I’m active in a number of songwriting groups on FaceBook. I was recently asked what I’m looking and listening for when I review a song – here’s an edited version of my answer, which applies not only to the songs I review, but also to my own original songwriting: For every song I review, I try to provide honest, constructive feedback – sometimes, I fear, perhaps too honest. But I’ve seen some great promise on the part of many folks who’ve honored us by sharing their works on FaceBook, and I’d like to think that my thoughts, as a fellow writer, storyteller, and avid listener might help some to grow in their craft.
With that in mind – and since (a) sometimes, if you read my comments, you may be confused by a certain apparent lack of consistency on my part; and (b) you may at times note that, in posting my own songs, I don’t follow – or at least live up to – my own advice – I thought I’d try to briefly set out a few of the things I look for when I’m reading your lyrics and listening to your music here. And please don’t think I’m setting myself apart or above you in writing this – I’m an aspiring writer, just like you. I’ve been lucky enough to be honored with a couple of awards, but have yet to have any of my stuff picked up by anyone for album cuts or sales. But I’ve studied the craft of songwriting, and that’s what I’m trying to grow, both in myself, and in my comments in this group.
So, what do I look for, when I take a look at the next big hit that you’ve offered up for our consideration?
(1) Originality. This is really important to me as a songwriter. Each one of us has unique experience, intellect and emotion that we bring to our songwriting palette. I want to see that on display. A fresh perspective on a common topic, a great turn of phrase, inspired rhyming. I’m looking for things I wish I’d thought of, wish I’d written. And at the same time, I’m on the lookout for well-worn phrases that threaten to pull your song down into cliche, common rhymes (moon/June, love/dove) that have been overused a zillion times already and would cause a professional producer or artist to chuck your song in the ashcan and move on. And I’m PARTICULARLY on the lookout for phrases, melodies, and the like that are so close to “classic” hits, as to draw unfavorable comparisons. While it’s true that no one can copyright a title, would any of us really want to take on writing a song called, “She Loves You” or “MacArthur’s Park”? Those are grossly exaggerated examples, but you get the idea – and, just as important, in this litigious age, should you decide to go down the commercial, music industry path, you don’t want to be sued (take a look at the whole controversy and court cases around the Marvin Gaye/”Blurred Lines” copyright issue to see how treacherous some of this can be).
(2) Authenticity. I believe that we need to invest every song we write, with something of our authentic selves. It can be writ large, as in an autobiographical song. Or it can be more subtle, as in putting some of our experience or emotional history into an otherwise fictional tale. For example, I’m a recreational sailor, and I wrote a song a couple of years ago about a sailing tragedy in a storm in my community. I was supposed to be in the sailboat race involved – in fact, on one of the boats that sank. I knew people involved. I’ve been in rough weather. I took what I knew of sailing and tried to put my listener in my place, had I been on the water that day. Another song dealt with a train wreck in our town. I wasn’t on that train – but I went to the remote site of the wreck to try to soak up some of the spirit of the place, and to see the memorial stone that had been erected.
So when my lyric talks about the memorial – I’ve seen it. I also tried to use some of the fear and panic and terror I’ve known in other instances of my life, in describing what the passengers on the train must have gone through. So when the lyric talks about the screams in the night – I’ve heard them. I think our listeners can sense that authenticity, in writing and in performing, and they respond to it and empathize with it. I’m looking for that type of response and empathy in myself, when I read your words on the page.
(3) Craft. We don’t need to be bound by convention – but songwriting conventions have developed for reasons, some of which have to do with learning over time what listeners respond to. Some of the “standard” song structures have some basis in psychology – what a person internalizes of what they hear, and what they reject. Some keys evoke peaceful, happy feelings in listeners; others, discord, unrest. We as songwriters make use of all of these aspects in our songs. Remember, we’re trying to impart knowledge (say, the story we’re trying to tell) on an intellectual level; we’re trying to get our listeners to feel something emotionally; and we’re trying to get them to do something – learn something new, feel a certain way, be motivated to take some action. And so I’m looking for uses of the songwriting craft – structure, shifts in key or from major to minor, rhyming schemes, etc. in the cause of imparting what you want the song to convey. And I also look for consistency as we move through the song – if you’ve set up the first line of your first verse to have 10 syllables, then I look at the consistency of that as we move through the song – it will drive singability and melody. But at the same time, if you break that consistency – and breaking all these rules is a way to achieve the originality and authenticity I’m looking for – do you do it in workable ways? This is also where I watch for overused words – if you’ve used the same word multiple times, it’s either time to get out a Thesaurus, or to recognize that maybe that’s one of the “hooks” of your song.
(4) Storytelling. I like songs that tell a story. That story can be broad brush, or very detailed and specific. But I like a song that takes me somewhere between beginning and end. I want to feel, when it’s over, that I’m in a different place than when I began. To me, verses tell the basic story; bridges comment on it; and choruses tell me what the story means and where the singer is as a result of the experiences in the verses. Obviously that’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s kind of a guide I use as an outline of a song. And so as we progress through verse, bridge (if any – not all songs need them), pre-chorus, chorus, etc., I’m looking for things that (a) advance the story and (b) are superfluous. Particularly the latter – if we’ve said the same thing already (unless it’s a hook, or central to the storytelling – after all, some repetition is good in a song, particularly on points we want to highlight or reinforce) – perhaps it’s time to break out the editing pencil.
(5) Variance. Think about the worst karaoke performance you’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through. Someone who sings in a dead monotone. Don’t you wish they’d change things up a bit? We’re all like that as listeners. I’m looking for that in our songs. If we’re using differing structures -verses, bridges, choruses – there needs to be variation and differentiation between them, partly to hold the listeners’ interest, partly to serve as a sonic roadmap of the song as we progress through it. I look for sonic variance in the musical elements as well – range, dynamics, meter/tempo, all helping to propel the story, convey emotion, support the storytelling and carry the listener through on a journey from beginning to end. There are plenty of other elements that may strike me as well – for example, if the story being told is a sad tale of woe, is the meter, tempo, melody and accompaniment in support of that? A sad song in a major key can work, but a minor key could be more effective.
Things like that. And one thing to bear in mind – I’m only one listener, I’m only one opinion. If perchance I don’t like something, that’s not a judgement on the song or its writer(s) – I’m just one listener. I readily admit I’m not a fan of the music of Kanye West or Taylor Swift – I’ve listened to their stuff, and it doesn’t speak to me. But I absolutely respect them as writers and creative artists – there’s a LOT of craft in what they do. And I also respect their fans – there are millions of people who ARE moved by their music, and you have to recognize that. So, the next time you read one of my reviews – and I’d like to think that I only take the time to write a review, if I feel there’s something meaningful in the song that I’d like to comment on or see more developed – you’ll have a little more of an idea of where I’m coming from. And in listening to some of my songs here, you’ll see (hopefully) how I try to use the same standards for myself in my writing – and, probably, how I occasionally fall short, or ignore them, or intentionally throw them out the window.
It took me a long time to get comfortable with calling what I produce “art” – but, that’s art, baby! And, to quickly close by coming back to writing original music on the ukulele – the uke has elements that contribute to everything I’m looking for here – originality, authenticity, craft, storytelling, variance. I’ve written more extensively on this before (see my essay, “Original Music – Why the Ukulele” on this site), so suffice to say here that the ukulele can be an important part, not only of making your song stand out from the pack from a musical perspective, but of forming part of the tone and mood and emotion of the story you’re telling in your song