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.
The first exercise I run in any lyric writing class is called ‘Sense Writing,’ which is essentially the same as Pat Pattison’s Object Writing (which you can find out more about here). I’ve written before about Sense Writing, and recently put out a YouTube video that explains it, which you can watch here:
It’s one of my top ‘go to’ methods for getting a song idea going, for finding out what I have to write about (even when I’m not starting out with any specific ideas), and also one of my go-to ways of fleshing out ideas for lyrics when I DO have an idea on the go.
I thought it would be a useful reference to also post some examples of what my Sense Writes look like (though there is no stylistic requirement here—the only parameter is to stay sense-bound, and push yourself to turn the dial up on the level of detail), and then to show you how one of the Sense Writes might then translate into lyrics. Here we go!
Sense Writing Examples
"Destitute funeral", the woman's voice over the phone had a quiver in it as she said the words. I could suddenly feel the sweat of my ear moistening the plastic screen protector of my phone. I didn't realise that ears sweat. A small baby fist of tension opened and shut at my larynx, a trigger of righteous outrage flared somewhere in my stomach. That word, 'destitute'. t conjured images of grey dread locks with rat shit in them, and urine-soaked cardboard boxes. Or perhaps of wailing orphans, or dustbowl leather-skinned cowboys and grey-wood furniture piled onto the front of yellow grassed lawn, rusty nails sticking out. Of nameless locals driving by in their pickups, narrowing their eyes to a slit, glaring at you with sharp shadows, one hand on the wheel, the other hand on the car door, window rolled down, a lop-sided cigarette precariously leaning of the cliff of their lip. Destitute was curled lips, snarling facial gestures, stuck in an ice-wall of silence."Oh ok, that's what they call it then. A 'destitute funeral," I murmured back to the social work woman on the other end of my iPhone. "Yes, sorry. I don't know why they call it that..." Well, I do. They call it that so that you feel this barrage of guilt and shame, and social knuckle to the solar plexus, because they don't want just everybody to know that it's not actually necessary to pay a company the extortion of $5000 to simply burn a body.
One thing I like to do shortly after a Sense Write is to mine it for interesting lines and ideas, and put them in a separate document. Here’s what I extracted from this:
a lop-sided cigarettes
The sand beneath her toes makes a squeak like a mouse, like rubber, hot wheels on tarmac. It is warm but only on the surface. As her toes displace the upper crust, beneath is moist, darker sand, cooler, more secretive; earth's clay, more maleable, shapable, building castles and caves and channels for water to run, for worlds to emerge, for princes and princesses and dragons to suddenly burst into life, for the all powerful narrator to dictate outcomes, controlling tiny imaginary lives. Small, frail, hapless characters wrapped up in a fiction they don't even know exists; one swipe and the castle explodes, shards of sand hurling through the air, walls collapsing, the moat imploding, the water channel driven to chaos, spreading back into the dark sand beneath, joining with the waves that lick the shoreline and then sigh back into the vast glittering sapphire of sea. Salt and seaweed and hot chip fry. She abandons the narrative, and looks out into the blue, where the blue gradient gets almost black as it reaches for the horizon. Out at the edge of the water world, the line is not straight, but it's hard to even get a hold on. The horizon line quivers out there, a nervous distance, the arc of the earth actually visible if your imagination comes to stand next to you. The line out there shimmers, a magic portal, another world at the drop off, where gravity might make a mistake and flick you into space, or drag you down.The water imitates the sand. The top inch is warm, but as the sand slimes upward of the ankle, the water becomes cold, bracing, sticking to the surface of the skin, gripping goose flesh. The body responds with a frantic reciprocity, shifting its temperature to meet the embrace, trying to match the strength of the handshake.Her chest contracts, heart a little mouse in a cage suddenly submerged, quick gasp for air as the cold vice surrounds the shoulders, but the body somehow knows the water, and within mere seconds the borderline between skin and sea is gone.
Here I’ve just bolded the lines and ideas I was immediately drawn to afterwards.
You just don't know how good what you have is as a kid.2 storey art deco house. Caramel coloured carpet, but for two kids, it was a place to roll around in, to lie down laughing, grasping at our bellies, wheezing laughter through tears. It was a place for me to put on my parents' records: Janis Joplin, Muddy Waters, Donovan, Chuck Berry, turn on the gas heater in the winter - tick tick floooommmff! - and thrash my limbs around, spin my body til my mind entered the music and the music fused with my blood and we were one swirling whirl, one smoke curl burning,one small house on fire, dancing like there was nothing else.My room painted sky blue, then layered over in lilac. My room ha da door leading out to the top deck vernadah. On summer night, I would straddle my dad, and he would tell me stories. I could feel his voice in my legs, I could feel the bass rumbling in his guts. The Corkscrew Ballerina! His belly button was the animation of her legs leaping, until her own pirouhette overtook her, She spun and spun until she burned a hole in the ground and fell straight through the floor!I would squeal in anticipation and delight, somehow still ravaged by the tension, even though I'd heard the story 10 times before.Until one telling - some fuse in my brain rewired itself away from childhood delight, and simply short-circuited. The tension blinked out in an instant, and the story no longer had the same power over me. I knew it was a story, could not suspend the disbelief any more. AS if cynicism just blooms one day like an algae that takes over the whole river in a day. As if knowledge (becomes understanding) somehow means defeat. The defeat of delight.Our backyard was big enough to build speed on a bike. We would pick lilipillies in late winter, and catch stink bugs in summer. I would watch the bees praying at each purple jacaranda bell, their religiosity habitual and efficient, each prayer finished with thanks.
Turning a Sense Write into Lyrics
Here is a Sense Write, followed by a lyric idea I have drawn out of it. Notice how I am pulling together words and sounds that have a sense of sonic connection, and obviously adding in structural elements that help something sound like a lyric: rhythm, rhyme, a consistent number of lines per section, etc.
wicker baskets, bric a brac, nick knacks, garage sale. old paperbacks, dog-eared, year yellowed, brown framed pages blending to cream. old bits of metal, nails, screws, rust sprinkled, once useful, now objects without a purpose. old toys wrapped up in plastic bags. a once-pink teddy, now sun bleached and frayed. an old woman sitting under a hawaiian umbrella, smoking a cigarette like it's the 80s, with cigarette smoke curling around her fingers, snaking through her hair, and shrouding the air just above her in tufts of white. the crackle of the nicotine between her lips. lip stick seeping into the small cracks and canyons of her old lips. the radio on next to her, an old black and tan wireless, the antenna cocked at an uncanny angle, leaning hard to the left like an old man leaning on a wall. the fire crackle of an AM station. edith piaf warbling, beach boys crooning. i can't find what i'm looking for, as if you come to a garage sale with a purpose...and a small but laden grey cloud suddenly sprouts above us. it starts to rain lightly, but the old smoking lady is still sun-bathed, her smoke now overlaid by a romantic sparkle of silver rain, glittering in the sunshine. i can now see that she was once a total babe. the sinews of her arms were once smooth surfaces curving gracefully at angles - clean elbow, the precipitous shelf of a collar bone. those lips once drew attention to themselves, when the smoke would cascade out like a slow-exposure waterfall. and i see her dancing, by herself, holding a glass of wine, standing at a window, the reflection of herself superimposed onto a night dotted by the candles of light from the town below. her reflection adding beauty to the scene, as music filled the room, traced over her shoulders, brushed her hair, and laid its fingers on her collarbones. now she is selling everything.
A great chorus is more than just the bit where the lyrics repeat. This video dives deep into the craft of finding and writing great chorus lyrics. We look at what a great choruses really do (beyond merely repeating), and look deeply at one of the most important concepts in great chorus writing: RECOLOURING. We reveal our favourite writing prompts for getting to a great chorus idea, and play a song that shows these ideas beautifully.
Here is a downloadable PDF of the prompts that you can use…forever!
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.
If you’re already familiar with Sense Writing (aka Object Writing), feel free to skip ahead to the prompts below. If Sense Writing is new to you, here’s a little primer.
What is Sense Writing?
Sense Writing is a timed 10-minute writing exercise, in which you take a prompt, and use that prompt as a gateway into whatever association arises for you based on the prompt. It is like free-writing, in the sense that you write continuously for 10 minutes, without editing yourself, and without ‘writing lyrics’. So no rhyme, no rhythm. Just sentences. The difference between Sense Writing and free writing is that in Sense Writing, you stay focused on using the senses to describe the scene, situation, or moment that arises in response to the prompt.
Sense Writing is based on lyric writing teacher Pat Pattison’s ‘Object Writing’. You can explore it in more detail here.
Why Sense Writing?
Sense Writing is the single most useful writing exercise that I have ever come across in my life as a songwriter. I use it on days when I have no idea what to write about. I use it when I’m in the middle of a song, and I’m looking for lyrics to furnish a particular idea. Sense Writing has the beauty of being a tool you can always default to when looking for ideas, as well as being a tool that strengthens your ability to convert ideas into specific, sensory imagery. And, it only takes 10 minutes or less.
Starting with objects is a good strategy, as it keeps you grounded in the physical world. As you progress, dip into the prompts in other categories, understanding that the goal is ALWAYS to use the prompt as a springboard into a specific scene, situation, or moment, and to use vivid, descriptive sense-bound language to explore that moment in writing.
Can songwriting actually be taught? Can your lyrics actually improve, or are you just born Bob Dylan?
Author Ann Patchett beautifully writes: “Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?” Great writers know that while we must always “leave room for the acts of the spirit” (as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it), that there are a set of tools, techniques, strategies, methods and ways of understanding language that can systematically improve how we express whatever we want to express.
In my lyric-writing life, there are a handful of very simply and incredibly effective techniques, that once learned, made my songwriting drastically improve. Within a few years of using them, I could count John Mayer and Pat Pattison as two of my mentors, and was on the Songwriting faculty at the Berklee College of Music. It has been my life mission since learning these to pass them on to others. I hope you’ll join me on Monday as I go deeply into the first of these transformative principles of great lyric writing.
Lyric Writing Masterclass—Monday March 16 6pm (Sydney AEDT)
Many years ago, while living in LA, I heard a Big Shot Industry Dude (cue Beethoven’s 5th…) say:
“Songs shouldn’t have metaphors in them. I can’t think of a good song that has a metaphor.”
To my great relief, and with a giddy sort of rebellious delight, all of us songwriters gathered afterward, as if we all had sticky, sweet metaphors stashed in our pockets the whole time, and murmured things like “What was he talking about?”, or more generously, “Maybe he doesn’t know what a metaphor is…?”
I have come to think that it’s probably the latter. Metaphor, I am happy to report, is alive an well in songwriting, whether we’re talking about popular contemporary writing, or just beautiful writing in any era, any genre. Metaphor can be gently weaved into the fabric of a song, giving it glimmers of certain colors and textures as the song turns in the sun; or a song can be entirely based on one central metaphor, whose imagery completely defines the entire song.
Let’s take the first example here, ‘Rocket Science’, by Lori McKenna (and I could honestly talk for hours about the songwriting craft of Lori McKenna—she is amazing. If you want to know an album to ‘study’ the craft of songwriting, listen to ‘Numbered Doors’. Holy moly.) Here are the lyrics to the chorus:
Love is rocket science What comes up it must come down In burning pieces on the ground We watch it fall Maybe love is rocket science after all
The chorus itself starts out with the most direct statement of the central and primary metaphor of the whole song: love is rocket science. The first thing to note is that all the language in the chorus is related to rockets and science; every line here is an extension of that central metaphor. Once we’ve noticed that, we end up seeing it woven through the entire lyric. Here are the first two verses:
They say it ain’t complicated Any fool can understand Until the fuse is lit and It blows up in your hand
It all looks good on paper Step by step, you follow the plan In the sky watch the desperate vapor Til it blows up in your hand
The language in bold here is what Pat Pattison would call language ‘in the key’ of the metaphor. And the rest of the song has the same quality; the verses and bridge all contain language drawn from the palette of rockets, space, and science gone wrong.
But the far more important thing to notice is the very first line of the song, because it is the connection point between the metaphor and what the song is really about: “They say it ain’t complicated”. The point of the song is that love IS complicated, just like rocket science. This is where all the magic of metaphor happens: in the overlapping area between rocket science and love: IT IS COMPLICATED. IT CAN GO TERRIBLY WRONG. And finally…it’s still worth it in the end.
The reason this metaphor song works is because there is enough material in the overlap between the metaphor (rocket science) and the topic (love), and that is the key to a metaphor idea that has enough DNA to be the basis for an entire lyric. Some metaphors do not; they are interesting, descriptive and colorful—”her haircut was a church; she became sombre and restrained under its angles and spires”; “the conversation was a river; it flowed on the surface, but I was drowning in the undercurrent of tension”—but not expansive enough to describe a theme or topic for a whole song.
DESIGNING YOUR OWN DIRECT METAPHOR SONG
1. Pick one of the following themes or topics (or choose one of your own):
LOVE, WAR, LOSING A PARENT, AMBITION, GROWING UP, CLIMATE CHANGE, NOT GETTING WHAT YOU WANT, GETTING OLDER.
2. From the following list of nouns, try a number of ‘X is Y’ combinations.
Love is a traffic jam. Growing up is a spaghetti western. Climate change is a language.
Already your metaphor brain is buzzing with possibilities and ideas.
3. Taking your one metaphor, spend 5 minutes generating at least 5 different ‘connection points’, or ‘linking qualities’. That is: what are 5 different ways that your metaphor connects to your topic?
For example: Growing old is a church.
1. It is dark, empty, moldy, lonely…
2. It is bright, full of friends, and sacred…
3. It forces you to examine the life you have lived…
4. It becomes a mere recitation of habit…
5. It has a complex architecture…
A good metaphor song will have ONE MAIN connection point. There may be other related ways that you explore the connection, but they should be related to each other. So I wouldn’t be trying, in the same song, to say that growing old is both ‘dark and lonely’ as well as ‘bright and sacred’. I would pick one—the positive or the negative—and focus on that for this one song.
And then write another song that does the other one (!).
Pro tip: What you decide your ‘connection point’ is can help you to filter the language of the metaphor. For example, if I were using ‘ocean’ as a metaphor, with the connection point of it being ‘open, wide, adventurous’, then I might end up with words like:
5. Spend 10 minutes exploring your topic (growing up) using language in the key of the metaphor.
Try to explore the nooks and crannies of your topic by being specific, situational and personal. You are on the lookout for unusual and unexpected ways that connect your metaphor and your topic, so go exploring!
Growing old is a church—as my grandmother grew into her last years, her body became a complex architecture of illness; its sharp edges thrusting through her veins and cells; her mind became a dusty hallway that echoed with ghosts…etc. But the building is not the belief. Her body was sick, but she was more than just the creaking doors and echoing halls. The knowledge, wisdom, and experience of her life had been transmitted out to us, her family, and I can still recite the lessons learned, like passages from a sacred text…etc
6. Build a Chorus idea, using an ‘X is Y’ statement.
It may turn out that your ‘X is Y’ metaphor statement is not your first, primary metaphor that you started with, but something more interesting that emerged in Step 5. For example, my chorus might be built on this ‘X is Y’ idea (or in this case ‘X is NOT Y’):
She is more than creaking doors
Her life is louder than these empty halls…
A great example of this is Belief, by John Mayer. The primary metaphor of the song is something like “belief is a war,” but we never hear that statement. What we do hear are the secondary, or related, metaphors that use language ‘in the key’ of war:
Is there anyone who really recalls Ever breaking rank at all For something someone yelled real loud one time?
Belief is a beautiful armor
But makes for the heaviest sword Like punching underwater You never can hit who you’re trying for
[belief is] the chemical weapon For the war that’s raging on inside
Note that these are mostly verse lyrics, but the idea can be applied to verses or choruses.
I will also write another post soon that gives a lot more detail about writing great Choruses, as well as what makes chorus lyrics and ideas different to verses. Speaking of verses…
7. Build Verse ideas.
Use your favorite ideas and imagery to construct your verses. Just remember: The key to great Direct Metaphor songs is that the metaphor is clear. We know what the metaphor is, and we know what the topic is too. Metaphor isn’t an excuse to be vague. It’s a way to be even more specific and clear about how you want to explain how something feels. So make sure that you are still being clear about what the situation is, what you’re actually talking about, and how you feel about it.
Almost all songwriters I know experience a type of road block in the process of writing songs. Paradoxically, this block seems to happen when you have a really good idea that you are particularly excited about. Put your hand up if you’ve ever written a verse and a chorus…and can’t seem to write a second verse! (Okay – hands down.) You labor for the next hour, week, month, but everything that comes out feels like you are simply dressing up the same idea in different clothes. Or worse – you are taking off the ball gown and putting on the jeans.
Thanks to ASCAP for once again publishing this article I wrote on two easy strategies for moving beyond the first verse. You can read the article in its entirety at the ASCAP We Create Music Blog.