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 stick to 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...
Five Different Ways to Start Your Next Song

Five Different Ways to Start Your Next 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 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 when you 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...
How to Present Lyric Sheets, Lead Sheets and Band Charts

How to Present Lyric Sheets, Lead Sheets and Band Charts

Don’t get too excited. It’s time for post containing what I like to call Dadvice. You know what I’m talking about. Advice that’s mostly mundane but eminently practical. The kind of resent precisely because you know it’s worth bearing in mind. Our subject is how you present your work. It’s no secret that the most important thing is doing quality work, but presentation is important too. Imagine your bank writes to you in Comic Sans. Imagine your doctor turns up in sweatpants. Imagine that limo you hired arrives covered in a fine layer of dirt. Presentation counts. It’s a stamp of quality. It’s a subtle way of showing what you value. In songwriting well-presented work says ‘I’m proud of what I make’. It says ‘I want other people to engage with what I make’. It says ‘I’m a professional and value presenting myself well to other professionals’. Wholesome qualities pertaining to Dadvice of all kinds. When you’re putting your work either before a professional who might be able to open doors for you or before musicians and singers who are going to perform and record it, it’s in everyone’s interest that they’re focusing on your work and not the way you’ve presented it. And that’s what good presentation does: it’s done so well you don’t notice it. You feel that mark of quality. In fact, when I coach a new writer, 90% of the time I can tell almost instantly what stage they’re working at from a quick glance at how their work is presented on the page. Professional work goes hand in hand with professional presentation. It’s especially important for getting your work performed. Time is always tight in rehearsal or in the studio. The more...
Get Your Story Straight

Get Your Story Straight

I work a lot in theatre, where using songs to tell a story is everything. But it’s not just on the stage where songs are about story: anything that affects us on an emotional level is about story. The Kardashian family’s latest internet coup, every Kickstarter campaign to bring us the latest life-saving gadget, and virtually every piece of advertising ever made. As a species, we’re story junkies. If you’ve read more than a couple of books on storytelling, they all tend to come back to the same issue: we love to know about other people. We love to know what they’ve been through. What they’re celebrating. What they’re struggling with. What they learned along the way. We filter other people’s experiences through our own. We see our joys and our struggles in them. It makes us feel better about our sad, pathetic lives that aren’t even as nearly as exciting as we make them out to be on Facebook. Whatever we’re going through – especially if it’s tough – we feel much better when we share it with others. We feel good when we connect with other people. We’re hard-wired that way. When a song resonates with you deeply, it’s not because you like its groove, its flashy lyrics or that sick guitar solo in the bridge. It’s because you see your own life in it. You’ve been there in your own way and the song resonates with you. You’re drawn to ‘I Will Always Love You’ because you know how shitty breakups and unrequited love can feel. You’re drawn to ‘Imagine’ because you agree that the world can be a pretty fucked up place sometimes. You’re drawn to ‘The Real Slim Shady’ because sometimes...
Sixteen Lyrical Blunders Worth Avoiding

Sixteen Lyrical Blunders Worth Avoiding

Originally I was going to call this post ‘Crafting Better Lyrics’ or ‘God Is In The Details’, but everybody knows the Internet loves a listicle. So here we are. Either way, let’s just say that God is in the details if you want to craft a better lyric. Here are sixteen ways to make that happen.   1. Word transposition I woke up on the day of Fri, In the bed in which I lie. If you’re twisting natural phrases and natural word order to fit your chosen meter or rhyme scheme, you’re in hot water. Nobody speaks like that, and these little distortions risk distracting your audience from whatever it is you’re trying to say. This is a hideous mess of an example, but it’s easy to let little distortions creep in if we’re not vigilant. If it doesn’t sound like something you would say to someone in real life, it’s probably time to rethink the line. It might have been cool for Gilbert and Sullivan, but we’ve moved on, mate.   2. Ambiguous ‘it’ Let me think about that. My mind’s a bit blurry. The cat wore a hat. Yeah, I think it was furry. ‘It’ can mean a lot of things. If you’re not careful, someone might think you were talking about a different ‘it’ to the ‘it’ you meant. If in doubt, you can always swap the word ‘it’ for something clearer (like repeating the word ‘it’ is a pronoun for for) or rewrite the phrase entirely. In the above example, we’d have to throw out the rhyme scheme, but saying ‘The cat wore a hat, yeah a furry one.’ would make things...
Choosing a Good Hook

Choosing a Good Hook

The best way to plant something in someone’s brain is repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. See? Our minds are hard-wired that way. A lyrical hook is the principal way you can use repetition to glue an entire lyric together. For giving it focus – ‘oh, that’s what the song is about’ – as well as structure – ‘oh, it’s the chorus now’. Understanding how you can use repetition to make your audience catch on to what you’re saying quickly is a central skill in the art of lyric writing. Simply put, a lyrical hook is a word or phrase you’re going to use multiple times in your song, for the reasons just mentioned. ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Just the Way You Are’, ‘Happy Birthday’. And while there are many ways to choose, use and even abuse a good hook, there are a handful of archetypal ways a repeating word or phrase can be used to construct a larger song. But before we look at them, let’s talk about some fundamental hook principles. They’re by no means rules: just important ideas that have helped craft the great hooks of the past, and might help you craft a great hook or two of the future. Firstly, good hooks tend to summarise the single thing your song is about, in some obvious or not-so-obvious way. Think about it. If you’re going to end up repeating something over and over, it might as well be something that resonates well with what you’re trying to say. There’s an old rule that every line in your song should relate to the hook in some way – in meaning, in tone, in syntax – and it’s not a...