Updated: Jan 18, 2021
I used to write songs about topics, or an idea. Sometimes the idea came from a title line or a melody or even some chords that I stumbled across, or woke up with an idea. From one or more of these inputs I wrote a song. Those are all valid approaches to songwriting. I am not suggesting that you stop using them, but rather that you add one step into your process… writing to the emotion.
The first time I tried this was more than a year ago. I had gotten an idea for a song about a young man getting some down-home lessons about life from his dad, and then passing them on down to his own son years later. Not the most original idea in the world, but I thought I could bring it to life in a good way. I had a few ideas, but wasn’t sure where to go with it. After a few false starts, I decided to daydream about the video for this song — what would it look like? I could imagine fathers and sons doing typical father-son stuff together: fishing, hanging out, teaching him to play a sport or ride his bike, etc. I pictured all kinds of dads and their boys just doing ordinary things together... but things that would result in never-ending memories.
With these images in my head, I started to feel the emotions … I remembered my own dad. I also remembered teaching my own sons how to ride a bike, or to cook burgers on the grill, or use an electric sander. It was bittersweet and wistful, remembering all those times. Watching them grow up and realizing that my did went through the same emotions with me, and so on. These are powerful feelings that most people have about one or both of their parents.
Suddenly I knew the emotion that I wanted the song to have… the emotions triggered by imagining a video that I had not even made yet had worked to focus me on writing the song.
From that point forward, those emotions guided me in creating every aspect of the song, from the choice of chords to the melody, lyrics, tempo, etc. Of course I know the technique of writing songs, but emotions and images behind are what drove my decision-making all the way through writing the song.
Tempo - I could feel a walking kind of tempo - not too fast or slow.
Chord pattern - I started playing an A chord, then went to the 5- (Em). That back and forth between major and minor really gave me the right bittersweet feeling. I added the 4 chord (D) in the pattern, and that helped it to “come around” and resolve back to the tonic.
It felt like twice around these chords would be about right, but no way to go right into the chorus from there… it felt too soon, and also I wanted the chorus to be BIG and very different from the verses. I would tell my story from first person perspective in the verses, and use the chorus to deliver an uplifting sermon from my dad.
Lyric pace - while the cadence of the verse lyrics would be measured, almost like speaking tempo, I could hear the chorus being uplifting and jammed with words like a sermon or rallying cry. The opposite of the verses. So I needed a transition to build up to the chorus and set it up lyrically.
So this called for a pre-chorus - a transitional part to get me from the verse to the chorus, both lyrically and musically.
Since I knew that the chorus was going to be a sermon sung from my dad’s point of view, I thought that the pre-chorus should be him saying that he was about to deliver it, “so fasten your seat belt and get ready” in essence. So I wrote a bridge that starts with the 4 chord (D) with 5 and 6 overtones to make it feel lush and prophetic somehow. Basically it’s a D with high B and E notes on top. And to add a little dramatic tension I went to the flat 7 chord (G) before walking 4/3 then 5/3 (D/F# to E/G#) up to the tonic (D), where the chorus starts.
In the chorus itself I use the same pattern I started with: 1 and 5- (A to Em). After a few twirls around these chords I went to the G chord for some drama and a sense of meaningfulness, then resolved back to the tonic.
At this point I had actually developed a complete plan and structure for the song, but I hadn't written a single word yet! This is the power of writing to the emotion.
I reviewed my plan for the song:
Verse - walking pace musically and lyrically, first person voice
Pre/chorus - music builds - introduction of the flat-7 (G) chord for tension, third person voice
Chorus - music big, lyric pace much denser (more syllables per bar), third person until the last line, when I say “This is what my daddy said, I reckon” as a way to close the book.
Church dismissed. I was ready to write the lyrics now.
The board at Omnisound, Nashville
After I wrote the song, we recorded it in Nashville with some great players, like Carl Miner on acoustic guitar, Jerry McStephens on electric guitar, Jimmy Carter on bass, Wayne Killius on drums, and Mike Rojas on piano and B3. Chuck Ebert produced. Later, the song was mixed and mastered by Jeff Silverman in Nashville.
Then I made a video, and incorporate the images that I had first imagined before I wrote the song. Would you like to see the video and hear the song? Here it is:
There is not a single word or bit of music in that song that was not guided by the emotions that I wanted to convey. I wanted the listener to “see” the video that I had imagined in their hearts when they heard the song.
If you want to try this in your songwriting, here are some steps you can follow:
Visualize the song. What would a video look like and feel like, if that helps you. If it becomes a distraction, don’t.
Write down the key emotion that you want to create with the song. If you must have a second emotion, that's OK, but don't add more than two.
Write down the characters in the story. Give them names even if they won’t be named in the song.
Write down the plot, as if it were a story
Keep that piece of paper in front of you. Now get a new blank piece and work on the song.
MAKE A PLAN for your song, (like I did for I RECKON above):
Make a Verse plan - short notes? Long notes? General idea for the metrics of the lyrics and the music.
Make a Chorus plan - short notes? Long notes? General idea for the metrics of the lyrics and the music.
Note - it's good to make the length of notes different between the Verse and Chorus. If you've got a bunch of relatively short notes in the verse, let your notes grow longer in the chorus, or the other way around.
Make a Rhyme Plan - Mix up your perfect and close rhymes. As long as it feels good and sounds good, it’s a rhyme. When all the rhymes are too perfect it can give a moon-June feeling, which isn’t good. It’s like a boom mic dropping down into the frame in a movie: it kicks you out of the story and reminds you that you’re watching something that’s made up. A rhyming scheme should sound natural, not forced. Use both end rhymes and Internal rhymes.
Make a Structure Plan - such as: intro - verse/1 - pre-chorus- chorus/1 - turn - verse/2 - chorus/2 - bridge - chorus/3 - outro
Don’t use the same structure in every song. Always try to mix them up to some degree. Skip the intro. Start on the chorus, etc.
Make a Phrasing plan - when you write your melody, do you always start singing after the first downbeat? Try adding a few syllables before the downbeat. Or right on the downbeat. This will stretch you as a writer. And mix it up - if your melody leads the downbeat in the verse, let it follow in the chorus, or vice-versa.
Don’t Make It Sound WRITTEN
It's ironic, but I spend a LOT of time writing my lyrics trying to make them sound like they were NOT written. My goal is always that they sound like they were meant to go with that melody just naturally. I try to make it sound like a song has been around forever, and I am simply the lucky guy who got to reveal it to the world. It’s not easy and I don'y always succeed, but it’s a great goal to always when writing.
WRITING TO THE EMOTION changed my songwriting for the better, forever. Maybe it can do the same for you.
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