Studying and understanding the tools that go into making a song can help anyone learn how to write a song more effectively. I hope these conversations give you ideas for your own songs and songwriting.
We were lucky enough to have a long conversation with Berklee Professor Pat Pattison. But was my teacher and mentor at Berklee, and eventually my colleague and friend. Studying Pat’s material transformed my songwriting practice – it gave me a tools and techniques to draw on to develop ideas into full songs, to understand the relationship of sections, and most importantly, to understand how structure can amplify meaning.
In this video series, Pat takes us through the elements of lyric writing – and demonstrates how making decisions about the structure and placement of lyrics can amplify the meaning and emotions we are trying to convey. Motion creates emotion.
One of the best ways to learn how to write great songs is to learn from great songs and songwriters. In this video, songwriter Ben Romalis and I take 6 songs that each taught us a crucial principle or technique about writing great songs.
Drawing from a range of inspirations from Radiohead, Tom Waits, to Gillian Welch and John Mayer, Benny and I talk about the specific musical or lyrical technique that we learned from these 6 great songs.
Of course, these 6 songs are just a beginning! We picked these for this video because they showcase a range of different principles and techniques: we talk here about chromaticism in chord progressions, about borrowing chords outside the key, about balancing types of language in your verses, about narrative and non-conventional song forms, about verse development and great chorus writing, and how a great intro can set your song apart.
More will come out of this series, as we explore how to listen to music so that you can extract ideas, and put them to practice in your own songwriting.
In a recent newsletter by one of my favourite writers, George Saunders, he writes of one of his characters in a short story, The Falls:
“A story has a surface dimension (let’s call it the overstory) and another, deeper, dimension (the understory). The overstory, in this case, is whether Morse will save the girls. That’s what we think we’re supposed to care about and what we (very naturally) do care about. The understory is somehow related to the Joycean idea of the epiphany – it’s what the story has really been about all along. The writer might not realize it until that moment when the understory breaks through the overstory and the story tells us, finally, what it’s been about all along.”
I believe (and experience) songwriting to be similar. As Janis Ian has said, often we write not because we have Something To Say; we write to find out what we are writing about.
We often need to go spelunking through the dark and lumpy caves of the mind and imagination to arrive at some smooth pond that reflects a meaning back to us (that’s me, not Janis Ian, although I suspect that she, like me, has never been spelunking).
Paul Simon has framed a similar idea in a different way. Simon says that in his songwriting, he feels that his songs don’t need to have “meaning,” and probably benefit from avoiding it as the instigator of an idea. Instead, Simon says (in his wonderful interview with Paul Zollo, in Songwriters of Songwriting), songs simply need direction. Connect one idea to a second, and an idea has movement; connect it to a third, and the song has direction. Meaning will attach itself to direction, without needing to force it, plan it, or even mean it.
I like the idea that meaning is emergent; it takes the pressure off having to have ‘something to say’—or instead, it trusts the intelligence of a listener to bring their own experience and meaning to a story. It also encourages a trust in oneself as a writer—where there is story, there is meaning, and sometimes that meaning might be more complex, subtle, and personal, if we don’t set out from the starting point of ‘meaning’, but from the starting point of story.
“Whenever I want to write a big song, I can’t. And by “big” I mean spatially…the glacially large space inside the heart, that’s when I get writers block…trying to write a song to fill the entire galaxy. But if I write a song about the size of a glass of water, and I do it right, I notice a week later that it’s got the universe in it. I’d rather have the universe inside a glass of water, rather than try to make a glass of water fit in the universe.”
You can see the whole interview here (I’ve tagged it at the point where Mayer is talking about detail in songwriting.
This idea radiates into other forms of storytelling, which are really all connected—all trying to convey something that is simultaneously personal, drawn from the details of one’s own life, but also with a universal connection that creates communication, not just catharsis.
This idea was reiterated to me when I went poking around Matthew Dicks’ YouTube channel. Matt is a master storyteller—52-time Moth StorySLAM winner, and 7-time GrandSLAM champion. He made a lo-fi (and highly excellent) video outlining a storytelling game he plays in workshops and classrooms, called “3-2-1”. When explaining why he uses random concrete nouns as prompts, rather than something massive and emotional like “struggle” (or we could sub that for equally glacial concepts, like “loneliness” or “climate change”), Dicks says:
“It’s hard to tell a story if someone asks you, ‘Could you tell a story about a time when you struggled’. That is hard for a lot of people, including me, because ‘a time when you struggled’ is a very broad concept. There’s many, many times in our lives when we struggle. And so pick out the right story—to pick out any story—is really challenging. The odd thing is, the more specific the lens that you’re forced to look at your life through, the more likely you are to find a story.”
(My emphasis added)
You can see Matt’s whole video on his storytelling exercise here:
Matt was also kind enough to share with me the website he uses to generate the random nouns in this video, which is HERE (and on perusing it for a minute, it has other amazing filters that will generate other random lists for you, like cliches, emotions, ‘speech-verb’).
For a songwriter-specific writing exercise that will help you forever tap into the details, check out Object Writing in this video (I’ve tagged it right at Object Writing):
There is, of course, the classic ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’, which I dip into a few times a year, and has given me almost a decade of interesting insights. With that said, it also reveals the ways in which songwriters are much more oblivious to their craft than their counterparts in prose or poetry. There are so many references to being a ‘channel to the muse’ that it makes my muse want to shrivel up and take up chain-smoking.
With all of that said, there have a been two delightful books that came out in 2020 that are, I hope, forging a more honest and fertile ground for other songwriters to share the details of their practice.
I loved, and tried, his ‘word ladder’ exercise, which reminds me a lot of Pat Pattison’s metaphor collision exercises. The exercise basically involves having a column of nouns that are drawn from one area/field/room, and another column of verbs that are drawn from something totally unrelated. What I like about Tweedy’s version is the sense of freedom and experimentation in how to simply mix and match, with a loose brain:
“…take a pencil and draw lines to connect nouns and verbs that don’t normallyw ork together. I like to use this exercise not so much to generate a set of lyrics but to remind myself how much fun I can have with words when I’m not concerning myself with meaning or judging my poetic abilities.”
The exercises are fun, creative, and specific. But the real gems in here are the stellar insights into the creative process:
“One of the reasons I advocate so strongly for maintaining some creative pursuits in life is my belief that not knowing exactly how something like a finished song comes together creates an incredible magical feeling that always leaves me satisfied and full of wonder. There’s really no exact way to do it—it’s not like putting together IKEA furniture. It’s just about getting started on the right path.”
What I love about the book is that Tweedy is all about the wonder, but also about the nitty gritty of HOW you go about putting yourself on that path. I’m so glad he wrote it.
The most effective way I write songs is to immerse myself in songwriters. I like to remind myself of the songwriters who will always, without question, ignite something in me. Here is my list.
These writers don’t just write great songs; they are GREAT SONGWRITERS. Drenching myself in the structures, forms, and developments of lyrics and music of these songwriters will always set up my songwriting practice.
I will often then cross-pollinate this listening by immersing myself in a style or genre that I am either interested in or inspired by.
When I do this ‘stealing like a songwriter,’ I always keep in mind the most important lesson I took from reading Austin Kleon‘s (absolutely refined gem of a book) “Steal Like an Artist“:
Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.
I love this video of Ryan Adams revealing his daily songwriting method, that he calls ‘Stacks’. It basically involves taking one reference book (like the Roget’s International Thesaurus) on one side, and another random book—a novel perhaps—on the other side. Open each to a random page. Scan the page of the novel until a line or image catches your attention, then use it to create a version of that image. Go to your second book. Scan the page until you find a word or image that pops out at you…keep going, and fill in the blanks.
“Inside of me is some piece of information that is relevant. It’s relevant because I’m alive and because there’s electricity in my brain and I’ve seen things all day. But maybe they have’t become this beacon for me yet of something ideal. But if I scan information I’ll find what that is…like Madlibs, the ego will always come out to play if you can get the Id to tell it to…I just created this thing for myself based on this information that I chose that’s already relevant to me because instantly it reminds of someone…; and it will force me to fill in the blanks.”
It’s a beautiful approach that trusts in your own experience to join the dots.
Former Berklee Songwriting faculty Keppie Coutts presents the Eagle Rock Fall Songwriters Retreat on Sunday, October 8!
Fall Retreat will involve a series of creative exercises and time-proven writing techniques in the morning, equipping you with processes to bring your unique perspective and voice to the page. The afternoon will consist of song listening and feedback, giving you insight into the tools, techniques and strategies used by professional songwriters to generate ideas, develop, revise, edit, and fine-tune their songs. Fall Retreat will be a small and focused group, building strong connections, community, empowering participants to develop their creative processes and write the best songs possible!
In order to keep the retreat focused, the group is limited to 10 people, on a first come first served basis. REGISTER TODAY to secure your spot, by visiting www.kcsongstudio.com or by emailing email@example.com.
$80 Early Bird Discount (signed up by September 15)
$100 (after September 15)
$90 (Member Affiliations – West Coast Songwriters, Berklee Alum, previous attendees)
One the most important things in the journey of a songwriter is being part of a community who can give you helpful feedback. Your friends, parents and audience will always be more than willing to tell you how much they love your songs (aka how much they just love you), and sometimes how much they don’t. Alas, while this feedback can be a joyous validation or an ego-rattling slap, it rarely helps your songs actually improve. There is hope! Other songwriters with the experience and vocabulary of songwriting are often the best community to tell you a) what works and why, and b) what could use development and why. The WHY part is so important, and requires more than just “I wasn’t feeling it there”.
I encourage you to seek out opportunities to be with other songwriters, whether it’s local organizations, regional camps or workshops, or annual conferences. Berklee College of Music has a wonderful online school (berkleemusic.com).
I don’t think it’s very good for a serious songwriter to pay attention to what critics say. It’s just too hard. And it’s not informative. They don’t know what they’re talking about. And can’t know what they’re talking about, by definition. Unless you write songs and make records, you just really can’t know what it’s about. A critic is not capable of distinguishing between a safe move that is executed, and an interesting mistake. An interesting mistake is by far the more valuable.