Build-A-Song Part III: Freeflow
by Mary DawsonThis is the third in a series of articles called Build-A-Song which present a step-by-step method for creating a song. By no means is this "the only" method for writing songs. In fact, the approaches to songwriting are as many as the writers themselves. But our Build-A-Song series will offer a sequential template for covering the basics of successful songwriting. I hope you will follow along and perhaps even try this method as you create your own.
Part 3 -- Freeflow
Let's go on a road trip! It's Spring and I've got a brand new car that's itching to be driven. What do we do first? I would suggest that the first question we have to answer is: Where are we going? If we have lots of time and simply want to see the sights, we may plan a more scenic drive. Or if we are on our way to a business appointment, we may have to stick to the interstate and take a more direct route. But whatever our time frame, we have to head somewhere! A trip with no destination may be fun at first, but it will soon become extremely confusing and boring. No matter how beautiful or new the automobile, driving for the sake of driving soon gets very old.
If you have been "building" with us so far in this series, you will have already found that Great Idea that is absolutely essential to writing a hit song -- and you will also have come up with a Hook to hang the Idea on. The Idea and its Hook are the destination of our song. Unless we have these clearly in mind, we will be on a road trip with no arrival that will confuse and bore our listeners.
The single greatest weakness that I encounter in consulting with aspiring songwriters and critiquing their songs is lack of focus. Most writers have absolutely no idea where their song is headed when they begin to write. As they write, the song just evolves in proportion to their often very limited musical and lyrical vocabulary. Beginning or intermediate writers often mistake this "evolution" process for genuine inspiration and are therefore very shocked when they begin to realize that their listeners have become completely lost and are not "getting" the message of the song. In contrast, hit songs, are built around the payoff -- that destination which is made up of the killer Hook expressing the Great Idea that millions of listeners will identify with and remember!
Once we know where we are heading, we need to plan the route to the payoff. It's time to "get out the map" and just let our minds go -- looking at every possible route with its corresponding advantages and disadvantages and deciding which path is best. I call this the Freeflow Phase of the songwriting process and it will require at least one -- if not several -- focused writing sessions.
To start "freeflowing" you will need a legal pad, a great thesaurus and some peace and quiet. Begin by taking a few moments to just think about your Great Idea and its Hook -- that ONE concept or thought you want your listeners to remember from this song. Then just let your brain run wild! Write down anything that comes to mind that even remotely relates to that thought or concept. As hit songwriter Jimmy Webb puts it:
On a legal pad write down at length every word, phrase, comment, cliché, historical reference, literary reference, poetic reference, feeling, instinct, remembrance of actual fact, image, dream, fantasy or observation that can be made or connected with the "idea" you wish to express. Devote at least an entire work period or more to the collection of these materials.1The objective here is to achieve unlimited creative flow -- BUT, a flow that is focused on the core Idea. Anything goes -- the only stipulation is that what flows MUST relate to and support that one central Idea summarized by the Hook.
Many songwriters tend to hold back a little at this stage. If they have written songs before, they instinctively tend to shy away from multi-syllable or unusual words because they know such words can be extremely hard to rhyme. Get over that hang-up quickly! Don't even worry about things like rhyme or melody now. The fresher and more uncommon the words and images you come up with -- the better. You are a builder assembling the raw materials you will need to erect your song. The more varied and interesting the materials, the greater the options for creating something truly unique and beautiful.
It is at this stage of song building that you may begin to experience the odd but exhilarating high of "word addiction." Several years ago my eldest son, who is himself a phenomenal prose writer, turned me on to a book called The Synonym Finder (Rodale Press). It has 1361 pages of over one and a half million synonyms -- a literal Nirvana for a "word junkie." You can spend hours just compiling lists of interesting words -- words that create fresh mental images and are also simply fun to say or sing. Then, of course, there is Bartlett's Roget's Thesaurus (Little, Brown & Co.), which even expands your options beyond synonyms by grouping words according to concepts rather than simply alphabetically.
After one or more very focused freeflow writing sessions, you are ready to begin to sort and group your raw materials. On another sheet of legal paper, separate all the words you think are the most interesting and have the most potential. On yet another sheet, list those you think are least useful (don't just cross them out because you may find that they become useful later). Then use still more pages to list the words that might be easiest to rhyme... words that tend to be cliches etc. Don't throw anything away -- just sort the words into as many groups as you need. Now spend some time just meditating through your lists. Don't rush this part of the process. Ruminate a little!
Next, try moving some of your words around so as to create a complete sentence that includes the Hook/Title and fleshes it out into a real thesis statement for the song. I call this thesis the Hook Statement. It will be extremely important as you continue to craft your lyric -- and also (believe it or not), it will help you to determine the musical style of the song and even the melody. So take your time. Try several different combinations of creative words until the Hook Statement captures the essence of the song.
When you have decided on the Hook Statement that you think is best, begin saying the phrase over and over again in your mind -- listening for the rhythm of the words as they are said in normal conversational speech. This is called cadence and is a word we will refer to often in future segments. By definition, cadence is the rhythmic sequence or flow of sounds in language. Cadence is the one quality that often separates lyrics from free verse and is essential to songwriting because lyrics must be combined with the rhythm or beat of music.
As you continue to repeat your Hook Statement, you may even want to tap out a rhythm on your knee to make sure that the words sound natural and conversational in their cadence. (Hit songs almost always have lyrics that are conversational rather than poetic or abstract.) Avoid reversing natural word order to put an "easy rhyming word" at the end of a line, and NEVER allow the rhythm of your lyrics to place stresses on syllables that are not stressed in ordinary conversation.
Here's an example of the above process from my own songwriting experience. Several years ago, a co-writer and I came up with what we felt was a Great Idea to write a song about -- the complex and important issue of verbal abuse of children. We decided to use the phrase "sticks and stones" as the Hook to hang our Idea on. That phrase, of course, is from the familiar little children's rhyme:
Sticks and stones may break my bonesI realized that this little rhyme is often said by children as a defense mechanism when someone's words have, in fact, definitely hurt them! So I wanted to create a variation of this verse to communicate the real power of words to scar and hurt kids. As I reviewed my freeflow lists of words, I came up with these lines:
But words will never hurt me
Sticks and stones may break my bonesSticks and Stones
But words hurt me much deeper….
Lyrics: Mary Dawson
Music: Bruce Greer
Copyright © 1992 / CQK Music
ASCAP / Admin. Music Services, Nashville
This completed sentence encapsulated the entire idea we hoped to communicate through the song. In this case, the cadence of the Hook Statement was the same as the children's couplet.
I was definitely on the way now! I knew where I was headed; I had a Hook Statment and I had a cadence. Tune in next time and I'll show you how this song continued to develop as we crafted the supporting ideas and music that made that simple Hook and Hook Statement really pay off!
OK -- now it's your turn! If you have your Great Idea and its Hook, you already have your destination. Now it's time to start looking at all the possible lyric "highways" that can take you there. Sharpen your pencils. Grab your legal pad. Ready….Set…..Freeflow!
**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.