Writing a song

For me, songwriting has always been an interesting mix of inspiration and intentionality. Inspiration helps start the process and guides it; intentionality helps shape it into something more complete. Since I’ve just recently written, recorded, and uploaded a new song to my Patreon account, I thought I’d walk through the complete process of getting a song from my head to others’ ears.

The song, You’re My Girl, started as lines that sprung into my head as I drifted off to sleep. This is a not uncommon happening for me. I tend to think about things I’m working on as I drift off. Stories, songs, poems—I let my subconscious work on them while I sleep and often wake up with a plot problem solved or a new direction taken. This time it was song lyrics.

I woke with a nearly complete verse in my head.

This was a tad unusual. Ordinarily, fresh ideas are far more amorphous. Hence the intentionality needed to form them into a complete work. But instead of needing to force the words into a usable meter and rhyme scheme, this verse was there for the taking. I got myself to the computer and got the lines down quickly.

Now comes the intentionality. One of the mistakes I think some creators make is thinking that the original spark of an idea is somehow sacred. It can be added to, of course, but changing it would somehow be sacrilege.

Balderdash! I say.

I had my first three lines, but I was having trouble coming up with a final line that rhymed with the second line. I picked a workaround I’ve used innumerable times: I wrote a fourth line that worked thematically and rewrote the second line to match. If I considered those three lines I’d dreamt sacrosanct, I’d likely be left with just those and no more. Instead, I had a complete verse and was off to the races.

I had a rhyme scheme (A B C B with the C line containing an internal rhyme) and a meter. The second verse came fairly quickly. I’d talked about how poorly I felt in the first verse, so I talked about how poorly I looked in the second. At this point I also decided to keep the internal rhymes in the third line throughout the song. It would quite limiting, but I like working within constraints. Forces me to come up with creative solutions. Also, I love internal rhymes, and the third line had a bouncing rhythm to it that, along with the internal rhymes, gave it a neat feel that I thought set up the final line of the quatrains nicely.

After writing two verses, I would generally turn my mind to what kind of chorus I’d want. But I was already getting an idea for a melody in my head. Lyrics that are so tightly metered and rhymed often do that for me. And instead of a chorus, I decided I wanted this to be a song that just built and built until a final crescendo chorus/bridge/I-don’t-know-what-to-call-it. I’d never written one of those before and I decided I wanted to.

So, instead of worrying about a chorus, I cracked on writing verses, which went smooth and fast. Once I have rhyme and meter I can string together words pretty quick. The key is making them all fit together.

I talk about song writing as concentric circles. Each piece of it—word, line, rhyme, verse, chorus, bridge, chords, rhythm—nested inside the other and all circling the common core: the theme, the story, the emotion that the song ignites.

As I wrote this song, I was beginning to see the story in it. Easy enough, of course, for it was largely auto-biographical. And when I finished the sixth verse, I suddenly what the song was.

It’s a love song, I thought.

Now, given that the lyrics so far included such nuggets as,

            My face in the mirror
            like a corpse on TV


            No smoke, no coke, no oxy
            and no LSD

you might be surprised that this was my discovery. However, those very familiar with my work are probably nodding their heads right now and saying, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

Anyway, I had six verses and knew what the song was about. I also thought six verses was probably enough to get that big build I wanted. So, now I had two choices. I could write my end chorus/bridge/thingy or work on the music for the verses. I decided to work on the music. I wanted to know everything I could about the build up before I wrote the denouement. Otherwise, I believed I courted failure. Besides, after six verses, I thought I knew pretty much what the music was going to be.

I wasn’t wrong. Key of G. Simple 1-6-4-5 chord progression. The melody I’d already been humming to myself as I wrote.

I am always suspect when melodies come this easily, especially when accompanying such a standard chord progression. But I wracked my brain for something with a similar tune and couldn’t think of anything, so I carried on. It was now time to pay off my big build up.

A few things. A week before, I’d finished off some old lyrics and tried to put music to them. It was ok, but alarmingly diatonic. A diatonic chord is a chord that only contains notes from the key of the song. When I say a whole song is diatonic, it means every chord in it is diatonic. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it can give the piece a particularly vanilla feel. Even one non-diatonic chord can change an entire piece’s feel. For instance, if you’ve heard my song One Night in Boston, each verse contains an F# major instead of the diatonic F# minor. It draws attention and breaks the verses into non-standard sized chunks and give the whole piece a subtle drunken and bewildered rhythm, appropriate given the subject matter.
But back to the current song. I was determined to break out of my diatonic funk. And as the entire piece had been diatonic to this point (which was fine. I planned on the build being primarily vocally led up to this point, so an almost droning backing that stayed mostly out of the way was what I was planning), the time was now. I did it with one note: the dominant 7 on the root chord. This is a non-diatonic note and a leading tone, meaning it leads us right into the next chord, the fourth.

And now I know what the next line is going to be. I’ve spent the first six verses talking about what is. Now, I’m going to explain why none of that matters:

           But I won’t let the bastards bring me down

I have three hard hits on the four chord then back to the tonic. I repeat that, and now need a change.

Non-diatonic, I think.

I also change up the rhythm a bit, doing a chromatic walkdown from the six chord. This gets me to a leading tone. I let that take me to the two (which I make a 7 chord. Another leading tone!) up to the five—a diatonic seven chord—and that gets me back to the root.

My lyrics follow that style, softening up—we’re getting to the love song part. But now the music wants to repeat the hard hits on the four chord. I let it, but instead of nailing all four, I go minor four on the third hit and hold it. Mostly because I love how going from four major to four minor sounds. Also, it softens things to go with the line:

         You’re my one. You’re my only. You’re my girl.

but without really letting off the gas pedal.

Remember, I want this song to build all the way through.

I repeat it again, just like the first time, but also semi-repeat the lyrics to bang home the love song (it’s at this time I also know I’m going to call the song You’re My Girl) and help keep the build going.

            You’re the one. You’re the only. You’re my world.

Now, I really go for it with the big finish. First of all, I go to the non-diatonic chord of all non-diatonic chords: a diminished chord. No scale contains a full diminished chord within it. So a full diminished chord can never be diatonic.

So, not only do I throw in a diminished chord, I drop it in on the down beat of a new phrase, a place where this particular chord rarely dwells. It’s a big moment, befitting the big finish. A diminished chord can be subbed for a dominant chord (leading tones!) so I let it lead me around to the chords to get me back home, add a slightly humorous but also heartfelt last line and I’m done.

Well, mostly done. There are some rhymes to tighten up, melodies to finesse to fit the chords, little finishing touches like that. But the song itself is written.
I hope you’re still interested, because next time I’m going to talk about my recording process.