Process in songwriting – Total Guitar magazine

This article first appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 215, June 2011. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Christian Ward.

Six rules of (fingers and) thumb

Click picture to download pdf of article. Reproduced by permission.

There are no rules in songwriting. It’s your song, and you can do anything you like with it. But! There are principles that occur in a large number of successful songs, and many of the songwriters I teach find these ideas useful when writing new material. They are, in no particular order, Economy, Imagery, Prosody, Universality, Repetition and Originality.

Songs use word economy to communicate lyric ideas. The Beatles’ Yesterday tells an entire story of love, loss and regret in 84 words – and 125 seconds (and it holds the record for the most cover versions of any song in history). Many successful songs start with a killer first line that provides lots of information in a few words. When we hear “Stacey’s Mom has got it goin’ on” (Fountains of Wayne) we know (or guess) that the singer is an American teenager, that he is dating a girl called Stacey, that he’s in love with her mother, and that the mum knows nothing about it.  Not bad in seven words.

Illustration - Christian Ward

Music fans listen with their imagination as well as their ears – and lyric imagery is one of the most useful tools we have in stimulating it. So if you say “I met a girl in a night club” you’re halfway to telling the story, but if you add detail you get “I met her in a club down in old Soho / where you drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola” (from the Kinks’ classic Lola – TG205). We see a picture in our minds when we hear this lyric. We also get an inkling of the narrator’s naivety – he’s never been to a bar and doesn’t know why the drinks taste funny.

You can write perfectly good lyrics without using imagery, but a few choice visuals can work wonders in helping fans to remember your song. And images can also be used as metaphor. In Biffy Clyro’s God & Satan, when Simon Neil sings “the see-saw snaps and splinters your hand”, he’s talking about life’s balance between good and evil, not about a children’s playground. But if he’d just sung “when your life doesn’t work out as you hoped” the lyric would have been much weaker.

Prosody is a catch-all term to describe music and lyric working together to give meaning for the listener. If your chorus says “I Predict A Riot” it’s pretty unlikely that you’re going to accompany it with delicate open-tuned fingerstyle guitar and a tempo of 60 beats per minute – the feeling of the lyric doesn’t go with the music. Conversely, “You never close your eyes any more when I kiss your lips” (from You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling) is such a tender image that you won’t want amps up to 11 and a Screamo vocal.

Some songwriters believe that melody and lyric are even more closely related – that positive lyrics go with rising melodies and negative ones with descending melodies. There are plenty of classics that disprove this theory, of course, but again it’s surprising how often you find really successful songs following the ‘rule’. And while we’re at it, have you noticed that the chorus melody is almost always higher-pitched than the verse? It makes people want to join in and tells them that this is the ‘point’ of your lyric.

To state the obvious, successful song lyrics appeal to lots of people – this is often described as Universality. It’s no accident that more than 80% of the biggest hits of all time are about love and relationships, because it’s something that all humans relate to. But it’s not all hearts and flowers. Elbow’s One Day Like This suggests that if we can all just feel good about ourselves for one day, we’ll put up with the rest of life’s troubles (and the chorus opens with the wonderful image “throw those curtains wide”). And listen to Lennon’s Imagine – who wouldn’t agree that there should be more love in the world?

Repetition! What is it good for? Absolutely everything! Say it again. It might not seem terribly ‘clever’ to simply repeat the title in your chorus, but it’s amazing how well this simple device can work.

Perhaps the most difficult part of songwriting is achieving originality. As listeners, we need to hear that quirky extra ingredient – the sound, riff, melody, chord pattern or lyric we haven’t heard before. Over to you.

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Harmonic Rhythm in Songwriting

I originally wrote this article for Total Guitar magazine. It appears in issue TG214 (May 2011) and it is reproduced here by permission.

Download pdf – TG214-harmonic-rhythm

Put some rhythm in your rhythm

It could be said that songs (as distinct from recordings) consist of only three things – melody, lyric and chords. Today we’re going to focus on the use of guitar chord changes in the songwriting process, and how you can use them to make your songs communicate more powerfully.

When you’re adding chords to a new song, you get to decide on the chord root (C, G, Eb, F# or whatever), the chord type (major, minor, m7, 7flat9 etc) and when in the song each chord change should happen. The first two are pretty easy to explain and to use – every guitarist has a chord vocabulary, and if you want to use new and exotic chords, you can either consult a chord book or make up shapes by trial-and-error.

It’s the placement of each chord that sometimes takes a bit more work. Many new songwriters change the chords every bar, on the bar. They strum a chord for two or perhaps four beats, then move onto the next chord. Sometimes the whole song consists of the same four-chord loop over and over – well-trodden paths include Am-G-F-G, C-G-Am-F, Am-C-G-D or even the old 1950s staple C-Am-F-G. Using the same chord loop throughout is a perfectly good way of writing a song, and includes four-chord classics such as Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower, U2’s With Or Without You, Ben E King’s Stand By Me and Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, but it’s not the only option. The simplest change you can make is to vary the loops, using a different sequence for verse and chorus e.g. Green Day’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams uses (capo 1st fret) Em-G-D-A for the verse, then C-G-D-Em for the chorus.

Illustration - Christian Ward

And chords don’t always have to change on the barline – you can do it any beat of the bar. One method that songwriters use to spice up a sequence is to include an additional chord change on the half-bar i.e. beat 3 if you’re in 4/4 time. Say you’ve decided you’re going to write a 4/4 verse section that uses the chords of E, G, D and A. The most obvious starting point would be to strum each chord for a bar each, creating a four-bar loop that you’d then repeat. So let’s try a few variations. Strum the E for two bars, the G for one bar, then the D and A for two beats each. Not only is this less predictable, it’s more likely to encourage your brain to write a more interesting melody. Here’s another variation. Strum the E for three beats, then change to the G on the count of four and throughout the second bar (this is sometimes called a ‘push’ chord change). Then play the D chord from the start of bar 3, changing to the A only for the final two beats of bar 4.

The term we use to refer to how often the chords change is called ‘harmonic rhythm’, and it’s a very useful tool for the songwriter because it is one of the ways we control the listener’s sense of ‘pace’ and momentum in the song. To go back to Boulevard… as an example, both chord loops are played as half-bar changes, or two beats per chord. At the end of this chorus there’s a surprise for the audience as the song includes a B major chord for two whole bars – which adds to the drama of a melodic change combined with the emotionally powerful lyric “Til then I walk alone”.

Changing the harmonic rhythm at the start of a chorus can help to show the listener that they’re hearing a new section; typical techniques include moving from half-bars to whole-bar changes, or from whole-bar changes to two-bar changes, or vice versa. Clapton’s Tears In Heaven uses half-bar changes (with occasional whole bars) in the verses, then switches to whole-bar changes throughout the chorus, supporting the change of mood provided by the self-reflective lyric “I must be strong…”. This ‘gear-shift’ effect can be equally effective at the start of bridge section or even a guitar solo.

Generally, the faster the harmonic rhythm, the more momentum the section will have. For example, the Rolling Stones use 2-bar changes (verse) followed by 1-bar changes (chorus) in Satisfaction, but take the exact opposite approach in Sympathy For The Devil.

Every song has its own signature harmonic rhythm, and controlling it in your songwriting can add a powerful weapon to your arsenal of techniques. Ready… aim… strum!

Live blogging Eurovision 2011

Blog complete – if you’re reading this there’s no need to hit ‘refresh’ now.

21:58 All complete – my top 3
I’m going to stop updating this post now and watch the voting. I’ve not predicted the winner accurately for many years; my last success was Denmark’s Wings of Love in 2000 (I wasn’t blogging back then so you’ll have to take my word for it!) but at least my top few have never got ‘null points’.
So I’m going to commit to a top 3, and will leave this post up in its unedited form, so that my utter wrong-ness can be preserved for posterity.
  1. Iceland – Coming Home
  2. Estonia – Rockefeller Street
  3. Denmark – New Tomorrow
21:53 Georgia – One More Day