When I graduated college, a family member asked me: now that you’re a writer, will you write songs for musicians like Taylor Swift?
To be clear, I graduated with a degree in journalism.
Perhaps the more hilarious thing is that I could simply get a job writing anything for Taylor Swift now that I had a degree, but it was astonishing to me that anyone would think writing stupid little blog posts like this one is at all the same as composing a melody and lyrics for a pop song.
I told my relative I don’t have the poetry in me. Certainly there are some lyricists who have had success with poetry and prose. But it still doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what songwriting is like.
I’ve played guitar for a little over four years now, and in that time I’ve come up with at least a dozen miniature song snippets, noodling around until I find a riff or a chord progression I think sounds neat. Occasionally I’ve been able to hum or whistle out a melody and then attempted to figure out what the hell those notes are and why they work, if at all.
The hard part is finishing and following through on any of those promises of a song. That’s where these blog posts come in.
This is the first of what I hope will be several posts stepping through the songwriting process as I attempt to describe the difficulty and complications of switching my left brain over to right (or whichever is which; I don’t care to look it up).
Countless movies about musicians famous and fictional depict songwriting as a stroke of genius. Five minutes ago these guys could hardly play a chord, and now they’ve formed a band and are writing catchy pop hooks. There are stories about Paul McCartney and John Lennon writing a song for The Rolling Stones in 15 minutes, or about Beck essentially farting out the soundtrack for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” One time I saw a t-shirt that had pictures of tablature for the guitar chords C, G and D with the caption, “Now start a band.”
What I think is missing from that fictionalization of songwriting is the actual work that goes into writing a song. I can relate to the idea that a good sounding melody or riff could just pop into your head on accident. Even furiously jotting down lyrics that vaguely rhyme and can be molded into the melody in my head hasn’t been too difficult (though there was a point in time when I first started playing that even the dream of that seemed so far out of reach).
The hard part, I think, is crafting it into something beyond a sketch. How do I take this thing and give it verses, a bridge, a chorus, technical prowess and character? How do I come up with a melody that can even remotely fit these power chords I’ve banged out? How do I add a bass line or drum part? Please, someone give me a crash course in Garage Band so that I don’t have to play with anyone ever and work alone like most antisocial writers do.
When I played saxophone in jazz band back in high school, we would go to competitions and get a brief clinic from one of the judges after the performance. “Do you listen to jazz? You should listen to more jazz.”
Wow, great advice. It’s amazing how much music everyone has absorbed in their lives and how foreign this process comes when you actually have to sit down and do it. Learning to play guitar gave me a better appreciation for what guitarists are doing when they play, and now it’s far easier for me to pick out what pedals they’re using, the rhythm of the song, and even what licks and techniques I can experiment with. I can even sit and analyze a song’s structure, and if I know the chords, I can determine the progression that I might be able to copy for myself.
This is hardly intuitive. It’s something that I have to sit with and analyze and has come from years of a general understanding of music theory. It’s what the jazz judge meant when he said, “You should listen to more jazz,” but there’s a lot left unsaid within that sentiment.
So where do I go from here? I’m going to leave you with a sample of something I recorded recently. The riff originated years ago, and when I recently started playing it again, I toyed with a progression that might serve as a rhythm part to this lead riff.
This is my attempt at a pop punk song, something in the vein of Cloud Nothings or early Foo Fighters. I’m playing an open A string in the bass as I play a melody line as I slide up and down the D-string. Right now the verse is all quick power chords, I “think” in the key of A? The progression is:
A-C#-D-A-E so… I-III-IV-I-V?
You can hear I intend to return to play a bridge, then return to the main riff for the chorus, then a solo (I promise with some work I can play a solo that sounds better than this. This is horrendous) and back to the verse. What am I missing?
Pop Punk Song With Double Stop A Riff
By next week, or whenever I next get around to writing one of these blog posts, I’ll report back with the work I’ve done on it and where I’ve seen some challenges. This recording sucks right now, and when I listen back to it, it sounds like I can’t play for shit, but I think there’s a chance that in time, it doesn’t have to.
Share your thoughts in the comments!