I’ve been around music and songwriters – creators – all my life. I married a musician who is also a songwriter so I know about the creative processes. From the time a song finds voice on a piece of paper to the finished record in a store, I have been involved. My husband and I managed songwriters, artists, and record producers so, although I am not a songwriter I know about song-writing; having said that I have added to songs, and I’ve written a few lines here and there when someone has been stuck. Picking great songs has been my living for more years than I care to count.
Song-writers are born in my experience. You are either gifted or you are not I think. Yes, the basics of how to structure the song, how to ensure it is not too long (for radio and a single), how to make sure the chorus has a good hook and that what we call the ‘middle eight,’ – the bridge where the song changes pitch and momentum – comes at the right time, adding interest and ‘feel’, can be taught, but I don’t think you can teach magic. The magic that comes as a song is being written and suddenly it is all there…as if from fresh air.
Most songs follow the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight format. It can be explained why you shouldn’t have long instrumental introductions; for example, why the song should start as soon as possible – four bars is enough – or why the guys at radio won’t play it. Having worked closely with record companies and the radio stations who were pushing my act’s songs, I know they expect certain mixes and lengths in order for them to play a track.
Most songs need to get to the chorus within about a minute maximum, the bridge as soon as possible after the second chorus, thus, when writing a song the songwriter needs to have an idea of the structure and length of the song before music is added. The song needs to build to add interest and then end on a high leaving the listener feeling they want more. Just like an author might end a chapter with a ‘cliff-hanger’. The song should evoke emotions and a reaction. Three to three-and-a-half-minutes is the preferred length for a single, or what we would recognize as a single, even in these days of downloads and internet music sites. This format enables radio stations to know where they are with the track; they can feature their adverts into a programme based on the number of minutes taken up with the music and the DJ chat.
These days music stations play music to make a break between the adverts. The adverts pay for the station, unless you are the BBC of course. I am sure that radio is still a big influence in what people purchase and therefore you need to keep them in mind when writing and recording.
A song written for a single should not be an excuse to showcase someone’s drumming ability with a drum solo stuck in it for no reason. It is not a place for the guitarist to go off on a long solo either, just for the hell of it. Save that for the concept album. The single is a ‘taster’ – it is the ‘come and buy me’ trailer for the album. The singer is there to sell the song. The song will sell the singer providing that the singer has a voice which is instantly recognizable and has something unique about it. There is one Steven Tyler, one Adele, one Taylor Swift and only one Shania Twain; copy-cat singers last five minutes. Those with distinct voices can have a long career.
Not all song-writers are musicians and so they might need to collaborate with a ‘composer’ – such a stuffy word – someone to put the words to music. Of course it doesn’t always happen this way round. Sometimes music comes first and the lyrics are written to fit the music. I have been lucky in that all the artists (singers and bands), I’ve worked with have written their own lyrics and music in the main. Most of the record producers I’ve worked with are also songwriters and musicians, so their approach to song-writing is very different to the approach of those who cannot produce or write their own music.
The songwriter, if he/she is serious about making a success of their career, has to be in tune with trends. Of course it would be wonderful to be an innovator and change the face of music with songs and production such as The Beatles, Nirvana, and Zeppelin for example. But the most successful songwriters aim at a market, knowing their strengths and how to tailor their music and production specifically for it. If the writer is not the artist, but they write for other singers, then they tailor their songs to suit the singers they want to perform their songs, and the production on their demos to appeal to their publisher, and then artist’s record company who will most likely pick the songs for the singer’s album, and their potential singles most of all. If there is an A&R (artist and repertoire) person, from the record company involved they may well be going round publishers looking for material for their artist to record.
Radio has been until recently, the ultimate entity to please. If radio ‘doesn’t like it,’ if the song doesn’t fit their station ‘identity,’ they will not play a record. Of course, things are different now with downloads when every songwriter, artist, and performer, can release their own songs and by-pass radio and all the conventional methods of getting heard. Yet, I still maintain the same rules apply to the whole process of creation. If the song doesn’t have a strong storyline, a great catchy hook which leaves the listener wanting more, there will not be a long career for either the songwriter or the performer.
Even in this world of downloads this criteria must still apply – you need to hook your listener at the get-go; not five minutes after the track has started.
Working with songwriters on a daily basis for more years than I care to remember has been a fascinating experience and no two writers work the same way. I have worked with a fourteen and sixteen-year-old who also produced their own first album with virtually nothing ever altered. Even when the record company got involved and sent someone from their Artist and Repertoire department to ‘over-see’ the final mixes, she couldn’t come up with anything to improve the songs or the recording. She found it hard to believe that two youngsters had met every night after school to write songs, and that the fourteen year old wrote the lyrics and her boyfriend wrote the music.
This particular artist was a singer of extraordinary talent and her song-writing partner was a multi-instrumentalist who could play virtually every instrument they had on their album. She was also a musician, and played guitar and piano as well. He also did all the engineering and production on the album. Sometimes she would write the lyrics first, and he would come up with the melody and tunes using keyboards to compose the actual music. They would record it in the studio where he worked after school, the owner allowing them to ‘mess around,’ as he called it, ‘in downtime.’
They were born songwriters. Not created. These two went on to have several successes in the USA and also wrote songs and music for television, movies and later, other artists. Something they’d never dreamed of when collaborating in their school uniforms. They worked with major songwriters collaborating on a couple of songs on their albums; record companies love to have a ‘name’ songwriter or producer work on some of the tracks, often a first single, especially for an unknown or up-and-coming artist. It gives credibility and a whole ready-made audience at radio and people will buy if there is a familiar, much loved, name attached. Same goes for having a ‘name’ producer on the tracks, and a ‘name’ mix engineer. Mutt Lange, Humerto Gatica, David Foster, and many too numerous to name – they all bring credibility to an artist by way of their involvement. I’ve been lucky to have worked with Humberto amongst many others.
Watching someone work on songs for an artist, especially a songwriter who has written songs for super-star performers such as Streisand, Bowie, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown and Michael Jackson, for example, is an awesome experience. More often than not, they start off on a piano or guitar, just tinkering around. In the case of someone who is only a composer they might get someone else write the lyrics; this person might hum along, pen and paper at the ready, scribbling down ideas and words: sometimes randomly. I’ve been lucky to have had songs written for my artists’, by Diane Warren, Derek Brambles, Brad Buxer and may others.
Words and music come as if from nowhere – I’ve always maintained that. Just as an author sits with a blank page or screen and suddenly ideas flow and the words come, so it is with songwriters. A couple of words turn into a possible chorus, long before a verse is thought of. The song might just be a lot of dummy words, such as The Beatles used to write initially, just to get the flow and rhythm of the piece, and then the real work begins on honing words to create a story. One important thing to remember about lyrics; they do not need to rhyme and so it is not necessary to turn the song into a poem by having the ends of each line rhyme. However, simple is always best. No long flashy words.
The song may come quickly in minutes, or it might take hours. There is no telling. No-one can tell if it is a hit or not until it has been recorded and produced, but there is a little tingle sometimes which indicates it might well be a winner. Playing a track back in the studio when everyone present gets this little zing, is an amazing experience. Playing it to the A&R guys as a finished product is always nerve-wracking, but I can remember one producer dancing around the studio with the A&R guy, shouting at the top of his voice, ‘it’s a hit, it’s a hit,’ and it was!
Mind you this particular A&R person had complained endlessly about ‘the horns’ not being ‘right.’ When asked to elaborate they couldn’t, but insisted they wanted the horns altered. This person went off for a few hours and when they came back and listened to what they thought were the ‘altered’ horns, they jumped for joy telling us that we had done exactly what they wanted. Actually we’d done nothing; not altered a thing. We all felt so strongly that the ‘horns’ were just perfect and no-one wanted to change them at all. The A&R person didn’t have a clue. Be prepared to humour the record company now and again, and play the game; we proved this person hadn’t a clue what they were on about and they never found out that we had left the track exactly as we wanted it, as it was originally.
Knowing the market and the targeted performer you want to write for helps a great deal. If you write rock songs and have someone in mind, who is already established, then tailor the song to suit their music, their usual production and of course, the vocalist. It is no good writing an R&B ballad for a heavy rock band and from the female perspective, if the lead singer is a male. Having said that a really good song can be covered in any genre and of course, the production and arrangements can be altered to suit it, in most but not all cases. I am reminded of a band years ago, from the Speed Metal era – their songs could never be rearranged and produced in any other genre. But if pitching a song to an artist, remember to demo it the way they’d want to play it if they decided to accept it.
Diane Warren – I mentioned earlier – who has also written songs for my artists, is one of the most prolific and successful female songwriters of all time. She had female artists in mind when she wrote the huge R&B and Pop ballads, and she knew who she was targeting, which made them successful. Listen to the lyrics and you will hear that she tells a story in her songs. Dolly Parton has written some of the biggest hits ever, not just for herself in Country music, but in Pop and R&B, and she collaborated with The Bee Gees and others, on songs you might not have associated her or them with. Again, every song tells a story – a story the listener can relate to – a song which whenever you hear it, transports you back to a time, place, and situation. A song which means something to you – the lyrics speak to you.
Versatility is the key if you are going to write songs for others to perform. A great songwriter can turn their hand to any genre.
Of course if you write for yourself or your band, then you will need to find your own ‘voice’ and identity which you will become associated with. It is no good sounding like everyone else and writing lyrics which don’t relate to your own musical genre and generation. Most of my artists wrote their own songs and these were part of their image and who they were as artists, and where they fitted in their musical genre. I cannot imagine any other performers covering my Thrash Metal act’s songs, unless there is a new wave of Thrash Metal! However, a great song is a great song and can be performed by anyone if re-arranged to suit their style – so if you write a song which you think is a rock song and then find that it sounds just as great as a ballad as well, or with a pop edge, then you are indeed lucky. A good song should stand up in its barest form, without instrumentation and production. If you can play it on an acoustic guitar and it sounds like a hit, then whatever arrangement and production you end up with should just enhance it.
In all probability your song will outlive you. Rod Stewart has recorded some of the great songs of the twentieth century giving them a new lease of life, and songwriters like Gershwin and Berlin would be thrilled to bits I am sure, to hear their material given a complete make-over.
This is not intended to be the definitive ‘how to write a song’ article. I don’t think there is any right way to go about it anymore than there is a right or wrong way to create a piece of art, or write a book. I do know a great song when I hear it or see it written down in its rawest state, and I know a bad one for the same reasons. Production and arrangement has a lot to do with it as well as the performance, and these can either enhance or ruin a great song. Getting the best out of a song with arrangement, performance, and production is a whole different ball game. There is the belief that you cannot shine ****, but believe me, it is not totally impossible. The same applies to a bad singer or musician – there are ways and means. If forced into getting a decent record out of someone who cannot sing or play their instruments, it can be done. Thank great record producers and technology for that.
If you are thinking about writing a song, do consider all the points I have made and then try it. Decide what sort of song you want to write, what genre and market you’re aiming at and whom you might like to sing it, if it is not for you to perform – and then have a go. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Besides, it is great fun and very satisfying, even if you are the only person who ever gets to sing it or hear it.
Jane Risdon is a crime/mystery writer who spent most of her adult life in the international music business managing recording artists, song-writers, and record producers, before achieving a life-long ambition to write and be published. She has achieved both ambitions.
She has worked with some of the biggest names in the music business and has travelled extensively, living all over the world working with Chinese and Asian, as well as European, Australian and American artists, record labels, and publishing companies. Her artists and writers have had their music on successful movie and television soundtracks. They’ve had chart hits in America and throughout China, Taiwan, and Indonesia, Malaysia and South America, and many other countries. She has managed actors in Australian soaps and Singaporean musicals, but her main expertise has been in most types Rock and R&B/Pop, although she has worked with Opera singers including Chinese Opera.