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.
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)
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.