Benjos Guide to Songwriting – VOL I

I have been working as a performer/song-writer for just shy of a decade now, and in doing so it has granted me the opportunity to meet hundreds of people traveling through a similar journey, pursuing the lavish life of a successful musician.  In that claustrophobic circle known as the “music industry”, methods, techniques, abilities, and mannerisms are compared, argued, and gloated over by the individual, in a never-ending attempt to portray themselves as a “successful” figure in the music world.  However, to steer away from the dick-measuring contest that seems to exist in the melodic world of dream-chasing, I wanted to instead direct this series of short articles towards people who have always wanted to get into the art of song-writing, but never knew where to start. As someone who was in that place not long ago, I thought a simplistic explanation of some of the methods I use while writing, and some of the things I steer clear of, might be a good place to start.  I have broken the articles into four parts: Choosing a Theme, Creating a Melody, Lyrics, and the Conclusion.

Episode One

Choosing a Theme

For the past 6 years I have spent my Spring season teaching private school kids how to song write. The project the are given is a perfect example of how to start with nothing and end up with a song. The group of students are largely un-musical, with little to no music theory knowledge, and rudimentary instrumental abilities at best. And yet, at the end of the year, before Summer takes them away to some place that hopefully drives any ambition of becoming a musician out of their mind, they each produce something unique and charming, in the form of song.

They are given a list of local art pieces and are told to write a song about one of the pieces they feel a connection to. That’s it.

Each one of them usually panics, feels completely unsure how to progress, and sees their very first bout of “writer’s block”. This is mirrored in the life of a song-writer on a daily, if not hourly, occurrence. The first time I went to the school to teach, I remember thinking “I still have writer’s block – how am I supposed to teach kids and teenagers how to beat it?”. I worked in a comparative manner – comparing their project to the works I had written. They had a list of 20 pieces of art; I had a list of 20 things I had witnessed, read, or heard about that week. Not exactly the same, but close enough that I felt I could draw the comparison. Next, I had the students draw a feeling from their piece of art – a sculpture with faces laughing = happiness.  A sculpture with people fighting = anger. OK, some of the news articles I read were sad, so it would be a sad song. Some of the articles were happy so I can also write a happy song.

But, the most revelatory moment came when a young man told me his feeling from the same sculpture of the laughing men, was not happiness, but rather cruelty, as he saw the image as a depiction of men jeering at some unforeseen character in their story.  This 30 second interaction would forever change the way I wrote music. I learnt that song writing has no rules – simply loose guidelines to help you put into music the way something makes you feel.  Two people seeing the same thing can feel two completely different emotions from it. One of a song writer’s biggest fears is “someone’s already done that”, or “They talked about the same thing but better”. My interaction with a grade 7 boy taught me that there isn’t a right way to write a song. There is simply the way you feel, and how that will translate out of the tip of your pen.

To choose a theme for a piece of music, it is important that you are committed to that idea. For example, don’t try to write something melancholic and depressing when you just got laid, won the lottery, and got a promotion in the same day. The only thing that trumps how much better authenticity sounds behind a song, is how much in-authenticity can ruin one. Draw your inspiration from something that moved you, don’t move something to draw your own inspiration. I used to look for circumstances that would make me want to write, but it wasn’t until I learned to let go of the “I have to have this done” mentality that I was able to complete anything worth keeping.

To help validate whether a theme is worthy of keeping, I do something on my music I call the “Essay Test”. Every essay must have an “Introduction”, in which you give the reader an idea to what the writing will be regarding, also known as a “Thesis”. Following that, you provide evidence in “The Body” of the essay. These are points that back up your argument and provide depth to the writing.   We then offer tension to the article by providing the other side of the argument, and then to tie it together, we use a “Conclusion” to wrap the article together into a cohesive essay.

Well, Fuck. The sounds exactly like a song.

Replace the word Essay with song; Introduction with intro; Thesis with chorus; Body with Verse, Argument with Bridge, and Conclusion with Outro and you have a Theme. Now as this is a mini article series, you do not have a song, but if our theme passes the Essay Test, we can begin to turn all the scraps of paper that I threw under my desk in university, into mood-altering, emotion-stirring, music.