Like all great musicians, great songwriters are probably born, not made. No tutor, no book, no course, can make you write songs that embed themselves in the memory of a generation and achieve critical as well as commercial acclaim. Only a few people will ever compose songs of the stature of ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Walk On By’ or ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.
Some of us grew up being told these were just pop songs, disposable artifacts to enjoy today and throw away tomorrow. Thirty years on they aren’t looking quite so disposable, and we are beginning to appreciate that the artists who wrote and performed them are maybe not as common as was once assumed.
Even so, you can learn to write good songs, songs that will not only please yourself and your friends but may also please the ears of people in the music industry who need songs for their artists. If you already write songs, there’s always something new to be learned about the craft, an insight or trick to help you improve or try a new avenue.
Inspiration cannot be turned on like a tap. All songwriters with any experience know the difference between writing when inspired and writing to meet a deadline. It can be the difference between sailing a boat with the wind in your sails and rowing the damn thing. But there are certain tricks you can use to try to encourage inspiration, by cultivating a fertile expectancy. This could be a way of putting yourself in the mood, perhaps by listening to music that affects you.
A good songwriter should be able to write a song on order. This can be done purely from craft, even if there isn’t any inspiration at the start. And sometimes a song started in the spirit of trying to bolt one together without a strong inspiration can be transformed and become truly inspired halfway through the process.
Unconscious and Conscious Elements
When a song is taking shape, it is a delicate entity. For many writers it starts as a mood, a feeling. This feeling attaches itself to a chord, a chord sequence, a melody or a rhythm, or a phrase. Suddenly what was ordinary is “ensouled” in some way, like a charged battery. At this point a thousand possibilities hang about the embryonic song. As it is shaped, many subtler choices – some conscious, some unconscious – are made. These choices are part of the craft, and in this area knowledge about songwriting can make a vital difference to the finished song.
A songwriter plays a curious mixture of roles, and different writers identify with these roles in differing amounts. In one way, the songwriter acts as a midwife, bringing into existence something that subjectively feels as though it already has an existence of its own. This is why songwriters, when interviewed, often express the feeling that in some way the song is not really theirs. They speak of trying not to get in the way, of listening for what the song wants, and of not imposing on it and forcing it to take on a form that is alien to it. It is as though the songwriter is a medium or “channel” for the song.
In another way, the songwriter is someone who practises a craft, as a sculptor takes a block of stone and carves it away until a form is realised. This also has its truth. Looked at from this angle, knowledge of songwriting technique is a positive thing because it enables you to surpass your limitations. It will keep you from writing the same song over and over.
You need an awareness of both roles. The “midwife” role will keep you in a frame of mind that is open and prevent too much conscious interference; the “sculptor” role will take a good inspiration and make it better.
The better informed you are, the better able you are to make these choices. This means that instead of doing something too obvious, you come up with a better idea. This is craft, this can be learned, and absorbed so that its operation becomes intuitive. You bring it to bear before the song sets in the mould. Making changes at a later stage can be difficult but listening to great cover versions can be a good guide to the ways in which songs can be changed. Think of Hendrix’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’, Joe Cocker’s ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, Nilsson’s ‘Without You’, or Tori Amos’ ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Compare Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ to the earlier version by Gladys Knight or The Beatles’ ‘Something’ with Shirley Bassey’s.