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Songwriting Take-Home Test #1: Learn How to Write Better Songs

how to write better songs

We songwriters are craftsmen with words and music. As such, we use certain songwriting skills and tools to get the job done. Knowing what these tools are called and what they’re used for not only helps us but helps us share observations, discoveries, and new tricks of the trade with other songwriters and interested laypersons. If you know what you’re doing but don’t know what it’s called, it's worth the effort to find out; you’ll more than likely discover that somebody did it before you, and even better. We can only hide behind our “innocence” for so long. As to the opinion, “If I know what I’m doing the magic will go away…”

“The knowledge of something doesn’t make it less beautiful.” Richard P. Feynman

 

Songwriting "Test"

The following is a “test” of your songwriting knowledge; what things are called and how you use them. (I’ve had fun with some of the more ridiculous answers, so don’t think I’m talking down to anyone.) As I said earlier, I think it’s important to know how you do what you do, what things are called, and how to communicate these with others. There’s no real grade given at the end, and the correct answer(s) are at the bottom of the page. Have fun!


1. Name 4 places you’re most likely to find the song title:

a. beginning of the song, end of the song, bridge, tag
b. end of verse1, end of choruses, turnaround, instrumental
c. end of verses 1 & 2, release, top of the chorus, end of the chorus
d the front of the cd, middle of the bridge, on a t-shirt, on a BMI statement


2. Economy in songwriting can best be defined as:

a. spending as little time as possible writing the song
b. spending as little money as possible on the demo
c. the maximum development of the minimum of material
d. keeping the song within three minutes or less


3. Different song sections (verses, choruses, post-choruses, bridges, tags, etc.) should:

a. do different things
b. modulate
c. tell a story
d. sound like other songs


4. When writing the BIG IDEA (love, life, death, universal peace etc.) it’s best to:

a. use a large font
b. concentrate on description and details
c. use the narrative form
d. use AABA form most often


5. The most stable rhyme type is:

a. Perfect
b. Family
c. no rhyme
d. orange


6. One way to emphasize a great lyric line is to:

a. type it in bold
b. use all capital letters
c. use an even number of syllables
d. contrast it with a mediocre line


7. You probably don’t need to write a bridge if:

a. your song tells a story with beginning, middle, and end
b. your song is under 3 minutes but feels complete
c. you wrote one already
d. your friends say it’s fine the way it is


8. What are some interesting ways to write a tag?

a. work the song title into the tag
b. as an extended section of its own
c. repeat line one/verse one with different harmony
d. add a fresh line before reinstating the title


9. What is the difference between an instrumental section and a solo section?

a. an instrumental section is music that is pre-conceived by the song writer, while the solo section is music improvised by a soloist(s)
b. an instrumental section is played by one instrument only
c. a solo section can be repeated while an instrumental section can not d. there is no difference


10. What is a Nonce form?

a. AABA with a repeated B section
b. verse/chorus without a bridge
c. a form invented by the writer for just one song that doesn’t exist else where.
d. three or more Nonce’s

 


Answers:


1. (c.) end of verses 1 & 2, release, top of the chorus, end of the chorus

In a typical AABA structure the title most often appears at the end of verse 1 (A), end of verse 2 (A), not in the bridge (B), and in the release (A). Songs with verse/chorus structures the title most often appears at the top and/or end of the chorus.


2. (c.) the maximum development of the minimum of material

“Elegance is making something as simple as possible, but not simpler.”–Einstein


3. (a.) do different things

Simply put, song intros are different from verses-are different from choruses-are different from turnarounds-are different from bridges-are different from-etc., and should do different things in different ways:

Contrasting melodic rhythms in different sections
Contrasting melodic range
Contrasting rhyme scheme
Different chord changes
How fast the chords change (Harmonic Rhythm)
Section length (not always)


4. (b.) concentrate on description and details

Restraint matters when harnessing something of size. The mind tends to “shrink” when faced with large topics like death, fate, world peace, etc., wanting, instead, to make sense of smaller, controllable, and connected parts. So, let the BIG IDEA emerge through an accumulation of specific details. See:

Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning? (AlanJackson)
In My Town (S. Leslie, C. Peterson)
Where Do You Start? (J. Mandel, A. & M. Bergman)


5. (a.) Perfect

Perfect rhyme with its resultant feeling of stability and arrival works the same way tonic-functioning chords work in harmony (1, 6-). Perfect Rhyme tends to make a statement sound truer as in adages: “Where God Guides, He Provides,” "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” "Little strokes fell great oaks.”


6. (d.) contrast it with a mediocre line:

But I'll be all right, I'm just missing you,
And this is me kissing you, XX's and OO’s,
In a Letter From Home


Where can I surrender? I’m tired of bein’ free.
I want love to come and make a prisoner out of me.


Now those were some good times, but lately they don't seem to last,
I guess I'm not nearly as strong as a drink in your glass.


And as to be expected, a few miles down the road,
My “really nothing’s wrong here” went up in smoke.


Mother tells the ladies at the bridge club every day,
Of the rising price of tranquilizers she has to pay.


7. (a.) your song tells a story with beginning, middle, and end
(b.) your song is under 3 minutes but feels complete


8. All of the above

(a.) work the song title into the tag
(b.) as an extended section of its own
(c.) repeat line one/verse one with different harmony
(d.) add a fresh line before reinstating the title


9. (a.) an instrumental section is music that is pre-conceived by the song-writer, while the solo section is music improvised by a soloist(s)


10. (c) a form invented by the writer for just one song that doesn’t exist elsewhere.

 

About the Author

Steve Leslie is a multiple BMI Award Winner, former Adjunct Professor of Songwriting at Belmont University, Nashville, TN, and in 2013 was one of four internationally selected candidates considered for the Chair of the Songwriting Department, Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA.


For more ways to impress your songwriting friends with your deep knowledge of the songwriting craft, enroll in The Fine Art of Songwriting: 

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