How To Write Songs

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine June 2016

Constructing a song that people want to actually listen to and enjoy is a science. Writing songs is akin to keeping a journal and then taking those most inner thoughts and encapsulating them into succinct lines of poetry, set to music. You study the greats and try to extract how they did it. You listen to your muses, observe the world and people around you, and articulate the things that emotionally resonate with you. If a song connects with you and makes you wish you could write a song like that, google the chords and lyrics to the song and see how it’s structured, but be careful not to copy note for note, because you could get into Stairway to Heaven trouble. If your subject matter is melancholy, use a minor key. If it’s meant to be uplifting, go with a major key. If you want people to get funky and dance to it, use lots of seventh chords. Take a Songwriting 101 class. Take music theory classes to understand the “circle of fifths.” Learn how to play an instrument. Take English courses around creative writing, poetry, and narrative storytelling. Don’t leave the house without an Ernest Hemingway-style notepad in your pocket to catch fleeting thoughts.


Or, you can do it like I do it.

Here’s how it goes down.

I’m taking a nice long hot shower all lathered up washing my hair and everything when I am flooded with song ideas because of course, the only place on earth I can’t write anything down, is in the damn shower. I quickly rinse, run a towel over me, throw on my white terry cloth robe from Target and slip and slide myself to the nearest pen and yellow sticky. I write my ideas down with utter abandon, sticky after sticky, using up the whole pad. I try and slap the stickies into their correct order, but they all stick to each other in the incorrect order. So I leave the pile on the counter to be dealt with later. I throw on some yoga pants and a WCNI Radio t-shirt.

Later comes when a fifty-mile an hour gust of wind blows the kitchen screen window out of its sill and onto the floor and blows the stickies all over the place. I scoop up the yellow devils and stick them onto an actual 8 x 10 pad over by my computer in the dining room to be dealt with later.

Later comes when I need a piece of 8 x 10 paper and I try to rip a piece off from behind the yellow beasts and I rip the piece of paper holding them. So I get a piece of scotch tape from the drawer in the living room that has the scotch tape and tape up the piece of paper that loosely holds the yellow monsters. Then I take the piece of paper and move it to my bedroom nightstand.

On my bedroom nightstand I notice I’ve got about ten other pieces of paper with yellow Satans on them so I place my generic brand body lotion on top of them to hold everything in place. I have breakfast, usually an Everything bagel with too much real Land-O-Lakes sweet cream salted butter, and think about grabbing my acoustic guitar from the basement to put these stickies to music. Then I check emails, Facebook and Twitter.

Then it’s time for lunch. I throw some pre-bagged lettuce into a pretty big bowl, cut up some cucumber, shred some carrots and toss in a good amount of Craisins and ten to fifteen garlic and onion croutons. Then I pour in a half a bottle of Lite Raspberry Vinaigrette and swish it all around. I sit down in the leather chair in the living room with my huge salad and flip through the HBO and Cinemax channels. I find something like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and watch it until the end. I seriously start thinking about grabbing my acoustic guitar from the basement.

Then I check emails, Facebook and Twitter. Then I remember I haven’t read today’s local newspaper online yet, so I do that. Then the dogs need to go out so I let them hang out on the grass without leashes and check on them occasionally. I look out the window and they’ve decided to head to the swamp even though I have repeatedly told them in clear English: “Don’t go near the swamp.” So I herd them back into the house, fill their water bowls and tell them to take a nap.

Then it’s time for me to take a nap.

I wake up and realize I should start thinking about what to make for dinner. I really want to just get my acoustic guitar out of the basement so I throw a chicken pasta casserole together and stick it in the oven. Then somebody texts me a really long text. I read, respond, wait for a reply, check on the casserole, read the reply, reply, read, reply, read, reply and the casserole is done. I take it out of the oven and the husband comes home but he doesn’t like chicken pasta casseroles so I throw a strip steak into a pan with fake butter and whip up some mash potatoes out of a box. The daughter comes home, grabs a plate of the chicken pasta casserole and informs me this is surely the best chicken pasta casserole yet.

We eat dinner and talk about what movies might be on HBO and Cinemax tonight. The husband wants to watch “The Purge: Anarchy” but I want to watch “The Five-Year Engagement.” We clean up and he heads to the bedroom TV. The dogs give me that look they always give me at this exact time every day of every week so I get the leashes.

We walk. For about an hour.

We get back into the house and I check emails, Facebook and Twitter. “The Five-Year Engagement” is coming on so I grab some kettle corn from the kitchen cabinet and sit in the leather chair. I finish the bag of kettle corn and the movie.

I decide I’ve had enough of this day and head to the bedroom. The TV is off and the room is dark. So I grab a flashlight, get undressed, let the dogs into the room and get them settled onto the bed. Then I grab my generic body lotion, and there they are: The yellow evil spirits on 8 x 10 pieces of paper in random order, which will haunt me all night.

Six hours later, it’s time for my shower.

Songwriters are a messy bunch. Every song ever heard in the history of all the land has been written by someone, but in a world where anybody can just simply go to YouTube for free when they want to hear a song, we wonder if it’s even worth it. This seemingly fruitless endeavor of musical construct rages on for us hopelessly creative souls. It’s all-consuming. It’s like a nagging bathroom-shower leak that drips and drips, and gets louder and louder in the night. Then it stains the porcelain, and you’re just stuck with it. Happy Songwriting!


2 thoughts on “How To Write Songs

  1. things and flesh June 2, 2016 / 11:19 am

    I loved this post. I don’t know how or when a song will come to me, I only know it will, if I’m open and stay at it.


  2. suemenhart June 2, 2016 / 11:41 am

    and there are just so many distractions, staying focused is the hardest part


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