At the beginning of my songwriting journey, my writing process consisted of lighting a candle, sipping a glass of rosé, strumming chords on my mandolin, and pouring out my angst for an audience of one. My songs came straight from my heart, and I had no idea that there were tools and techniques that I needed to apply if they were to reach millions of other hearts, which was my goal.
Now, after more than thirty years of earning my living as a songwriter, songwriting instructor, and author of songwriting books, I have learned so much. Below are some of the things I wish I had known from the start.
I used to believe that lyrics were the most important part of a song. Now, I have become convinced that the top three reasons songs become successful are:
- Melody, and
I am not implying that lyrics are unimportant. They are crucial. But unless our lyrics are delivered on the wings of fresh, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-brain melodies, it won’t matter what the lyrics say.
I spent countless hours honing and polishing every line of my lyrics, but I failed to place my melodies under a similar proverbial microscope to be certain they were unforgettable. I’ve heard it said that it is melody that draws listeners to a song—and lyrics that keep them connected. I regret that writing undeniable melodies was not a bigger priority for me.
Write More Uptempo Songs
If my goal is to place my songs with artists who record songs they do not write for themselves, I have a statistically better chance of achieving this if I write more midtempo and uptempo songs than slow ballads. This is also the case if I hope to place my songs in TV shows and films.
My publishers urged me to write fewer slow, sad songs and deliver more toe-tappers and happy songs. They told me that in most mainstream styles of music, artists release considerably more songs that are uptempo than other tempos, and artists often write or co-write their own slow songs.
Slow and midtempo songs come more easily for me, and I indeed had quite a bit of success in placing them. But many of them were album cuts, as opposed to the more lucrative singles. In the current milieu, it has become even more difficult to place songs that are not contenders to be singles.
I am not suggesting that you suppress slow songs if that is what you are moved to write; some of the most enduring and beloved songs have been slow.
I don’t regret the heartfelt ballads that I wrote, but in retrospect, I wish I had also written more uptempos.
Many of my earliest songs intentionally hid the meaning of my lyrics with vague, abstract imagery that listeners could not possibly understand. They were expressions of my most intimate feelings—but without acknowledgement that these ultra-personal works reflected my true feelings. But songwriting is an art of communication. Listeners care less about what writers feel than about what we make them feel. Some writers naturally create material that communicates clear emotions, but I needed to use tools that would allow listeners to relate and empathize.
If I had been a recording artist and my intention had been to record these songs for my own project, my obscure lyrics might have been fine. But my goal was to have superstar artists record my songs. It is rare for artists to record songs with lyrics that don’t reflect their feelings—and make sense to them and their audiences.
Artists who are writing for catharsis or their own enjoyment—and those who have an outlet for their music—have the latitude to write whatever they choose. They do not need to clear the hurdles of publishers, record producers, label executives, and other decision-makers. A prime example is KT Tunstall’s self-penned career-making hit, “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.”
I wanted artists to record my songs, so I needed to write lyrics with clear meanings; lyrics that evoked emotions millions of listeners would relate to.
Don’t Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Great Song
Most songs are intended to share and evoke feelings. It is feelings we strive to communicate with our songs—not facts or information. Of course, some songs tell the tale of a historical event and should accurately express what happened. But these songs comprise a small percentage of the songs that are written.
Unless we are writing about an actual event, or are creating strictly for ourselves, we need to write songs that connect with listeners’ hearts—not necessarily ones that relay “how it really happened.” If you are targeting a wide audience your listeners will not know what actually transpired. They simply want to love your song and feel the feelings you hope to communicate.
In some instances, conveying a true story can be effective. But sometimes, what really happened does not seem plausible or does not serve the song as well as would a fictionalized example. In these cases, creating a new scenario evokes the desired emotion more effectively than describing what actually occurred. Here is an example:
When GRAMMY-nominee Karen Taylor-Good and I wrote “On Angels’ Wings,” the song was inspired by the true story of Karen’s mother, a member of Mensa (the society for geniuses), who was losing her memory to Alzheimer’s disease. If you listen to the recording, you will hear Karen sing that her mother can no longer remember her name. The truth is that at that point in time, Karen’s mother had no trouble remembering Karen’s name, although her memory was indeed failing. We opted for the line of lyric that we believed would have the most impact. It conveyed the emotion we were hoping to evoke and is one of the strongest lines in the song. FYI, the song was retitled “She’s Gonna Fly” when it was recorded by country star Collin Raye, and it has been used to raise money for Hospice and Alzheimer’s research.
Allow what really happened to be the spark that inspires your song and stay true to that emotion. But unless you are writing about a historical event, don’t feel compelled to stick to the details that actually occurred—unless they support your song being the best it can be.
Incorporate More Imagery and Details into My Lyrics
I was an aspiring Los Angeles-based songwriter and had written only a handful of country songs when the legendary Oak Ridge Boys released one of my songs as a single. It landed me a staff-writing publishing agreement in Nashville. I came to Music City having grown up to a soundtrack of pop music.
The Nashville style of writing relied heavily on telling stories rich with images that you could “see” when you closed your eyes. Instead of telling how the singer felt they were more apt to show a scene which allowed the listener to surmise how the singer felt—and to empathize.
I had learned the concept of “Show—Don’t Tell” in Los Angeles songwriting classes, but it seemed the Nashville style of writing relied much more on this technique. A pop lyric might say:
I never knew lonely could hurt so bad
I miss you with all my heart
I’d give the world to get you back
But I don’t know where to start
Whereas a country lyric would be more apt to describe the scene. For example:
One more shot of Patrón
Then I reach for the pillow
Where so many nights you lay your head
The scent of your Chanel
Starts my tears flowing
And I keep replaying what I should have said
Infusing lyrics with action, imagery and detail is by no means limited to country music. These tools can further engage listeners and bring them into the world of your songs regardless of the genre.
For additional information about this critical tool, check out the article, Show – Don’t Tell: 3 Steps to Writing Better Lyrics
In summation, if as a young dreamer, I had known what I know now, I might have been able to shave some years and frustration off my journey to success—and celebrated an even more lucrative career. I hope these tips can help you do the same.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). His latest book, Happy Tails—Life Lessons from Rescued Cats and Kittens (SPS/Blue Mountain Arts) combines his love of photography and cats. Jason’s songs are on Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. A guest lecturer at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (co-founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and at the Berklee School of Music, he has been interviewed as a songwriting expert for CNN, NPR, the BBC, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. To receive a free video, “3 Things You MUST Do for Success” and weekly tips to enhance creativity click on https://tinyurl.com/yckat6fc. For information about workshops, webinars, and more than 125 additional articles, visit www.jasonblume.com.