I was asked to teach a couple of workshops on songwriting a few years back at some of my all-time favorite California bluegrass festivals, including the CBA Father’s Day Festival in Grass Valley, Bluegrassin’ in the Foothills in Plymouth and the Mid-state Bluegrass Festival in Paso Robles.
In preparation for those workshops, I put together the following notes that I thought might be useful to ponder and chat about, sitting in the grass in the shade of tall trees. Nothing like an acoustic guitar, kindred friends / musicians / songwriters and a shady spot to stretch out on a warm summer day.
Before you begin…
- What inspires you to want to write a song?
- What do you want to say that’s unique? Expressive? Thoughtful?
- Write about a topic that you personally care about
- Listen often to other artists you enjoy
- Study the songwriting styles of other artists who inspire you
- Be ready to answer the call of the muse—whenever and however it happens—with pen and paper, tape recorder and/or your instrument
- Remember: every song ever written was built on the same limited palette of notes that is available to every songwriter
Writing the song…
- Possible starting points: an inspirational topic, a memorable phrase, a story you want to tell, a chord progression, a cool riff, a melody line, a chorus, free-form experimentation
- Be open minded about where your first idea may ultimately lead you
- When writing lyrics, establish a logical pattern of meter and rhyme
- Avoid sounding contrived in melody and verse. In other words, just because you can doesn’t mean you should
- In writing words and melodies, simpler is often better
- Be specific about how the melody is supposed to go
- The memorability test: Is the melody one that you can hum or whistle?
- Vowel sounds are easier to sing than hard consonants
Putting it all together…
- Ask someone else to perform your song so you can listen to it objectively
- Evaluate the continuity of the entire song once you’ve developed it
- Don’t be reluctant to edit the song, even after you’ve decided it’s done
- It helps to lay a finished song aside and return to it later with a fresh ear
- Don’t let the opinions of others derail you
- Like any other worthwhile pursuit—don’t give up, be persistent, be prolific