learn songwriting

In Songwriting, One Word is All it Takes

It never fails to fascinate me how one word can unlock an entire song.

I was in the gym the other day and “Speechless” by Dan + Shay was playing. It was the first time I’d heard it, and it was instantly memorable. With that one word they did what so many of us songwriters are trying to do—find a way to express something universal in a fresh way. “Speechless” is just another love song. But it’s love as seen through a very particular lens. That lens is the concept, and the concept is the word.

Not only does the song revolve around one specific word, but that word revolves around one specific moment. No one is speechless for any length of time. It happens in a split second that leaves you slack-jawed. Drawing on a specific emotionally-charged moment like that gives your writing clarity and vigor. Without that focus, you often end up in the land of platitudes and generalities.

Or take another single-word-titled love song, “Crazy” by Willie Nelson. One word, one concept. And not a terribly unusual word either. Both “Speechless” and “Crazy” are ordinary, everyday words. But in a good writer’s hands they take on extraordinary meaning.

Sometimes my songwriting students get hung up, thinking they can’t use words that have already been used. Get over that. Gnarls Barkley did when he wrote his own version of a song called “Crazy”. I’m sure there were plenty of naysayers telling him he should steer clear of that word. But once it was released, none of us seemed to mind as we all belted it out for about a year straight—while along the way it topped the Billboard charts, won a Grammy, and eventually ended up on Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Songs of all Time list.

Then there’s the question of how you sing that one word. Think about how Mick Jagger sings the word “Satisfaction.” Sat-is-fac-tion. It comes out of his mouth all choppy, both frustrated and orgasmic at once. The fractured delivery adds to the meaning.

Going back to the two versions of  “Crazy,” the same holds true.  Willie just about sighs that word, doesn’t he? You can almost hear him shrugging, shaking his head, as the melody lilts from high to low, low to high. Gnarls did the exact opposite. His “Crazy” was exasperated, bursting with energy, top of his range, a total unleashing of pent-up energy.

Same word, different feeling.

There are nearly 200,000 words in the English dictionary. Open it up, pick one, and turn it into a song. Or, the next time a particular word catches your ear in conversation, jot it down and see where you can take it. If all else fails, you can simply write your own version of “Crazy”.

If you want some guidance along the way, or you’d like learn more about the craft of songwriting in general, book a free trial songwriting lesson with me today.

On Writing Lyrics: Would you say it to a friend that way?

It’s hard to open yourself up sometimes in songwriting. We don’t want to look foolish. Or give away too much. Because of this mindset, we often obscure our lyrics. We try to “poeticize” them. Or substitute in fancy words or convoluted metaphors.

But in most cases, the only person impressed by complicated writing is the person holding the pen. Everyone else is left scratching their heads. Or worse, tuning out completely.

And that’s not why we write songs, is it? We write them to connect with others.

Which leads me to the title of my post. It’s a question I often ask myself, and I also ask the artists and songwriting students I co-write with. If they’re tossing out lyrics that seem overly forced, intellectualized, or cautious I’ll ask:

Would you say it to a friend that way? 

Invariably, they say no. And from there, we begin rephrasing whatever feeling they’re trying to express, or point they’re trying to make, in a way that anyone could understand. Over a pint at the bar. Or a chat on the phone. Or a story at the water cooler.

I heard a song that did this brilliantly recently called “I Found Someone,” sung by Blake Shelton and written by Rhett Atkins and Ben Hayslip. Here are the opening lines:

I picked up the phone

She said hey it’s me

I know it feels like forever since I’ve heard your voice

But I guess that’s how it had to be

Shakespeare, it ain’t. But great songwriting, it most surely is. Listen to the whole thing below. It’s a masterclass in craft. The words are simple. But the message is profound:

Here’s another example of lyrics so simple, a child could understand them. And yet, they express a truth so enormous, the whole of humanity has yet to wrap its head around it.

Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us.

Above us only sky

You may recognize them, they’re the opening lines of “Imagine” by John Lennon:

Would John have said it that way to a friend? I’d like to think so. And we could do worse than John Lennon for inspiration as songwriters.

I’ll leave you with this thought from the great poet and author Charles Bukowski:

“Genius might be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.”

Bear that in mind when you write. Make the THING  profound. And the WAY simple. Say it how you’d say it to a friend. Because after all, that’s what your audience is.