Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Struggle of Songwriting

A couple of years ago I wrote a Visual Thesaurus column about writing song lyrics, focusing on basics: finding a storyline and a mood that many people can relate to, telling the story with simple words and painting the mood with vivid images, plus, without being vague, leaving plenty of room for romantic mystery.

A year later I wrote a column about how I penned one song, "Me Too," doing my best to describe how the melody, harmony, and lyric of one particular song came together in my mind, hands, and voice over a couple of excited and happily challenging weeks of banging on my guitar and scratching down and scratching out ideas for chords and rhythms, sharps, flats, and rests. Here's the chorus of the finished song that came out just as I hoped:

Me too, me too,
Two teeny tiny words
Me too, me too,
The wisest ever heard,
'Cause those two silly syllables
Always will be true
As long as you’re a bit like me
And I’m a bit like you.

That success story led, over many months, to two more new songs in November and December, 2015:  "On A Silly Sunny Day," inspired by hearing a Jamaican fellow playing reggae on a steel drum in a subway station. I couldn't imitate his lilting, laughing melody that echoed off the station's porcelain walls, but I got a few cheery notes that I worked into a bouncy tune I loved to sing. And on Christmas Day my wife, Ellen Mandel, and I took a long walk through Manhattan's quiet streets; to get a "A Long Walk Christmas Day" out of that, I needed only to describe as plainly as possible what we did:

We took a long walk Christmas Day
On every door hung ribboned wreaths of pine
My elbow crooked for you to hold
Your every step the perfect twin of mine

In empty streets a church-like hush
Low scudding clouds held a hint of snow
At every turn we stopped and laughed out loud
It mattered not a bit which way we'd go.

So I began 2016 primed to write a song a month—sports car speed in my universe!—and in my practice sessions I strummed away, looking for something that tugged at my ear. At the same time Ellen was writing gorgeous songs to poems by WB Yeats, Thomas Hardy, E. E. Cummings, Seamus Heaney. One of my favorites was "now (more near ourselves than we)", a sweet tearjerker by Cummings about a bird singing in a tree. "Hmm," I thought, "maybe the song I'm looking for can be a bird song." Instantly an opening line came flashing into my brain:

Outside my window in a tree…

Okay! First verse (or A section) well begun. What about a second line? And here it came at the speed of light:

A pretty bird sang merrily…

—and with these a fragment of melody, nothing so special, but modestly charming, certainly good enough to work with for the moment. But—and it's difficult showing this without music writing—the word "in" landed on a held and fairly high note:

Outside my window i-i-i-in a tree

—when as a rule lyricists want to give their money-notes to money-words like "love" and "darling," not to prepositions like "in" or "from." I also noticed that in my second line:

A pretty bird sang merrily

—the melody's big accent came on the "ly" of merrily, when ordinary speech gives the accent to first syllable: mer-ri-ly.

Giving a new accent to a word to make it fit a melodic rhythm is not a capital offense in lyric writing, but as an early teacher of mine once said, "Try to avoid putting the em-pha-sis on the wrong syl-lab-ble."

So I went back to the melody and tried to rewrite it to get rid of that over-accented "in" and that under-accented "mer," but strum and pick as I might, nothing worked. I went back to the words, but they too remained intractable. The melody was determined not to budge, the words equally determined not to budge, and they did not seem to care much how I felt about it. "Fine," I growled under my breath, "be that way! I'll go on to the second verse and loop back to you when I'm good and ready."

The second verse (or A section) did not come as quickly as the first, but it fit my melody much more snugly:

A passing breeze put her to flight
She skimmed away through sunset light
My heart flip-flopped,
And almost stopped
So beautiful the gone-forever sight

The "her" in the first line now firmly holds the spot that "in" had weakly filled in the first verse, and "sunset light" follows a more conversational rhythm than the first verse's "merrily." I also liked the picture of the bird flying away into the sunset and my heart flip-flopping at the quickly passing beauty of the scene.

On to the bridge (the contrasting B section in an AABA song). But here I really bogged down. Misplaced accents are minor problems, but having no idea what story the song tells, that's serious. A good song needs to tell a good story. Yes, some songs—many by Bob Dylan, for example—convey ideas as much or more than they do stories, but most pop songs present little one-act plays, mini-dramas that tell us how happy two lovers felt about meeting or how sad they felt about breaking up.

My bird beginning, unfortunately, gave me no clue where the story of the lyric was headed. Two A sections done, and the song's story could still be a paean to nature, the singer waking to the beauty of daily life. Or a political song, the singer angry about global warming. Or a romantic song, the singer conveying a mood falling anywhere on broad spectrum between acid-laced hate to gooey-sugared love. But I couldn't decide! I tried this, I tried that: sarcastic or serious, funny or philosophical, humble or haughty; nothing seemed to work. Finally I settled on the singer being so encouraged by the bird's song that he or she can hopes to give an old romance a brand new start:

Tick tock tick the minutes of onward rushing time
Alone in my room I hunt the perfect rhyme
To tell you how that bird's song touched my unhappy heart
And gave me hope we'll love again.

But you know what? I didn't like it. Couldn't give a reason, couldn't explain why, just didn't like it, didn't feel it. So I stopped working on it. The other day I found a few of the song's scratched-over sheets of manuscript paper buried in the mess I call my desk: my opinion hadn't changed. For the time being, and quite likely forever, "A Pretty Bird," as I had titled the tune in my initial excitement, was as dead as a doornail.

But don't get me wrong. "Me Too" and "A Long Walk Christmas Day" may be success stories, but the tale of "A Pretty Bird" is not a failure story. It's a struggle story, and one that any artist in any medium can understand. You get an idea, you give it a try, maybe it soars, maybe it flops, but no matter what, according to a wise old song:

You take a deep breath,
Pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
And start all over again!

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.