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Dan Gray Webmaster

Dan Gray, Singer/Songwriter Recording Artist, Daddy, Husband and friend

Songwriter's Tools

TAXI: The Independent A&R Vehicle connecting unsigned artists, bands and songwriters with major record labels, publishers, and film & TV music supervisors.

Dan's Songwriting Tips

  1. Don't be afraid to rewrite. You may have to take out your favorite line in your favorite song to change it from a good song to a great song.
  2. The first 2 lines are like the setup in a movie, you have to establish the main characters, the plot and the feel of the song in the setup.
  3. A chorus is to reiterate in short form the verses, or two answer/complete the issues raised in the verses.
  4. A bridge, or release is a musical short to "reset" the listener’s ear, and to allow a lyrical tangent to redirect the story.
  5. Assonance, Consonance, Alliteration, near rhyme and true rhyme are tools you'll use, learn them!
  6. We speak in Iambic Pentameter, so it is difficult not to write lyrics in that mode. However, if you leave some space, vary the lengths of the lines, it will add intrigue to your work.
  7. Great songs often consist of bad poetry. Great poems seldom equate to great lyrics and songs.
  8. A Chorus is usually short and sweet and to the point. A listener should be able to sing the hook by the end of the song - the first time through.
  9. Try an exercise where you write a song about a household product - but change the meaning. (like Black Flag = quitting a lovers' quarrel)
  10. Try to write conversationally. Don't invert your sentences for a rhyme (Good, it would not be! hehe, unless you're Yoda)
  11. A story and a song have the same elements, an opener, a setup, a beginning a middle, an end, a plot, conflict, a protagonist, an antagonist, a hero, foreshadowing, can you think of more great songwriting tools? Use them all!
  12. Get into the hook within 30 seconds.
  13. Some popular songwriting forms are VCVCBC or some other close variant such as VVCVVC (no bridge, two verses) or VVCVCBC
  14. Binary form is Verse, Verse, Bridge, Verse (New York State of Mind by Billy Joel)
  15. Use the "commuter" test. If your song comes on the radio during a commute time, with traffic, shaving, etc, will it be remembered?
  16. Music listeners have short attention spans, and they expect to hear what they are used to. Learn the rules, and tweak them for individuality.
  17. Rules were meant to be broken. So learn the rules to great songwriting so that you may more gleefully break them!
  18. Copyright your music! It's yours, protect it. A hit song can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars... be cautious, but don't be paranoid!
  19. Be flexible when you're starting out, don't chase off great projects by being a busy body, or by insisting on unreasonable terms.
  20. The back door still leads into the house. Don't be a pest, but often great songwriting connections are made through people you know. It's a people business!
  21. The world obviously needs more love songs, listen to the radio! Write a song about a fresh way to look at love today!
  22. Replace the word "Love" in a lyric you've written with something else to add new spice to it.
  23. Try writing a "dictionary" song. Pick ten Nouns out of the dictionary. Then pick ten Adjectives. Match them up for some really unique and fresh song concepts!
  24. Make up a word! Wrap a song around it. Listen to Beck! You might just learnicate!
  25. Collaborate often, and be open to new ideas. This is where growth happens quickly!
  26. Try replacing tired verbs (walk, run, sleep) with different ones for stronger imagery (The children wriggled up to the candy counter)
  27. Use active verbs to make tired lyrics spring to life! "The trees are pretty and green" becomes "The trees stroke the air in the breeze" Now there's a picture for you. Paint me a word picture!
  28. Don't forsake the gathering of yourselves together (hey, that sounds familiar! hehe) it's true, throw a songwriting coffee at your house today! Join the local club, meet new friends, have a songwriting ball!
  29. Lyrics are the bedrock of a great pop song. Become a great lyric writer.
  30. Melody is the key to unlocking a great pop song. Learn to write melodies. Buy a $20 keyboard and learn to peck out interesting notes with your lyrics. Then surround yourself with great musicians who can help you flesh those ideas out!
  31. Metaphor and simile are two of the most powerful songwriting tools. Simile is "like" a breath of fresh air, and Metaphor is a comfortable pair of shoes on a 10 mile walk. Learn to use them; your songs will be MUCH better.
  32. When using an "ing" word, make sure you haven't replaced a more powerful statement with a passive one. Thinking like that is making little sense. Don't think like that! :)
  33. Try to write something every day. Great songwriting is a habit. Learn the tools of the craft, spend a little time each day, and the inspiration will find you! Einstein said that if someone did a thing for 20 minutes a day, that person would be an expert, no matter what the topic! He was pretty smart, he might be right. :)
  34. Find a nice comfortable place to write. If you're writing in a workshop, make sure it's neat and organized, and that all your tools are around you within easy reach. Cluttered workspaces equate to cluttered thought processes, and unless you're in free form mode, a tidy space will work better (I can almost hear you clutterheads SCREAMING at me! hehe)
  35. Use the verses to "set up" the hook (the title usually) in the chorus, or at the end of the verses. Use the hook to Pay off the verses. Brevity is the soul of wit. :) "So you're Brad Pitt? That don't impress me much!" as Shania Twain would say (what a great payoff hook).
  36. It's vital to be sure to describe the "Who, What, Where, When, Why and How" in a song. It forms the visual images that help fans to relate. Word pictures are important.
  37. A great hook is the heart of a great song. Look around you; think of new and interesting ways to say things that have been said, look for contemporary things that spark an idea.
  38. Try to avoid cliché’s as your hook. What's a cliché, generally, if I say the first couple of words in context of a song, and you can finish it, it's a cliché. If it's overused, it's probably a cliché. Ironically, a great fresh idea can become cliché easily and quickly with overuse. Remember "Gag Me With a Spoon"?
  39. Learn to use "EAR" rhymes. What is that? It's a rhyme that is not a perfect rhyme, but rather "sounds" good when sung. There is only one rhyme in the chorus of "Wind Beneath My Wings" (and it's tough to find at that! It's not a perfect rhyme) but the doggoned chorus just melts in your mouth when you sing it. Nobody cares that there is no rhyme, and more importantly, nobody notices! That's because the words sound beautiful when sung together. Try writing a song with no perfect rhymes, it's a great exercise.
  40. A pop song seeking airplay, as a rule of thumb, should not exceed 3:30 in length. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that airtime is a hugely valuable commodity for radio and TV stations, and they guard it jealously. Every second you want from them better be hit quality and every second over 3:30 (the standard) better be a smash. There are obviously exceptions to this rule, but hit songwriters tend to agree, that a song without breaks should come in around 2:30 so that when breaks are added by the artist, it doesn't exceed 3:30. Keep this in mind when you're writing your next big hit!
  41. Professional demos are a GREAT idea when you have finished writing, rewriting and polishing your song. Experts disagree on whether that means you need a fully produced band quality demo or just a simple guitar/or piano accompaniment/vocal arrangement. However, the demo should be clear, concise and the lyric should be clear. Find a demo house you can trust, and generally, you'll want to be there when they are cutting the demo so that you can make changes if necessary. For example, if the singer trips on a word or phrase, rewrite it immediately. They won't be the only ones... and you want to make it easy to cut that song.
  42. Good critiques are the most valuable songwriting tool you can have. Learn to take a critique. Nobody likes them, but everyone should learn to respect them! It's nearly impossible for a songwriter to know if his/her song is a hit, or a dog based upon his/her own experience, because the songwriter is just too close to it. Gather up a bunch of people whose opinion you respect, and make sure you get their best effort. Don't be hurt if they don't react the way you want, and for goodness sake, do NOT make them feel as though you don't appreciate their input. Take all their criticism into careful consideration, adjust what you think needs changing, and move on. You should be VERY thankful that a considered opinion has been rendered. As I said (and it bears repeating) it's the most valuable songwriter's tool available. Check out Http://www.grays.net/discus for an open critique forum to get you started. I use it all the time, and I'm VERY thankful for it.
  43. Unless you are a singer/songwriter (and some say even then), you don't want to sing your own pitching demos. Why? Because there are great singers out there who will sing demos today, but may be on Sony tomorrow, and they may remember you. Also, it will allow you to hear if they have trouble with certain phrases which you can then rewrite. Finally, these folks do it for a living, and frankly, unless you have a tremendous voice, you're going to have trouble competing. Remember, people who listen to demos are people too, and it's going to be very difficult to hear a great song through a mediocre, worse yet, not quite mediocre singer. Give your songs the best chance.
  44. It's a real treat to hear a rough demo in the songwriter's own voice. It's a great way to get original critiques, because a great song in its roughest format should still stand up. Be cautious of untrained critiques in this area however. Most people will want to hear radio quality when they hear a song, and won't be able to hear through a rough demo. Again, gather those around you who have this ability, and they will even be able to give you production and arrangement tips.
  45. Buy and use a Thesaurus (what's another word for thesaurus? heeh) and a good dictionary, and a good rhyming dictionary. I use an online rhyming dictionary, but I use a well-thumbed thesaurus and dictionary... they are very useful.
  46. Find out about Performing Rights Organizations, and join one, especially if you're published. They are ASCAP, BMI and SESAC (SOCAN in Canada). They are a GREAT source of information, and they are necessary to get paid royalties when your little gem hits the airwaves.
  47. Read these books: Songwriter's Market 2000, The Songwriter's Market guide to Song & Demo Submission Formats, How to Make a Good Song a Hit Song (Molly Ann Leikin), How to Write a Hit Song (Molly Ann Leikin), The Songwriting Idea Book (Sheila Davis - actually, anything by Ms. Davis is a smash), Becoming Remarkable, for songwriters and those who love songs (Harriet Schock). Go on over to Amazon.com and get these right away. Read them cover to cover, and then keep them handy!
  48. When you write lyrics for a song, consider the content and meanings of your words. Make sure that every word you use has a plausible meaning. Both, the words and the music should flow together. (This tip was added by a visitor to the site. Couldn't have said it better myself! The term for this is "prosody". :)
  49. Don't fret if you can't find that specific word to complete your song. Practice circumlocution (Find a word or a group of words that basically paraphrases whatever you initially meant). - This tip was added by a visitor to the site. Add your tip too, click on the link!
  50. Don't tell the story, paint a picture and let the listener fill in the blanks. (Added by a visitor December 2000)
  51. Sign up for daily email lists (jokes, word of the day, "this day in history", quote of the day, etc.) and let them inspire your songwriting!
  52. take as much time to think about it and concentrate really alot. Try to think put in things that come to your mind to make the song sound as good as you can and after u have did as much as u can to improve the song then u should take it to other people that you know or music writers and see if they can improve it so it would look and sound much better than it was before. I hope this tip will influence u and will help you when it comes the time to write a song. - added by a visitor to the site 1/25/01
  53. Never....no wait...Always be flexible and willing to change what needs to be changed. (Added by a visitor December 2000)
  54. I write while driving to and from work or anytime I'm driving alone. I keep my tape recorder in the truck now, after forgetting some dynamite melodies and lyrics, they hardly ever come back to you. - added by a visitor to the site 1/25/01
  55. When you get an idea, work it hard until you get stumped. Then, come back to it later and revise it. And don't fall in love with the original idea so badly that you can't let it go for something better. Those great lines that don't fit a particular song can be recycled! - added by a visitor to the site 1/25/01
  56. Use music in the charts at the moment to inspire you to write a good song. If you like what you hear on the radio then people will like what you write. - added by a visitor to the site 1/25/01
  57. Use music in the charts at the moment to inspire you to write a good song. If you like what you hear on the radio then people will like what you write. - added by a visitor to the site 1/25/01
  58. When you have something in your mind, quickly write it down on a piece of paper. You will never know that someone famous would sing your song - added by a visitor to the Freedom Exchange April 2001
  59. When composing melodies, write a cool riff of some sort then think of chords to accompany it, I find this will lead on to a guaranteed good song. This will also leave an open mind for lyric melodies rather than using chords which are more than likely have been used before, you'll have a new fresh approach. - added by a visitor 6/2001
  60. Learn to interpret your critiques. Even without such Netiquette minders as "IMO", "IMHO", "JMO" etc. a critic's opinion starts and ends as just that ... opinion. Getting "trashed" means little more than your lyric didn't gel with the critic's taste. Likewise, a "glowing" review doesn't mean your work is objectively great ... only that one individual thought so. - added by a visitor 6/2001
  61. When Writing a bridge, try to add to the tale but make it ambiguous enough to make the listener think more - added by a visitor 6/2001
  62. Try never to give up, have patience - have great patience - Added by a visitor 7/2001
  63. It's easy to fall into the trap of the 'artist' and want to write meaningful songs - but don't forget that songs like 'Louie, Louie', 'Wild Thing', and 'Shout' defined a generation and are still enjoying airplay (and royalties!) to this day. In short, don't underestimate the listener's desire, even need, for just plain fun! - added by a visitor 8/2001
  64. Never never never throw ANYTHING away! That little scribble in your back pocket may be the nugget for your first hit! (Added by a visitor to the site August 2001)
  65. Play, write and sing what you and you alone feel. Don't let the idea of writing a 'hit' or commercial success sway your songwriting. If your idea is genuine, it will stick. Some critics may hate it, some may condemn it because it is not 'mainstream'. Do it if it feels right and take a chance on yourself. You are unique. What a critic hates today may be tomorrow’s next big thing. (added by a visitor to the site on September 2, 2001 - and I couldn't agree more myself!)
  66. With real song writing, you don’t have a choice in the matter. What is written has to come out. Thinking about it like "how do I write a hit song today” is ridiculous. Songs about life and love never get old. The way some people write and sing about it do. That’s the only "trick" about it, how is it said. - Added by a Visitor 11/01
  67. try adding certain ideas to ur tune - adding an arpeggio - or high little notes that shines at ur vocal melody ....etc learn standard ideas and then try to use them - once u have learned them and what they sound like u can create the sound u want without thinking what would suit just cos u automatically know.. - also b4 u write think of the instrumentation first don't just have that as an afterthought cos it will be hard to get them to go together as they should if u don't - Added by a visitor 11/01
  68. Write down whatever comes to your mind. Even if you think it sounds stupid, it is what you are feeling and when you look at the overall picture, it will all make sense. - added by a visitor May 2002
  69. Learn music classically! Learning music from a technical standpoint will enable your creative juices to flow in a more controlled and centered way. Melody writing and Analysis, HarMonty and Counterpoint and Orchestration being the main areas. Rock musicians ALWAYS accuse classically trained composers for being too mathematical! MUSIC IS MATHMATICS - That's the harsh reality! However, romance and creativity plays an EQUALLY demanding role! You might want a big lush sound but how do you achieve that and what instruments should be used and more importantly how should they be voiced together (a technique known as Dovetailing) THERE IS NO NEED TO KEEP DOING RETAKES! That is incompetent! (Professional Composer, James McFadyen. http://www.jamesmcfadyen.co.uk)
  70. idea + EMOTION EMOTION EMOTION = ART - Added by a visitor to the site 7/02
  71. If anyone has any doubts as to whether they should have a professional demo or not. Check out how Diane Warren works. - Added by a visitor to the site 7/02
  72. when you are running out of ideas, just play chords on your instrument. Eventually, you'll have an idea about a melody. Good luck. - Added by a visitor to the site 10/02
  73. Read other peoples lyrics you can learn from it. - Added by a visitor to the site 10/02
  74. ask a couple of friends to give you a story to write around if you can't think up anything good on your own... - added by a user of the site January 2003
  75. It doesn’t matter if you write all your songs in one mood, if they are good. if an artist paints storm clouds good, why should he try to paint clowns? - added by a user of the site January 2003
  76. Good songs will not always come to you every day. That's why bands take at least a year to make a full cd. It is hard coming up with good lyrics but sometimes it will just come to you and sometime it won't. - added by a visitor 1/03
  77. You've written the best song ever, the world has been waiting for this one, it came to you in a flash of inspiration and you wrote and recorded it in a day. Now you're off to give it to the world...WRONG! Let that song lie for a couple of weeks and don't listen to it, do something else. When you do come back and play it you will find things you can improve on, lyrics that sound awkward or perhaps it needs a bridge where there wasn't one - revise rewrite and listen again in a few days time. - added by a visitor 1-03
  78. Songwriters----our songwriting talent is a gift and that gift is meant to be shared.....:-) DeDa--Feb/2003
  79. while still allowing yourself to be influenced by the sounds of today. do not become over inspired by them and lose your originality. make songs that deliver a simple message in a more complex pattern but not so complex that the listener is lost (added by a visitor 5/2003)
  80. Use George Lucas textures for songwriting - This is the idea that the great Director George Lucas uses to add depth and intrigue to his movies. He uses at least 3 totally distinct setting in his movies... if there is a sandy dune ridden setting, he'll add a forest setting, and maybe an outer space or underwater setting to develop the story. Use this great idea to add intrigue and depth to your songs.
  81. Every line of lyrics should stand on its own and say something. Repeating the first verse is not good form - use this lyric space to say something new. (added by a visitor 5/2003)
  82. Sometimes it's easier to revise a mediocre lyric into a great lyric than it is to write a great lyric from scratch. Start writing, fill every line if possible. Then go back and rewrite every line using some of the other tips offered here. Polish every line so it sits well with the rest of the song. (added by a visitor 4/2004)
  83. To get past writer's block: Pick a hit song you love. Rewrite the lyric to tell a completely different story. Next, reset the lyric to a completely different melody and rhythm. You will have created a completely original song even though you used somebody else's work as a springboard! (added by a visitor 4/2004)
  84. If you’re in a writer’s block situation, or just can't think of what to write, try thinking of a situation (real, imaginary, or a movie scene) put yourself in one of the characters position and write (added by a visitor 4/2004) -SirMitchell Love Sorrells 4/8/04
  85. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. (added by a visitor 11/04)
  86. Using syllables as you write often helps in making lyrics (added by a visitor 11/04)
  87. Go to the mirror and say to yourself 'I can do this, this is my dream and I’m gonna make it come true..' it sounds stupid but it works.. (added by a visitor 11/04) added by 1pitbull2005@ilse.nl
  88. When writing "dark" lyrics, never ever use the words "darkness", "broken", "death", "shadows", "consuming", "black" or anything else that all the other attention seeking kids use. Use a new metaphor that nobody has used before.
  89. Never let your head do the thinking, leave it up to your heart. You will feel when it feels right. MUSIC SHOULD BE 100% FEEL!