Sunday, January 24, 2016

5 TIPS on How To Write a GREAT Song

I heard this song the other day. It was on Johnny Cash’s last album, American V: A Hundred Highways. The whole album gets to you, because it’s Johnny, because we all know the story, because he’s gone. But in that moment when cut #10 started playing, I guess my thoughts were some place, and my heart was ready, and I heard the song in a way that will stay with me forever. The song was Rose of My Heart.  

It was written by Johnny Rodriguez. The song is old, but it was new to me. All due respect to both Johnny’s, I wondered, even as the tears rolled down my cheeks, why they had not crafted the song better, when the fixes would have been so easy. The rhyme scheme is quirky and amateur, the way he rhymes “heart” with “heart” in the first chorus and then doesn’t rhyme at all at the end of the second chorus. Another faux pas, changing the chorus! So the structure is odd, and some of the lines seem out of place. 

My next thought was, “Who cares?!” I was moved. I was touched. Now that song is part of my story. To change it would be like telling someone you love them in a tender moment, and just as they reach for your hand you stop and say, “Wait! I think I need to re-write that line!” That would be really sad.

Don’t you love it? So many rules of writing and no rules at all. Every writer faces a million choices, not right or wrong, just choices in crafting a song. Sure, there are industry standards, genre ideals, and communication techniques; but not every song is written for the marketing department. Every song has a place. 

Rose of My Heart follows some rules. It’s 3 minutes 17 seconds long. It lifts a little into the chorus. The chords fit the melody, which fits the lyric. Etc. Etc. Etc. But the thing that matters most is the spirit of it. It is authentic in some inexplicable way, and we all know it. We’ve all felt it, or want to feel it. We all hear it and go, “Awwwwe.” Even if you don’t know Johnny and June.

So when someone tells me they heard a GREAT song, I always notice which criteria they are following. It’s not an either/or thing. I try to craft great songs by ANY standard, but you never can get away from the magic, that mysterious something that makes a song speak.


And you know what else? You’ll never even know all the random moments when your song hits someone just right and becomes part of that person’s story. And you’ll never know which songs did that. So write what you’re given, write your best, and keep writing! 

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