Tonight’s guest blog post is brought to you by short story author Jane Risdon.
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, 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. 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. 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, that the song should start as soon as possible – four bars is enough – or the guys at radio won’t play it. Most songs need to get to the chorus within about a minute, the bridge as soon as possible after the second chorus, and so when writing a song, the songwriter needs to have an idea of the structure and length of the song when 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. Radio stations know where they are with the track and can feature their adverts into a programme based on the number of minutes taken up with the music and the DJ chat.
A song written for a single should not be an excuse to showcase someone’s drumming ability with a drum solo stuck in 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.
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. This does not 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 for example. But the most successful songwriters aim at a market, knowing their strengths. If they are not the artist, but write for other singers, then they tailor their songs to suit the market, the singers they want to perform their songs and most of all, Radio. Radio has been until recently, the ultimate entity to please. If Radio ‘doesn’t like it’, the song doesn’t fit their station identity, and they will not play a record. Of course, things are different now with downloads and 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.
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 and virtually nothing was 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 she – the fourteen year old – wrote the lyrics and her boyfriend wrote the music. She was a singer of extraordinary talent and he was a multi-instrumentalist who could play every instrument they eventually 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 a lyric and he would come up with the melody and tunes using his keyboards to write 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.
Some of our artists worked with major songwriters collaborating on their albums since record companies love to have a ‘name’ songwriter or producer work on some of the tracks, and possibly a first single, especially for an unknown or up-and-coming artist. Sitting in a room watching someone work on songs for an unknown (as yet), artist, who has written songs for Streisand, Bowie, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston for example, is an awesome experience. More often than not, they start off on a piano or guitar, just tinkering around and, if they have someone else write the lyrics, this person might hum along, pen and paper at the ready, scribbling down ideas and words: sometimes randomly. 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 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.
Knowing the market and the targeted performer 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, 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. Diane Warren, who has also written songs for my artists, is one of the most prolific and successful female songwriters of all time. She had her female artists in mind when she wrote the huge R&B and Pop ballads which made them successful. Dolly Parton has written some of the biggest hits ever, not just for herself in Country, 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. 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. Some 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 their 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. 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, 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.
(c) Jane Risdon 2013
Thank you, Jane. I’ve been considering writing songs for ages so this is staying near me when I do. 🙂
For the last thirty years Jane Risdon has worked in the International Music Industry as an Artiste Manager, Producer and Music Publisher with her husband who was a professional musician when they met in their teens.
Together they have discovered, mentored and guided the careers of Singers, Bands, Songwriters and Producers all over Europe, the USA and SE Asia as well as the UK, resulting in Chart hits, TV and Movie Soundtracks and numerous other successes, including launching the very first Industry Showcases at the London Hippodrome in the mid 1980’s.
She has lived and worked in Singapore, Taiwan, Germany, USA, as well as Europe and England – working with English, American, European and Chinese artists in all genres of music and in various languages including Mandarin and Cantonese.
Jane has been writing since childhood and has had articles published in the Music Press. Her main genre is Crime writing; mysteries and thrillers – usually with a twist in the tale. At the moment she is writing a crime story, ‘Ms Birdsong Investigates’, which features an ex-MI5 Officer and her new life in a rural Oxfordshire Village. This novel should be completed sometime in 2013.
In addition to this novel she has a series of stories which she describes as Character Based Gentle Humour, called ‘God’s Waiting Room,’ which she hopes will be completed by 2014.
Jane is also co-writing a novel with an award-winning author of over 28 books. It is a change of direction for Jane and as of February 2013 she has completed her parts of the book. Her co-author is completing her parts and then it is off to the agent, possibly mid 2013.
With numerous Short Stories and several Flash Fiction pieces under her belt she is a prolific writer who is yet to publish a book in her own right. However, she has had several short stories published for Charity during the last year including her story, ‘The Look,’ in ‘I am Woman Anthology Volume 1,’ in aid of Breakthrough, Women for Women and Women’s Aid and two stories, ‘The Debt Collector’ and ‘The Ghost in the Privy,’ published in the anthology, ‘Telling Tales,’ in aid of The Norfolk Hospice.
Jane also has written a chapter for a new book project, which features several authors all writing a chapter each, without any idea of what the other has written. She found this great fun and looks forward to reading the finished book. This project is on-going and until all writers have contributed it is unsure when it will be ready for release.
In addition to everything else going on in 2013, she is also writing a Short Story for inclusion in yet another anthology later in 2013. This will be a crime/mystery anthology in aid of a Charity, yet to be disclosed.
Jane has a Blog which is gaining a large following and she writes about things that interest her, her love of photography – always photos to look at – and also anything else which takes her fancy. Many of these articles have humorous content. She is often invited by other authors to be the Guest Blogger on their Blogs.
Jane would like to thank Morgen Bailey for all her support and for publishing her Flash Fiction stories and Short stories, and for inviting her to Guest on her Blog. She wishes her much success with her own novels and Blogs.
And yours, thank you, Jane. You can find out more about Jane and her writing from…
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