A songwriting master class

Interested in A songwriting master class? As part of my job as a recording studio owner, I often get asked to “write a song” for this cause or that event. Sometimes it’s aunty Jean’s birthday, sometimes it’s for a rally to protest against the latest bonkers scheme in Barnet, sometimes it’s for someones wedding anniversay for their wife. Occasionally someone asks me to write a hit for their child, who they want to turn into the next Robbie Williams or Adele.The bad news is that I tend not to write songs to order. I’m one of a dying breed who play and write only what I want on my own terms. There are plenty of people I know who can churn out a good tune, but it’s not my thing. I can however offer a few pointers as to what you need in a song, if you want to write your own.The most important thing in a song is the hook. That’s the bit you remember. Usually it’s a chorus, but it can be the coda (The bit at the ends  “nah nah nah” in Hey Jude), it can be the first line of singing (“Goodbye Norma Jean…”), sometimes it’s the bit of guitar before the singing comes in (Think “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns and Roses). Anyway, if you haven’t got a hook, you haven’t got a hit. I was advised by none other than Hank B. Marvin, when his son was the drummer in my band the False Dots, that “if you can’t whistle it, you can’t sell it”. He told me that the BBC2 TV show “The Old Grey Whistle Test” got it’s name from EMI Abbey Road Studios, where the Beatles used to drag the elderly doorman in to listen to their final mixes. If he whistled the tune, it passed “The Old Grey Whistle Test” and they knew it was a hit. I once found myself drinking in a pub with Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 and he told me that if a football crowd sings a song then it was worth singing.Typically a song has a structure a bit like this :-

Middle 8  /Bridge
Chorus X 2

If you have learned an instrument, think up a few rhyming couplets – try singing this and putting a Melody to it
“I love you, I hope you love me too”, a few times. When you have got a nice tune, see what guitar chords go with what you’ve sung. Many guitarists learn a few chords and say “I’ve written a song”. They expect the singer to adapt. Often the song is in the wrong key. Your natural key is the one where you’ll feel most comfortable. When I learned to play, every song I wrote was in A because it was easy to play, but I couldn’t sing in A, so the songs always sounded horrible. I found that if I sung in D or E, they sounded OK and came together better.

When you’ve got your melody line and your chords, then try and work out the instrumentation. This has to suit the subject matter. For example if you were the Clash writing Hate and War, you’d probably not have found the tune to Love to Love you by Donna Summer much use. It is worth listening to a few hits in the genre and style you want to develop. Work out the structure, the instrumentation and the hooks. Try and use these elements in your own songwriting. Most artists get their breakthrough as a result of TV or Radio exposure. If you are serious about songwriting, listen to the the songs which gave artists their first hit. Once they are established, different rules apply.  It is worth noting that the world has moved on and so what worked in 1965 or 1985 won’t necessarily work today. If you want to be a songwriter and write songs for Katie Perry or similar artists, listen to the structure of her songs and the key & melodies. If she uses your song, she’ll get a producer in, so your fancy guitar solo will go straight out of the window. It is the idea, the hook and the melody she’ll be buying.

If you are writing original material for yourself, you have more of a free reign. Try and make sure that you write songs that fully show of your talents. I once worked with a highly talented singer, who quit our band for another band. As we’d always written songs for her voice and her style, she used to sound fantastic. She joined a band with a dominant lead guitarist/songwriter. All of his songs were in the wrong key for her and lacked vocal hooks or melodies. Whereas our songs allowed her to show off her singing, suddenly she was boxed in and was delivering songs which anyone could have sung. She then had to stand around like a lemon for five minutes whilst the band played long boring guitar solo’s.  I went to see her with a few friends at the Rock Garden. She’d been telling us what fantastic players she’d hooked up with, but as the set progressed, she looked more and more miserable and uncomfortable. She should have been a star, but she has sadly given up music. A song is not just a collection of noises. It is an emotion, to be conveyed with feeling. If you want to be successful, you need songs which people can associate with. This can be love songs, songs about anger, songs about a broken heart, songs about injustice. Dance music is all about making music that gets people moving. That is all about beats per minute, bass and rythme. You will know you are on the right track, if people respond to what you play them. Getting an honest opinion is difficult, unless you say to people who don’t know  your music “I’ve been listening to this. Have a listen and tell me what you think”. Don’t be offended if they say “Not Much”. Just try and figure out why and then try and write a better song.

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