The Songwriter’s Toolkit

Back in middle and high school I used to write really terrible songs.  I’d write them at the piano. This was an odd choice in retrospect, because I was a violinist. But it wasn’t so easy to sing and play violin at the same time.  And really, until I discovered Laurie Anderson my sophomore year, it was way too nerdy for the task.  So I’d bang things out on the piano, but with limited technical skill and limited aural imagination, the songs were very basic and extremely tedious, even to me.

Eventually I started trading my page-turning services for our church organist in exchange for some informal keyboard lessons.  I got a little better and managed to write a maudlin graduation song for a few of my friends.  It was awful.  But I still have the sheet music around here somewhere.  Someone had suggested that I copyright it and someone else had said you could do that by putting it in an envelope, signing and dating over the flap, and mailing it to yourself.  At some point later in life, when I stumbled on this artifact and was about to put it back in my file cabinet, it occurred to me that no one in her right mind would have any interest in stealing this song.  So I opened it and promptly regretted it.

So I have a history of writing crappy songs that I need to get past.

I haven’t written a song since then, though, at least, not of the type I’m thinking of. I took composition in college and also in grad school, and wrote atonal classical chamber works that included vocalists. I have picked up some musical skills in general along the way, and a lot more performance experience. Over the course of my professional career, I’ve worked as a music professor, singer, conductor, violinist/fiddler, and violin teacher, and poet. You would think this would help, and it should, but it is also paralyzing — I feel like I need to dive immediately in the deep end of the pool and earn a perfect ten.

It’s time to get over my fear of songwriting.

In order to do that, though, I’ve been trying to pull together a songwriter’s toolkit of skills and methods in the interest of building technique. My toolkit exists primarily taxonomically at the moment, as post categories.

  • Elements:  Building blocks of songwriting — the verse, the bridge, the chorus, vocal line, rhythm, chord progressions, etc.
  • Forms: Song structures — verse and chorus arrangements with or without bridges, from the very repetitive to the very complex
  • Genres: Styles of songs. Mostly I’m looking at folk, bluegrass, and rock of various sorts, but other things may creep in here too.
  • Lyrics: Textual form, themes, narrative structures, etc.

I might add to this list as I go — I could see instrumentation coming up later, maybe — but for now, this covers the bases I’m most interested in.

In addition to these categories, I’ll be posting about some of the Resources I find — these might be blogs or podcasts or books, magazine articles or conversations with people I know.

I’ll be talking about the process of tabbing out songs I’ve heard and about arranging tunes for myself or the band under the category Arranging.

Mostly, though, I expect to be writing about songs.  Other people’s Songs and why they matter to me.  Other people’s songs and how they’re built.  Other people’s songs and what happens when they get under my fingers and into my throat.  The embodiment of sound matters. It’s important to do it alone in my room. It’s also important to make music socially with other people. So I may also talk about what happens when I play with others.

You may be thinking, “This is all very long-winded.  I mean, she could have just written a damn song by now.”  You would think.  This blog may, in fact, be an elaborate exercise in NOT writing a song.  But as I was not writing songs before I started writing this blog,  at the very least I will not be any worse off than I was before and with luck, maybe I’ll get somewhere.


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