Ideas and Advice for Real Songwriters (formerly http://healthsavy.com


Songwriting isn’t lyric writing, even for Bowie

This morning on the today program I heard an interview with Nick Troop, a songwriter who claimed to be doing a psychological study of songwriting to investigate psychological health or… something.

A brief investigation took me to Nick’s websites, and the first thing to point out, as Nick does, is that his analysis is not supposed to be scientific, and not supposed to be taken to seriously. It’s a bit of fun, although I’m sure it would be interesting to genuinely investigate the interaction between psychological health and songwriting.

His website ‘The Gospel According to David Bowie‘ analyses Bowie’s songs from a number of different angles. Unfortunately where I think he misses a trick is that he’s only analysing the lyrics. He even talks about the difficulty of analysing Low because it has so few words.

When I was still studying I wrote a dissertation on genre in heavy metal, which brought me into contact with a lot of pop music analysis. Almost all of it is useless, for the simple reason that it refuses to engage with the actual music. Sociology related to pop music seemed to have similarities (though I read far less of that), and I can’t comment about psychological work related to pop music, except to point out that lyrics are a small part of popular music, and most certainly not the primary conveyors of meaning.

I’m a little dissapointed that Nick hasn’t teamed up with a musicologist to properly analyse Bowie’s music.

Bowie, as far as I am aware, has written only one song that is directly about his personal life (the excellent Jump, They Say). His lyrics have always been distant, and he has rarely worn his heart on his sleeve. The whole point of Bowie’s music has been to explore the interplay of character, theatre, artifice. He has also often written for other people, with all the implications that might have for self expression, and made use of various word randomising techniques which suggest a minimal regard at times for the literal meaning of the words. He has also referred to his deliberately commercial 80s albums as his ‘pension plan’ and written accordingly. I’m not sure how one could ever tell which of Bowie’s lyrics literally reflect his emotional state, and which are pastiche or parody, or simply far less to do with his own psychology.

And more importantly, lyric writing is not songwriting. If you want to analyse Bowie’s music, and you’re not going to talk about the gospel chord changes in Word on a Wing or Space Oddity, the use of improvisation and the use of the studio as a tool, his showcasing of excellent soloists, the riffs of Carlos Alomar, the tension between Bowie’s and Eno’s approach to arrangement… then really you’ve missed so much I wonder what the point is.

I know, I know, Nick Troop is only having fun and I’m not saying his articles aren’t interesting. I just think Bowie’s songwriting has always been about much more than his lyrics.

PS. Nick Troop is also a pretty good songwriter in his own right. Have a listen to the tracks on

Songwriting Sketches – The Exorcism of Marjorie Grace

For the 50/90 challenge I’d thought I’d try something different and write a set of lyrics before I composed any music. Usually, I write lyrics and music at the same time, starting of with melody ideas and a mixture of possible lyrics, nonsense verse and random ‘la’ and ‘doo’ sounds. This time I forced myself to write lyrics to ‘The Exorcism of Marjorie Grace’ before I sang a note.

I haven’t finished yet, I’m about halfway. However, I’ve recorded some sketches, so I thought I’d share the process with you.

Sketch one – The chorus melody

Something interesting happened as I was writing the lyrics. The music started to come to me anyway, even though it was just me, the pen and the paper. It became clear that the rhythm of the words fit with a 6/8 time signature, and would sound something like the first section off the video.

Sketch two – Verses, choruses and some instrumental ideas

I haven’t quite defined them yet, but there are going to be some twiddley guitar parts centred on arpeggios of the root minor chord and the second diminished chord.

The verses also use those chords, but with an extra major sixth in the minor chord to contrast with the minor sixth of the scale in chord 2. This allows me to emphasise those notes in the melody, moving from the B to a Bb and then A, G, D. A couple of chromatic notes give’s the music a dark feel, which matches the mood nicely.

Sketch 3 – Middle eight and final chorus

The middle 8 is longer than 8 bars, and takes a simple idea through three different keys. This matches the rising tension as they try to Exorcise Marjorie.

The final chorus is in the major key instead of the minor. That’s a simple idea but not one I often use. Marjorie is now free of her demons so the music reflects her new hope.

Hopefully the song will be finished some time soon. When it is, I’ll share it with you.

No related posts.

Quick Tip – Don’t be a Slave To Songwriting Convention

Marking students coursework at my school, I came to a song that I gave almost full marks to.

One reason for the high marks was the song’s fantastic, subtle playing with songwriting conventions.

The Bridge – The bridge happens after the second chorus, right? Not according to my student. Instead she put it between the 2nd verse and 2nd chorus. Right at the point I was expecting to hear the chorus again, I instead heard a contrasting minor key and a new bridge I hadn’t heard before. This the effect of creating a pleasing, balanced feel despite it being a short song. It was also suprising in musical way, which is always a good thing.

4s – Everything in popular song comes in fours, right? Four bar phrases, creating four line melodies, four lin verses, four line choruses. Not according to my student. Instead, she had a really effective verse that had a three line melody.

Neither of these ideas is new, and neither is a radical departure from ’standard’ structure. However, they do show a young songwriter who is confident enough to play with conventions without abandoning them.

PS One thing we don’t mark on the GCSE is the quality of lyrics. This student could possibly use some help on her lyrics, and with my own songwriting I’m feeling the same, so here are some links on lyric writing:

Ultimate Songwriting Lessons – Songwriting Hooks and Songwriting Meat

I just stumbled across this video, via this post.

It’s from this website.

First off, let me make clear that I have a very low opinion of sales pages like this one. I know they’ve been shown to work, that they’re ‘good marketing,’ but I really don’t like them.

However, don’t take that us an opinion of the book, as I haven’t read it, I’ve just seen the video.

A few thoughts occured as I watched, and I made some rough notes:

  • The narrator equates artistic worth with ‘lyrical depth’. Personally I would argue that lyrics are not the main conveyor of meaning in popular song – meaning comes from other parts of the song as well.
  • Suggesting that ‘Satisfaction’ by the Stones has lyrical depth is probably pushing things.
  • The Cardigans hook is great, but I want more meat in this analysis. For example, the hook is not just the guitar part, it’s the combination of a relatively static two pitch guitar riff over a moving chord progression. The rhythm of the guitar riff – emphasising beats 2 and 4 like the snare drum, probably has something to do with it, as does the A A A B structure of the riff.

Hooks are generally good because they emphasise or play with our expectations.

Take that fantastic Satisfaction guitar riff – yes it has only three pitches and a really unique timbre, but we can say more than that.

For a start, the chords underneath are E and A. The riff follows the chords starting on a B note in the E chord before moving through a Csharp to a D. When we come to the A chord the guitar is playing a D, creating an A sus4 chord that then resolves to the Csharp and a straight A chord.

So it’s taken a suspended chord we’re very used to from choral music (and lots of other styles) and transposed it to a rhythm and blues setting.

The Kylie Minogue hook is worth mentioning because the meat of it is so wonderfully simple – all those off beat notes, plus a melody that traces a simple line between two chords that are a fifth apart – just like in Satisfaction.

I’ve only watched the one video from this website, and they definitely look worthwhile. Whether the ugly sales page is a good move is up to you.

3 Great Songwriting Posts

There are plenty of good songwriting bloggers out there, so I thought I’d share some of the good writing out there.

I’ve been known to complain about songwriting er… writing. My biggest gripe is those posts that confuse songwriting with lyric writing and imply that all you need think about are the words you use.

But of course lyrics, while not the whole thing, are very important. So here’s a great post about rewriting your lyrics by Andrea Stolpe

Post 1 –Quick Rewriting Tips

I particularly like her advice on using specific, interesting verbs, rather than generic ones.

On the subject of lyric writing, Gary Ewer has some thoughts on whether lyrics should rhyme:

Post 2 –Should my lyrics rhyme?

He makes an interesting point about the dangers of rhyming for the sake of rhyming.

The danger of rhyming lyrics is when the rhyming seems forced. If you find yourself giving up on a more natural way of saying something in favour of a rhyming but forced lyric, you can make your song seem a bit corny.

I couldn’t agree more. After all if you’ve a word that absolutely conveys your meaning, that doesn’t quite fit your rhyme scheme, it will still often be preferable to a less expressive, but easily rhyming word. Rhyming itself can make a lyric seem easy and safe, which isn’t always a good thing.

Gary also makes the point that lyrics are not the only way of conveying meaning to reader. I’d go further and suggest that ini pop music the words are very rarely the primary conveyer of meaning. we get more musical meaning from melody groove and harmony than we do from most pop music lyrics, even when the words are well written.

But that’s a big subject for a bigger blog post.

Post 3 – A very good place to start

This post from Songwritten has some interesting things to say about melody, including a list of ‘Manic Melodic Methods’.

Melody is the most important part of your song, at least most of the time, and it’s always worth thinking hard about.

That’s all i have for this morning, but if you’ve seen any good songwriting articles recenty, let me know!

Oh, and you’ve got a copy of my free ebook, right?

Songwriting by Numbers part 1 – Title and Lyrics Lyrics

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Welcome to the first in a series of articles in which I’ll write a song ‘by numbers’. What do I mean by that? I’m going to write a song as an exercise to illustrate a lot of common songwriting points. I’m going to go through it step by step, one element at a time. Now, songwriting is supposed to be a challenge to discover something new and different. But not this time. This one’s going to be an exercise and nothing more. It’s going to be cheesy, it’s going to be one huge cliché, it’s going to have bad lyrics and an …

Songwriting Worksheets

In my everyday life as a music teacher, I tend to design quite a lot of worksheets.

In my online life trying to share songwriting ideas, I’ve never put this skill into use. Until now, that is.

You see, a written worksheet can be a very useful thing. As songwriters we’re often scribbling on random bits of paper. A worksheet, properly designed, can give order to the chaos of our ideas, doodlings and scribbles.

It can help us make sense of what we’re writing.

Worksheets for the Songwriting Guitarist

That’s the working title for my new ebook, which I’m going to gradually publish over the next few months. Here’s the first installment:

The Lyric Brainstormer

Lyric writing can be one of the most difficult parts of the songwriting process. Part of the problem can be the sheer size of the task. Where do you start? Simply writing down the first line and going on from there isn’t always the best thing to do.

The lyric brainstormer is here to help!

This sheet is designed to help you order your thoughts before you start writing lyrics.

I find the keywords/ideas boxes particularly useful because they allow you to draw parallels and connections. In my example, a song about the fear of new technology, I had the theme of futuristic technology, and words, like stars, sun, machines. This neatly chimed with both the phrase ‘nothing new under sun’ and the idea of luddites smashing machines.

Ropes around the Sun

Will we wait till men are up there,
Tying ropes around the sun?
Will we still be scared of reason
Will we walk or will we run?

We made a prison of our nightmares
Conjured locks and books and chains
Will we move with change of season?
Or will we fall behind again?

Got that hammer in our hands now
Time to smash these cold machines
Oh won’t we live the same centuries again?

Splitting light and chasing fusion
Soon we’ll cut the sky in half
Will we still be scared to leave here,
When we’ve stained the sky so dark?

Finally, when all the clouds boil away,
We will need the ropes around the sun.

And here’s the worksheet for you to have fun with:
Lyric Brainstormer.pdf
Lyric Brainstormer.doc


Second FAWM song

Black water’

First draft lyrics:

Treading water, wound in my side
Overboard in the dark of the night
grinning faces threw me to my doom
and now my arms and legs burn with the strain

Threw me right in, cursing my sins
here alone, I’ll admit that they’re right
All the traces, the things that I’ve done
I thought I’d get away with all that pain

Black water, Floating out on the tide
Salt water, filling me up inside

Once a while ago, thought I might stop
Though I’d sinned there was time to make right
And now pace has, become too much,
as I go under I begin to pray

Black water, Floating out on the tide
Salt water, filling me up inside

But a rescue comes at last
Rough hands pull me out
cold lips on mine
some god took pity on me
some ragged angel came to my side

And if I’ve my time back,
Might I make things right?

But who’s gonna take me in?
If I find a way out of here?

Ideas to steal:

  • Main riff is in 7/8
  • chorus melody is the same little phrase twice with very different chords underneath: Eb Maj 7 F#min7 Bmin Faug.
  • Structure is dictated by the story, so there’ s a big change in pace on the line ‘But a rescue comes at last’

Some more fawmers: Elaine DiMasiMike SkliarPhil NormanPigfarmer Jr

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Stealing songwriting techniques from Cole Porter’s Anything Goes

I briefly mentioned this song in a recent post. This isn’t the best performance of it, but it will do for our purposes (here’s another recording).

There are some songwriting ideas worth pointing out (and stealing).

1. The lyrics

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
was looked on as something shocking,
now heaven knows
Anything goes.

Do I really need to say anything about these, other than to mention that they’re brilliant?

2. The choice of scale

That verse melody only uses a Major pentatonic scale. That, combined with a three note pattern over a 4/4 time signature, followed by a high-note climax and you’ve got a killer eight bar melody

3. The Structure.

Notable structural elements include an extended introduction and the use of what was a standard form in the ‘Great American Songbook’: the AABA, or 32 bar song structure.

What is that? Simple: take an 8 bar melody, like the one that fits the lyrics above, repeat it with different words ala Strophic form, then throw in a middle 8 bars that contrast in some way, before finally repeating the first 8 bar melody.

None of them are new ideas, and Cole Porter didn’t invent them (though he did use them particularly well), so why not see if you can use them too?

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How to write a melody that works

Everyone composes from different starting points, whether with chords, melody, lyrics or a tiny snippet of an idea recorded months earlier. Sooner or later you are going to need a melody, but thankfully there’ a suprising consensus on what makes an effective melody. So much so that it’s possible to list common features:

1. Note choice. There tends to be a good balance between stepwise motion and leaps – too much leaping from one note to another can sound disjointed, but well judged leaping in pitch can be wonderfully expressive. Interesting non-chord notes are also often emphasised.

2. Rhythm first. try this out on friends: tap the rhythm to a famous tune, then then play the pitches – with the wrong rhythm – to another famous tune. Which will they recognise? The rhythm of course, providing its catchy enough (and most famous tunes do have a catchy rhythm).

What is a catchy rhythm? One that does’t use too many different note values, one that has some repetition.

3. Climax! This doesn’t have to be the highest note, but it often is. Take the verse of Cole Porter’s ‘Anyhing Goes’. – Two lines in a constricted range, suddenly leaping up to a climax on the line ‘Heaven Knows…’


Yes, you’ll be able to think of melodies that don’t share every single one of those three, but if you’re writing a melody that isn’ quite working, maybe its time to sit back and appraise it. Are leaping between pitches too much? Is there enough rhythmic variation? Too much? Is your highest note at the wrong point?

After the moment of inspiration, a little thought is sometimes required.

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