How to Write a Song: Songwriting Method and Tips HTML version

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Before You Start: Understanding the Rock Genre
All genres have standard themes and structures. Blues are usually about troubled relationships and
difficult lives and set to the 12 bar blues. Country is about pick up trucks and cheaters and rest on C and
G. Rock is no exception. If you want to write a hit song, the public needs to identify with the topics you are
talking about, the basic form of the song, a familiar chord progression and the words and small phrases
that are used to be recognizable as the art form known as “Rock”.
One “weird” line, word or chord progression can turn off a listener who is used to a certain style of music.
You need to stick to what audiences know as the “type of music they like”. Even an “out-there” band like
Tool sticks the common rock themes of sex and drugs, and basically revolves around the pentatonic
rock/blues scale. Originality only counts if you have a firm foundation in the genre and then you add your
own slight twist.
Think about it. There are only three elements to a song - the words, melody and chord progression. So
what determines whether or not a song is a hit, is the words, melody and chords that are chosen to make
up that song. For your song to be a hit you must choose words, chords and a melody that your audience
identifies with immediately as “that’s cool, that band sounds like so and so, but with a new original sound!”.
Using words, phrases, songs structures and chord progressions that are common to your genre is not
copyright infringement, its part of carrying on a tradition.
At first it feels really strange to outright borrow from other artists. In fact, it’s a humbling experience to put
aside the need to make a song totally “mine”. However, you’ll come to understand that that’s just how
things work when you are in the business of pleasing people who are fans of a certain genre. What if
Snoop Dog starting rapping about his new pick-up truck or how much he loves his son?? That would be
ridiculous of course, because those are popular country themes. Or what if BB King started singing about
doing drive by shootings?
It’s easy to pinpoint the themes in country, rap and the blues. But do you know the common themes in
rock? Sure, there’s sex and drugs, but you’re a rock songwriter so do you know at least 3 more of the top
of your head? Would you be surprised when I tell you that the idea of freedom, certain colors, and various
elements of the earth permeate songs from every major rock band? Sounds odd, I know, but I can prove it
if you keep reading.
When I discovered how blatantly all the major rock stars rip each other’s ideas off, it actually made me mad
that I wasn’t in on it the whole time!! That’s until I understood that “Rock” is an art form just like
“Impressionism” or “Cubism”. That means there is a school of thought, mentors, teachers, traditions,
themes, philosophies and images that are a part of that art form. Great writers like Dylan, Maynard from
Tool, Kurt Cobain, Sting and all the others all know this instinctively. That’s why not so great writers
struggle for ideas, get writers block and throw out half the songs they write.
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