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Bob Elliott
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Bob Elliott

5/15/2009 9:09:01 PM

I Think Maybe My Favorite Way to Write a Song Nowdays...
Is to already have words.

Once heard Lennon say it's the words that would decide whether he had a song or not. He said the music is just all over for the taking, but the words were the trick.

I kind of feel that way. I mean if I have words I like, it won't be but 15 minutes before some music's gonna step forward. But if I have a tune that needs words, it could possibly be a matter of years for the right words to step up.

But another thing, I find words happen best if I let them come out fast and spontaneous. I could always adjust later, but you gotta let go and get things down.

Editing later can be good, but I also find that there are usually things about the first thoughts that are hard to define but they work better than edited versions often do. they might sound on the fly, but that very quality makes them work better sometimes. I think that about a lot of Dylan's tunes. You can tell they were written quickly and with little editing later.

Heard Philip Glass say, "First thought, best thought."

Not always true, but often is.

I'll write songs any way they come, but it's so damn easy when I already have words. It's like nothing.

Which kind of tells me it makes sense to just write poems and use them later.

I don't have all that much trouble writing poems separate from music. I usually get stuck if I'm writing lyrics specifically to music. Then I feel caged in or unnatural. Better to just write verse for me and fit it to music later.

Even if I have music already, the lyrics go more natural if I just write them without thinking of the music or meter. Adjusting for that later is much easier than hindering ideas to fit meter.

I also like the way words not written to the meter mess with the meter a bit and make it sound more like speech. I mean I'll sing those things differently than if I'd written to the meter, and I find the flow much more interesting.

Just some songwriting talk...


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The Man With No Band

5/15/2009 9:22:28 PM


I almost always write the words first ... sometimes the melody just jumps out of those words ... other times I insert melodies ... often you can take a set of words and put many different styles to them ...

I find myself putting a lot of my songs in a secondary format ... usually blues and then they morph out from there ...

but I agree that, for me at least, the words are almost an essential starting point ... and usually they change very little in the song creation ...

Can't help but insert a little of the words I am currently recording ...

Let me tell you why I still believe in Fairy Tales
well now, Once upon a time I met a girl said she could teach me to fly
and there's a school of fools with rules forever stuck in never-never land
but if you'd like to break free, you just look deep into my baby blue eyes

and then she took me by the hand and oh lord how we soared for awhile
yeah, I saw all the things appear that I believed in back when I was a child
and she showed me that I didn't need a set of hallowed wings to fly
and that true paradise can only exist in the eye ... of ones own mind


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Jeff Allen Myers

5/15/2009 9:59:40 PM ---- Updated 5/15/2009 10:00:57 PM


About 95% of the time its music and melody first, then I need to write words to fit the melody and phrasing. I agree sometimes this takes time, and its not always a flowing process.

I have written to others completed lyrics, and I have found the music comes rather quickly. I have a few songs written this way,... "Between The Real World and Nowhere" and "Truth in Dying" are two pretty cool tunes that came out this way.

I am not sure of Lennon's writing style, but McCartney's usually followed the Music/Melody first route. "Yesterday" was entitled "Srambled Eggs" for awhile :)

Bob, your lyrics seem more like "free association", where lyrics and phrases come to you and you go with the artistic flow. I have never tried this, and I am not sure it would work :)


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Tom O'Brien

5/16/2009 12:17:15 AM


I know what John Lennon was talking about - it's why there are so many songs that sound just great... until you listen to the words, and then you're just embarrassed you like it. Words are sounds and sounds make music, so it's not just how the words sound that's important, it's what they mean and how they resonate emotionally. To me, you've got to be able to strip away all the music and have the words be interesting. You got that going on, Bob. Too many cliches in this world already. Number one songwriting rule: Avoid cliches like the plague! (Whoops, that's another cliche!)

I've almost always written words and music together - usually coming up with a verse/chorus/bridge first, and then writing more words to fit the format of additional verses.

Lately (since last time I talked to you) I've been challenging myself to write songs on my lunch hour. You know how a good song will sometimes write itself? Well I'm trying to open up to that energy. Just thinking lyrically and not musically, except of course for rhythm. It's not poetry per se, because I like poetry to have less rhythm. And it's not just rhyme because I think that rhyme is just an added touch at the end, and not that important in the scheme of things. But words have to group together in tone, in concept, in definition and in grammatical structures. It's like your Hands Look Like Fish song, where you can just pick out word after word after phrase that are in the milieu of fish/seagulls and all the sounds, smells, and memories of the sea. If all of a sudden you started comparing things to tractors, it just wouldn't work. I'm a sucker for metaphor in songs. Don't just tell me what's happening, tell me what it feels like by comapring it to something else. This is not news to you, I know.

Got three new songs I'll share with you Saturday, if I can reach you. One has absolutely no musical form yet. Gotta get on the Skype thang.


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The Man With No Band

5/16/2009 12:37:33 AM ---- Updated 5/16/2009 12:41:39 AM


I agree with everything you said Tom ... except maybe the cliche part ... although in general I try to avoid them and cringe when I hear someone over-using them ... a well placed cliche can be very good, and way, way better than hearing someone trying to avoid them by using words that don't fit ... especially when they appear to be forced as to avoid the cliche ...
Words do have a natural rhythm and over-thinking just kills them IMO ... If a cliche flows that is much better than a stop-gap in the verse ...


I'd compare it to painting ... hues and tones are what brings good paintings to light ... but every now and then a solid black, white, red, blue, yellow or green is an essential component ... and can make or break a scene ...


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Sly Witt

5/16/2009 4:27:01 AM ---- Updated 5/16/2009 4:39:43 AM


First, I guess I've got to admit that except in a very few cases, the words in any of my favorite songs by others are secondary to the music and the emotion. The opposite of that, I guess is the folks at a concert who listen to the first part of a tune then start applauding when the words start because that's what's memorable to them. (That drives me nuts but who am I to judge?)

I'm usually banging away at a piano or a guitar and there's some chords that come together and a handful of words that just 'happen' and I know that they have to be where they are. I then try to build words around those words and more chords around those chords. My willfulness only comes in when I insist on making at least one surprising change. I think that's the way mccartney mostly wrote.

This also relates to another current topic about song structure. I guess I like it, but once one of my songs starts writing itself, I'm just along for the ride. I've never set out to write a certain kind of song. So, I guess I'm not really a songwriter as much as a song channeler.

This also relates to an ongoing discussion that I've been having with a musician I work with at my 'day job'. He's a programmer and I'm an overall systems guy. When he attacks a problem, he gets all of his ducks in a row, researches everything, and writes out plans of attack. I kind of 'intuit' things and just do them. I can't do what he does and he can't do what I do. When he's baffled, he comes to me. When I need to add structure, I go to him. We really need each other at work. He approaches his music the same way. He loves to chart out my tunes and show me what I'm doing. I love to shut my eyes and groove to his. Maybe it's a right brain, left brain thing. So, we're back to the McCartney and Lennon collaboration again.

I've written a few the other way around but it's not something that I do a lot. I guess that's why my songs are light on words, but I try to make up for it with meaning and emotion.

This is kind of weird because when I've been tested in the past, I'm always 'verbally' strong and was invited to write for a magazine a few years back.

I AM quite drawn to folks who write the other way around. A few of my fav's here write words first, I guess. It explains the interesting phrasing in Bob's tunes. It's an exercise that I'll have to work on.

Very interesting topic!!


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Richard Scotti

5/16/2009 6:26:19 AM


I agree that it's much easier to write music for words that are already written rather than write words to music that's already written. I almost always write the music first.
The music helps to inspire the subject matter but I need to listen to the music many times before the words come but in the rare instances when I write the words first, the music comes fairly quickly. For me a great title is the key that opens the doors to all apsects of the song. It informs the words as well as the music. Lately I've been thinking of good titles but not writing them down and I feel really badly when I forget them. I'm determined not to be that foolish anymore!


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Bob Elliott

5/16/2009 9:22:28 AM


You know, Sly, it's not that I feel the lyric more important, but that I am just free musically when there is already a lyric, and that lyric doesn't distract me by feeling dumb...

If I like the lyric and it's already there, wow....musical freedom, and that is the state I spend the days longing for...musical freedom.


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Steve Ison

5/16/2009 3:16:46 PM


I never write lyrics first...I just don't have a poetic sensibility with words until a tune's there to draw out an emotional meaning or a direction to follow.
Think i've written 2 poems in my life-Don't feel i'm a natural lyricist at all-Its alot of effort...Sometimes i get clues or odd lines that i'll work into the tune..
It takes me ages and ages to make a lyric work with the tune-and you're right-It is quite stifling in a way-and takes a helluva lot of effort to make sound natural and as if the tune and lyric were written together..
I really want to work on developing a stronger lyrical sensibility regardless of the tune..
I find it easy to put tunes to lyrics already written as i've found with all the work i've done with Steve April...But i'd never be happy soley putting tunes to lyrics so i guess there's stuff i need to say somewhere lol


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the perfect banana

5/16/2009 3:22:51 PM


Now that you've all talked about it, it might be time to do it.


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Bob Elliott

5/21/2009 9:25:36 PM


One thing I might have left out is the majority of my songs I did not write the words first. Very few were written that way, but I have come to see that when I do go that route the songs are my favorites, and the process is so easy.

I even think that when I have the tune first it is often easier to get the rest of the words by writing without thinkin about the meter. Just sit and write strings of words letting that happen and adjusting it all later.

I once heard Mick say he and Keith did that a lot. He said getting it to rhyme and fit later ws no problem at all. The trick was to have something said.

I think for many people that is the trick that holds them up.

I don't know, but I have been likin the results a lot since I really started taking a lot of things into my notebook. A lot of things that just happen around me. Mostly phrases I hear that I like.

Yesterday someone told me they came to work on something. you know they were serious. They said "today I'm not Playin'"

It's a fairly common phrase, but it hit me as something useful...so I write a thing like that down: today I'm not playin'

I just came to realize writers are usually collectors of words. I've heard it from them all.


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5/21/2009 9:42:20 PM


I wrote a song this past weekend, or rather, finished it. It was based around a rhythm from an old R&B song that I just said to myself I want to have a song at that particular captivating tempo, and I had a couple lines already and the rest came easy.

The last song I co-wrote prior to that, I was preparing an electric bed of sound for my partner in Coloured Vinyl (Jilly) to write a melody over. The riff I wrote was really great I think. She wrote a chorus that worked perfect and the rest of the song sort of came from that. We tried a different approach to the vocals and it sounded great. The song isn't finished yet but it's top notch.

My favorite method of writing a song is to come up with a short chorus phrase where both the lyrics and tune are really catchy. Then the rest of the song writes itself.


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Steve April

5/21/2009 10:00:29 PM


A bard said, "write in emotion, revise in tranquility."

(not a rule, only foo-o-d for thought.)


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Otis and the Professors

5/22/2009 11:39:31 AM


Our two most recent songs (From Ash and Fans) were written mostly words first. We probably split evenly whether we start with music, melody, or lyrics, its just whatever came out of that particular moment when one of us or both of us sat down to be musical. If its inspired by a specific event, concept, or idea/argument, the lyrics will often come first. If it is more of a feel or a mood music or melody will probably come first. Sometimes we improv everything, including lyrics, on the spot, keep the 20-30 percent of it that was good and build the rest of the song around that.

There are just so many approaches and we seek to take a different route as often as possible, but never discount the meaning of words, we figure if there are going to be lyrics they better mean something, otherwise just put the melody line on an instrument or sing gibberish.


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Jimmie Vestal

5/25/2009 3:56:32 PM


For me, writing a song comes about through numerous methods.

Sometimes a song is written as the result of a fantastic, moving drum beat, then the chords, then the lyrics.

Sometimes it's a chord progression that comes first, followed by the lyrics, and then the drum beat.

Sometimes I write a song as a result of an expression I read, or heard someone say. What are some of those expressions?

"Don't call me, I'll call you"
"What's cooking?"
"What's up?
"Sup" (meaning, What's up?)
"I'll do it when I get around to it" (a round tuit)"
"You're itchin' for a switchin', cruisin' for a bruisin"
"Who dat?"
"Knock, knock! (who's there?)"
"Whodunit?
"I'm getting ready to go"
"Free beer tonight"
"Strut that stuff"


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