Stanmore’s Top 5 Songwriting Tips (Pt1)

This list is a collection of songwriting tips I’ve accumulated over my 10+ years of writing, listening, discussing & reading. Where I can remember I will try to reference where I learnt each tip. Every songwriter wants to write more killer & less filler. Hopefully these tips will help you drill some fill from your grill & chill with some dill…

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1) Score Each Word – Take a look at your lyrics, each lyric. Are you happy with every word? If not, why not? Try this: assign a score from 1-10 to each word for how happy you are with it & then adjust each word till they are all 10’s.

You will find that changing one word can lead to other words seeming out of place or not rhyming & it can often be a bit of a balancing act as to getting each passage to relate perfectly to the next passage etc. But you will also find that making some slight adjustments can yield brilliant results. Granted, this can be a time consuming process but for a perfectionist like me, it can really be worth the time.

This tip was given to me by a man named Greg Cameron during my time at Turtlerock Mastering as a mastering engineer. He is a brilliant technician who has worked in many places including Abbey Rd. While this method does work well, I find that for some (myself included) once you have become accustomed to this process, you can simply keep in mind that each word should be worthy for the song while you are writing, you won’t have to go back over each word, & you can instead use the next tip.

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2) Say More With Less Words – If something is implied, do you really need to spell it out? For instance, I had written a line recently in my song called The Postman

Tried to untangle these chords

& the follow line was initially –

I prayed to the gods, but my cries went ignored

Now, while this line is fine, in my opinion, it is pretty much obsolete. Any idiot can tell that if I’ve said “I tried to untangle these chords” it is implied that I was unsuccessful in my untangling ambitions. So to follow that line up with “I prayed to the gods, but my cries went ignored” Is pretty much stating the obvious & I don’t know about you, but I don’t design my music to cater to simpletons. While you may think the line “I prayed to the gods, but my cries went ignored” is an appropriate & powerful line, (& on some levels I agree) to be honest, I just plopped that line in coz I needed a line. So every time I sung the line, it felt a little off & a little fake. It is not what I truly wanted to express. So now I have 2 choices: 1) I can convince myself it’s a good line &/or settle for a line I’m not really happy with or 2) I can augment the line (& if necessary the surrounding lines) until a) it feels harmonious with the spirit of the song & b) I am saying more with less words. So as you can guess, I went with option 2 & here is what I ended up with –

Tried to untangle these chords

But failed with my pen & then failed with my sword

To me, that is a great line & it says a lot more. It implies that I tried various methods to untangle the proverbial chords & it still implies what the original line implied but now it also says so much more. It also manages to rework a popular adage but that is a whole other conversation. The point to take from this is that you CAN say more with less words. Don’t treat your words like you have an unlimited supply, one day you will be dead & no more words will you speak, write or sing. Make the words you get the privilege to string together count. If you try this tip & it’s not working for you, try going back to tip no.1 & breaking things down to a smaller level.

I sort of figured this tip out for myself after learning tip no.1 It is closely related to tip no.1 but I feel that it is different enough to be its own tip.

3) Treat Your Songs Like Experiments – Don’t expect every song to be perfect. Just finish the damn song, & then write ANOTHER SONG. If you’re having trouble getting to the songwriting finish line, I know how you feel, this is a problem I used to run into all the time.

Tips 1 & 2 focus on making your songs better, but there are times when you just have to let a song come out & give the creative process some breathing space. Here’s my problem, I hold myself to a high standard & I feel deep down that I am capable of great work. While this is a great belief to have, it can really be a hindrance when you start telling yourself “This song isn’t there yet, it needs to be perfect.” Sometimes you work on a song for hours & weeks, even months or years & sometimes you may, through sheer persistence get your song to a point where you are satisfied that it’s as good as it’s gonna get. But I’ve often found myself de-motivated & I would end up never finishing the song at all & it would become yet-another unfinished song or worse, I would procrastinate & not work on any song.

If you start writing a song & is not that elusive perfect song you know you have in you somewhere, it’s often in your best interest to just finish the damn song. To drop some old adages “It is what it is” & as snoop would say “you can’t make a hoe a housewife”. My point of course is that if your song is a pretty little ditty, it’s never going to be a rock epic, if it’s a sombre ballad, it’s not gonna make people boogie. I think you get the point, finish the song the-way-it-wants-to-be-written.  You can’t polish a turd but if you finish writing your turd you may find, once the crust has dried & crumbled away that it’s actually better than you thought while you were writing it & hey, end of the day you can always tweak your song in hindsight as you become more familiar with playing it. Worse case scenario, you throw the song away & even in that eventuality, it’s still another song in the bank & I guarantee you will have learned from the experience. You will have a nice clean slate & then, to quote Jack Black, it’s on to the “NEXT SONG!”

Once again, this tip I think I just figured out for myself after years & years of unfinished songs that I wanted to be perfect. AFTER my revelation I seemed to spot this tip all over the place (most recently on the page I linked to above)

4) Take A Brain Dump – Rant away to your hearts content & then pick out the best bits to use for lyrics or a song concept. Do you sometimes find yourself stuck trying to get those few lyrical bits that don’t quite fit to somehow mutate into the perfect words?

I know I used to do this all the time. I used to write every song as it happened ie. I would write out what I thought to be the finalised lyric to be used in the song as I thought of it, structure rhyme, message, everything. Does this sound familiar? One day I got sick of all this intensive back-&-forth & decided I would just do a brain dump & pour everything out of my conscious & sub-conscious mind without paying any heed to rhyme structure or anything else of that nature. After I was done I had verses upon verses & phrases upon phrases, chaotic as they were, they were ammunition. The next day upon re-reading, I found within these fragmented thoughts of mine, some real gold as far as phrases, rhymes, concepts, etc is concerned. I also found recurring themes popping up all over the place. So from this brain dump I was able to harvest material I used in atleast 2 or 3 songs.

On another occasion, I had a concept for a song which ended up being called Selfish Heart I had this concept revolving around a selfish heart but as I had experienced many times before, I had too many thoughts in my head & found it impossible to shape all these thoughts into a cohesive & flowing lyric. So once again I just did a brain dump of all these thoughts, rhyming structure be damned. I found that once again I was able to harvest these lyrics and form a well structured song which I am now happy with. I don’t think I ever would have gotten there had I stubbornly continued to attempt to think my thoughts at the same time as writing them out in a well structured form.

To me  this tip means a lot because from the age of 15 until the age of 24 I had ALWAYS written structurally & creatively at the same time. Why? Well simply because I didn’t know any better. No one told me that there was an alternative & it didn’t bloody occur to me until 9 years later o_O I want to state here that there is nothing wrong with doing both at once. My point is simply that sometimes, it’s too much to process & if you break it down a bit, your thoughts are able to flow a little bit better. I admit that most songs I write nowadays I do both at the same time but if I feel like I just have to get some thoughts out, it’s still a technique I come back to time & time again. Ironically when I told my friend Alison Avron (who did backing vocals on my first EP The Fire) about what to me was an amazing revelation, she simply shrugged it off saying something along the lines of “Oh yeah, I’ve always done that.” So maybe tip no.4 is just common knowledge for all y’all songwriting machines out there… If that’s the case then fear not because tip no.5 is going to tantalize & amaze you.

5) If All Else Fails, Put Your Faith In The Dice – Ever hear of the person, place, action songwriting exercise? If not, you’re in for a treat.

This is my interpretation of a cool concept which is nice & simple at it’s heart. it’s not only an excellent cure for writers block but also a fun exercise for anyone interested in songwriting. (Anyone can write a song, experience be damned, you have to start somewhere.) You just need three lists & a method of choosing one item from each list randomly. List 1 contains people, any kind of person will do. Be as creative as you want with it! If you end up with crazy people like “Arabian Priest with a slurpee” That is fine. By the same token, if you end up with something tame like “15 yr old schoolgirl” that is also fine. List 2 contains places, once again as tame or crazy, as generic or specific as you will. List 3 contains actions.

To illustrate how this works I will provide you with an example. My last list contained the following:

People –

1) Man on fire

2) Astronaut

3) Accountant

4) Bachelor

5) CEO

6) Detective

7) Electrician

8) Florist

9) Gardener

Places –

1) Holocaust Museum

2) Igloo

3) Jumping castle

4) Leura

5) McDonald’s

6) Oktoberfest

7) The Queen Mary II

8) Rock climbing gym

9) Submarine

Actions –

1) Baking a cake

2) Walking a dog

3) Trimming their mustache

4) Waving a flag

5) Dancing

6) Building a table

7) Changing a light bulb

8) Drinking scotch

9) Boarding an aeroplane

So as you can see, I went with the rule of 9, but any number will do. For my random selection I used the last digit from a random number generator hence the choice of 9 in each list. You can just as easily use dice (6 choices in each list) or you can cut out each criteria on slips of folded paper & fish them out of a recepticle. (With this method you can have as few or as numerous for each list as you like.)

Whichever method you use, once you have your three choices you have to write a song based around those choices, no going back & picking again ’til you get the right choice, that just defeats the purpose. My first time I ended up with an Electrician walking his dog on the Queen Mary II. At first glance this can seem restrictive. Especially in my case because I already had the chords & some semblance of a structure worked out. I used this song-writing technique because I had some kind of writers block &  couldn’t figure out what to write my song about. Once I had my guidelines of “man & dog on a big arse boat” I was initially a bit dubious as to whether this technique would work when I already had music that I needed lyrical (& melodic) content to add but I decided to give it my best shot anyway & give the technique a chance. What ended up happening I found pretty amazing.

The chords I had laid out were quite serious & tense sounding, certainly a song about a man walking his dog on a cruise-liner would be a happy song right? Wrong. I started the song with a pun “Trying to stay above board” & from there I painted some imagery about setting sail “I wave to the east as my ship sails forward & I look to the west” I continued this line of thought & eventually found that I had created a story within the confines of “man walking his dog on the queen mary II” The thing I found most fascinating was that I never once mentioned the electrician, nor did I mention the dog & thus was able to write a song which can be interpreted to mean what the listener feels they can relate to from their own experience. Evidently if you’re reading this, you are in on the little secret of what the genesis of that song was. I believe that this does not stop you from enjoying the song’s message.

But I digress… What I initially thought may have beeen a restrictive process of working within a story actually helped me create metaphors & imagery which I otherwise would have been too confused to grasp. By limiting my options of what to write about, I was granted focus. (& staved off one of those songs which seems to meander from subject to subject until we forget what the point was when we started writing it. I’m guilty of many of those :P) Within the confines of this technique I was given direction & direction availed me meaning. A meaning which I hold close to my heart. A man (an electrician) who wishes to escape his life, he seeks this escape by sailing away on a boat (the queen mary II) with his only friend (his dog) & even though he is not allowed to have a dog on-board, he feels he has been pushed too far (by society, by a lover, it doesn’t matter) & resolves to take a stand, walk his dog on the top of the deck & oppose all authority.

Please try this technique, it’s freakin cool fun, it will kill your writers block & you can actually get deep & meaningful results. Of course, if you so wish, you could just write a song about the person/place/action you get in a literal manner, that is fine too (& I believe the intention of the exercise before I perverted it), it depends on your personal style.

This technique I read at this cool blog The Songwriting Scene where you can find a much more concise description of the exercise in its original form.

Some of you may be curious to hear the rest of my lyrics from my first song using this technique, so here they are –

THE POSTMAN

Trying to stay above board
I wave to the east as my ship sails forward
& I look to the west

I tried to untangle these chords
But failed with my pen & then failed with my sword
So I look to the west

I’ve planned an escape through these waters
A means to unplug from these wires
I need just to break through these borders
So we can be free from these lies

I know that you’ll miss the postman
We had some good times though I had a firm hand
& I must have been blessed
To have known you at all

They’ll take you away if they can
‘cept for a shoestring, it’s just us once again
But I have to confess
I think I like it this way

& if they should call I’ll stand before you
I’ll stand between them & you
Because if you should fall
I can’t replace you
I’ll raise you right up off the floor

Tune in next time for Stanmore’s Top 5 Songwriting Tips (Pt2) Where I will share more tips that to me are invaluable.

If you have made it this far, congratulations, you’ve made your way through nearly 3,000 words, why not drop me a comment & let me know your own songwriting tips . If you enjoyed this blog,  rate it, share it with your song-writing followers on twitter or even with your faceCrack buddies.

Keep on writin’.

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