How I Wrote a Song, Part 1

The other day I wrote a song for our band Parks & Recreation. I thought it might be valuable to reflect on how I did it. It's important sometimes to reflect on process. There are many ways a song can get written, and it's worth it to examine all the possibilities, so I don't get stuck trying to squeeze a song out of one process all the time. It's bad to get set in one's ways. So here goes:

Lily and I were cleaning the apartment (I was sweeping, she was chasing dusballs away and attacking the broom) and listening to the Zombies album Time of the Season. Toward the end of the album, they have a song where the singer reflects on how nice it is to have friends who are in love. I started to imagine that subject from a different point of view. What about a song in which the protagonist, a bachelor, sings about how annoying his couple friends are and how he's so very glad to be single? He could sing about the annoying things his couple friends do; but in the bridge, we find out that he's really jealous of their happiness and actually quite lonely. So with that in mind, I turned off the record and started singing aloud to myself (and to Lily, who was mrowring at some birds outside the window), trying to come up with a melody. In the chorus of the Zombies song, the background vocalists sing the names of various couples over the main vocalist's melody. So I started improvising on names of couples. After a few minutes I made up a verse section, a chorus, and a bridge section. At this point I stopped cleaning and got out my trusty handheld tape recorder.

Let me stop here for a moment and point out that I consider there to be two essential songwriting tools, especially for writing pop songs. They are: 1) a tape recorder and 2) a rhyming dictionary. Notice I didn't mention an instrument. It's important for me to be away from an instrument when I'm working on a song. At least at first. That way I can imagine the song in my head, where the possibilities are endless and I'm not limited to what I can do on the instrument. The ideas seem to flow much more freely, and I can imagine the song as a whole, rather than getting caught up in tiny details and interrupting the flow. The instrument is usually my last step. Even when I do employ it it's only for reference. I'll explain what I mean later. So, moving on:

Having made up the melody and some lyrics, I then sang them into the tape recorder. This was useful in case I needed to stop working and go off to work or something I'd have a record of what I'd done. Anyway, it took a couple of tries to get the melody right. Usually I'll just mumble some nonsense lyrics to hang the notes on, but in this case, the lyrics pretty much came out on the first try. So at this point I got out the rhyming dictionary to polish them up a bit. By "polish", I mean I had to clean up some of the words, make the rhyme scheme line up, choose different words that might get the meaning across better. Let me show you what I mean. The first lyric I came up with was:

"Molly and Rick are always bickering
there's no end to the battles of jenny and ken
katie has klaus chained to the house
and dinner at jack's always ends with peggy never coming back"

You won't find the rhymes at the ends of the lines. The rhyme scheme is based on patterns of assonance (sp?), or the repetition of vowel sounds. I was satisfied with the first line, because the vowel sounds go in a nice pattern. Molly rhymes with always, and rick goes with bick-. (I don't count the vowel sounds in "and" and "are" because they are unstressed). Looking at just the vowel sounds, then, we have the pattern O I O I. I like that. In the second line, the vowel pattern is E A E E.( "there's no end to the battles of jenny and ken"). This seemed off balance, so I changed the name "Jenny" to "Natalie" to go with "battles". Now we have E A A E. That's nicer. I changed the name "Katie" in the third line to "Lanie" because I actually have a friend named Kate who's one half of a couple, and I didn't want her to think the line referred to her. But even after changing the name, the vowel pattern is A OU A OU. That works great. Now the fourth line is a bit tricky, because there are an odd number of stressed vowels: "dinner jacks ends peggy back", or I A E E A. There's no pattern here whatsoever. So I changed "Peggy" to "Linda" so it would match with "dinner." Now, at least it's I A E I A. That's a little tighter, I think. The assonance between "dinner" and "Jack" is repeated at the end with "Linda" and "back". I couldn't switch the words around to make the pattern I A E A I, which would be ideal, because the constraints of English grammar prevented me from being able to get it perfect. Finally, I changed the phrase "battles of Natalie and Ken" to "the Battle of Natalie and Ken" so that instead of little tiny battles, it would be like one big never ending historic battle. Like the Battle of Bunker Hill or something. I thought it was more dramatic. So with revisions, the finished lyric is:

"molly and rick are always bickering
there's no end to the Battle of Natalie and Ken
lanie has klaus chained to the house
and dinner at jack's always ends with linda never coming back"

By the way, I didn't end up needing the rhyming dictionary for this lyric. Usually I do need one, especially when writing subsequent verses. So i stopped there. I left it there with the notion that the first verse would be about how couples are annoying because they fight all the time. The second verse will be about how couples are annoying because they're always getting all shma-shma and displaying their affections in front of our poor unfortunate bachelor. But, I left it there, wanting to work on the chords. This is where it gets tricky, though. How can I tell you about decisions I made regarding the harmony and melody without getting too technical. I think I'll take a bit of time to think about that and stop here. Plus, my eyeballs are frying out from so much writing. I'm sure yours are too if you've made it this far. So, we come to the end of part one. Ta!