Good songwriting, like any kind of writing, paints pictures. The old writing adage of “show don’t tell,” is especially true in a medium where you have only about 3 – 5 minutes and a few lines to make your point. Also where you have to make room for the instrumental parts of a song. The songs that stand out for me the most are those that tell a story and paint mental pictures of the story the singer is trying to tell.
Smoke on the Water, the classic by the English band Deep Purple, whose origins can be traced back to the same regions of England as Black Sabbath, dates back to their most commercially successful album, Machine Head, which was released in the early 1970’s. Smoke on the Water tells the story of actual events that the band witnessed. There really was a hotel in Switzerland that burned to the ground due to one person’s incredibly irresponsible actions. This song is still popular today. Young guitar players still want to learn its iconic guitar riff. I love playing bass on this song, especially since the band’s bassist, Roger Glover, is one of my favourite bass players. There is something about how the lyrics and the way band’s singer, Ian Gillan, delivered them, come together to paint such a vivid picture of those events that occurred decades ago. Every time I hear this song, I feel as though I can experience all of the events depicted in the song first-hand.
Hollywood Nights, released in 1978, I always thought it was an autobiographical tale of love and loss set in the hills of Hollywood by Bob Seger. Not only is the music superb in this rock and roll classic from the late seventies, the story told paints such a vivid picture that it makes you feel as though you are taking part in this sad but hopeful tale of young lust. According to Wikipedia, it’s a made up story but I always thought Mr. Seger was telling a true story that happened to him. I am not entirely convinced that it’s made up but none the less, it proves what a superlative storyteller he is. The great songwriting and excellent story-telling are very similar to his earlier smash hit, Night Moves.
Photograph, by Ed Shearan is proof that great songwriting still exists today. Another love story, it is touching and tender, and paints a picture that almost puts you in the scene set by this extremely popular singer-songwriter. Other great songs that feature his outstanding songwriting include Thinking Out Loud and The A Team.
Setting The Word on Fire, by Kenny Chesney and Pink, is another great song that paints a picture for me. I guess I’m a sucker for a great love song but the story told by this song is very engaging and the lyrics definitely paint a picture .
There are thousands of other examples but the point I’m trying to make, telling a story through images and emotions is far more effective than trying to be to cerebral about your writing. Take cues from the other great lyricists and songwriters. Listen to what makes their songwriting so compelling. Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, are just some of the giants of songwriting that can really teach the budding songwriter a thing or two.
It’s easy to say or to write the phrase, “show don’t tell,” but actually writing a song that touches listeners emotionally, tells a story, and paints mental pictures is the most challenging aspect of songwriting. Trying too hard to accomplish these traits will make your song fall flat. It’s something that has to come naturally, through practice and study.
Common advice given by writing instructors is to write every day, no matter what you write. Just write and get your thoughts on paper (or on your electronic device). The act of forcing yourself to organize your thoughts enough to get them in written form, and then revising and editing your writing, is invaluable practice to hone your writing your skills. Carrying around a notebook to jot down song ideas or writing ideas is also very helpful. Don’t rely on your memory because you will never remember it the way you first thought of those random thoughts, or worse, you will simply forget your inspiration. Speaking your notes into your smartphone or recorder is a good alternative but doesn’t match actually writing your thoughts down.
I will often video myself playing new riffs that come to mind, on my iPhone. Keeping a record of them in this way ensures that I don’t forget them. Sometimes what sounded great one day will sound like crap the next day. Don’t get too attached to any riff or turn of phrase that you come up with. Updating, revising, and even scrapping your ideas is all part of the creative process.
I also find it helps to keep your songs to three or four simple concepts. Go deep instead of wide and expand on each of these sub-themes of your song. Just like any story, your song should have a opening, a middle, and an end. The ever elusive hook is also a staple of songwriting. One of the better books I’ve read on this topic is Songwriting for Dummies. It is written by a famous songwriting who had considerable success with some of the songs he wrote, so it is written with a great deal of authority on the topic.
Even if you never become famous, try writing your own music. It’s fun and I think, makes you a better musician, much like writing your own stories makes you a better writer. The act of revising and reviewing is very revealing and very educational. The more you do it, the better you tend to get.
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