How do you learn songwriting from scratch? What should be included in Lesson 1 of a songwriting course? The answers depend on where you are starting from, where you want to get to, what kind of journey you are interested in, and what experiences you are willing to have along the way. What should you pack in your songwriter’s travel bag? Here are some suggestions.
The list is based on a number of assumptions. Whether you are primarily a music writer or a lyricist …
- … you can basically remember and ‘hold’ a tune (even if their voice is poor quality)
- … you can keep to a beat
- … you can feel and reproduce rhythms
- … you can hear/sense chord changes and notice details of musical texture (at least when they are pointed out)
- … you have an appreciation for musical phrasing
- … you are interested in the nuts and bolts of how music is put together
- … when it comes to words, you are interested in their meaning, their sound, narrative, character, message, emotion, imagery, linguistic devices, structure and design
In other words, as a songwriter, you must have some feel for the both the detail and the big picture of a song.
Bradford, Chris (2005) Heart and Soul: Revealing the Craft of Songwriting, Sanctuary Publishing
Bradford wrote this with the full endorsement of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) – and yes, it is worth your while thinking about joining. The book is full of practical ideas about the craft of songwriting, with key interviews, advice and insights from successful British songwriters. Most importantly, this book is packed with important guidance on how the music business works, how to protect your intellectual property, and has lists of songwriting competitions, showcase opportunities, industry organisations, reading lists and useful websites.
Forsyth, Mark (2013) The Elements of Eloquence: How To Turn the Perfect English Phrase, Icon Books, London
This is not likely to be on many songwriters’ shelves, but I think it makes a great contribution to any songwriter’s reference library. This a very entertaining read that shows how memorable (not neccesarily ‘great’) quotations and lines become memorable because of the linguistic tricks that writers through the centuries have used. Forsyth gives lots of famous examples, and manages to demonstrate each of the linguistic devices in the way he explains each one. A great teacher! [Read my notes]
Davis, Sheila (1985) The Craft of Lyric Writing, Writers’ Digest
I absolutely love this book, and believe that anyone serious about songwriting, or lyric writing, should get to know this book inside out. The book will help you understand song structures, the use of language, working with the sounds that words make, marrying words with music, telling stories, coming up with song ideas, and much more. [I am currently writing up my notes on this book, and will post them on the website.] Another popular title by Davis: Successful Lyric Writing: A Step by Step Course and Workbook (2001)
Davis, Sheila (1992) The Songwriter’s Idea Book, Writer’s Digest, USA
“40 strategies to excite your imagination, help you design distinctive songs, and keep your creative flow”. This book is full of useful exercises that help lyricists develop their creativity and craft skills. It also helps writers to understand their strengths and temperament, and shows how to avoid falling into the traps of becoming stale, repetitive or predictable.
Furia, Philip (1992) Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists, OUP
This is a great read. Furia analyses many song lyrics of famous songs (1900-1950) of a repertoire of song often referred to as ‘the great American songbook’. There is a reason so many of these songs are not only memorable, but timeless classics that are still being covered by new artists now, 70-80 years later. Songwriters can learn much from studying the songwriting geniuses of the past. [Read my notes]
Hammerstein II, Oscar (1949) ‘Notes on Lyrics’, in Hammerstein, William (ed.) (2002) Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, pp. 3-48
This is a beautiful, important and inspiring essay, and is as relevant to songwriters now as it was when Hammerstein first wrote it. [Read my notes]
Horowitz, Mark Eden (2010) Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions (2nd edition), Scarecrow Press
This book is for geeks (I love it!). It assumes a decent level of knowledge of music theory, and requires commitment from the reader, but is worth the effort. It works through the musicals, looking at the manuscripts, not pads and rough drafts, with detailed interviews answers from Sondheim about his creative process as a composer and lyricists. [If you want the key learning points, then read my notes]
Jenness, David and Velsey, Donald (2005) Classic American Popular Song: The Second Half-Century, 1950-2000, Routledge.
This picks up from the year where Philip Furia (‘Poets of Tin Pan Alley’) finishes.
Lees, Gene (1987) ‘How To Write Lyrics’, in Modern Rhyming Dictionary
The introduction to the dictionary is short and packed with useful advice, with a particularly interesting section on the difference between using sophisticated or more direct vocabulary. He has wise advice about syllable combinations that are easy or hard for singers. [Read my notes]
Lennard, John (2005) ‘Introduction’ in New Oxford Rhyming Dictionary, pp. ix-xxxii
This is a clear description of different kinds of rhyme and rhyme schemes in poetry and lyrics. [Read my notes]
Modern Rhyming Dictionary A Practical Guide To Lyric Writing For Song (1987) Cherry Lane Music
Useful for American rhymes (not always the same as British!).
New Oxford Rhyming Dictionary (2006 / 2012) OUP
These rhymes are based on British pronunication. Songwriters need to consider what accent they are writing for, as rhymes depend on this.
Pattison, Pat (2009) Writing Better Lyrics: the essential guide for powerful songwriting, Writer’s Digest
This book has short chapters that get straight to their point every time. Pattison shows how different uses of language (a change of tense, the use of a pronoun, playing with an image) can send a lyric off course, or make it hit just the right spot. The exercises are easy to understand, and well worth doing. Pattison is the principal teacher of songwriting for the Berklee College of Music that also runs online courses. Among the books used on the course are: Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure: Tools and Techniques for Writing Better Lyrics (1991); Songwriting Without Boundaries: Lyric Writing Exercises for Finding Your Voice (2012); Songwriting: Essential Guide to Rhyming: A Step-by-step Guide to Better Rhyming and Lyrics (2014)
Perricone, Jack (2001) Melody in Songwriting: tools and techniques for writing hit songs, Berklee Guide
If we really want to develop as composers, we must immerse ourselves in as much music as possible, and in as many different styles as possible. Our brains must absorb the deep structures and patterns of music and sound by listening to and making every possible type of music. That way, music becomes our ‘mother tongue’ which we can express ourselves. At the same time, it is extremely useful to learn in a more technical way how music is put together. Perricone (co-founder of Berklee College of Music) has written an excellent book on what melody is, how it can be shaped in different ways for different effects, and its relationship to harmony, rhythm, song structure, style, and so on.
Rachel, Daniel (2013) Isle of Noises: Conversations with great British songwriters, Picador
The excellent British equivalent of Paul Zollo’s American ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’, this book contains fascinating summaries of the songwriters’ careers and notable songs, along with interviews about their creative process. Contributors include: Ray Davies, Robin Gibb, Jimmy Page, Joan Armatrading, Paul Weller, Sting, Madness, Annie Lennox, Billy BRagg, Damon Albarn, Noel Gallagher, Jarvis Cocker, Lily Allen and others.
Rooksby, Rikky (2000) How To Write Songs On Guitar: a guitar-playing and songwriting course, Backbeat Books, pp. 117-136
Rikky (see his website) is a walking encyclopedia of songs and songwriting methods, and author of a multi-volume series on songwriting for Backbeat Books. He has also published over 200 interviews, reviews, articles and transcriptions in music magazines. [Read my notes on his ideas on lyric writing] Also take a good look at How To Write Songs On Keyboards: a complete course to help you write better songs (2005) and Lyrics: writing better words for your songs (2006).
‘Sammy Cahn, Beverly Hills, California 1991’, an interview in Zollo (1991/2003), pp.27-36
[Read my notes]
Sondheim, Stephen (2010) Finishing the Hat: The Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, with attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes
Sondheim’s own account of what makes for good lyric writing, and how this combines with music, is essential reading. Just reading his lyrics is an eeducation in itself. [Read my notes]
Songwriter’s Rhyming Dictionary, Souvenir, London
[Read my notes] for Cahn, Sammy (1984) ‘Introduction’, pp. xiii-xliv
Stolpe, Andrea, with Jan Stolpe (2015) Beginning Songwriting: writing your own lyrics, melodies and chords, Berklee Press
Stolpe is one of the main teachers for the Berklee College of Music. She gives some excellent ways into writing, whether you start with a groove / rhythm, a chord sequence, a fragment of a tune (melodic motif), an image, a random collection of words, a story, a single word or a title. The exercises are very do-able, and enjoyable – some of them can be done with songwriting groups and buddies. The book also contains some useful beginner information on music theory (notation, note lengths, scales and keys, rhythms, chords and harmony etc).
Webb, Jimmy (1999) Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting
This is often recommended on booklists for songwriters, and I can see why. It is packed full of the life experience of a very successful songwriter. Webb explores creativity, lyric writing, harmony, song structure, the music business, building a career, collaborating and much more. I think he is too quick to dismiss the world of classical music, and suspect it is an area he may not be particularly with – either its music, or its techniques. However, this is a useful book for any aspiring, or even professional, songwriter. [Read my notes]
Wilder, Alec (1972) American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, OUP
While Philip Furia’s book (‘Poets of Tin Pan Alley’) focuses on the lyrics of the period, this focuses on the music, and these two books work well as a pair. Wilder provides some incisive analysis of the music. One could argue that he has failed to give proper attention to the importance of the marriage of words with music. However, this is a classic, and benefits from its author having worked with many of the composers he mentions. [my notes forthcoming]
Zollo, Paul (1991/2003) Songwriters on Songwriting, Da Capo Press – interesting interviews of a huge number of songwriters on their craft and career
This is the detailed work of years of interviews with several generations of songwriters. We hear the writers talking about music, lyrics, songwriting and the music business, and insightful anecdotes about the creation of specific songs that are now part of our international heritage. Zollo has done us an enormous service in putting together this collection.