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Songwriting and poetry tips and advice?


johnmichell

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You'll have to study poetry and songwriting, there's no way around this.

Get books of classical poetry that also have critiques and analyses in them, i.e. books on poetry for students.

Also, study songwriters. Learn their songs - figure out why they're good/fun/interesting (or not) to play and to listen to. Figure out how they fit what they want to say within the context and structure of a song. There are also plenty of books and online publications available on the subject of songwriting.

 

Alternatively, just come up with some chord progression that you like and explurge, in words, whatever you want to say over that musical accompaniment.

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Hey, johnmichell!

 

Welcome!

 

Advice to a songwriter who is just starting out:

 

I might suggest that you consciously develop two modes: writing and editing. At least for now.

 

After a while, you'll probably develop a subconscious shifting of roles at the appropriate time. But for now, you want to make sure that your 'internal editor' doesn't start editing while your 'internal writer' is just trying to get his thoughts out.

 

For many people, the sight of their words on the page (or reading them back aloud) -- especially in the early days of writing -- can be vexing. For a lot of us, the first things we write when we're starting out look, well, dumb.

 

But that's just something you have to burn through as you're learning. When you were a little kid you probably rode a tricycle and then maybe a bike with training wheels before you were able to get on a 'real two-wheeler' and ride like a grown-up kid. Well, pardon the dumb metaphor ;) but starting writing is like that. You're just going to look a little silly to yourself as you go through the motions of not being able to think of anything cool or deep or even that sounds good -- that's something that happens to just about everyone.

 

(And, while there are people who are in love with everything they write, they're often not the lucky ones -- because it will probably be harder for them to get that internal editor we talked about above doing 'his' job when the time comes.)

 

So, since almost everyone is going to have to write a bunch of not-so-good junk when they're starting out, you have to have have faith that you'll get better. I'd been writing what I considered somewhat serious poetry for some years when I finally decided I had to learn to make music (at 20)... All of a sudden, there I was, a 'sophisticate' (in my own mind, anyhow :D ) writing sappy, sub-moon/june lyrics (and along with my plonky guitar and out of tune singing, it was, no doubt, a vexation to anyone within hearing :D ).

 

But it was something I had to go through. I didn't understand why. I just knew that while I was writing what I thought of as hip, underground poetry on the one hand, when I'd sit down to write a song, all I could come up with was simplistic doggerel. But I was determined to learn -- and you've got to be, too. Tell your 'internal editor' to back off (for now) and let you burn through the gunk. As some nuggets of good ideas or good bits start showing up in the gunk, then you can let him get in the game to help you refine -- or at least figure out what bits to save for later and work into something that servers them better.

 

That said, I recommend keeping almost everything you write that feels like it means anything to you, even at the beginning, no matter how dorky it feels -- if it means something to you, if it makes you feel something -- even if you know it wont' mean anything or sound good to anyone else -- put it away, because there's an atom of inspiration there, a connection to something inside you want to get out.

 

Chances are, you'll find a different, better way to say it, later, but sometimes those little scraps and bits can reignite the inspiration later when you're a bit stumped or in an inspirational dry spell -- most of us have them form time to time. It can be good to have a notebook of scraps to fall back on for ideas and emotional provocations that you might later turn into something good.

 

 

In terms of practical advice... here are a couple pitfalls I found myself stumbling through -- and I don't think I was unique...

 

Unless you're a rapper or other rhymer, rhyming may not come natural to you. (Particularly for folks of my generation, who mostly grew up thinking rhyming verse was for sappy greeting cards and kids' nursery rhymes.)

 

First thing: you don't have to rhyme. And/or, you don't have to keep your rhymes at the end of lines. Internal, half, slant rhymes, alliteration (you can google terms you don't understand) -- words that tie parts of your song together by their similar sounds, can be used internally or from verse to verse to connect parts of songs.

 

That's something that is not necessarily going to present itself right away, mind you, but keep an eye out for it as you're developing, because it can be a valuable tool for writing sophisticated rhyming or not-quite-rhyming verse. (Some of the academic poets of the early 20th century, guys like T.S. Eliot, were masters of such sophisticated word play.)

 

One of the things that happens with first songs is often that the writer finds himself working with short rhythmic lines and/or other approaches that get his rhyming words close together. That can be okay -- but it can also sometimes lead to a sing-song quality to the rhymes.

 

Folks coming to writing conventional songs from rap are often habituated to very short/tight rhymes -- as well as sticking internal rhymes everywhere they can think of... in a fast rap, that can feel clever and add to the sense of flow... but in the quite different context of a typical lyrical song, such an approach can sound forced or dorky.

 

Another problem -- that will be particularly vexing in the early stages where you're first starting to get your internal editor going -- is the common trap of 'settling' for a rhyme. After a while, you may find that you develop a sort of mental 'fast rhyme search' -- not so much an internal rhyming dictionary but the ability to let your mind race through words and combinations that might give the rhyme you're looking for. Many rappers -- particularly those concerned more with flow than content -- will settle for a clever rhyme. But when you're trying to say something, maybe something hard to say, subtle, or hard to describe, as emotions or complex situations often are, settling for the first rhyme that comes to you -- or conversely -- working up an an overly clever rhyme -- can derail an otherwise good song.

 

Rhymes call attention to themselves. That's powerful, but it's also something that can go wrong easily. Songwriters have to learn to use rhyme in such a way as to underline the meaning or emotional content of the song without letting it call attention to itself and distract from or derail the song.

 

Often, the closer two rhymes are, the more they call attention to themselves. That's why songs with very short rhythmic lines -- or songs where the rhymes are structured AABB (two rhyme lines followed by two different rhyme lines) or even AAAA (four lines ending in the same rhyme) are difficult to write in such a way that the rhyme doesn't get in the way of the song. Many folks find it easier -- especially at first -- to us more 'relaxed' rhyme schemes like ABAB or, more relaxed still, ABCB (only the second and fourth lines rhyme).

 

But while many songs are set up in ABAB or ABCB four line stanzas, there is no reason you should have to color within those particular lines -- particularly as you get your feet under you and start feeling out your artistic possibilities. It's possible to use rhymes to tie together stanzas in long verses (ABCB followed by ADCD, for instance, where the first and second lines rhyme between those stanzas). The possibilites are many.

 

Other tools that you'll find yourself exploring are imagery (don't tell the listener/reader about something -- show it to him), storytelling (don't just tell the listener that Joe, the guy in the song, loves Mary -- tell them bits and pieces of their story to make that love come alive), metaphor (simile, analogy, etc -- using one idea to talk about another -- your love might be deep as the ocean or your love might be the ocean fed by the underground rivers of emotion flowing beneath every day -- the sky's not the limit, there is no limit, the writer's -- and the listener's -- ability to stretch to catch that long ball metaphor. So to speak.

 

 

Um... I haven't had much coffee yet, so there's probably a bunch I'm missing, but hopefully that can give you some advice and some things to keep an eye out for.

 

But, really, the bottom line advice -- as is often said around here -- is that writers write. Some folks say you've got to write a million words (that's like 5 or 6 fat supermarket novels :D ) before you start really learning your craft as a writer.

 

I wouldn't go quite so far. -- but there's no question that the more you write, the better you get, maybe not page to page, or story/poem/song to song -- but over time, the more you write, the better you will be able to write.

 

To look at that the other way around, all that progress has to start somewhere, and that start is probably going to have plenty of room for improvement.

 

Or, to adopt a certain more pragmatic, down to earth metaphor: Writing is like other natural, human processes: you don't stop in the middle just because you don't like what's coming out. ;)

 

 

johnmichell -- I actually wrote that magnum opus above just in response to your post -- but I'm an efficiency-oriented guy, so we can expect to see bits and pieces and probably whole sections of that in other posts down the road, maybe even a beginning songwriter FAQ or such. But it started with you. ;)

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There are only 5 (or 6 depending on how you count) and they evolved with the idea of keeping the forum free of typical distractions (spam, guerrilla marketers, blatant-self promoters, flame-wars, fanboi threads, etc) and clear for the primary job of this forum: to give writers a place to discuss songwriting issues and to get feedback and discuss their works in progress.*

 

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You can find the rules thread -- which has a number of other guidelines and helpful hints, as well as an index of Monthly Showcase thread listings as well as a big list of songwriting resources -- in a sticky at the top of the forum listings:

 

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You'll have to study poetry and songwriting, there's no way around this.

Get books of classical poetry that also have critiques and analyses in them, i.e. books on poetry for students.

Also, study songwriters. Learn their songs - figure out why they're good/fun/interesting (or not) to play and to listen to. Figure out how they fit what they want to say within the context and structure of a song. There are also plenty of books and online publications available on the subject of songwriting.


Alternatively, just come up with some chord progression that you like and explurge, in words, whatever you want to say over that musical accompaniment.

Explurge?!?

 

:D

 

That's another one I forgot to mention: word coinnage. No reason you have to stay within the exiguous bounds of the existing language. If the language as it currently exists doesn't fit what your trying to say, refudiate those imaginary limitations.

 

Being a word freak, I had to go look up explurge... Mostly, it seems to be a startup website that posts best seller lists form various retailers (for those looking for trends, I guess), but I did notice one plaintive soul asking if he could if he could explurge his criminal record. :D

 

Be creative -- but be prepared for crusty old coots like me giving you a bit of a tug when your creativity tweaks their own sensibilities. ;)

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You've been given some good advice already, but I will try to add my own experience.

 

Always have a pen and paper (or something to jog down ideas). Almost every song I've written came out at the most obscene times. I don't believe you need to "study" anything. If you write from the heart, you can't go wrong. You've heard enough songs to understand this I'm sure. You should focus more on studying music theory and understanding how to write music if you haven't already. The music may not work that way.

 

In my opinion, you should avoid fancy words in songs. It will make it hard to follow and understand. Especially in Rock Songs, the simpler the better. Just let out what you're feeling and worry about the form later. Words WILL come naturally if you let it all go and write whatever you are feeling. For me, I could hear the music as I wrote (in few cases), but this won't always happen so you may find yourself trying to adapt your lyrics to the music. Don't get discouraged if you do this. It will get easier.

 

The most valuable lesson I learned when I started writing was that you can turn the most horrible life experiences into something the entire world can appreciate and relate to. You can feel like the entire world is crumbling beneath you, and just turning that into a great song can be the most rewarding accomplishment(s) of your life.

 

What you SHOULD try if you want to get the most emotion into your lyrics is to fall madly in love, marry the girl and get cheated on and divorced within the first year or 2. That should spark something huge inside of you.

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You'll have to study poetry and songwriting, there's no way around this.

 

I have never studied either.:wave:

 

Of course, my songs won't ever be compared with any of the great works of Tennyson or Taupin.

 

If you wish to start writing songs it will be a great help if you are already a latent songwriter. Perhaps you have spent a few years listening to songs and the songwriter within is ready to emerge. While I can't speak to the poetry angle, songwriting is not really something that you can force.

 

If you have strong feelings about this girl then speak them aloud. See how they sound, how the words work together and how the phrases can be cajoled into a musical cadence. Then write them down.

 

You'll know when it becomes poetry or a song.

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I have never studied either.
:wave:

Of course, my songs won't ever be compared with any of the great works of Tennyson or Taupin.


If you wish to start writing songs it will be a great help if you are already a latent songwriter. Perhaps you have spent a few years listening to songs and the songwriter within is ready to emerge. While I can't speak to the poetry angle, songwriting is not really something that you can force.


If you have strong feelings about this girl then speak them aloud. See how they sound, how the words work together and how the phrases can be cajoled into a musical cadence. Then write them down.


You'll know when it becomes poetry or a song.

 

The act of listening to or playing songs, from a songwriting perspective, is studying in it's own way.

 

I'd also +1 your advice there. There are many ways to skin a cat or write a song!

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You can bet, as soon as Mr Webster gets off his dusty backside, that I'll be finding lots of ways to work my new favorite adjective into everything I write:
explurgatory --
which, of course, is properly applied to subjects of an
explurgatorial
nature.

 

 

I've known a fair few explurgatologists in my time.....

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Ah... Lee... sad to say we had to part ways with Mr xtremenoscam, because, well, it did sort of look like a scam, but basically because he was another one of them damn S_E_O spammers. (Just those three letters will draw more of them. They're like cockroaches to crumbs.)

 

Thanks for the kind words on my bloviational poetry advice... ;)

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