How To Write A Song

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from SecondHand Trpytophan (original posting July 5, 2008), where I was a guest author for a day. Thanks, Karl for making me write a blog entry, which I think was the longest I had written to that point. As soon as I find your email address, I’ll ask permission to reprint this. (Since I wrote it, I didn’t think you would mind.) I have edited it to remove some of the more scandalous parts, which is why I included a link to the original. For anyone that is trying to figure out how my mind works (a futile effort, perhaps), this may explain parts of it. This is how I will end up creating at least a couple of the poems this month. You have been warned.

How to Write a Song

There are any number of basic ways to write a song, with varying levels of complexity. This article will show you a couple of time-honored shortcuts to help you on your way to quickly becoming a successful composer. Once you’re composing songs, you form a band, and you’re on your way to stardom and easy riches!

Traditional Composition Method

The traditional method of musical composition requires copious study and hard work and has been practiced for centuries by many geniuses (and many not so much.)

First, you have to learn to write both music and lyrics, which can take some time, but may be worth the effort if you’re going to do this for a living and not just try to cash out with one big hit. You could choose to only learn half of the composing job (either words or music), but then you would have to find your own Bernie Taupin or your own Elton John, which implies that there are more than one of each in the universe.

Stop and consider that for a moment. Multiple Reginald Dwights running around with their hair (and Lord knows what else) plugged. Hmm. Have you stopped shuddering yet? Let’s continue.

Then, you must learn an instrument, so you have a way of reproducing your music, rather than just trying to do it in your head or trying to hum everything. This is the hard way. Nobody does anything the hard way these days, except possibly the Amish, and they don’t sing very much, and they’re probably not on the web.

Assisted Composition Method

A simpler way is to take some mind-altering drugs and then write whatever comes to mind. Lyrics can sometimes appear very quickly with this method, so have a pen and paper ready before ingesting the drugs. You may want to mark the pen as “the pen” to make sure you can identify it when needed. It might be easier to just set up a tape recorder. Remember to speak clearly, about 2″ away from the microphone. If you can’t speak clearly, you have very good drugs. Don’t try to work. Just enjoy it. If you can’t breathe, you’ve overdosed. This is a problem if you haven’t already started a career, but a boost to sales if you have.

The challenge of this method is that the quality of the song produced is often directly related to the quality (and quantity) of the drugs ingested, so for every “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup” (which is basically poetry defined) that you compose, you will get at least forty-two variations on “Damn. That’s one big pink elephant and I need to pee.” which really doesn’t rhyme with anything.

The Xriva Method

The most time-effective way to write a song is to just borrow someone else’s music and possibly even their lyrics, especially when you’re just getting started as a composer. This is called “stealing” by the record companies, “sampling” by rap artists, and “parody” by Weird Al. However, if you borrow dead people’s music, it’s called “to the tune of” and that’s the best way of all.

If anyone ever complains about your song re-using an older tune rather than your writing your own music from scratch, you can just say, “Hey, it’s not like Francis Scott Key wrote the bloody music to the Star-Spangled Banner! It was originally a drinking song!” (History will show they were drinking Guinness, the drink of gods, a meal in a bottle, the blood of an Irishman. If you’ve had four or five pints, you’ll understand the tune. You will still not understand The Star-Spangled Banner.) This is a good defense, and also shows you are a musical historian as well as a composer.

Find a tune that you like (say “Camptown Races“, which everybody seems to know), and when your lyrics are complete, your new song is instantly ready to be performed by many other people. These performances are called “cover versions.” People who are performing “cover versions” simply pay royalties to perform your music, instead of writing their own from scratch. Royalties are how Sir Paul McCartney could afford to get divorced recently. (I believe in “Yesterday”, indeed.)

Next, find a subject you know something about, or would like to know more about. (Just remember, if you don’t know much about the subject, you might have to do research, which can rather be time-consuming and cut into your musical career.)

Most people seem to write about love or sex. In rock music, it’s usually love. In country music, it’s usually lost love. In blues, they often write about death, usually during or shortly after sex.

Many artists find that in addition to a subject, they also require a muse – someone to help inspire their work. The muse often is the subject of the song. This could be your spouse, your lover, someone you want to be your lover or your Old English Sheepdog. When I first heard a writer had a muse, I heard “amuse”, so all of my songs tend to be humorous. Somewhat.

Since I’m old and married, I often write about the perils of growing older, like losing my keys or garlic-induced farts. My lovely Spousal Unit is my muse, so I often tend to write songs just to annoy her, which is what happens as muses age. However, I want my work to be taken seriously, so I usually end my song titles with “Blues.” This means something sad is either going to happen in the song, or has happened recently and is the main theme. Now, if you’ve ever been around somebody farting, it’s pretty sad, especially if it’s an enclosed space. Having your song be a blues song also means you don’t need to play many notes on a guitar to actually perform the song.

[One more great thing about the blues – you generally only write about half a song, since everything is repeated. So, instead of having to explain why Karl seems so sad today, you just say “Karl is dyin’ inside, Yes, Karl is dyin’ inside”, which makes the point more subtly. Then, you go on to the next verse, which is probably about sex or someone else dying or perhaps Karl’s favorite porn site being down.]

An Annotated Example

Here is an annotated version of my newest song, to show you how to put this all together. It’s a rather short piece, which demonstrates that good songs don’t need to be really long to be successful (four minutes of “na na na na Hey Jude “, my ass.) However, all good songs should have a backstory – which is why VH1 can produce so many “Storytellers” episodes.

Here is the backstory for this particular song. My Spousal Unit and I took my vegetarian niece to our local Genghis Grill recently, since it is one of the few places in the bloody universe that she can eat her damn vegetables while I can actually get some cooked dead animals and not just assorted leaves and berries. (However, I am not bitter about vegetarians. I love them. Especially baked.) While choosing the ingredients for my delicious Mongolian stir-fry, I slightly overdid the amount of fresh garlic on my entree. Had I been an automobile, the results would be called a “backfire.” In a restaurant, it requires looking askance at the table next to you, which is called “diverting the blame.”

I thought it was worth writing a song about this condition, mainly as a warning to future generations on the dangers of excess garlic, not that any Italians would ever listen to me. Actually, the first line just popped into my head, so I had to finish the rest of it, since the Spousal Unit and my niece both seemed disturbed when I recited the opening line in the car going home (more backstory.) As an aside, “Camptown Races” is a good basis for many songs, since if you just leave the “doo-dah”s in, you have that much less to write lyrically. This gives you time to actually bring out the joy or angst in the rest of your lyrics, depending on your mood.

I also wisely used the name of the company in the title of the song. This is called “product placement.” If the song is popular, maybe they would sponsor my tour. They could also post the lyrics at their stores, for a small fee, payable to me. Posting lyrics without writing music is called “poetry” and it is a good way to meet chicks, almost as good as writing songs. It is also a good way to do half a songwriter’s job, and still get full credit as an artist.

Genghis Grill [1] Blues [2]

by Blind John Ellsworth [4]
to the tune of “Camptown Races” [3]

Daddy’s having Genghis Gas [5]
Doo-dah, Doo-dah
Flames are shooting out his ass [6]
All the doo-dah day. [7]

Got the runs all night, [8]
Got the runs all day.

Too much garlic every time
It always ends this way. [9]

Garlic’s good on anything
Doo-dah, Doo-dah
“Til it makes your anus [10] sing
All the doo-dah day

Got the runs all night, [11]
Got the runs all day.

Give me garlic every time
To blow my cares away. [12]

Garlic comes in bulbs and cloves [13]
Doo-dah, doo-dah
Spread it on some toasted loaves
That’s garlic bread [14]

Got the runs all night,
Got the runs all day

Garlic is a tasty plant
That keeps vampires at bay. [15]

Garlic, garlic everywhere
Garlic, Garlic [16]
It can help you keep your hair [17]
All the Garlic day

Got the runs all night,
Got the runs all day

Garlic helps your penis grow [18]
Your lover shouts “Hooray!”

Notes

  1. product placement
  2. a blues song – which means a serious subject ahead!
  3. so Stephen Foster’s descendants don’t sue immediately
  4. a pseudonym, also helps deflect lawsuits
  5. slightly more subtle product placement
  6. the pain promised by “blues” title
  7. don’t rewrite every line – that’s just overkill
  8. a pun, based on the original lyrics to make sure the audience pays attention
  9. “ends”? in a fart song? I crack me up.
  10. use the proper term in printed lyrics to seem more intelligent, just change it when singing to “asshole” or “buttocks” to seem more bluesy
  11. repeat the chorus so the slow folks can still sing along
  12. again with the fart puns?
  13. learned this on the Food Network – possible product placement in future verses
  14. change from usual verse structure – just to show we can
  15. remind non-Italians why they know about garlic besides garlic bread
  16. clever changing of the chorus like George Harrison changing “hallelujah” to “hare krishna”
  17. Anti-spam mechanism. Why click on ads if you can just eat garlic?
  18. More anti-spam. Upgrade my penis, indeed.

So, that’s it. Now, you’ve seen how to write a song, using an existing tune and produced four verses, so you can have a three-verse single plus an extended album version with naughty bits they won’t play on the radio. You’re humming “Genghis Gas” now, aren’t you? Where are my royalties?

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