work the mic

Follow-up to Building Your Song

August 13th, 2014


I had a plan for what I wanted to post this week, but I am going to put that aside for the moment and address some issues raised by last week's post, which, thanks in large part to some Redditors over at /r/WeAreTheMusicMakers and /r/Guitar, EXPLODED. I deeply appreciate anyone who read the post, let alone commented, cross-posted, retweeted, or otherwise shared it. I can't tell you how great it feels to know that someone was able to benefit from my experiences. Thank you.

Because I'm responding to some of the topics from last week, what follows may not be the most structured post. Apologies.


I should have specifically mentioned in the article, and perhaps on the Work the MIC website in general, that the things I have to say about music are aimed at musicians who are interested in writing songs for the "mainstream." By that I mean "commercially viable" Rock, Alternative, Indie, Singer-Songwriter, Country, Pop, Folk, Metal, and even Rap, that kind of thing. So, some of the things I said and will say about structure, checklists, and hooks will not apply if you're doing, say, house music, improvisational Reggae, or experimental Acid-Rock.


Some people complained about the "tired" verse/chorus structure. Look, every song has parts. Call them "A," "B," and "C," or "verse/prechorus/chorus/bridge," the names don't matter. The point is that you do not want to play one note or repeat the same 4 bars over and over for 3-4 minutes. People like change in their music, but not too much change.

You shouldn't feel limited by this structure. Remember that the Wright Brothers' Flyer and the Space Shuttle both have an engine, wings, and landing gear, but one traveled a few feet, and the other makes regular milk runs to space. There's lots of room to play within the verse/chorus structure. It's been around for a LONG time, and it's not likely to go anywhere anytime soon. I didn't make these guidelines, I just study and practice them.

A couple of commenters complained that "so and so" famous artist put out hit songs that didn't observe the traditional structure. My response to that is that:

A) In almost all of these cases, and certainly in the examples mentioned, the artist was already famous, or at least had an audience. When you are comfortable with the size of your audience, you can write whatever you want.

B) These examples are so few as to be irrelevant to this conversation. As with any art form, learn the rules before you break them.


Quantity breeds quality.

Some people resonated with my method of brainstorming multiple songs in a single session, while others thought it was ridiculous. Someone even said, "that's a good way to write crap." You can write as little or as much as you want, but my point is this: don't get emotionally attached to your work, especially too early on. If you've seen any behind-the-scenes documentary about a band going into the studio, you will invariably see that they went in with something like 14, 16, or 20 songs, and came out with 10. That's just the way it works - quantity breeds quality.

Imagine that a major record label down in Nashville hires you to be an in-house songwriter/producer. They're bringing in their latest Pop starlet for a writing session tomorrow at 2pm, and they want you to bring your best ideas to pitch to her and her team for a new single. You will be 1 of 4 other writers in the room all vying to get that 1 track recorded. Are you only going to show up to that meeting with 1 song idea? If the starlet rejects your idea, then what? Are you going to scream "but I worked really hard on it!" then stomp out of the room, go hide in a closet, and quietly sob? OR, are you going to say "no problem, here's my next idea. What do you think?"

I treat my band writing sessions as if they were that kind of record-label pitch meeting. I show up with 2 or 3 ideas that I've put some decent time into. If 1 is rejected, or needs work, we have other things to try out. We have our eggs in many different baskets. (Don't get me wrong, I still cry in a closet if my ideas are rejected.) If the song goes in a different direction than I imagined, then so be it. There's no harm in trying something new. We can always circle back to the original idea if it doesn't work out.


To be a good songwriter, you have to put some blood on your guitar strings.

Judging from a few of the comment threads I saw, some people seem to think the song should just fall out of your brain fully-formed and ready to be turned into a gold record, as if anyone can write a great song anytime they wish. I disagree. Real songwriting is craft. It is hard work. It is learning, trying, failing, and trying again. It is taking a huge slab of marble, and hammering and chiseling away for days and weeks to reveal the beautiful statue hidden inside.

You have to have vision, inspiration, and skill, but more importantly, you have to have persistence. You aren't going to pick up a notepad and a guitar for the first time and wow the pants off of everyone within range of your voice. If you want to write, you have to put some blood on your paper and your guitar strings.

If you do this right, you will get tired of it. You will get frustrated. You will get so angry that you'll want to push a piano off of a rooftop. When that time comes, I suggest taking a short break. If you're not drained as a result of the work you put into your music, then you're not putting enough work into your music. If you get up on stage and play something you just threw together, it will show. If you don't believe me, ask Ernest Hemingway, who said, "the first draft of anything is shit."

Rodin worked on "The Gates of Hell" for 37 years. Does that inspire you, or tire you?

I recently went to the Rodin museum in Philadelphia. Rodin is famous for his statue "The Thinker," which I discovered was actually part of Rodin's larger masterpiece, called "The Gates of Hell." It's a set of doors that includes several scenes from Dante's "Inferno," and is an unbelievably impressive piece of art. I was stunned to learn that Rodin worked on this single piece for THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS. Does that inspire you, or do you just feel tired thinking about that? Tell me again, how much time have you put into your songs?


In an ideal situation, there would be a song-editor to keep every songwriter in check. Authors, journalists, and filmmakers have editors. Why don't we? We do have Producers, but those of you who are recording at home don't typically have access to them, and even if you do, they usually don't come along until very late in the process.

In the mean time then, someone has to take the raw materials created by the original artist and find a way to translate it into a clear and cohesive story, told in the most entertaining way possible. Unless you have a Producer, we have to come up with other methods to trim the fat, which is why I suggested getting feedback from songwriting circles, pros, and friends, etc. in last week's article.

Broad-appeal songwriting is sort of like writing for Twitter in that you are forced to be as lean as possible. You can still say a lot with 140 characters, and the same goes for a 3-minute Rock song. But, you have to cut ALL the fat. When it comes to trimming, my co-writer likes to remind me of a tip he heard from [a famous musician whose name escapes me now]: "Take your finished song, and chop out every other line. Does it still make sense afterward?"

Do you really need a 1:45 intro? Do you absolutely have to have a 1:30 solo that just repeats the same part over and over? Always leave the audience wanting more. Give them an action-packed trailer instead of the movie, the deleted scenes, the cast interviews, and behind-the-scenes documentaries. I just went to see a Rock show last week, and the band (who are fairly well-known) spent a large portion of almost EVERY song just repeating the same 2-bar instrumental part over and over while the singer traipsed around the stage. That's not jamming... that's padding your set.

SUMMARY or, for Redditors: TL;DR

If you want to be an effective songwriter, you have to put in serious time and practice. You will not improve as a songwriter with a Playstation controller in your hand. You have to learn how to cut the fat, and more often than not, you gotta cut deep. Get someone to give you good feedback on what they think could be cut. Don't take cuts personally. As many famous authors have said, you have to "kill your darlings."