness.
Finally, a seminal tip. If no one likes you and you are a conceited selfish little egoist, if you have severe social inclusion issues due to your essential pointlessness then as a last resort write some pretty songs. This will fool them for a while and if you’re as jammy as me, you might even get repulsively rich doing it.