Songwriting as Algebra


CD Baby recently blogged about how important it is to write bad songs in order to eventually stumble upon a good one. I replied on Twitter (not to be rude, but because I strongly disagree) that encouraging songwriters to write bad songs only teaches them to write bad songs. When you practice mistakes, you never stop making mistakes. Any musician knows this. CD Baby’s “tip” puts forth the myth that a good song is something that happens by accident once in a while, instead of being the result of a craft that one can learn to master.

I feel it is a terrible disservice to fledgling songwriters to tell them it’s ok to write bad songs and that someday a good one will spontaneously occur. I guess it is true that one could magically write a hit out of nowhere, without actually understanding how they did it. But why leave it up to chance when you have all you need right now to begin writing songs that you can be proud of?

There Are No Bad Songs

A song, any song (even the worst song you’ve ever written), can be made into a song that you love.

Sometimes changing a single chord can salvage a “bad” song. Maybe it’s a lyric or a melody note that needs to change. But you shouldn’t give up before an idea has worked itself out. Ideas happen for a reason and should be cherished. Don’t be too quick to discard them.

I have a phobia that if I don’t use the ideas that are given to me, they might stop coming. I don’t like to waste them. This is probably why I had such an adverse reaction to the CD Baby piece.

The trick is to let the song write itself to completion. Do not arrogantly consider yourself the creator. There is a song there that wants to come out of your idea. If you aren’t feeling it, you have not tapped into what is there. This is not mystical or supernatural. What does your song want to be? What is implied? You love music, right? You can feel it out.

If you can hear a good song, you can write one. If you don’t love what’s there at first, it just means your song’s not done yet. It will come. If there is a note you don’t like, find the right one – because the perfect note is just frets (or keys) away (there are only 12 notes to choose from).

Songs are Like Equations

Given X, then Song = Y

I think of songs like equations. What’s in-between X and Y in the above example? Well, that’s your job to figure out. Let’s be a bit more specific:

(Given Title X, then Chorus = A) + (Given A, then Verse = B) + (Given A + B, then Bridge = C) = (Song = Y)

I always write my lyrics first, usually starting with a title (although sometimes the title comes from the lyrics). Once the lyrics are done, the phrasing is implied. From there a melody is easily also implied.

Start by “rapping” your lyrics and notice where your voice naturally rises and falls, then begin to add pitches. You will find at least the beginning of a melody if you focus on this important step. Chords can help you finish the melody you start. Don’t feel like the melody has to come before the chords. This is the most organic part of the process. Experiment, you’ll see what I mean.

(Given Title X, then Lyrics = A) + (Given A, then Phrasing = B) + (Given A + B, then Melody and Chords = C + D) = (Song = Y)

I try to find a drumbeat in the vocal phrasing. If you can get the vocal melody/phrasing, chords (don’t play chords with rhythm yet, just let them ring) and beat working together, then a bass line is easily implied – as well as guitar parts and the rest of your arrangement.

[Given Lyrics X, then Vocal Phrasing (A) + Melody (B) + Chords (C)] + [Given A + B + C, then Drumbeat = D] + [Given X + A + B + C + D, then Bassline = E], etc. = [Song + Arrangement = Y]

I often find myself with a chorus I love, but am not sure where to go with a verse. I’ll play the chorus and then stop and listen with my “mind’s ear” for what should happen next. It could be a note or a chord. If it’s a note, what’s the chord? Once you get that first chord, you’re usually on your way. If you don’t hear it right away, try again until you do. You eventually will, I promise.

You can do this within a section too. What chord should happen next? Given that chord, what melody note? Given a melody note, what chord?

Don’t force songwriting. It’s not a song until you know you have found what the song wants to be. Don’t call it done until you are sure it is what it is meant to be. The key is to learn to trust your instincts. When you feel a song is done, record it and come back in a day or two. With fresh ears you can assess if it needs more tweaking.

You’ll likely find that the song is better than you thought it was. At this point, and only at this point, can you begin to evaluate where the song stands in relation to your other songs. You will like some more than others, but I’m willing to bet that it will be difficult for you to pick your favorite (and that your fans will all pick different songs they like best).

“Rock and roll ain’t noise pollution.” So don’t write off your song until it’s done.


John Dissed is an independent rock and roll singer-songwriter from Los Angeles. Go here to get a free sample of his work.

Tags: , , ,