Allow me start out by saying I have never written a song in my life, nor do I intend to. That being said, I still am curious as to how the songwriter approaches his creativity. Where does the inspiration come from and how do you start that process once the idea is firmly embedded in your mind. Understanding what goes in to the songwriters thought process gives the avid music lover, insight in to that song.
What I am about to say, is purely speculation on my part. Probably, more of a “here’s how I’d do it” statement than anything else. I beleive it’s like anything else, you have to have structure. Like a three act play, a begininng (Act I), a middle (Act II) and the finale (Act III). The beginning sets the beat and melody… the middle connects… to the end where a climatic chord progression closes the deal. For someone out there who has written a tune or two, please feel free to comment.
Willie Dixon wrote more Blues songs than anyone. Some estimates have his total of Blues tunes in excess of 400. Think about that, how is it possible to reach such incredible writing feats? Here is a quote from Dixon on writing a song (from the book Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues):
Oh no, I don’t have no set time. When I get the right idea -it comes to me- I start writing. I always have a book. If I don’t have the book and pencil with me I get in my mind and I start thinking about it. Sometime I’ll stop just to think it over and when I get to the house, I write on it.
Willie Dixon was one of those rare artists who never seemed to lack for an idea for a song. I wonder if he ever experienced writers block. Dixon carried a pocketful of pens around with him because he said “he was inspired all the time”! If I were a budding Blues songwriter, or any genre for that matter, I might consider getting to know Willie Dixon’s approach to songwriting, a little better. In my observation of Dixon’s music you can see patterns in his music that he alters in one form or another. Pick up the beat, slow down the tempo, etc. Throughout the history of the Blues, artists “borrowed” refrains, lyrics and musical patterns from one another and constructed them in a way that you would have an entirely different song. My brother who plays more than I do, (actually I don’t play at all) once pointed out “there are only 8 notes”. It is absolutely mind boggling how many millions of songs have come from those eight notes.
The mechanics of a song writer, I am sure, varies from one to another. Some may start with lyrics and shape a song around those lyrics, others may have a melody in mind and then adapt the words to fit the musical progression. Carole King and Gerry Goffin had a songwriting spree unequaled by anyone. King and Goffin (along with Paul Simon and Neil Diamond among others) were part of the famous Brill Building a.k.a “The Hit Factory” in New York City during the late 50’s and early 60’s. Here is concept championed by Carole King and others, who have extensive writing credits:
The bridge is supposed to be exactly that—a bridge, a musical idea that is neither the verse nor the chorus but explores the idea of the song in a new way, bringing you the listener back around to the chorus or refrain from a different angle.
One other pair of songwriters, one would be smart to emulate was Elton John and Bernie Taupin. These two guys put out many, many classic hit songs that have stood the test of time. One of my particular favorites was Your Song, and perhaps one the most technically perfecting recordings you could reward yourself by listening is the LP/CD Madman Across the Water. Taupin also worked with other artists as well, but the music he created with “Reg” was indelible.