Songwriting Is All About Communication

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Communication vs. rules…

I had a mentoring session with someone recently who was very frustrated.  He had read a book by a leading songwriting teacher and had tried to apply all of the songwriting “rules” that the book taught.  The end result was that he felt he was writing worse and worse songs the more he tried to follow the rules.

I told him a story about going bowling as a teenager.  Neither I nor my friends were good bowlers, but one friend was getting strike after strike.  Being the competitive people we were, my other friends and I kept trying to mess him up.  Nothing was working.  Finally, I said “I need to learn to bowl like you do!  How many steps do you take before you release the ball?”  The next time he was up, he counted his steps and guess what happened?  Gutter ball.  When he started trying to break down what he was doing, it messed him up.

Forget the rules!

So, I told the writer I was mentoring to forget all of the rules and to look at songwriting only from the aspect of communication.  If you and I are having a conversation, there are no rules.  But, if I want you to understand me, I must learn to communicate clearly.  I asked him what “rule” he had broken in the song that had been critiqued.  He said “I changed from first person in the verses to second person in the chorus.”  I said “That’s not a rule.”  He looked relieved.

I said “Johnny, you have always been a great friend to me.  I appreciate the way you are always there when I need you.  He is an awesome guy.  I’m glad I got to know him.”  Suddenly, he got it.  He didn’t break a rule, he just communicated in an odd way.  Just as you would be confused if I’m talking TO you directly and then I start talking ABOUT you, you aren’t going to know what happened.

Learning to communicate.

The more I teach and mentor, the more I see that it’s not about songwriting rules, but about learning to write (and re-write) until you are communicating precisely what you intend.  If you do that, then there aren’t any rules.

Map out your song so that YOU know precisely what you are trying to communicate.  Then, make sure that you are communicating clearly and forget the “rules”.

Write on!  ~Marty

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Marty Dodson

Co-Founder SongTown

Songwriter/Producer/Rule Breaker

33 thoughts on “Songwriting Is All About Communication

  1. I apply the ‘communication’ concept to vocal execution. If you’re singing you’re ‘sending’. It is a ‘sent communication’. To qualify as a ‘communication’ it has to be ‘received’, a ‘received communication’. The Latin ‘com’ prefix means ‘with’. You communicate ‘with’ someone; or, in many cases, you don’t.
    Too often I ‘hear’ a Song start but ‘notice’ the Song ending, and realize they lost me somewhere and I wasn’t ‘receiving’ what they were ‘sending’. It could be me, or it could be their opening sounds had ‘Hook Factor’ but they didn’t keep me ‘hooked’, and when they delivered ‘THE Hook’, the main idea of the Song, it didn’t reach me, didn’t ‘communicate’, didn’t make the main point of the Lyric because I had tuned out to the Lyric before they got there. And, given that they should have ‘gotten there’, to THE Hook within 47 to 60 seconds, maybe it’s not me.
    A good lesson in First-Person/Third-Person is to rewrite to change it from one to the other. Rewrite whatever you’ve written one way to the other way, making logical changes of ‘you’ to ‘she’ or ‘he’. Decide who the Singer-Character is talking to about the Love-Interest Character. Is he talking to the audience, or talking directly to the Love-Interest Character?
    You can also rewrite from Present-Tense to Past-Tense.
    You can also rewrite from Male Point-Of-View (POV) to Female-Point-Of-View.
    I especially advise that last one as rewriting can give you a whole other potential customer base for singing your Song. And sometimes the change makes a stronger Song coming from a woman’s perspective than it did from a man’s.
    Explore the possibilities. Communicate. There will always be another Song to be written. Someone will write it. Why not you?

  2. This resonates with me Marty. I used to stress too much about: “doing it right” and I found that it doesn’t help me find the magic in a song. Your advice on communication is a great way to improve a song while not getting outside the “creative zone”

  3. My favorite advice is advice that is simple and easy to remember, but you know came from wisdom forged in years of experience. This is definitely that kind. Thanks so much Marty!

  4. This is great info as always.Write as if you were talking to someone or the audience but you will be singing and playing it.

  5. Rules are made to be….understood, taken with a grain of salt, and kept in your back pocket for reference as needed. Not unlike “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story..”

  6. Wow this is music to my ears. I don’t usually like to break the rules and even when people do, it’s a talking point to discuss how it’s usually done. Kinda like ‘dare to be different’. Thanks for opening my ears!

  7. Thanks, Marty! This is it in a nutshell. I think about ‘Must be Doin’ Something Right’. You communicated thoughts and feelings perfectly in that song.That’s something I aspire to do!

  8. Thank you Marty. I needed this because It’s exactly me. Ive spent the last year or so reading and taking lessons from lyricists, and have found that I’m basically not writing anything anymore. I abandon an idea right away because it doesn’t “follow the rules”. It’s made the creative process feel a lot less creative.

  9. Hey Marty, How many finished song do you have to’ve done to be taken seriously in Nashville as a writer? Back in the 90’s there I heard 100 songs. But is that a rule that can be broken? But in this you’re right. I’ve written songs about “stripper therapy”, childhood games, Christmas shoppin’, shoes, as well as all the regular topics like love, sadness, lust, spiritual songs, loss, whiskey, beer, not gettin’ fooled,…….and the only rules I have is 1) Have you told the story well?, and 2) Write in a way others can identify with the story (not too personal). I look forward to hearing from you on the “90s rule”

  10. My favorite song writing teacher has written a library full of books and teaches at that prestigious music school in Boston, you all know the one. While his books are filled with information, exercises,guidelines and the likes, he is always very quick to point out that there are no rules, only tools, with the possible exception of “PROSODY”. The tools he has given me are among my favorites.

  11. I really needed to read this today. I have been pouring over books and online webcasts trying to learn, learn, learn….I am overwhelmed by all the do’s and don’ts, rules, requirements etc. and it seems no fun writing that way to me, it condenses creativity.
    Don’t the best songs come from the heart and if you can communicate that simply, they will reach the heart others too? 🙂
    Great article, thank you Marty!

  12. The most powerful point for me was that to communicate The Listener must be able to hear the lyrics over the mix. This is absolutely one of my biggest pet peeves, not to be able to hear the lyrics…

  13. Thank you so much for this tip, Marty.
    I have been struggling with this very thing.
    I felt I wrote better when I was just writing from my heart and not getting all “Worried” about all the rules.
    This answered that for me.
    I love this group, and all the great tips and support you all provide.
    Peace,
    Tedi May

  14. Thank you very much for continually sharing very informative and useful knowledge. Joining this community has definitely been one of the most invaluable gifts for myself and to the world!

  15. Good stuff! I had the same epiphany.

    If you’re not enunciating well you’re not communicating. You’re ‘sending’ the communication but for it to qualify as a communication it has to be received.

    If I can’t hear the words over the instruments, it’s not communicating. The vocal communication is buried in the mix. I might be able to hear it, know it’s a voice, hear the notes going up and down, but no idea what the words are.

    If the ideas are too obscure, too abstract, too unrelated to each other, you’re not communicating.

    Those are all judgment calls you have to make.

    I can try to listen ‘harder’ but ideally, you want me to get the message the first time. You’ve got to accept the responsibility of ‘sending’ so I can ‘receive’ it. Indeed, you have to send so I can’t help receiving.

    I listened to a bluegrass band and noticed their voices dropped in harmonic unison at the end of lines. Well that meant I was missing that last word or two or three in the line, the Rhyme-Word, the strategic one that made sense of the line and the one it rhymed with. They did it in song after song so I’m pretty sure they thought it worked somehow.

    I noticed rock and country bands sang other peoples’ songs ‘just-like-the-record’, the ultimate test of ‘good’. Then they’d introduce what they called ‘an original’ and mumble through it, leaving it forgettable.

    The ‘com’ prefix means ‘with’. It’s not enough to ‘send’ the ‘com’-munication; you have to communicate ‘with’ the listener. They have to ‘receive’ the communication for the qualifying ‘with’ concept to be fulfilled.

  16. How timely! I’ve been working on a song idea that is fairly emotionally charged, and just wasn’t communicating what I wanted. (It had that same 1st person in the verse/2nd person in the chorus thing going on, actually.) This post was super helpful – thanks so much for sharing!

  17. Thanks Marty for another super songwriting tip! I look forward to receiving more tips from you and Clay, I can’t stress how much I appreciate the fact that there are top writers like you and Clay willing to give their time in helping aspiring writers like me in achieving our songwriting goals.

    Thanks!

  18. Forget the so called rules and communicate is probably the best information I’ve read about songwriting. Writing a song is like leaving a message, you only have one chance for your message to be understood.

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