For me, there is a fundamental mystery at the heart of the creative process and the last thing I want to do is attempt to codify or systemise the thing.
We are already living in an era when TV talent shows have reinforced the idea of a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to do things, where the expression of your musical feelings is something to be tutored and judged by self-appointed ‘experts’, rather than something you figure out for yourself.
All I want to do here is outline the route I’ve travelled as a songwriter and point out some of the things I’ve discovered on my journey so far.
(N.B. when I refer to ‘pop music’ I mean everything including rock’n’roll, disco, heavy metal, rap etc…it’s all pop music to me.)
Apart from a short stint playing the trumpet at school, my first steps towards songwriting came when I took up the drums at age 13, and joined a band with some older guys who lived around the corner from me. The guitarist in the band showed me a few chords on the guitar and I took things from there, using my Dad’s classical guitar and chord book.
Like many youths in the mid-80’s I was a big fan of The Smiths and Billy Bragg. But I was also obsessed with Dire Straits, not something I had in common with many of my peers at that time – I could only enthuse about the band with my dad. One thing I liked was Mark Knopfler’s conversational vocal style, his tunes often being half-spoken. You can hear this in their big hit Money For Nothing, and also on a song called Wild West End from the first Dire Straits album.
INSPIRED BY MY INSTRUMENT
Songwriting for me has always gone hand-in-hand with the exploration of my instrument: the guitar. If every song gives you the opportunity to say something different, it’s also an opportunity to play something different. Bands like the aforementioned Smiths and U2 seemed to find a different guitar approach to each song. They gave me the impetus to experiment with my instrument. Just putting my fingers on the neck of my guitar at random allowed me to find new and interesting chords, which would suggest melodies. I was also fascinated by blues, jazz and improvisation, painstakingly teaching myself to bend notes with the feeling of B.B.King.
At 15, I discovered the radio DJ Andy Kershaw, who played a wildly diverse selection of music from around the world. My routine was to sit by the radio with my guitar and jam along to whatever he played on his BBC radio show, which could be anything from bluegrass to hip-hop, calypso to African Highlife. Spontaneously coming up with guitar parts to each track was stretching me and giving me a feel for arranging songs.
For me, arrangements are part of composition. I’ve never been convinced of the wisdom of the aphorism (possibly attributable to Noel Gallagher) that “you can tell a good song because you can play it on an acoustic guitar and it still stands up”. Firstly, you don’t subject a song to any kind of test other than whether you like it. And second, a song is ‘sung’ by the instruments as well as the voice. For instance, one of the most brilliant, catchy and memorable songs I know is David Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes” and if you played it on acoustic guitar it would sound rubbish.
If you listen to a diverse range of music, then you are exposed to different kinds of song structure. Of course there are no rules, but there are various features which recur commonly in popular music. Here are my thoughts on some of them.
1. THE VERSE
The bulk of a song’s lyrics are generally in the verses, and there may anything between two or nine of them (if you’re Bob Dylan) Most common, though, are three verse songs. Whether or not your song has a ‘beginning, middle and end’ to it, the three verse structure implies a narrative, however subliminally, and this is something you can play with or against.
Bruce Springsteen’s songs are sometimes like mini-novels, with tragic or heroic characters struggling against the dirty side of the American Dream. Despite what can be achieved like this, there have been some great lyrics which either don’t mean a great deal or are impossible to decode.
I particularly like the lyrics of Michael Stipe because they sound great, whether I can understand them or not. REM songs are full of beautiful phrases that wash over you in an impressionistic way that doesn’t tie them down to a specific meaning.
What is a chorus? Broadly speaking, a chorus is something that repeats three or more times throughout a song, is catchy, and sums up the overall message somehow. A chorus often steps up the drama or emotion in the song. It’s the satisfying bit that the verses are working towards, but unlike the punchline of a joke, it seems to gain power the more it’s repeated. It can be a contrast to, or a development of the musical style of the verse.
I won’t give examples of great choruses here; we all know hundreds of them. They are probably the biggest reason we love great pop music. At the same time, some songs don’t need a chorus at all; a good example being “House of the Rising Sun”, as recorded by The Animals.
3. THE MIDDLE EIGHT / BRIDGE
These terms are interchangeable. ‘Middle eight’ refers to an eight-bar middle section and ‘bridge’ suggests something linking sections of a song. Whatever you call it, this section is essentially about introducing something a bit different to the song. Something that changes the mood but still fits in, like a pleasing detour. Lyrically it’s often a way to get philosophical or take a sidelong view of what you’re singing about.
Not every song needs a middle eight/bridge. Then again, sometimes they get repeated in a song. But they’re at their best when they vary significantly from the main sections but still resolve nicely back into the song.
KICKING OUT CONVENTION
The Smiths are an example of a group that would never let anything as trivial as convention get in the way of an addictive tune. Listen to ‘Panic’. I would defy anyone to describe the structure; whether it’s one verse with two different choruses or two different verses and one chorus (and maybe something is a bridge?)…whatever the case, everything builds up exquisitely to that final singalong : “Hang the DJ…”
Songs come to me at unpredictable moments, and not just when I have a instrument in my hands. A tune or lyric can appear in my head when I’m in the shower, walking down a street or even in a dream. Sometimes they can be almost fully formed and only need a little finishing off, but it’s not always that easy. I have had verses or choruses kicking around for years before I finally find the other pieces that make the song work.
If you’re singing a song people tend to assume that you are also the narrator, but that’s not always the case. Tom Waits’ songs are often sung from the perspective of a character, maybe an escaped convict, a ship’s captain or that strange character he’s created called Tom Waits.
Whether writing from scratch or jamming a tune together, collaborating with other musicians is one of the most fruitful ways of finding songs. Except for someone like me!! I enjoy improvising with other musicians but if I have a compositonal idea, I generally find that it is part of a complete (or potentially complete) song – a song that exists somewhere in my head, which only I can uncover. I envy musicians who are able to co-write but I’ve always been more comfortable working things out on my own.
Other things I think about when writing/arranging songs are hooks, riffs, counter-melodies and harmonies. I wont go into them all now but they are all important to me when I’m composing.
THE INSTINCTIVE UNIVERSE
So far I’ve been talking about approaches to ‘songy’ songwriting i.e. making hummable tunes. But there are other influences that are hard to talk about in the same way because they come from a more experimental tradition. If I was to discuss the songcraft of Jeffrey Lewis or Syd Barrett…where would I start? I wouldn’t try because they radically deconstruct musical forms, and their music is suffused with their unique, oblique personalities.
This is why teaching pop music is stupid and pointless, cos so much of what attracts us to great pop music is instinctive and personal by its very nature.
During it’s most powerful phases, pop music progressed at a breakneck pace and no-one knew what was going on. On the whole it was made by people with little technical musical knowledge, certainly when compared with the classical music world. Classical music requires training and study, but in pop music, inexperience and naivety can be as effective as skill and knowledge.
But the proliferation of ‘fame academies’ and pop music courses is creating a generation of musicians who are so self-consciously analytical about making music, and so calculating of their commercial potential, that any character they might once have had is obliterated.
I continue to be inspired by different genres of music but at heart I’m something of a traditionalist and enjoy a ‘well-crafted’ song. Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys is one of the few new-ish artists that’s able to do that, with a real personality coming through. Unfortunately there are only so many melodies out there to be discovered and we rarely hear tunes of a Motown-quality any more. But we keep trying!
Originally published on Tom George Arts.