Finally: How to Write a Good Song

Mark_Vickery Mark Vickery

If you’re one of those people who looks for inspiration on how to write a good song from an Internet article — instead of listening closely to some actual good songs or picking up an instrument and seeing what happens — because you think there’s an easy set of rules to follow, you’re in luck: there are. In fact, the rules to writing a good song are incredibly simple.

And if you are wondering if just anyone can do it, the answer is equally as satisfying: yes.

DVV
Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart © Anton Corbijn

Whether you’re an accomplished music composer, a vagabond who’s strung a makeshift banjo from a piece of discarded tin, or a lazy jerk looking for an easier way to get laid, good songs are inside you. It’s simply a matter of ushering them out. Most good songwriters throughout the world never think about it, they just do it. And they do it over and over again, because it’s such an enjoyable feeling — like you’re conversing with the gods. A good song being written feels like… destiny.

Should you be someone who writes poetry, you may be already familiar with this feeling (unless your poetry sucks, of course) — an almost palpable sense that the words are forming before you, and it’s your job to get them down as they flow. What you’re documenting may seem to only hold together for an instant before its elements break apart again, perhaps never to reconnect the same way. So it takes focus in order to capture that great bounty you’re being drawn to express.

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Barbara Krafft [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Songs are even more like this; they live in the air. All good songs can be sung. If the lyrics are unclear, it will be the melody or the harmony or the way the progressions move with the rhythm that grab you, and it can all be sung or played on your instrument of choice. Even musical geniuses like Mozart, who had the ability to scribble a bottomless well of orchestral movements in notation for all parts just from what was yammering inside his head, still plunked out his ditties on piano or harpsichord from time to time. It’s where all songs belong (except when they need to be kept quiet, and even the great ones do, occasionally).

So if you know what a good song sounds like — meaning you already accept the premise that a song can be objectively “good” (and if you don’t, what are you still doing here?) — when you hear one played, then you’ll be able to recognize it when you start to play one yourself. And regardless of your skill level, the process of writing a good song always starts out the same: something remarkable just happened.

Maybe you stumbled upon a unique set of four words that will solve the world’s problems for the next 3-6 months, found that elusive series of chords that wrung the most inspired melody you or anyone you know ever conjured, or you leaned the wrong way on your sequencer and accidentally rendered the dopest groove this side of Dr. Dre. The point is, you just uncovered something that wasn’t there a moment ago, and you can already sense its gravity.

There’s only one thing to do in that situation: keep going. Stop now to admire your incidental handiwork and you will most assuredly not be engaged in writing a good song. Instead, you must follow that initial moment wherever it leads you. You are its humble servant.

Too often, what happens next is what keeps otherwise accomplished musicians from being good songwriters — the analytical part of the brain wants in on the action, too: “This sounds like a reggae line,” that voice tells you. “Which means I need to up-strum on the ‘one-and,’ then do a straight 1-4-5 with three-part doo-wop background harmonies. Oh, and make sure to sing about ganja at some point.”

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By Eddie Mallin [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
This type of thinking is a quality-killer. Maybe for people who really don’t care about music but like to claim knowledge of its essence — “this is a classic reggae song these guys are playing” — you could see some traction. And commercially, you’d probably have a point for going this route, considering all the label executives who foist non-good songs of this ilk (trying to be something rather than just being it) onto an increasingly disinterested public every day of the year. But you took for granted that initial spark that led you into promising good-song territory, so by default what you’ve got now is something less than that.

Instead, what you should do is leave your brain wattage dormant and open your ears wider. You may be urged to take a leap of some sort — into some abnormal key change or drastic shift in approach to playing the song. But never fear: this process is also non-linear; you can go backwards and forwards, start over, change sections around — just listen.

You’re being told something; capture it and spread it around.

Don’t forget to capture it digitally, as well. You might have felt the spirit while creating your good song last night, but that perfect combo buzz of two beers, one cognac and one hit of your neighbor’s killer bud might prove difficult to recreate today, at which point you will have already forgotten most of what you had. Much easier to just flip open your laptop and hit “record.”

Again, don’t worry about setting up mics once you’re at this stage — if the muse has already sunk her teeth into your ass, just get the thing documented ASAP. Later is the time to bust out the Neumann for that awesome lead vocal, lest you miss the exact nuance you used to sing the word, “Tiffany.” Maybe she sounds better roughed up like this, anyway.

Now, if your musical domain happens to be a DAW of every sequencer and digital effect known to human existence, that means the world is oyster. It still doesn’t guarantee you’ll ever write a good song, but because you control the entire domain of your soundscape, you’ll be less likely to have your good song fucked up in production than a lousy accompanying band or disinterested sound engineer might do.

If you can tear yourself away from mastering the perfect beat-drop to follow those same instructions — 1) find something small but exceptional, and 2) keep your judgments to yourself and allow this nugget of sound to build into a new golden castle — you too could be the purveyor of a good song written. And then you could sell your good song to Daft Punk for a million dollars, because you know they don’t have one.

Daft_punk
By Memo Morales97 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
So don’t listen to those people who insist you need to study music or master an instrument or learn to sing. Good songs are written every day by people who never did any of that. Of course, you widen your horizons and deepen your vistas if you happen to have learned the rules of harmony, pentatonic scales, or knowing what the hell key you’re playing in. In fact, you’ll make it more difficult for others to play your song if they don’t understand what you’re doing and you don’t either. But being ignorant of music theory does not prohibit you from writing a good song, if you do it the right way.

Same goes for writing lyrics: don’t rush to make decisions; let the right words and phrases descend upon you. (Again, it’s a non-linear functionality — place the perfect lyric where it belongs, and over time string along, backwards and/or forwards, the rest.) If you sincerely wish to channel your individual creativity, give it a runway and let it flow. Are you bringing up some topic or incident you may be embarrassed about later? Good, that probably means you’re making something worth hearing. Give your internal middle-manager an extended coffee break and do the same thing with the lyrics you do with the music: don’t judge, follow.

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By Asylum Records (Billboard page 2) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
If any of this takes awhile, so be it. I hate to wait til now to tell you this, but the universe is littered with good songs that never got finished. Or are still on the songwriter’s burner, somewhere, while he/she is distracted with something else. Or they’ve been sabotaged by clueless arrangement and/or production values. (Even missteps of this sort stem from the same source, by the way: you got away from it somehow, or control of your song was wrested from you by someone who didn’t know what was good about it in the first place.) Or they were done perfectly from start to finish and are enjoyed by as many people as happen to have heard them — might be tens of millions, might be 4.

None of that, when you boil it all down, really should matter that much to you. If you’re the extra-ambitious type, there are easier ways to gain notoriety than trying to become a well-known songwriter. Which brings me to another point that’s vitally important: if you don’t have a clearly defensible worldview, or the one you think is defensible is myopic, selfish and mean, just do everyone a favor and quit right now. Hitler never wrote a good song, and neither did Manson (irrespective of Axl Rose’s opinion, but you already assumed that).

Axl
Date: Jan. 13, 2010
Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses performs at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Canada.
Photo by Jason Halstead

Most good songwriters around the globe and through time immemorial have been penniless, or nearly so. Thus, gauging your level of success based on how much revenue your song earns, while extremely commonplace, misses the point. Perhaps you’ll be one of those elite musical artists who gets paid handsomely for writing good song after good song, but should you find yourself in that position one day, chances are you’re already satisfied with practice of songwriting. After all, what you’re really seeking, hunting, capturing is nothing less that a pure glimpse into your own soul, manifest for posterity in the good song(s) beneath your surface.

 


Mark Vickery is a writer, editor and musician in Chicago. He writes a daily investment research column, fronts an original music project called Cosmic Bull, hosts the Cosmic Bull podcast and is an optioned screenwriter and playwright.

If you don’t want to take his word for it, have a look at this.

If you’re looking for solid advice on guitar playing, you can’t do better than Captain Beefheart.