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I use the notes below as "bullet points" for talking over during songwriting workshops. They are in no way exhaustive, and they represent a mixture of my own observations and things I was taught by my betters (thanks, Harvey!). I set them out here in the hope that they may help others.

  • Be clear about your own objectives/reasons for wanting to write a song.
  • Poor Objectives: Fame, Fortune, Helping the World understand You.
  • Good: Convey a viewpoint; pass a message (careful about preaching); teach (careful about preaching); describe a situation, sing someone's praises.
  • Brilliant: Write the songs you want to hear; the songs you wish someone had written.

  • Be clear about who your audience is, put yourself in their shoes.
  • Be surprised, like your audience, at the situations you describe; it will help you find the right words.
  • Reduce every situation to a single point/message; don't try to do too much with one song.

  • Hah! If only I knew the answer…
  • FEEL; strong feelings suggest themes.
  • Be observant; look for the important and unusual happening around you.
  • Reduce every observation to a single point/message; is that message worth telling ?
  • Empty your mind, think only of that single message/point. What are the implications? See it from varying angles; what does it mean to different people?
  • Think: Has this point been made in other songs? If so, what are you going to add ?
  • Let the tune suggest a theme to you (empty mind most important here).
  • Let the lyrics suggest a tune to you.
  • Unusual chord sequences can be a source of inspiration - experiment with different rhythms on the same chords until something "breaks out".

    Lyrics or tune first?
  • Depends on your own tendencies. Generally speaking, if words come easier to you, start with the lyrics; if you play an instrument, tunes probably come easier. But try both ways.
  • The rhythm of a tune will suggest the meter of the lyrics.
  • The reverse does not always apply (but when it does, it gives the best results).

    Telling the story
  • Try to "paint pictures" for the audience.
  • Don't be too prescriptive in telling the story; allow the audience room to fill the gaps - and so, to participate and make the song "theirs".
  • Avoid first person ("I", "Me", "Mine"), if you can, at least at first; it can lead you to personalising a song too much and even alienate audiences, blocking them from getting involved. Having said that, there IS a place for songs in the first person ("Yesterday…").
  • Don't tell your audience the concluding "lesson" - allow them to arrive there themselves.
  • A strong beginning to the story telling grabs the interest. And that means saying as much as possible with the fewest possible words .
  • There must (usually) be a conclusion to your story. Criterion: It should be impossible to continue the story telling after the last verse.
  • Every verse must have a purpose in the story telling. Verses that simply reiterate points made earlier are redundant and should disappear. There should be structure to the story.
  • The story structure will be mostly serial. Other structures are possible too, but flashbacks can be hard to make work (though "Anderson's Coast" works beautifully!).

    The "Hook"
  • It is the short piece of lyric, or the short musical phrase, that will grab people's imagination and they will remember the song from that.
  • Lyric "hooks" can be commonplace phrases or popular sayings, rarely more than three words long ("no, nay, never"); single words ("Yesterday"); or strong picture-forming phrases ("Where ravens feed").
  • Musical "hooks" are rarely more than 3-4 notes long ("She loves you - Yeh, yeh, yeh").

    The Lyrics
  • Do use rhyming - good non-rhyming songs are hard to write unless you are Leonard Cohen.
  • Beware of "false rhymes" - those that look good when written, but not when read.
  • Internal rhymes (half-way through lines) enhance the lyrics.
  • Don't alter rhyming schemes from verse to verse.
  • Don't be afraid to use uncommon words (they can become "hooks"!).
  • Use a rhyming thesaurus or websites such as for ideas.
  • Ensure the internal rhythm works - that accents fall on the proper syllables.
  • Ensure the lyrics can be read easily without "clashes" that make them tongue-twisters.
  • The lyrics should be able to read like a poem, following a pattern/rhythm
  • Don't compromise on any of the above - compromises become annoying faults.

    The Music
  • It's OK to plagiarise - but only a little
  • Ideally, the notes corresponding to the accented syllables should be higher than those immediately before or after ("Yes-terday…"). This helps both delivery and the listener.
  • Once you have a lyric, you can use the above rule to help you find an appropriate tune.
  • The first tune you can think of for a lyric, may not be the best - don't get fixed on it.

    Developing as a songwriter:
  • Over time, identify what it is that makes you different as a songwriter (not as a person)
  • What do people like best about your songs? Milk it. But don't actually repeat yourself!
  • Listen to other songwriters, and identify what it is you like about their songs; then try to develop that aspect in your own writing, by practicing.
  • ALWAYS complete a song.
  • NEVER throw anything away.
  • Revisit old "failures" from time to time (at least 6 months later). The tune or lyrics may give rise to new inspiration or you may be able to improve the song.
  • Don't be afraid to venture into new styles/rhythms/patterns. It's part of "growing up" .

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back to the top a life in 4 paragraphs CD, tracklists, lyrics, soundbites where you can see/hear George mugshots and others useful links, addresses etc email George