I headed to Nashville on Tuesday to teach an hour long workshop at the Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival about, well…songwriting. As I headed east high above the clouds, I wondered—can you really teach anyone how to write a song? In an hour no less. Maybe we can simply talk about it—one of my favorite subjects—and see what comes up. There is so much to say.
First of all, I feel that for a successful destiny, one has to have the fire in their belly—which is usually recognized at a young age—and the desire to communicate within a 3.5 minute boundary. If these parameters are already in place then maybe one can learn to get better.
How? By getting critiqued by an experienced song whisperer or two, or three, or four, listening to the radio, (Spotify playlists…etc…) and most of all, by waking up every day and doing it. You’re only a writer if you actually write. If you don’t practice, it’s only in your mind.
In the class of about 200 hopefuls I mused around a bit.
One has to ask “what is my goal?” If you want your songs on the radio the demo will serve you best if it sounds like it’s already on the radio. Sonics are key. And let’s be frank, unless you’re writing with the artist, chances of your song getting on a hot record are as likely as picking Powerball numbers. So it better sound AMAZING. If you’re good to sing to your loved ones in the comfort of your living room, then not so much on the sonics. Just write a good song.
Structure is structure for a reason. We’ve had it for so long that our psyches can’t help but anticipate the emotional arc of a 3 minute disclosure. F*ck with that arc and song radars get frazzled.
Learn the rules before you break them. If you’re going to deviate from the conventional flow, you’re going to have to substitute the satisfaction that comes with the familiar with something that is equally as satisfying. And if you don’t know what it is you’re substituting how can you do that effectively?
Each section serves a purpose…
Intro—The door opens. You want your listener to walk in!
Verse 1—Grab me with a first line or else…I might take that call. Give me some context. Is it you, us, her, him? The world? How do you feel about what you’re going to say? If not explicit, give me some kind of clue.
The Pre, Or the B-section…or I’ve heard it called the Ramp! —Take my hand and lead me to the water. The Pre isn’t mandatory…but again, learn how to write one effectively before you eliminate it. oh and…we used to have to write ONE hook per song. Currently, every section is a hook. Often, I mistake the pre for the main hook…until the main hook (chorus) comes in and raises the bar even higher.
Hook...avoid calling it a chorus. It’s old school :( —Don’t take too long to get there. This is an age of multi-taking and short attention spans. This section best be Irresistible! Undeniable! A universal thought in a unique frame. And that can come in many a package: super shocking, lovably stupid, insanely gorgeous, emotionally heartbreaking, adorable, whimsical, clever. As long as it’s UNFORGETTABLE!
Post —This is a tasty post millennial addition to structure. It’s yet another hook. It’s optional. It’s a chant, a repetition. It will probably phase itself out with time. We will miss it.
2nd Verse—Take me deeper with some kind of detail.
2nd Pre—Lately, the lyrics are the same as the first. It wasn’t always this way. I have my theories. Since today’s pre is as hooky as the hook, perhaps the repetition is essential.
2nd Hook—Same as the first. (Thank God!)
Bridge—can be anything from a tangent to a chant to a burp. It’s a tease. A tasty departure that makes the listener have to wait a bit longer to hear that hook AGAIN! PLEEEEZ!
Someone asked me about a “solo.” I remember when we used to have a sax on every demo. Oy. But seriously…the shorter the better. Recently, “Light My Fire” came on in my car and the solo started as I exited Trader Joe’s parking lot and was still going on when I pulled into my driveway. I kid you not. Gone are the days of indulgent shredding.
At the end of the day I took the stage with 12 writers in a Tin Pan “Round. “ Their songs were voted “Best Of”. They were amazing. Every song sounded cuttable to me. I felt kind of foolish having tried to teach anyone anything earlier in the day. They seemed to know already.
There was an elderly woman at a table in the front of the audience who I imagined was taken aback when I sang “Bitch.” But after the show she came over and said,
“I enjoyed your performance immensely. I’m going to try to start writing songs myself…it seems that all it is a feeling coming from a slightly different angle.”
Touché. She gets it. I was wrong about the fire in your belly from a young age. It’s never too late. I'm learning every day.