Bill's Songwriting Page!

"The whole songwriting process is very, very mysterious. Most songwriters don't know how it works..."
-Nick Lowe

Coming up with a solid theory about the Beach Boys' SMiLE album was easy compared with coming up with a way to write good songs but I've had some success as of late. Here's what works for me're pretty much on your own with the lyrics. Keep in mind that the type of music aimed for is strictly pre-psychedelic sixties surf style garage beat folk rock r&b rockabilly girl group a go go. Some very parsed quotes from notable songsmiths are presented to spice things up a little.

1) Sometimes before you begin you have a general idea of the style of song you feel like attempting. Sometimes you're inspired by one song in particular or a certain musical genre. You may want to get in the proper mood by doing a bit of listening before you start or by playing a few examples of the chosen music on an instrument. Many songwriters essentially rewrite, and hopefully improve on, existing songs and styles.

"I was getting paid--which I thought I was privileged to--to learn a craft. That's how things were in those days. They didn't think (song) writers could come out of anywhere. What they thought you had to do was start a school for them..."
-P.F. Sloan

"We (Sloan and Barri) spent two years straight working together. We wrote hundreds of songs. We were the Goffin and King of the West Coast follow-ups. We'd be given a list on Monday morning by Lou Adler with 30 names on it of the groups who needed follow-ups to their hits. We were in the studio for five hours every day, just me and him doing demos....The record companies wanted the follow-up to sound exactly like the hit. It had to be virtually the same song, but set in a different way; the same changes even, because they were looking for a follow-up, not a new direction. So we were limited in that direction. So we wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs, and none of them were recorded. Not a one."
-P.F. Sloan

"He (John Lennon) said, 'The Beatles were based on one idea -- to improve our record collection. We would take favorite records and then make better versions of them. We stopped being a group when we stopped trying to improve on records we liked.'"
-Kim Fowley

'"Woody (Guthrie) had told him (Bob Dylan), "Just write. Don't worry where the tune comes from. I just pick up tunes I heard before and change them around and make them mine. Put in a couple of fast notes for one slow one, sing a harmony note 'stead of melody, or a low note for a high one, or juggle the rests and pauses--and you got a melody of your own. I do it all the time."'
-from the book DYLAN by Anthony Scaduto

"We stopped being a band when we stopped going into record stores and stopped trying to improve on our favorite singles."
-John Lennon

2) The first thing I do is to come the main vocalist's part. You start with just the rhythm. Tap out a rhythm for the vocal part without any notes attached. This ingredient is what's missing from so much music these days. Try tapping out the vocal parts to some songs you like to get the general idea. The pattern should have some varied dynamics & not be boring, it should move you, and it should make sense timing wise & not seem too disjointed. You want to work in complete phrases or 'sentences' so that the pattern represents a complete rhythmic thought.

"A melody goes in little rhythms..."
-Brian Wilson

"Many times the starting point of a (Beatles) song is a basic piece of rhythm...."
-Hunter Davies, Beatles biographer

3) The next thing done is to play the rhythmic sentence out on a single note. This reinforces the rhythm pattern and gives you the basic starting point for a melody. Don't worry, you can always add some more involved melodic touches later on when you have a better feel for the song. Some folks might want to add some lyrics at this point. What's great about the one note thing is that it's very basic, direct, and it allows you to pick & choose any backing pattern of chords & rhythms that you deem suitable. A fuller melody would limit you at this point.

"...But "Tutti Frutti" or "Long Tall Sally" is pretty avant garde. I met an old avant-garde friend of Yoko's in the Village the other day who was talking about "one note," and "didn't Dylan sing one note?"--like he's just discovered that. That's about as far out as you can get."
-John Lennon


"...they're listening to your voice slappin' a lot of words together, and you can run 'em together, you can do most anything you want with it, long as you've got that hard driving beat."
-Malcolm Yelvington, quoted in Go Cat Go!

"'Man, it took me all night to figure out how to say: "Bo-Didd'ley-bought-his-babe a-di'mond-ring", because that's where it got tricky! At first, I was sayin': "Bo Diddley, he bought his baby...", you know, an' that just didn't fit. Took all damn night before I finally stumbled upon it."
-Bo Diddley

4) Once the meter of the melody line is done you can add a few notes or keep things on the single note. Try not to get too carried away at this point because you can always add more notes later.

"Many times the starting point of a (Beatles) song is a basic piece of rhythm; then words are fitted to it so that the rhythm, which originally consisted of only three or four notes, can be gone over and over and developed, either in the head or on piano."
-Hunter Davies, Beatles biographer

5) The next step is to find chords to back to the one or more note vocal pattern. I like to think of it as searching for the secret formula that raises the song to another level or what Arthur Koestler would call the "mediating matrix." You get to not only select the chords but also how they are timed. You can add silent parts, stops & starts. You can choose blues chords or pop chords. You can choose chords that add or ease tension, that meander or resolve. Is the backing going to be blues or pop, major or minor? Instead of playing a I, IV and V progression try playing IV, V and I. Try anything you can think of and choose the backing chord pattern that works best for you, is right for the music you're working on, and is likely to please listeners.

"The essence of the aesthetic experience consists, as I have tried to show, in intellectual illumination---seeing something familiar in a new, significant light; followed by emotional catharsis---the rise, expansion, and ebbing away of the self-transcending emotions. But this can happen only if the matrix which provides the 'new light' has a higher emotive potential or 'calory value'; in other words, the two matrices must lie on an ascending gradient."
-Arthur Koestler from The Act Of Creation.

"There's a lot of songs giving juice and it's really incredible to find out what it is that's the juice giver. It's a chord sometimes. It's the offbeat chord change...."
-P.F. Sloan

"Steve (Barri) always said, 'I can't play an instrument, but I can play the ukulele,' and he knew two chords. So all of his songs would have two chords in them. I would take the two chords and say, 'How about if we through three chords in between your G and D. How about it if we put in a B minor and an E minor and an A minor and a C? It was very difficult at that time, because I was so overloaded with inspiration. And if one line didn't work, I would find one line that did. I would work 18, 20 hours, if that's what it took to ring off some electrical charge in him. So we would go, 'That's it! That's the formula minus the formula plus creativity plus inspiration plus magic. That's it!'"
-P.F. Sloan


Oddly enough I like to misuse the term "R & B" to illustrate this process. "R" is for the rhythm of the vocal part and "B" is for the backing that fills out the song.


That's all for now folks!