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How to Write Original Songs
by Pat Boardman
Motivation ensures that things get done and that first efforts are followed up by additions, revisions, and expansions. Songwriters can get caught in the trap of falling in love with the first draft, deeming it eternally great and unchangeable. When the song is listened to objectively later, there may be silly lyrics that don't relate to each other, or else the chords and melody are lazy and sound like every other three-chord wonder. Blues and country music are often plagued by the restrictive nature of the basic chord pattern, except when there are skilled instrumentalists involved who can fill in the gaps with other elements such as adding several minor chords, key changes, inversions, major seventh chords, and changing the number of beats in a bar. When a country song uses three chords, there are only several melody options, and they've all been used thousands of times before with the same resolve to the end of the verses and choruses. The resolve to these songs invariably end up at the root note of the key signature. That limits the melody possibilities for a unique work.

If technical terms baffle those not schooled in reading score, rest assured that getting a good song structure doesn't require tremendous knowledge or training. Keep a book of chords at hand, and possibly a rhyming dictionary for reference if you are at a loss for words. Those people who are writing songs are assumed to be clever by definition; they are already armed with influences, favorite styles, and the desire to create original material. If you are at a computer, there are many free sites on the Web that supply everything from scales to a digital metronome. For the purpose of this article, the assumption will be that the songwriter is using a guitar or piano to compose the song.

Where will the seed be found? I will use some examples from my own experience. At first, the obvious first theme is to express your love for someone real or imagined, or to pine over a lost love. Ballads are easy to write and perform, and that was my logical starting point. The songs were slow and sappy littered with exaggerated emotions that got magnified from what the feelings were originally. I discovered lush major diminished chords that dominated the sound and allowed for a good melody to be suggested, but the temptation to use too many minors or diminished chords can make the song overly-sleepy and amateurish. If you strum the same chords over and over you risk putting your listeners into a coma.

I was writing some mediocre songs many years ago in Boston, making notes as I rushed around, and then settling down in a coffee shop to start the first line. It doesn't matter if you start from the first word of the first line or if you work backwards, thinking about a rhyming word that would make the second line make sense to tell the story. My normal method of writing is this: latch onto a phrase from my thoughts, sit down and write two verses and a rough idea of how a chorus might start. Personally, I do the words first, and they give me a suggestion of a melody. The next step is to put everything aside until you can get to your instrument and work it out. Recall the bits of melody that the lyrics suggest, and find the key that matches your vocal range in that melody.

When I developed writer's block in Boston, I hitch-hiked to Newburyport Massachusetts and met some people who let me stay at their empty cottage on the ocean. I thought that the seclusion and wistful cloudy setting would help me write masterpieces as I sat wrapped in a blanket looking out at the ocean. The effect was just the opposite; I couldn't think of a single thing to write about, and no melodies would come to me during the weeks I stayed there. Without activity going on around me, there was a lull in the creative process and I drew a blank.

Rock music is based on the three-chord pattern of the Blues in major or seventh chords. The Blues turnaround is a basic two bars scaling down from the root note to the seventh, that is, a song in the key of G will resolve its run and end up on the D chord, seven semi-tones up from the root G note. In Rock, the pattern of three chords can be expanded to include several other major chords. Put simply, the more chords in a song, the more room you have to form a unique melody. A necessary section of Pop or Rock music is called the bridge, which gives listeners a break from the verse-chorus, verse-chorus structure. The bridge will relate musically to the main melody, but expand on it with different chords, a jump to a higher melody line, or even a key change. Key changes have to be written so they can integrate seamlessly back into the original key to begin the third verse or the refrain. There's also the option to remain in the new key until the end of the song.

Structure is usually set up as two verses, then the chorus also know as a refrain. After the second chorus, a band will do instrumental solos and go into the bridge, then onto the last verse and refrain. An ambitious composer may want to extend the song to more verses. To get away from the ballad style, force yourself to concentrate on upbeat chord changes and look for lines that could be considered universal. Laziness or convenience result in songs that repeat words like "baby" and phrases such as "all my heart", "until the end of time", or "in my dreams". I once wrote a song to rid all future songs of the term "baby" and called it "Baby, You've Been Cancelled", a comedy send-up of country music. You can hear some pop songs where "baby" is the only word in the song that can be made out. Some people just have nothing to say and make word sounds to fill in the singing. Other songs have words and lines that don't mean anything when used in combination (see "Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procul Harum). Even the band America admitted that the words to one of my favorite songs, "Ventura Highway" were just a smattering of rhyming words that sounded great with the music, but had no meaning. The "alligator lizards in the air" were a convenient rhyme to "seasons crying, no despair" but had an obvious lack of meaning. I still love the song and their live show, even if they crossed the desert on a horse with no name. Water would be a more urgent need, but water doesn't rhyme with anything. They chose to rhyme "name" with "rain", and then "name" again, then "pain". You can't argue with a hit song, and those lyrics can't be changed 'cause they're in the hall of fame with the rain and the pain and the name of the sane brain gone lame in the game I claim there's no one to blame when you can't ride the tame train with the creative flame. Where's that rhyming dictionary?

About the Author

Pat Boardman is a songwriter and CD Baby member influenced by Blues, Folk, and Rock music. He uses carefully-crafted lyrics that stand out as a beacon for the music. His work is downloadable at Rock Music Records and MP3 Extension. The Cold River CD features Pat Boardman on guitar, harmonica, piano, and autoharp, with guest Jesse Cook.

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