Welcome to Songwriting 101 and ½
Because the hour long songwriting workshop is nowhere near enough time to do more than inspire you to write, I’ve created this mini book for you to read after our session today.
Your mentor, Norine Mungo
So, who am I to be teaching YOU how to write a song. I know what some of you are thinking. LOL. So, I will give you a little background on how I got here first, before I dive into this lesson.
I’ve been writing music since I was 16. Was it great music at first? Mostly not! But it was a start, and it is so cool now to go back to those beginning songs and compare them to what I’ve written over the past few years. If you see the growth in your music, you are going in the right direction!
Through the years I have picked up knowledge from so many sources and applied them to my songwriting. I’ve read books, talked with mentors, upped my skills on the guitar, and practiced writing something every day.
When I was performing in our Country Rock Band, Reach For The Sky, we were the house band at a club in Santa Clara, California, called The Horseshoe Club. That is where I met Joan Baez. She used to come in with her friends from the Arthur Murray dance studio, and she loved dancing to western swing. One night, as I was sitting down on a break, she turned to me and put her hand on the back of my hand. I turned to her and said, “Hey Joan!” I mean, it is Shut The Front Door, Joan Baez touching my hand and looking directly at me!
She said, “I like your songs. You are one of the most prolific songwriters I’ve met in a long time. How many songs have you written?”
I said, “Well, about 40 now.” I kept calm but my heart was racing just a bit.
She then said, “You are killing your voice in these clubs when you have a skill for writing. You need to get out of the clubs before you ruin your voice. And, you need to write every day. Write 300 songs. Once you’ve reached 300 songs. Nobody can stop you. You’ll be that good!”
It’s not like we became buddies or anything. It was just that one chance encounter. But I did ask about the 300 songs. I was thinking, How will I ever get to 300?
She told me the most important thing I learned about songwriting. “Every idea for a song should be written down. Once you’ve put any work into that idea, no matter where you are in the process, it is now considered a song. It might not be complete yet, but it is a song!”
It took a life time to get here but, I now have over 350 songs.
Another thing that has helped me in my writing is that I have been a performer most of my life, from childhood on. Starting with 17 years of dance school, leading to high school and college musicals, then vocalist for disco bands, rock bands, country rock bands, jazz standard trio, western swing, and of course, Folk music.
As a performer, I see the song from two perspectives:
Can I dance to it? And, can I sing it? LOL.
Also, as a performer in live shows with bands, I know that the set list must be diverse enough to keep the audience listening or dancing. With that in mind, you can see how it translates to my songwriting. I write each song with a beat to tap your foot to, or with emotional lines to deliver an impactful memory. As I write each one, I try to make them different beats and keys and content so that, once I have enough for a show, the audience gets a diversity that keeps them excited song after song.
Welcome to my world! It is a chaotic one at best. I can’t even drive to the store without seeing something that influences me in a way that I want put it down in writing.
My little pamphlet is created to take you on this journey and help you think like a well rounded writer! Enjoy!
OK, enough about me, on to the mentoring of YOU!!
Where Do I Start My Song??
That is like asking, what comes first, the chicken or the egg? In song writing, I think that you can approach each song from a different angle, and as long as you eventually get all the parts going, you will finish strong. For some, the words come first, or just the story idea, or poem. For others, they start writing a melody that leads to a feeling or emotion and the words come after. Like I said, there is no right or wrong on where you start, but where you finish is the key.
Christopher Cross spoke about his song, Once You Get Stuck Between The Moon and New York City, the theme for the movie Arthur. He was flying in over New York to work on the song for the movie, and they got stalled due to bad weather. Like 3 to 4 hours, hovering above the clouds, waiting to land. He said he looked out and saw the moon shining down on the tops of the clouds and he thought, “this is what it’s like be stuck between the moon and New York City” and once he thought it, it stuck. He got pen and paper out and began the song in the air. I am pretty sure he finished it before they landed.
Your inspiration can take you on a great journey, as you develop your idea into words and music.
As for me, I view songwriting from multiple vantage points. The story, the poem, painting the picture with words, the melody, the lead riffs and musical hooks, and harmony, all come into play with everything I write.
This is not to say that all songwriters will come at their songs from so many directions. Many songwriters are lyricists, and many are strictly composers, dealing only with one aspect of the song.
I think, though, that in the genre of Folk, Bluegrass, Celtic, Cajun, and most Americana and Roots music, the artist, like me, does a bit of everything. Therefore, I will approach this mini class with the slant on creating the whole package for you.
But, given that, I want to impart to you a love of writing the story of the song! That is what people expect when you call your music Folk. If you don’t have any starting point yet, but you feel you have a song idea. Try to write down your thoughts first, not even poetically, so it’s just your outline of a story. You will be amazed at how the song starts developing from there!
Writing Formula Story Folk Songs!
It is not a sell out, regardless of what you’ve been told! There are purists’ out there that say a formula kills the buzz. I don’t buy that! You need to think formula as you are creating your work, just like a painter. He does a sketch, then a base coat, then layer upon layer of colors until he/she has a masterpiece. They follow a formula!
Granted, we could take a monkey and hand him a couple of different paint buckets, and let him slosh it on the canvas. That is cool. But the attention span of the viewer will be brief, and the memory of the slosh marks won’t stay in the viewers mind for very long. Unlike Starry Night or Water Lilies, whose marks and swirls, make you look at the paintings in depth. These are paintings that have endured through time because they evoke an emotion. Without all the layers that the master artist created, they would be nothing more than slosh marks. (Though, at the time they were created, there were some purists who said Monet and Van Gogh’s paintings were just slosh marks. LOL)
I like to compare writing songs to painting masterpieces. I want to leave something enduring, and timeless. It takes practice to become a master. If you are serious about writing music, then you must practice your art every day! A painter and a novelist will tell you to paint or write everyday! So practice, think formula and have fun. It is a gift to your audience!
What ARE Formulas!!!!!
Odd place to start when we are talking about Folk music, but let’s look at Rock for an example of formula!
In Rock N Roll, you will find mostly hooky lines and dance grooves, lots of repeats, and many story lines that are simple themes. Yet, they are very successful! Why? Well, that’s because they give the listener something to grab onto. When those lines repeat, and are simple, we tend to sing along, don’t we? That is what makes them memorable.
Also part of the formula is the chord progression. The absolute basic chord progression is 3 to 4 chords. Some songs have only two chords. Some even only one! Experiment with the different keys and progressions to get diversity in your portfolio of songs. Because chord progression in another whole subject, I will only tell you to learn from some good books that teach the number system and how the chords go together. Again, it is like learning to paint. If you look at a color wheel, there are certain color families that go well together, and some that look just awful. The same goes with chord progressions. Put the wrong ones together, and it is like nails on a chalk board. LOL.
Like I said, for this pamphlet, we will concentrate on structure and leave the actual chord selection for another class.
Rock N Roll!
Many Rock songs have the simple formula of:
A Lead Intro, 2 verses, a chorus, a lead, 3rd verse, last chorus and lead out with musical hooks throughout the song.
Let’s take that apart and explain as simply as we can for the novice writer.
1. The lead intro is something that might stay on your mind after you hear it. Like Smoke On The Water, you will hear that guitar line in your head just from my stating the title of the song! If you are too young, and have never heard it, go look it up on the net! That is a quintessential Intro Lead. Also, Day Tripper. Both of these songs lead intro repeat throughout the whole song making them the most memorable.
Another example of an intro lead line is The Air That I Breath. This line NEVER repeats again in the song, but as soon as you hear it, you know what song it is. One last lead line I can mention is Surfin’ USA . Again, it is played one time, at the beginning, never repeats again, but was so strong that you jump up to go dance as soon as it starts. If you are not familiar with any of these songs, look them up on YouTube.
Yes, not every folk song is going to get that type of a lead in. But why not strive to create a memorable line so that everyone will automatically know the title of the song when you start your riff! This line can be the same as the melody of the chorus. It can be the melody of the first line of your song. Or it can be something that never repeats again in the song. Remember, this is your starting point that gets the listeners attention.
2. In rock, there is also something called a musical hook. This is a musical line you play on your instrument that repeats in between your verses. It could be the same as the intro or, preferably, this is a new line that traverses the verses and choruses. It acts like a bridge without words. Listen to Chad and Jeremy’s A Summer Song. You will hear the opening riff repeated throughout the song. This is a musical hook!
3. The 1st verse should set up your story. Like any good story, you need to get the audience’s attention with this verse. And, even more importantly, the first line should be the bait! A great example is Downtown. “When you’re alone, and life is making you lonely, you can always go, Downtown”. You automatically want to hear more of the verse. Another example is Aqualung. OK, it is harsher, but think about it. The first line is, “Sitting on a park bench, eyeing little girls with bad intent”. You are hooked into hearing the rest. One of the best lines I have heard was from Eleanor Rigby. “Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been, lives in a dream”. Those opening lines make you want to know more about the person, place or thing in the song.
The rest of the first verse expounds upon the first lines. Just like the first paragraph in a good book. You make or break the connection with the audience in that first verse. Make it strong.
4. The 2nd verse goes into more detail about the situation, place or person. I would compare it to the frosting on the cake. 1st verse is the cake, 2nd verse is the frosting. Don’t you think it is funny how people remember and sing along with the first verses and choruses of songs, but mumble the 2nd one. That is why. It is the frosting. Certainly important to the content of the story, but let’s face it. You can eat cake without frosting, but you usually don’t sit down and eat bowl of frosting without the cake.
This verse is certainly important though. Remember, you’ve already opened strong with a character or statement, and now you want to give some background on that person or statement. Like in Come Dancing by The Kinks, the first verse talks about the situation when their favorite dance pallor gets mowed down for a parking lot, and ends with My Sister Went There On A Saturday. Then the second verse goes into detail about the sister and her dates. The second verse expounds upon his sister going dancing.
5. OK, the Chorus! There are many rock songs that repeat the same melody for the chorus. In fact, Tom Petty sings Run Away Train as the first verse AND the Chorus. But, essentially, a good chorus will evoke the emotion of the song, and it is a point of differentiation musically from the verses.
The chorus will raise you up with higher notes and get louder, or bring you down with lower notes and become quieter.
It can get a different beat or less instrumentation, or added instruments!
Bottom line, it is a change point in the song that keeps the interest going and gives the audience something to grab onto. It breaks the monotony of too many verses!
A great Rock chorus example is Stand By Me. The instrumentation is doing the same 4 chords as the verses, but, the lyrical movement and the melody change the beat of the song at that moment. And everyone sings along with that chorus. Another example is Pinball Wizard. The verses are frantic and draw you into the energy of a pinball game, but the chorus changes to Attitude, with the beat and words and melody giving you the vision of someone who is the king of the pinball game. Go listen to it again, you will see what I mean. After the chorus, it goes back to the frantic motion.
6. The 3rd verse should give closure to the song. It should resolve the story in some way. If the gist of the song is , I’m A Loser, then the resolve could be, But I Am Going To Get Better, or, I Will Never Be Anything Else, or But So Are You. See what I mean? Let’s say the gist of the song is about love. The last verse is going to resolve whatever you’ve been speaking of in the rest of the song. Just like the final chapter in the book reveals the bad guy, or tells of the fairytale ending in a love story, your final verse will give the listeners closure and solve the mystery for them. Etc. Great example of a final verse is from You Don’t Know Me. The resolve of the song is that he/she walks away, never knowing that you love them.
7. Many songs add a bridge in the middle or towards the end of the song. A bridge usually has far less lines in it than the verses and choruses, or it could be more. It is almost always an entirely different melody than the rest of the song. The bridge is usually a retrospective moment in your story. It is a side story to your story, or an early resolve of the situation you are speaking about. It is not something that you will repeat anywhere else in the song. And, not all songs have or need a bridge!!! But, if it can be effectual to the purpose of the song material, then develop a bridge! An example of a great bridge is from a country song, In My Dreams. It starts with two verses, the chorus, a verse, then the bridge, then a fourth verse resolving the story, and a final chorus. It has the lead in and outro as well. This is a well placed bridge!!
8. The last chorus is usually a repeat word for word of the main chorus. This is what the listener remembers most. It pounds the message into the brain as to the gist of the song. Not all songs end on a chorus, but many do. Also, many songs will follow the formula but add the first verse after the last chorus, repeating that introduction to the song. Again, this makes your song more memorable.
Another thing to note about a chorus, first or last, and hopefully both, is if you can repeat a line from one of the verses in the chorus, you have done what they call in soccer, a Hat Trick. Talk about a Lyrical Hook Line! Also, if this lyrical hook line is super strong and much repeated in your song, you might want to make it the title of the song!
9. Finally, your outro should be a musical figure that takes you out of the song. It can repeat the chorus or the verse, acting as a tag at the end and lets the listener know that the song is over. It is the Ta Dah of your song. Another way to do your outro is to tag your last lyrical line of the chorus or verse. So, as in Goodness Gracious Great Balls Of Fire, you repeat the last line “You Broke My Will, But What A Thrill, Goodness Gracious Great Balls Of Fire”, twice at the end. That is a perfect tag.
Ok, so enough about Rock! LOL. Let’s talk more formula. There are many ways to configure your Folk song. Here are some simple formats to play with.
1. Intro, 1st verse, chorus, 2nd verse, bridge, chorus, repeat the 1st verse, tag last line, outro.
2. Long Intro (going through the melody of your song musically), chorus, 1st verse, 2nd verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro.
3. 1st verse (starting song with the words right away), 2nd verse, 3rd verse, bridge, outro.
4. Intro, 1st verse, bridge, chorus, 2nd verse, lead line (can be a repeat of the verse melody), chorus, 3rd verse, chorus, outro.
5. Intro, 1st verse, 2nd verse, chorus, lead line, 3rd verse, chorus, outro with a tag of the first lyrical line of the song.
6. Chorus, 1st verse, Chorus, 2nd verse, Chorus, 3rd verse, outro on the Chorus.
There are many more ways to combine your verses and choruses effectively, but use these as a starting point to refine your direction! You will use these and other formulas you find to keep your song moving, and making it very interesting for the listener!
So what defines a Folk Song!
The difference in our genre of music is that we want to tell a story, or make a statement. Maybe it is a funny story, or a sad one, or just a good story about a person, place or thing. Maybe we are passionate about a cause or a situation out there in our community or the world at large. But what I’ve seen happen, many times, is that writers in our genre tend to get stuck on the story verses, and never develop the song into a formula composition that hooks the listener and engages the audience into participating with the writer.
You know what I am talking about. You’ve heard those songs at the open mic nights, the ones with 20 verses, each one different, that go on, and on, and well, you might be one of them, so don’t feel bad. This is what this mini crash course is all about.
So, let’s say you’ve already written that 20 verses. A novelist will tell you that they just write everything down and then they revise later.
Good advice for a Story Folk Writer. Go ahead, write it all down. Now prepare yourself to let some of them go. Or incorporate the most important points from each verse into less verses. Keep in mind, like a good story should, the bait lines, the frosting, and the resolve. The choruses can be as simple as repeating a specific point line from your verse. Take that line, and add more thoughts to it, creating about 4 lines, or 2 lines, or 3 lines! Or, like the Beatles, Just keep repeating, I Wanna Hold Your Hand! LOL.
Remember, don’t get hung up on what comes first, the chicken or the egg. I get asked all the time, “Do you start with a melody or the lyrics, or do you write a poem and put it to music later?”
I think that everyone comes up with their own method of putting the songs together. It isn’t right or wrong to start with any of those. The words might come first for you, and melody develops around the rhythm of the meter of your poem. Or, you might be one who starts humming a tune and then you develop words to match your melody. It is all good.
No matter where you start, it’s where you end that matters! Follow one of the formula’s to make sure that once you’ve got your words and melody, you will have a viable finished product that the public would be interested in hearing.
The greatest cause in the world, sung without some type of formula, will fall on deaf ears. People get bored quickly.
We are in a world of fast pace, remote control change artists who can’t even sit through a TV show without flipping the channel constantly. Think of that when you are singing your song to an audience. Keep that song flipping for them from interest point to interest point, or they are off to doing their grocery lists in their heads.
Also, if you are doing a whole show based on your songs, remember to set up your show list with diverse keys, beats, and subject matter. Again, you don’t want to have everything you write sound the same. That is why I give you so many formulas to choose from. Practice using a different one for each song you start. That way, you will sound interesting all the way through your set.
Lastly, concerning the length of your song, a good 2 ½ minutes to 4 minutes, tops, is best. That is a standard timing for air play on a radio. My friend Jane Gill, author of the book, A Matter Of Pride, once said to me, “I am always amazed how a songwriter can say in one page of music, what it takes me 250 pages to say!” Think of that when you are struggling to give up those 20 verses. A great song will still only be one page of typed words!
If you find your typed song hitting two full pages with standard font, or worse, going to the third page, I am telling you to cut that baby down!
As To My Method!
Ok, here it goes. I am consistently starting my songs differently every time. I have stood in the keyboard section of Guitar Center, and heard a drum beat that sets my mind awhirl. The melody or words just start popping into my mind, and next thing you know, I am running to the counter asking for pen and paper. I write a few of my thoughts down, and then when I get home, I fiddle with those thoughts.
Another time, I will see something in the news, or hear a story about someone we know, that makes me think deeper about the person, place or thing. I fiddle with the story a bit, fleshing it out and then start working on a melody line or lyrics.
But mostly, I like to start with a story. I push myself to come up with new stories that I have totally made up in my head. Like my song, Mrs. Edna Pomeroe. She doesn’t exist. I put myself through writing exercises all the time. I thought of writing something about all the women I knew who were now alone, having outlived their husbands. From that exercise came one of my most requested songs!
Now It’s Your Turn!
So here goes, your exercise for your brain muscle!
1. Write down possible story lines every single day. Get a journal and keep jogging down your thoughts as they hit you. If you are at work or in a situation where you can’t write in your journal, see if your phone has a recording section to speak your thought into it. My android has something called rich text. OMG, it has saved my mind. I get a thought and I grab my phone and write myself a message. If you are driving and you have hands free, you can call yourself and leave yourself a voice message. LOL. Yes, I have done that!!
2. Every day, take a look at those thoughts in your journal, and pick one to work on. If you have a computer, and you have Word Document, it is awesome cause you can play with the story, developing the thought.
I have all these mini stories just floating around waiting to gain my attention. That is why, even if you are working on some songs already, keep revisiting that journal as well. What only slightly drew your attention before, might later become a passionate thing that you want to write about.
3. Every good story needs a person, place or thing! In a novel, you need a protagonist. It can be a static or dynamic character. Dynamic meaning growth! In my song, Jacque, the character is dynamic in that he crumbles from what once were great dreams and ambitions to being a chalk artist on the street. In other words, there is movement in the characters life, for better or for worse.
In Will McLean’s songs, he developed his characters from real life personalities and places from Florida History. Your character could be a Lake, or a Mountain, or your character could be The Boy Next Door, or The Girl At The Soda Shop. Your character could be Single Moms, or The Fight To Save X, Y, Z Place. It could be a past President, or a War Hero.
Your person, place, or thing is the key element to your story song. If it is fictional, be as creative as you’d like with your character. But if it is about a real person, or a real place, then get all your facts, do the research and paint that picture as accurately as you can.
4. Willie Nelson once said, “I never write my new song down until I can remember it from day to day. If I can’t remember it, no one else is gonna remember it either!” I liked that. That is why I just write down thoughts. When I am starting to create the meat of the song, I many times just play the guitar and start playing with words and let the whole thing sort of develop for a couple of verses. I am not going to lose the theme as it’s been jogged down, but as to the content of the actual song, I wait an hour before I even start writing the words on paper. When I come back to it in an hour, if I still have the melody and words in my head, I know I am on to something that others will remember too. This is just a method that I use personally to judge the metal of the song.
You might think, NO WAY, and write down every rhyme that comes into your mind. That is fine too, and if that works for you, then use it. But if you find that your songs get boring to you, or to those that are listening, then you might want to resist that way and follow Willies! I can say that I became a much better writer after learning this discipline!
5. Feedback! Humble yourself to accept feedback from friends, foes, peers etc! Tell your friends though that you want honest feedback! When I am writing my novels, I get certain friends and family to read my works as I go. I get great feedback that helps me stay on target with my story, and to keep the reader engaged and invested in the saga.
You need to do the same thing with your songs before you go public. Now, not everyone is going to like what you wrote. But if the majority of your proofers like what you did, then add it to your show. If you get the soft shoe shuffle from your friends, get them to tell you why. Did you write too many verses? Did your song stay on theme throughout, or did it stray to too many thoughts that confused the listener as to what the main subject was about.
Ask them to sing the chorus with you. If they can kinda repeat that chorus, this is a very good thing. When you are done singing to them, ask THEM what the song was about, don’t YOU tell them. This is very important as you will learn quickly whether you have something interesting that caught their attention.
6. Now that you’ve written your song, and you’ve proofed it with friends and peers, and you’ve done it in front of strangers, and everyone loves it, and you go running to your home recording studio, and you make your own CDs, and everyone loves it, and some national company hears it and decides they want to go to the Real Studio, get ready to rewrite your song! Producers will notoriously change many things about your song. They may change your intros and outros and the leads and hooks in between. They may ask you to rewrite the chorus, or change and tweak the melody.
Now this is where you decide whether doing what the producer wants is going to make you feel like a crazy sell out! If you have doubts about that producers ideas, ask them to show you some before and after work that they’ve done and make your decision based on whether or not you think that they actually improved the artists songs.
Remember too, that if they make major changes in your song, they will own part of the song as a co-writer! It is one thing for a producer to arrange the song for you, adding other instruments etc, but to change words and melody gets into copy write issues. Be aware of what you are giving up!
You may be one who wants total artistic control of your work. You may feel better about just doing your own CD’s, booking your own gigs and staying local, or small touring of small events. That is great. Just know and be true to yourself. You want to be a happy artist. But if you feel you have a really big message to give the world, then you will probably have to work with a producer that will want to influence the direction of the song.
Take heart though, cause YOUR song might be so good, and complete that they don’t want to change a thing! But in reality, that usually never happens. LOL.
I know this is a short recipe on how to write a song, but I hope it inspires you to create better songs going forward. If I’ve influenced you and motivated you to get out there and start writing, I hope you will email me and let me know of your journey and your successes. Nothing would please me more.
In parting, when I was in my 20’s, a band mate recommended a book to me. It was called, “If They Ask You, You Can Write A Song”. It was all about formulas and it changed my direction for the better.
I also became a better writer when I learned to play my guitar better. Learning to play more than those 5 basic chords is real handy!
So moral of the story: Don’t be resistant to knowledge and skill! Develop both and you will increase your happy factor and your credibility with the music industry as a whole.
Do you need to spend 70,000 dollars on a college degree to be great songwriter? Well, Will McLean certainly didn’t! Does theory help. Yes, it certainly can. But the most important thing in songwriting is. . . . Can you be creative???? I know that my mother in law can play the piano like she is in a symphony, but she has stated many times, if the song isn’t written down, she can’t play it. And as to writing her own material, she said that she had never even attempted it. So, you see, her theory didn’t produce a songwriter in her! It made her a great musician! Theory can’t replace creative thought. But theory can take creative thought to the next level!
What I want to you think about is this. Am I a creative person? Can I play an instrument to show other musicians what I am hearing in my head. Can I write a formula song that the listener is drawn to. Do I wax poetic? Do I like telling stories?
If you answered the creative part with a positive, that is the chef in you. The instrument is the pot in which you are going to cook. The formula is the recipe. The poetic is the ingredients. The telling story’s is the serving of your dish! Now get cooking!!! Writing!!! You know what I mean!!!
Ever Yours, Norine Mungo email@example.com
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And for some of my cool original recipes, for actual cooking, I have a blog called Mama Mungos Soup Kitchen on Blogspot.com