Mysteries of Songwriting Revealed! Part 1: “Don’t Over-Think It.”

Mysteries of Songwriting Revealed!
Part 1: “Don’t Over-Think It.”
By Dan Miraldi

When asked to write about songwriting, I am forced recall the quote often attributed to Frank Zappa: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  It is tough to use one artistic medium to try and describe another, but I will attempt to summarize some of the basic principles I tend to follow . . . except for when I don’t. 

First off, there is no right or wrong way to go about writing music.  I have often been asked do I write the melody, the underlying chords or the lyrics first?  The answer is “yes” – songwriting happens all ways and every way.  I do not know when inspiration may strike.  It is nice when I have a guitar and pen handy, other times it can be just as I’ve put shampoo in my hair and I am forced to rinse it out quickly, race to my phone and sing my idea into its recorder before I lose it forever.
My number one rule about songwriting is don’t over-think it, especially when you’re figuring out the basic chord progression.  If you over-think a song, it will come off as forced.  Many a great song idea have been killed off by over-thinking.  Let the song go where it wants to go.  Don’t be afraid to use a conventional chord progression.  There is a reason they are used so often – they work!  The trick is making your melody unique, that is often the part of the song that gets stuck in the listener’s heads anyway.  There are plenty of songs that share a common progression and sound absolutely nothing alike, so stop fretting!  That is not to say don’t challenge yourself or experiment.  Find new progressions that excite you and see where they take you.  Learning new chords will definitely widen your pallet of songwriting tools.  My point is don’t be upset when you think of a cool melody line and sit down to try to figure out the appropriate accompanying chords only to discover that they are G, C and D.  The song may still be a winner. 
Sometimes, you can compensate for simple chord progressions by being clever with not only melody, but by lyrical content.  Creative images are a great way to enhance your songwriting and take your listeners on a journey.  Bob Dylan is the master of this; check out songs like “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Hurricane”, each are incredibly cinematic.  Take the opening of Dylan’s “Hurricane”: “Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night.  Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall.  She sees a bartender in a pool of blood. Cries out, ‘My God, they’ve killed them all!’”  BOOM! You’re there. However conversely, “Twist & Shout” is a great song and its lyrical simplicity adds to the song’s infectious nature.  Songwriters have to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.  You must recognize what kind of song you are writing and what plays to the overall vibe of your composition.  A lot of the time in modern pop music, it comes down to finding a balance between cleverness and simplicity. 
Next, I would like to touch upon the misconception that the best songs are written all at once.  It is really convenient when they happen that way and some fantastic songs were written in one sitting, but that does not guarantee greatness.  Sometimes you have to wrestle with the songwriting muses and be patient.  My 2012 release Sugar & Adrenaline contains the songs “Few Rock Harder” and “Helen of Troy”.  With “Few Rock Harder”, I carried the guitar riff and general chorus idea in my head for the better part of six years before I figured out how the song’s pieces fit together.  “Helen of Troy”, on the other hand, was written in about fifteen minutes.  I am proud of both and consider each among some of my best compositions.
In the end, you as a songwriter must learn to trust your gut.  Consulting others can be beneficial and inspiring, but do not be timid.  You are the song’s parent.  It's your ultimate decision as to how your baby should be raised.  You’ll make some mistakes along the way, just learn from them and get better with each try.  Remember: don’t over-think it.
© 2013 DM Experience This Music LLC

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