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What I Learned About Songwriting, In and Out of Nashville

Co-writing, or writing with other songwriters, can certainly help make you a better writer. Above all, write, write, write.

Co-writing, or writing with other songwriters, can certainly help make you a better writer. Above all, write, write, write.

Getting Into Songwriting

I received my first guitar when I was 12, and immediately enrolled in guitar lessons with the only music store in Dallas, Oregon at that time. I quickly found out that group lessons weren’t my thing and bought a few books from my instructor so I could learn on my own. I quickly taught myself enough basic chords to be able to play favorite songs from The Eagles, The Beatles, America, CCR and several other bands I listened to during my adolescent years.

Throughout my middle school and high school years, I continued to improve my playing, toting my guitar with me wherever I could. In high school I played and sang in drama productions and other live music performances, and even served as band leader when we performed the musical Grease. After high school, I moved with my best friend to Nashville to go to music school, but had to withdraw after only one term because I ran out of money. I learned a few things in my time there, but I was still only playing songs and music written by other composers, and had never written a song of my own in all the years I owned a guitar.

In 2002, I was listening to an interview on the radio with a then-new musician, John Mayer, who had just splashed onto the mainstream music scene. In the interview he pointed out that one day he realized he didn’t know if he could write songs, even bad songs, because he had never tried. So he sat down and started writing, and eventually he found out he was ok at songwriting. I recognized in that moment that I was in the exact same situation. I had been a guitar player for around twenty years, but had never tried to write a song of my own. I figured if someone like John Mayer didn’t know he was a songwriter until he tried, maybe I also had a songwriter buried somewhere deep inside, and so I set out to learn how to write songs.

With the help of the Internet, I stumbled on a few songwriting websites. Some only existed to take money in exchange for teaching you the secrets to songwriting, but a few communities popped up that proved to be helpful. I gathered a few basics, combined with what I knew I liked in the music I was listening to, and jotted down a song about local girl who had travelled to another country to serve in a relief organization. I recorded the song on my simple computer studio setup and posted it to one of my songwriting community sites, where I waited for feedback.

To my surprise, people in the online songwriting group liked my song. A few of the old-timers in the group gave advice about what was wrong, or what could be better, but they also noted a few things they really liked, and appreciated the quality of my simple demo recording. I was hooked. I went back to my writing space and wrote another song, and then another, and then another. I posted each one and found that my feedback was fairly positive for each song, but was also balanced out with a good amount of constructive criticism from other songwriters, all trying to hone their craft.

One songwriting group that I invested most of my online time with was based out of Nashville, where I has spent a good portion of one year studying guitar more than a decade earlier. They sponsored a songwriting contest, and I entered three of my songs. One of my songs was critiqued in a live online session by professional songwriter, (and author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success) Jason Blume who said I clearly had the ability to write successful songs. To my surprise, two of them placed in the top ten, and one of them placed in the top three, which won me the opportunity to play in a live songwriters round at The Broken Spoke in Nashville, a long-time songwriters club. The night I played three of my songs live in Nashville, in front of other published songwriters and recording artists, I allowed myself to finally call myself a songwriter.

Understanding My Beliefs About Songwriting

After I began writing songs, people would sometimes ask why I hadn’t written songs before. Where as some people have no idea why they hadn’t tried something new before, I knew for certain why I hadn’t tried to write songs before. I would typically answer that question with a question of my own. “Have you watched the tv show Friends before?” If the person confirmed that they had, I would follow up with, “I never wanted to write songs like Smelly Cat and put my friends into a position where they had to pretend that they enjoyed my music.” If I person wasn’t familiar with the show I would explain that one of the characters on the show was a terrible songwriter who played at the local coffee shop, and all her friends felt compelled to tell her she was great.

Even though art is subjective, and there is something beautiful in everything an artist creates, there are still terrible song . I was passionate about music, and worked hard to be a decent guitar player. If I was going to write songs, I wanted to write good songs. I wanted to write songs that people would enjoy and maybe even sing along to. I never expected to be rich and famous, but I didn’t want to send my friends running every time I pulled out an MP3 of my latest recording, like some returning vacationer with a stack of slide reels to show.

In addition to my non-musician friends that would eventually hear the songs I was attempting to write, I had working musician friends in Nashville that I knew would hear my work at some point. My best friend is a very successful studio musician, and has plenty of opinions about the music industry and the level of effort being put into songwriting these days. When I started recording demos of my songs, I could only really play guitar parts and sing my vocals. I wanted to enlist his help to add keyboard parts and drum programming, but I was very concerned about how he would react to the songs I was writing. Would he help me and not be truthful? Would he tear them apart? Would he respectfully pass on helping me because they weren’t up to the quality of music he was working on in Nashville on a daily basis? I wouldn’t know until I shared my songs with my musician friends as well as my non-musician friends.

As it turns out, he really liked what I had done, and was happy to work on my demos with me. Friends I played the songs for also had very supportive responses, and some would compare the songs to other bands or artists they liked, and the people in my songwriting groups were giving me decent marks as well. Once I received my first professional writer critique and then placed in the songwriting group contest, I felt as though I could breath a sigh of relief and not worry so much that people would hate my music. In fact, I began to look forward to being able to share other songs I wrote, and started reaching out to other songwriters to co-write with them, since I was beginning to build a little portfolio of songs and demos.

I recognize now that how my initial songs were received likely set the course for whether I would continue writing songs or not. I have known some not-so-great songwriters, but they write simply for the love of writing. Something inside of them compels them to continually put out songs, and yet they are not often received with high praise. That doesn’t seem to stop them. However, I can look back and see how negative critiques made me feel as though a song wasn’t very good. I loved the songs that other people loved—perhaps because we were all drawn to the same universal connection in the song, or perhaps because I felt they were the best of my songs because others liked them. When I hand out demo CDs or send links to songs, they always include the songs that have scored well in a competition or received the most and highest amount of praise on a songwriting forum. I suppose I was, and still am a people pleaser in my songwriting.

How I Went About Tackling Songwriting

As I built a songwriting style, I identified typical song structures, and tested them out in my own songwriting. My primary source of influence in the early days of my writing were writers in Nashville, or those hoping to write for publishers and artists in Nashville or country music. I had always sort of known the main lyrical components of a song—the verse, pre-chorus, chorus and bridge, but learned that they could be arranged in several different standard formats. Some songwriters refer to these sections by letter and use A,B,C, and D in structures like ABABCBB or ABABAB formats. Others use the first letter of the section name and refer to the variations as VCVC, VCVCBC, VVBV, an other combinations. I tried several of these structures out while writing and settled on a couple that seemed to generally work best for my style.

Once I had a handle on structuring songs, I implemented appropriate rhyming techniques. Understanding how and when to rhyme lyrics was one of the trickier things to master in songwriting. I purchased songwriter rhyming dictionaries, used writing software, and accessed online thesauruses to aid in my search for the perfect rhyme to lyrics I was writing. I was told by mentors to avoid cliché rhymes, or rhymes that had been recently used in hit songs, or overly used in general. Additionally, there are patterns to rhyming, just like the structuring of lyrical sections in a song. A classic pattern is ABAB which rhymes line one with line three and line two with line 4, but it is also acceptable to rhyme line two with line 4 and line one and three remain without a rhyme, as in the XAXA format. I also learned that using near rhymes or false rhymes, words that don’t rhyme perfectly, was perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged to avoid cliché rhyming. For example, a songwriter might use the words blank and think and the “nk” sound forms the near rhyme. Some country singers might even come close to pronouncing those vowels in a similar manner, making the rhyme even closer.

Somewhere near the most important concepts of writing, I developed compelling lyrical elements. I knew I typically loved songs that I had connected with through the words sung and story being told. I learned this happens when a few key things happen in a very small time span—usually three to four minutes, which means the songwriter must accomplish much compared to other story-telling mediums. Incorporating familiarity is one way to draw a listener in close, which is why love songs are popular because nearly everyone has been in love and can relate to that. Using proper names in a song is another way to help a listener make a connection. A nondescript lyric that says, “down on the street” only gives an image of a street itself, but saying, “down at the corner of fifth and Main,” transports a user to some image of an intersection, somewhere. If a songwriter goes even further to say “down on the corner of Hollywood and Vine,” there is a very specific image for anyone familiar with California, or who can imagine what that California scene looks like. Combining familiar sentiments and situations, using unique identifiers that create a scene, and wrapping it up in three to four minutes became the basis for successful lyrical content.

During the process of developing my lyrics, I created pleasing melodic and lyrical hooks. Anyone who has ever listened to the song The Final Countdown, by the band Europe, knows what a hook is. It is that part of the song, either lyrically or musically that makes the song instantly recognizable and draws a listener to the song. Not every song has to have big soaring melodies in order to make a connection to the listener, but there should be appropriate variations in the different sections of song. Typically a chorus will have a little more oomph to set it apart from the chorus, which tells the listener, that the chorus has the heart or the crux of the song, and the music supports that theory. Most people I know don’t know all of the lyrics to The Final Countdown, but they sure know those three words, and they usually know the synthesized horn sounds that follow the lyrics, and truth be told those three lyrics may be all the listener really needs to know. As I developed my writing style, I tried to find lyrical or musical hooks that listeners could use to connect to a song, and instantly identify it by that hook.

Lastly, I understood the need to be continually writing. In my critique with professional songwriter Jason Blume, I asked if I should rework the song he critiqued. He replied that I should if I wanted to, but the moderator of the forum reminded me that the songwriter’s mantra is you have to write 200 bad songs before you write one good one. I had written only about 10 songs by the end of that first year, and understood the suggestions of the mentors was to continue to work on honing my craft through practice, practice, practice. It takes hours of effort to master any skill, and songwriting was no different than anything else I had attempted to learn. From time to time I would rework a lyric, song or demo, but in those early days I typically would take what I could learn from my critiques and apply them to future efforts. By writing on a regular basis, many of the mechanics felt more natural when I put them to use, much the same way that regular exercise keeps a body from feeling sore when it is put through the paces. I’ve still yet to write 200 songs, but I feel that I have had a few decent ones along the way.

Using Songwriting Skills in My Everyday Life

During that first year or so, I wrote songs about topics I selected or co-writers suggested, and primarily wrote for critiques and to improve my skills. There were never guidelines, deadlines, or expectations placed on my from anyone else, aside from the occasional online song challenge from one of the communities I belonged to. Even those challenges were mostly for fun and skill strengthening. But a couple years into my songwriting adventure I would receive a different kind of challenge that would put all the skills and knowledge I had gained to the test.

I received a call from the wife of my high school theater director, letting me know that her husband would be retiring and they were going to dedicate the theater to his namesake as a parting gift. She was calling as many students as she could that had performed under his direction for 30 years to return for the celebration. As part of the celebration, she asked some of us to perform on the stage that night, and I was one of them. I asked what she wanted me to perform and she said I could really choose just about anything, but perhaps something from a play I had been in before. Without thinking, I said, “what if I write a song—something that talks about make believe and pretending, and how we all grow up, but that magic sticks around through our memories and sometimes in our children?” She loved the idea, and asked if I could really pull that off. “No problem…we’ll see you in a few weeks!”

Writing a commissioned song, with a short deadline on the horizon proved to be a bit of a stressful test, but I felt up to the challenge. I started by selecting a familiar song structure—VPCVPCBC, (verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge) which I had used successfully in a previous Nashville songwriting competition. As I wrote down different lyrical ideas, I tried on a few other formats, but ultimately the comfort of this familiar structure felt right for my song. Additionally, I was at a point in my songwriting where I was sending off most of my demos to my songwriting forums for critique, and sometimes to publishers for contract consideration. Even though the song was being written for a special event, the VPCVPCBC format was one that was fairly common in Nashville at the time.

The first lyric that jumped out at me ended up being the first lyric of the song, which said, “Sitting on my daddy’s knee, as he read to me when I was three.” By the time I added in the next part of the lyric that said, “I couldn’t hardly wait to see, Where The Sidewalk Ends,” I was using what I understood the AXAA or AAXA rhyming scheme to be. This scheme allows for one line in the bunch to be left hanging, and not rhyme with the others. The tension is relieved when the last line of the next section finally resolves the rhyme. In the first section I rhymed “knee, three and see”, and leave “ends” without a rhyme. In the next section I rhymed “line, time, rhyme” and resolve the rhyme for “ends” with the word “friends.” My rhyming structure was set.

Nearly everyone at the event would be an actor or actress, or at the very least, a patron of the theater, so lyrics that revolved around playing at make believe, I hoped, would make a connection to the audience. In my song I told the story of being a young boy, who was transported by make-believe and silly rhymes to a magic time and place. I spoke of riding dusty trails, setting sail for distant lands, finding buried treasure and battling with pirates. I then brought the story around to being a grown up, since most of my schoolmates hadn’t been on that stage in 15 years or more, and wrote about how we still see that same magic in the eyes of our own children. I also used the technique of specific names for additional connection. Instead of saying, “My dad read me books,” I wrote that “I couldn’t hardly wait to see Where The Sidewalk Ends,” which both creates an image of anticipation for my young mind, and instantly paints a picture of a book that nearly everyone is familiar with.

When I started writing the chorus, I couldn’t find a lead in line that would serve as a hook for that portion of the song. Every line of the chorus eventually built to the hook, which ended up being, “Those days were like the turning of the page,” and The Turning of The Page ended up being the title of the song. Musically, the pre-chorus section allowed a bit of a dramatic build into the chorus section which featured a higher range melody to support the chorus and hook lyrics. The end of the chorus tapers back down each time to match the feel of the next verse, the bridge that follows the second chorus, and the ending of the song.

Finally, this song was not my 200th song, but was part of the process in getting there. While this song didn’t represent a specific number, it represented tackling songwriting from a new angle. Professional songwriters are often tasked with producing a certain number of songs within a specific timeframe. They are also charged with writing songs to meet criteria that the producer or artist is looking for such as uptempo or downtempo songs, love songs or party songs, epic rockers or quiet and contemplative tunes. Sometimes they might even be asked to write a song like another artist recently had on the radio, and they have to figure out how to mimic that sound and style without directly ripping them off. I wasn’t paid for this song, but writing to the criteria I set for myself within the timeframe before the event certainly challenged me in a new way I hadn’t experienced before. Songwriters don’t simply need to write 200 songs to write one good one, they need to be challenged to write in new and different ways as well.

I performed the song at the dedication and received a standing ovation when I made an impromptu change to the lyric at the end of the song. The song vamps the lyric, “those days were like the turning of the page,” three times at the end, but on one of the vamps I change the live lyric to say, “and I sang Oklahoma on this stage.” This made a strong connection to those of us who had performed that play as the inaugural production in the theater, back in 1987. I was proud as could be of the song and the performance.

Shortly after the event I submitted the song to a songwriting contest sponsored by Musicians Friend. Two songs were selected to move on to a recording phase where musicians all around the world could submit musical tracks to the winning songs, and then a final phase where engineers mixed all the best tracks into final mixes. The Turning of The Page was one of the two winners, and musicians from the west coast to the east coast and as far away as Germany contributed to the final mix of my song that was highlighted on the website. (If you'd like to hear that song, the final version is here - Getting to perform a song I wrote on my high school stage was a milestone I will always remember. Having that same song selected as a winner in a national songwriting contest, where musicians from all over the world competed to perform on the recording just confirmed that I had put some decent songwriting skills into my belt.

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