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How I Write Songs
A step by step approach to writing a new song.

Start by thinking of a good title for the song, which has some good possibilities for providing a catchy chorus, and can be explained in an interesting way in the verses. It might be an expression, like 'Guilty Secrets', 'Sad Affair', 'House On Fire' or maybe something very simple like 'Looking For Someone'. This sounds easy, but for me is always the hardest part of writing a song.

Having got the Title write the Chorus around it, using repetition. Don't make it too long, maybe 6 lines in total of which 2 will be the Title.

Now start writing the verses, which basically set you up for the chorus. Depending on how quickly you can get to the chorus either have 2 verses (say 4 lines each) or 1 verse and a bridge consisting of 2 lines. The 2nd verse or bridge will leave the song hanging, creating a break before the Chorus comes blasting through.

You need at least three different sections in a song, so if you have done 2 verses before the chorus, you could then do a 3rd verse, then chorus again, then you need some kind of middle section. Lyrically this will be the introduction of a new idea (e.g. On the other hand... or Maybe One Day...) which then sets you up for the final series of choruses. 

If you have a good bridge then you might not need a middle section, and an additional middle section might make the song too long, you have to decide what's best.

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Try to use original imagery rather than well worn expressions which sound hackneyed. This is the only respect in which lyric writing is like poetry. 

Don't use any rhymes which sound contrived - often it is best to use half rhymes rather then true rhymes, especially for more modern styles of song. 

Don't try and say too much - just convey the emotions which relate to the title with a minimal amount of factual explanation.

You can also put in an instrumental section to spin it out a bit if necessary. 

You want the total length of the song to be between 2'45'' and 4', absolute maximum 4'30". You need to reach the chorus within the first 45" ideally, certainly not later than 1'.

Having got the basis of the lyrics sorted out (you will have to make changes later) sit down with an instrument which can generate chords. 

I personally find a folk guitar best, but occasionally use an electric guitar or piano. Start simultaneously playing chords and singing melodies that go with the lyrics. 

I usually find that I get an idea for a melody for a short section, then spend some time just trying out all the possible chords until I get the right sound. Its really getting all three (melody/lyric/chord) right at the same time that makes a good song, and the relationship between the different parts of the song. 

Generally you can use darker or minor chords more in the verse/bridge than in the Chorus. The Chorus has to be catchy and quite 'In Your Face', so it usually pays to use simpler, often major chords, and fewer different chords than in the verses.

Once you've got all the chords and melody for the entire song its often better to leave what you've done for a little while, maybe overnight. 

When you come back read through the lyrics and try and pick out any lines that do not fit the rythm of the song perfectly. Maybe in some lines you had to squeeze in more than one syllable into one beat. 

The more you write the more you get a feel for what sounds right and what doesn't in a song. To write a hit song it is absolutely vital that the lyrics do not contain a single bad line. It is generally true that no song ever got worse through being re-written, which is another reason why collaboration often helps, since 2 people working together can often pick out the minor flaws in each others writing.

If there is a section in the song for which the chords/melody don't quite sound right you need to change them, although personally I find this a very painful process. 

Once you have polished the song to the level that you think it requires then you need to commit it to tape, at least in a basic form. I usually just do a basic recording on a 4 track with guitar and vocals, if I have time also putting on some bass, drums and keyboards. 

At this stage I type out the lyrics/chords (use double spacing and put the chord symbols on top of the lyrics) and score a simple lead sheet on manuscript paper. The lead sheet is certainly not essential.

If you can play/sing and have good recording facilities you can go about making a proper demo of the song. Personally I have neither the time or talent to do this, so I send the song off to a studio and get session people to do this, specifying the style I require. 

Most songwriters want to be present at the studio themselves, although personally I haven't found that it makes a big improvement, other than the fact that you can be certain that the vocalist doesn't get the lyrics wrong (which happens quite often). Also make sure that the vocals are distinct and well up in the mix.

When you do the final mix-down make sure that you get a backing only version as well as the main demo. When I place songs with artists I am often required to provide a backing tape, and usually by that stage the 16 track master has been already erased. If you have a catalogue of around 250 songs as I have it is simply not practical to try and keep 16 track masters indefinitely. 

When I send songs out to publishers and artists I will generally only send three songs at a time, with typed lyric/chord sheets, and generic tapes or Cds with custom labels. I keep the cover letter very brief, but if possible follow up the letter with an email, in which I invite the contact to visit my site of they need more information about me.

Good Luck!

Toby Darling


Published with permission from Toby Darling at http://www.tobydarling.com


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