Idea, Style, Hook: The Holy Trinity of Songwriting

Idea, Style, Hook: The Holy Trinity of Songwriting

They say the best things come in threes: The Hanson brothers. The Little Shop of Horrors backup singers. The examples in this paragraph. And songwriting has its own Holy Trinity too: idea, style and hook. I’ll explain, but first let’s be clear on what these three things are.   A song’s idea is what the frick the song is about. Maybe the idea is ‘Love song’ or ‘Breakup song’ or ‘I just wanted to tell you you’re cool Song’. Or maybe the idea is ‘Dance track’ or ‘Summer anthem’ or ‘Novelty song’. I’m talking about the big idea of the song. The ‘elevator pitch’ if you like: the sentence you’d say to a co-writer or a producer or your Great Aunt to describe what the song is. The style of the song is the musical world it sits in. I’m not talking about specific harmonies or sounds, even if they play a part in making up the style – I’m talking about the overall mood, emotion or world the song’s music conjures up. An upbeat dance track has a different style to an emotional power ballad. A jazz song has a different feel to an R&B song. You get the idea. A song’s hook is a word or phrase that forms the backbone of its lyric. (Yes, the word ‘hook’ is sometimes used to describe a catchy bit of music usually somewhere near the start. That’s a different kind of hook for another time.) Hooks you’ll know already include ‘Yesterday’ or ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘I’m Sexy and I Know It’. They’re anything from a single word to a complete sentence that...
Sure, Blank Pages Are Frightening. But They Don’t Have to Be.

Sure, Blank Pages Are Frightening. But They Don’t Have to Be.

I know, I know. The blank page is frightening. It could be anything. Anything. That’s frightening. But then again, it could be anything. Anything. That’s exciting. I’ve never once sat down to write and not surprised myself with what I came up with. Not now. Not ever. Not even when I was just starting out. Somehow, every time I sit down to write I end up discovering things I didn’t know existed. Cool turns of phrase. Interesting melodic shapes. Chord progressions I didn’t realize worked. There are always surprises.     Sure, there are plenty of bad surprises. Things I didn’t realize don’t work. In fact, there are probably more of those than good surprises. But to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, it’s OK because that kind of surprise goes in the wastebasket. But those good surprises go in the thing I’m making. Or I save them to go in some future thing I’ll be making. They make the thing I’m making interesting. They make the thing I’m making fresh – first to me, and later to everyone else. And the more I’m excited by the surprises I’ll discover once I start to write, the more fun writing becomes. And the more fun writing becomes, the better I do it. And the better I do it, the more I want to do it. Go on, try it. Change your mind about writing. You might surprise yourself.   Photo by Caleb Woods on...
Prosody in Songwriting 101

Prosody in Songwriting 101

Life is full of interesting questions. Why is the sky blue? Can Russian Twitter bots really swing an election? And where do broken hearts go, Whitney? Where? But today, let’s try answering something more practical: What is prosody? And why should you spend the next ten minutes of your life reading about it?   What is Prosody? OK. First things first. Prosody is a big deal in songwriting. A really big deal. It affects how well your song is understood. It affects how enjoyable your song is to listen to. And, believe it or not, it plays a pretty important role in helping people decide whether you’re a dope songwriter or just a dope, period. And while the concept of prosody isn’t widely understood, it’s actually pretty simple. Simple enough, in fact, to tell you what it is in a single sentence: Prosody in songwriting means making sure your words and melody fit well together. This comes down to a really important principle of all art, not just songwriting: in general, in a work of art you want all the parts working together to achieve some larger goal. You want the hills and the sky and the sheep to add up to ‘Pastoral Landscape’. You want the car chase and the hapless heroine and the cheesy catchphrase to add up to ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger movie’. You want the peppy tempo, uplifting lyric and last-chorus key change to add up to ‘Classic 90s Pop Song’. Prosody is like this on a smaller scale. Whether the melody or the lyric comes first, you want to end up with a situation where they...
Five Different Ways to Start A Song

Five Different Ways to Start A Song

One of the most exciting things about creating new things is that there are lots of ways of creating new things. As I talk about in The Art of Songwriting, a song is made up bit by bit and piece by piece. It doesn’t really matter which bit you start with. It doesn’t matter which bit you end with. As long as you keep going until all the bits are in place and working together, it’s all good. That’s why most writers hate the question ‘What is your creative process like?’. Because as any of them will tell you, there is no the process or my process or your process or the one true process to rule them all. There are as many different ways of creating something new as there are new things to create. And it’s in your best interests to keep that process different. It helps you write differently every time. It keeps you fresh. It keeps you interesting. And while personally I’m a big fan of figuring out what your song is about before you start to put the rest of the pieces together, that doesn’t mean that’s the only way to write. Here are five different jumping-off points you can try to start your next song.   1. Start with a title Write down thirty or forty different words or phrases. See which ones sound intriguing. See which ones start conjuring up a world beyond just that word or phrase – and see where they lead you. Let the one word or phrase grow into a couple of lines of lyric. Keep building from there. Soon...
Four Things Nobody Tells You About Writing Songs for a Living

Four Things Nobody Tells You About Writing Songs for a Living

Wow. It’s been quite a year. And I’m not just talking about the crazy world we seem to live in. I’m talking about the crazy world I personally seem to live in. Twelve months ago, I was packing up my Brooklyn apartment ready to move my stuff back to the UK. Since then, as well as actually moving back to the UK, my book was published, a stage show I’ve been working on for over three years ran for a month near Boston, I flew to China to write for an animation studio out there. And I’m now two days away from visiting my thirtieth country, just in time for my thirtieth birthday later this month. (Probably my proudest achievement of them all.) And when I look back, I’m pretty sure 2017 will be the year I decide I really started writing professionally. Sure, it’s not the first year I ever got paid for what I do. And I’m not sure my writing skills are particularly better than they were a year ago. But 2017 was the year the planets really aligned on a handful of big, grown-up projects I’d been working on for a while. It’s been the year really exciting things have started to happen. So I thought I’d share a thing or two about what those things have taught me.   ‘Pro’ Writing Isn’t That Different From ‘Amateur’ Writing Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Homer gets given the key to the Executive Washroom? Like, one moment he’s your everyday nobody and then BAM – it’s velvet curtains and marble toilet seats and string quartets...