Country songwriting and how to become a country songwriter
Want to write a country hit song? Join the country music club! The problem with country hits is that they require a fair amount of talent and a huge serving of luck. Almost anybody, however, can write a really good country song, and the feeling you get when you do is even better than the feel of cold, hard cash. Whether you're a beginner or an experienced songwriter, here's how to tap your potential and bring out the country music inside you.
Start today writing your country song
Stop thinking about it, and start writing. You really want to be a star, don’t you? You daydream about being on stage and hearing the roar of the crowd. Only trouble is, gee whiz, you’re dreaming your life away. If you want to write a really good country song, your going to have to work for it. Some of the creative process is inspired. It just comes to you. Some of it is based on study, thought, and intentional construction. Start today writing country songs
Listen actively to a lot of country music.
Good writers read books. Good songwriters listen to songs. As you listen, think about what you like about a song, or what you don't like. Why do you or don't you like it? Are the lyrics unique? Do the song's chord changes perfectly capture a mood? Do you like the transition from one part of the song to another? Study where it changes, and where it repeats. A song must have enough repetition to give it structure, and enough change to keep you interested. Does the story of the lyric 'hook' your interest and make you wonder what will happen next? Just identify what you like about a song, as well as what you don't like about it. You don't have to get technical.
Song verses, choruses and bridge
Get technical. You don't have to have a degree in music theory to write a good song, but you should have an understanding of how songs are built. There are infinite ways to structure a country song, but there are common sequences found in most of them. As you listen to country songs, try to identify the different parts, verses, choruses, or bridges. Some even have what they call a 'pre-chorus' or 'lift,' a segment which leads melodically and lyrically from the verse up to the chorus. Look at lyrics in CD's, online or in country music books. The parts of country songs are often labeled in these media.
Country Music Melodies
Be ready when inspiration comes calling. Unfortunately, inspiration usually doesn't strike at the most convenient times, so it's important that you be able to remember each new song that pops into your head, no matter where you are. Carry a pen and paper with you wherever you go, or better yet, carry a tape recorder or digital audio recorder--melodies can be extremely difficult to capture on paper unless you have a strong music background. The little bit you capture may later grow into a great country song, but you've got to capture it when it comes to you, or you can easily forget the words, and/or the melody that hooked you.
A country song out of the blue
Figure out what you’ve got. Once in a while, inspiration will hit you like a full force gale, and suddenly you’ve got a full song out of nowhere. It may need some re-writing to smooth it out and say what you want to say, but the main part of it is there. Most of the time, however, just a small piece of a potential song will come to you, leaving you to do the hard, but fun work of fleshing it out. You should have a feel for what part of the song you’ve come up with.
The hook is the title of your country song
If it’s super catchy (either a lyrical phrase or a snippet of music), and you can envision it being a repeated theme in the song, you may have the chorus—the climax or summary of your musical
story—and you need to write verses to tell the story up to that point. The 'hook factor' comes into play from the first music played or line sung. It should 'hook' you like you hope it will hook others. But the hook is the title, the line that sums up what the whole song is about, and it should be the main focus of the chorus.
If what you’ve come up with seems more narrative lyrically or subtler musically--like a part of a story rather than the main idea, you’ve probably got a verse, and you’ll need to write the rest of the story (more verses) and, usually, a chorus. You can figure out where this story might go. Maybe you've started in the middle and should write another verse that explains how the character(s) in the song got to the part that first came to you. Some describe songs as 3-minute movies, or a play in 3 acts, setting the stage, the scene, telling the story in the first verse or first two verses, conversationally telling of the conflicts and emotions, emoting in the chorus, and resolving the conflict in the end.
More Song writing tips
Subject matters for songwriting
Set the mood. Make sure your music fits the story. If it’s a sad song, you may want your melody to evoke sadness (by slowing it down or adding some minor chords, for example) or you might want to add a twist and combine sad lyrics to upbeat music in order to create a sense of tension and ambiguity. Or you may want to go for humor, in the face of adversity. All the ways human beings can feel about any subject can be expressed in song. Great songs tell a story or express an emotion (or both) in a compelling way that captivates the listener. Maybe your song is a story about a soldier returning from the Middle East. Or about losing a loved one. Or about finding a loved one. Or reaching a spiritual high you've never reached before. Or losing a battle then winning the war. Falling in love can be ridiculous, sublime, absurd, profound, disabling, empowering, and more. The world of man, politics, nature, love, hate, war, commerce, are all subject matter for songwriting.
Your song got something to say
Say something. A country song can get by with poor lyrics, but you’ve got a better chance of writing a really good song if your lyrics are great. Most people can relate to the words even if they can't relate easily to the music. This doesn’t mean the words have to be serious, but they should not be cliché or ho-hum. Write your song lyrics as though you’re talking to somebody who you want to impress, or to someone toward whom you feel some sort of deep emotion. Write your song as if you're explaining the story and want them to understand your lyrics.
Rhyming of the song lyrics
Make your words sing. Lyrics can appeal to emotions, but they should also appeal to the ear. Rhyming is the most obvious way to accomplish this, and there are a number of rhyme schemes you can employ Learn about these and other tools of poetry, and try putting them to work for you. You can rhyme at the end of lines, and/or within lines, internal rhyme. You can have imperfect rhymes, rhymes that work because their main vowel sound is similar, though not exactly the same.
Build a Bridge in your song
Strike a balance between repetition and variety. Repetition is what makes a song catchy; repeated choruses, for example, stick in our heads even when the rest of a song doesn’t. That’s why so many people know just a few lines of so many songs. While there may be good songs that are so simple they have no chorus and have the same line length, the same rhyme schemes, and the same chord progressions repeated throughout them, most people get bored with that. They begin to think of other things and forget the song as soon as it's over. It fails to 'hook' them. A common way to add variety after having repeated the melody of a couple verses and a couple choruses is to insert a ‘’bridge’’ into your song. A bridge has a variant melody, and may vary rhythmically. The words should help to tie up loose ends and finalize the story, enabling you to repeat the hook, the chorus and title for the last time without being too repetitious.
Hooks come at odd times
Look for the hook. The hook is that elusive part of a great song that captures your very soul and makes you want to listen to that song over and over. The 'hook factor' begins with the very first musical and lyrical lines. But the hook is the melody and words of the line that replays in your head after the song is over. It's memorable. You tell your friends about it, maybe sing it to them. Hooks are frequently found in the chorus and often become the title of the song. Sadly, there’s no recipe for hooks, but you’ll know when you have one. Better yet, your friends will tell you, because it's the part of a song they can't seem to get out of their head. Some song writers keep that pen and paper handy because hooks come to them at odd times and they want to capture them in their 'hook book' so they can work on developing asong later.
Build a transition in your song
Smooth the rough edges. If the pieces don’t fit together, try building a transition. Put all the sections of your song in the same key. If there’s a sudden change in tempo (speed) between the two parts, try gradually changing the speed as you enter and exit the section that doesn’t fit with the rest of the song. Try adding a short instrumental interlude that will carry you from one part to the next. If you find it ridiculously difficult to smooth the edges, the reason could be that those two parts just shouldn’t be in the same song. Or maybe you've got them reversed and playing the second one first and the first one second will transition more smoothly. Or maybe you just need to keep exploring until you find how to transition between the two.
That’s a really good Country Song
Get feedback. Play and/or sing your song for people and get their opinions. You’ll probably get a better idea of what they really think after you’ve written a few songs: friends and family may tell you that your first song is great even if it’s awful. Or awful when it's great. Who are they to judge? How much thought did they give it? But as they hear more of your songs, they’ll probably give you hints like, “It’s good, but I liked that first one you wrote better" or “Wow, that’s the best song you’ve written" and "That’s a really good song!" Note what people say. Write it down. If people consistently applaud, if they request a song after having heard it once a week or month ago, if strangers tell you consistently that they like it, that is market research. It shows you hooked them and the song has the potential to hook millions of others.
Keep writing Country Songs
Once you’ve finished your first song, don’t stop. Each one is a learning experience. Keep writing and practicing, and you’ll find yourself getting better and better. You may need to write a lot of songs before you hit on one you really like, and even after that, you may need to write a lot more before you get another good one. Work hard and have fun doing it!
More lyric writing tips
A happy song or a sad song
Do you want to write a happy song or a sad song? Whatever it is, make sure that when you're writing the song that you write it in the very strong emotion you are feeling at the moment. Lyrics will pop into your head so much easier and you won't even have to think. It will be logical. The rhyme is inherent in the subject matter. It just makes sense. Beware the line that doesn't add anything to the story, but you just grabbed because it rhymed.
A different dynamic of the chorus in your song
Most popular songs have some variation on the following sequence: intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Sometimes the order of these components is different, and sometimes one or more of them is absent. Dynamics are a good tool to utilize to separate out the different sections of the song. Quieter for verses, louder or more emotional in the choruses. Dynamics can also help to create that chorus hook that everyone will remember when listening to your song. The different dynamic of the chorus refreshes the ear, especially if the musical movement of the first verse has been long and subdued, or if the same musical movement has been repeated in a first and second verse before the chorus.
Discover melodies which inspire your Country Song
A verse to a song is usually a rhythmical phrase. Take a chord from the key you decide on and strum it in any pattern that feels natural to you. Then find a chord that sounds nice when played after your first chord. Keep adding chords like this until you have 3 or 4 chords that satisfy you. This is called a chord progression. Take the chords in your chord progression one by one and play them over your strumming pattern. Do this about 4 times and you have the accompaniment for a verse. There are 3 principal chords to each key, and you can learn them. But just discovering chords that go together can be much more interesting. If you don't play an instrument, a kazoo is a great way to discover melodies which can inspire lyrics.
You can rhyme at the end of every line or every other line, or your rhymes can come more sporadically. You can also rhyme within lines for a more subtle effect. Nursery rhymes do it, and are probably a key to why they are remembered centuries after being created. There are also other poetic devices you can use, such as alliteration, the repetition of a consonant sound and assonance
New melody to your country song
A bridge is a section of music, sometimes instrumental, that differs in its construction from the verses and the chorus, and is usually placed near the end of the song before the final chorus, where a verse would typically be. The bridge can be in a different key—that is, using a different set of chords--than the rest of the song, but it doesn’t need to be. It can also be faster or slower, shorter or longer, or otherwise different from the other sections. It gives the listener a new melody, new words, maybe new rhythms instead of repeating the ones they've already heard repeated in the verses and chorus. Then they're ready to hear the chorus a final time, repeating the hook, fixing it in their memory.
And your song goes on and on
If you don’t play an instrument, learn one. A kazoo requires only your voice. Knowing how to play a guitar or piano will make songwriting immeasurably easier. You’ll be able to accompany yourself when you sing for others, and you’ll feel like a star. The tones and rhythms of the instrument will inspire emotion and words.
If you do play an instrument, try putting it down. Spend more time singing to come up with melodies and sounds. This way you eliminate the possibility of just playing the "same old licks."
Experiment with lots of ways of making sound. Try to play an instrument you are less familiar with. The "mistakes" you make may prove inspiring. Percussionists exploring pitched instruments or vice versa can discover new things about music making.
Songs either tell a story (think "Out in the west Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl ...") or express an emotion (Don't go changin' to try to please me--I love you just the way you are) ... make your first line or two of your song really let the listener know what they're going to be experiencing. The 'hook factor' of those first lines may make or break your song's success in getting them to listen to the rest of it.
While a lot of musicians and songwriters don’t know much about music theory, and some can’t sight read sheet music, a good knowledge of the essentials of music can help you harness your creativity and develop your own style. Even if you can play and sing by ear amazingly, knowing at least how to read and write music will help you play with others and communicate your music to your band members (if you plan to start a band).
Don't be afraid to take a break from a song. If you run into a dead end or it seems like you're suddenly writing music that just isn't that good, take a walk, clean the house, go to work--anything that will get your mind off the song for awhile. Sometimes you're just thinking too hard or you get stuck in a rut, and when you take a break, that rhyme or chord you're looking for will suddenly pop into your head. Trying to forge ahead, even though you're frustrated, can result in an uninspired lyric or instrumental accompaniment. You can switch over and play and sing other songs, maybe start writing a new one. If the new song bogs down, go back to the first one and see if you have a breakthrough. If not come back to the other new one. These 'sister songs' can maintain the edge to your creative flow.
Don't be afraid to take a long break. As long as you have the ideas for the song written down or, preferably, recorded, don't stress about "giving up" on a song that just isn't working. Every now and then, go back and revisit these "unfinished symphonies." Maybe a year later, you'll once again find inspiration for a song you left behind, or maybe one day you'll be writing about how you feel like you don't have a partner, and you'll realize, "Hey, I could just put this together with that 'under the bridge downtown' bit."
Stop, collaborate and listen to another songwriter. Some people can pen great lyrics, but can't write a melody to save their lives; for others, the reverse is true. Find a like-minded songwriter who can put your words to music or your music to words--a lot of hit songs have been written by collaboration.
You can usually record yourself a memo on a cell phone, and if not, you can call yourself and leave a message of your singing or humming on your voicemail. Make sure you sing loud enough for the song to be clear when you listen to the message later--let people think you're crazy! If it works, it's worth it!
To avoid being too "Pop" sounding, look a little deeper into emotions that others can relate to, but write from your own perspective, based on your own life. It is easy to fit a trend, but it takes effort and inspiration to create a song that is unique.
You can write a song with corny lyrics and it can still be a big hit (Bohemian Rhapsody,Yellow Submarine) but you have to be dead serious when you're playing it and it has to be backed by good instrumental parts. It has to have good melody, rhythm, rhyme and story.
Like anything else, other people's opinions will help. After you finish a song, leave it for awhile and don't think about it. Go back to it after a day or two and see what you think. You may spot flaws of tense or gender you can correct, or get new ideas about how to say what you meant to say.
Learning to read music never hurts. When you get good at it, you can transcribe the riffs/hooks you hear in your head. Take some time to do this. It may be better to do this in staff than with tablature, as staff preserves rhythm and it's then easy to recreate any riff on the piano.
Freewriting is a common tool to come up with lyrics or lyrical ideas, as well as improving writing skills. You can just write a rambling story, letting it end wherever is logical, or you can write a rambling rhyme, trying to make it coherent in storyline, but just letting it go on as long as it takes to find some logical end. It loosens up your ability to wordplay, to find meanings and rhymes, and put words together that may not ordinarily go together.
Sometimes imagining your song in your head can help a great deal when writing. If you are "blocked", imagine what you would like to hear, and perform it. Hence the phrase, "If you can think it, play it."
If you think of a song, and you dont like it, don't scribble it out, don't tear it up, don't throw it away. Work on it. Other people might like it.
Avoid plagiarism. Naturally, you don't want to just copy the melody or the exact words of another song. Another, more subtle problem is subconscious plagiarism, where a songwriter does not realize that he or she is largely copying another song. If you worry that your song sounds like another song, you might be right. Play it for as many listeners as you can, and see if they think so, too. The beauty of music is that it has all been done before, and yet it can be done anew.
Be careful with rhyming. Don’t choose a word just because it rhymes with another—make sure the words make sense in the song. The sentence leading up to the rhyme must make sense in the context of the story. Be aware of rhyming dictionaries: they can be helpful, but if you overuse them, you’re liable to start sounding ridiculous. A thesaurus is a better tool: it will give you the most ways to express your thoughts, and help you find the best lyrics. If your thought is focused on the story you'll often find the rhyme makes perfect sense within the context of the story.
Don't rely just on inspiration. Imagine if you were given a dozen eggs, a pound of sugar, a couple of sticks of butter, and a sack of flour, a mixing bowl and an oven and you were told to make a cake just from inspiration ... sure, you've seen and eaten cakes before, but never made one yourself ... your initial efforts would lead to failure unless you were extremely lucky. However, if you have a recipe, then you can follow that to bake your cake, and later adapt the recipe to make your own unique variety when you have obtained the necessary experience. It's the same way with songwriting: inspiration works best when the required perspiration has been done. Sure, there are exceptions. But why gamble at being the exception? Take your inspirations as far as you can. Then apply your intellect to refine them into the song you want to write.
Don't try too hard to make your song long, complicated or difficult to play. This won't necessarily impress anyone. Especially if you are a beginner, you might want to just stick to short musical and lyrical phrases. Build a two to three minute song out of them. Simple songs can be very fun and can catch someone's attention quickly. For example, listen to some early Beatles lyrics or learn a guitar riff by Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine). Listen to the Ramones. Simple ideas can lead to big hits. Simple songs have more commercial value. They can get on the radio, tv, or film easier because they don't take a lot of time and they can get back to selling what they're selling. If you've got an opera in you, by all means write it. But songs are usually simple.
Don't let yourself become constrained by the "verse-chorus" structure. A lot of excellent songs are written as a single string of ideas instead of one idea repeated multiple times. Maybe that "hook" you came up with would work better as a one-time-only "climax" that the rest of the song builds up to. Don't be afraid to get creative-- adding some variety to your song structures makes for richer variation in your songs. Sometimes the lines between verses and choruses are less easily defined. Each verse may end with a refrain, the hook, that constitutes the chorus. If it has a bridge it may end with that same refrain, hitting that hook, driving it home to the listener one more time, or two or three more. That should work