4 ways to write lean, mean songwriting.

What do I mean by lean? Simply, to convey as much meaning in as few words as possible.


When you look at the lyric sheet of an album it can be underwhelming how few words are actually used. I remember being disappointed to get a band’s latest and reading the lyrics before my first listen.

But good songwriting is lean. When you’re trying to gush out your angst and pain onto the page, trying to be fully understood, and to also emulate greatness, it can become very easy to write well… fat!

So here are 4 tips you can try to lean out your lyrics:

  • Try replacing a weak verb with a strong one. If you had a lyric such as “I walked through the long grass” trying replacing “walk” with “stalk” to bring menace to the lyric, or maybe “wander” to bring a lazy vibe. By adding the strong verb it frees you to drop other words and still pack a mean punchy lyric. Eg. “I stalked the long grass” or “Wandered through long grass”. A thesaurus is good for this.
  • Be deliberately ambiguous. This allows the listeners to take your words and apply them to their own situation. Ben Folds Five wrote the song “Brick” about abortion, but the lyric “She’s a Brick and I’m drowning slowly” meant something completely different to me. Who hasn’t been drained by a bad relationship?
  • Turn a verse into a half verse. The first and second verses can come quickly when you’re writing but a pesky third verse can be a real pain. If writing 4 lines to a verse, try making the 3rd verse only 2 lines. By the time the listener gets to the 3rd verse they know what structure of your song so a little jarring can surprise them nicely.
  • Drop a complete section and re-use a part. This is similar to the last point but subtly different. Maybe your song is starting to look like an epic. You’re onto your 4th musical part and the lyrics are lame but the music good. Try singing lyrics you liked from an earlier section over the new part. It can help guide the song to a natural ending too before you start a 5th section!

What tips do you have for leaning out your lyrics?

What Adele’s seduction techniques can teach you about songwriting?

Today’s blog covers a songwriting tip found in the The Wall Street Journal no less.

There’s a great piece that analyses the popular tune ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele and more importantly why it is a tear-jerker. And it’s less the music than the actual performance. It’s a manipulation of melody that is written into the arrangement, or if you have an amazing singer handy, it can be adlibbed whilst tracking in the studio.

(As mentioned previously on this blog there are benefits to keeping your songwriting simple and building the flourishes in the performance and arrangements.)

Adele uses a technique called an appoggiatura, which is a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound.

Wikipedia provides a great example of two passages with an appoggiatura and then the same passages without.

As you can hear, you pull the melody off-key for a short time to create a clashing, un-tuneful effect, but then pull the melody back on-key before the dissonance has caused too much havoc with the listeners ears.

This creates a tension followed by a release that has an amazing emotional punch. There are many other techniques in music that perform a similar role which we’ll discuss later

What techniques have you used to create a tension and release in your music?


Beat Songwriters Block with Actors Improvisation Techniques

A universal plague to all writers, even songwriters, is the seemingly insurmountable writer’s block. The words won’t come, the muse is on strike and the paper remains blank. This can happen to experienced and beginner songwriters alike, the only difference is experienced writers have a process to get around the block.

The good news is that your situation isn’t as hopeless as it feels. In fact, there are things that you can do in order to get the creative juices flowing again. One of the best cures is to borrow from the actors of the world and use some of the techniques that they employ when performing improvisational exercises.

This may seem like a strange idea, but it does make sense. In order for an actor to be truly successful, they need to learn how to tap into their creative, subconscious side. This is the same for songwriters. These exercises and tactics can help get you there.


Always Say Yes

Sometimes, a creative blockage happens when you constantly shoot down every thought and idea that you think is “stupid”. There is a time and a place for weeding down your thoughts and ideas. However, when you do this from the beginning, it can actually hold you back.

A popular improv exercise is called, “Yes, and”. It is meant to be done with two people, but you can easily do it yourself if you don’t have anyone to do it with. The first person asks the second to do something. The second person responds by saying, “Yes, and…”

For example, person number one could ask, “Do you want to go out for pizza?” The second person could say, “Yes, and after that let’s get a beer.” Set the timer and do this for ten minutes, rapidly thinking up questions and “Yes, and” answers.

Always responding with “yes” helps you stop shooting down all your ideas and loosens up your mind.

Don’t Plan

Sometimes, planning things out hurts creativity. “Going with the flow”, on the other hand, is good for creativity. This helps both actors and song writers.

Do you want to practice this for yourself? The number one thing you can do is pay attention to the moment and the actual task of writing, rather than planning the song out from start to finish. In other words, just start writing and “go with it”.

Actors are taught to do this when performing improv exercises because it shows them what feels natural. By planning every move, their movements look forced. The same goes for writing.

Just Show Up

Sometimes, showing up is more than half the battle. Actors, writers, and other creative professionals rely on their rituals to get them in the mood. If you don’t have rituals of your own, create them. This includes

• Choosing your environment.
• Creating rituals and routines.
• Pick a time each day to write, and be on time.
• Show up every single day.

This is one of the biggest secrets. When you are on time, it puts you in the mood to write and will clear any blocks.

Stick with the habit and it will see you through the rough patch. Other songwriting tips include being prepared for the muse to strike suddenly. Carry a recorder or notebook so inspiration doesn’t pass unnoticed. While formulas can be helpful to get in the swing of writing, don’t rely on the same formula all the time. The songs will feel like a broken record. Beginner songwriters tend to follow someone’s map as soon as they feel stumped. Try not to fall on that safety net.


Try on a different perspective. Is the voice of your story a good guy? Bad guy? Somewhere in between? Is the perspective the one who holds power through the story, or is he/she a victim? Stories can emerge simply by playing with the possible dynamics of characterization. Whatever voice appeals, commit to it for the duration of the song. A wavering, weak characterization can ruin the voice’s credibility. A strong voice will allow the audience to connect. Be specific regarding the experience. Resist dumbing down the story or characters. Give the audience some credit: they aren’t stupid and neither are you. Turn a phrase or two; don’t be afraid to say things in a new or clever way.

As songwriters, you can borrow from the acting world and learn how to use these improvisational techniques to help your writing and clear any blogs. Now off you go, try this for the first time now!

Nickelback rules Radiohead

Many songwriters confess that they write songs which they themselves would like to listen to.

But any marketer would say give the audience what they want.

At the first extreme you end up with the horrible obtuse Radiohead of later years whose success has seemingly brought contempt for the mainstream audiences.

At the other extreme you end up with Nickelback false macho soft rock fully ramped for the FM market. As Chad Kroeger himself said: “‘ Any guitar player knows that sitting there playing the same riff over and over and over again for 20 minutes is fun, but it’s not fun to listen to. It’s like golf — golf is a lot of fun to play, but it’s no fun to f**king watch, and you have to be very, very aware of that. You’ve got to know when you’re losing your audience, especially in this day and age when people are used to sucking in information from four different places at a hundred miles an hour.

You could say there’s a spectrum from the complete self-indugence to fully market-researched and somewhere along that line there is a sweet spot where you respect your particular audience and balance your authenticity.

And because your audience and their tastes are forever changing all you can do is your best and adjust when you get it wrong.



Finish your first song now!

It’s tempting at the start of a blog on beginner songwriting to begin with discussions of structure, form, melody and rhythm so…. I won’t

For the purposes of this post, I’ll assume you play a musical instrument.

Now maybe you already have some ripping riff or piano doodle you like to muddle about with. If not grab a 4 chord progression with some really basic chords. Just pick 4 chords randomly until it sounds good. Now get a nice solid, consistent rhythm.


Now play your riff, doodle or chord progression and start to hum over it. See where your little hum improvisation takes you.

You now have the music for your song. That’s it!

Don’t add anything extra. Don’t over-complicate. So many great songs are written around  a single basic musical piece.

U2’s “With Or Without You” –> D A Bm G

Ben E Kings “Stand by Me” —> A F#m D E

Green Day’s “When I come around” —-> G D Em C

Radiohead’s “Creep” —-> G B C Cm


It’s tempting to want to keep adding new parts when they may not be needed. The listener can be seduced quicker with a simple progression or lick.

Mess around with the tempo and rhythm. Mess around with the lyrics. Mess around with the production. (Future post topics). But keep the foundation simple.

Are there any other songs that you can think of that follow this simple approach? Are you guilty of over-complicating the process? Comments please.

What The Wiggles can teach us about songwriting

By Safedom at Wikipedia

I have young children. Whenever I ask them what song they would like to listen to in the car they say “Wake Up Jeff“, a song written by Australian group The Wiggles. These guys write kids songs and have had massive success.

So it wasn’t a big surprise when I received The Wiggles tribute album, ReWiggled, for Christmas. Basically it’s adult musicians playing Wiggles tunes. I highly recommend it even if you don’t have children.

It’s a real mash-up of “children’s” songs and “adult” sounds from which I took these insights:

  • Nearly all the songs are well under 3 minutes long. As The Wiggles themselves say: “… songs were short and started with the chorus because the group believed that it was necessary to provide young children with the topic of each song in its first few lines.” This is applicable to all writers. Why should you make the listener wait? Why should you hold back the chorus? Will the listener keep listening?
  • As children we are introduced to music as something fun. Why are you making your songs so serious? Are your songs fun in any way? Approach your songwriting as though you’re writing for kids. Imagine them singing along and dancing.
  • You’re a songwriter but most people aren’t. Most people don’t have a refined sense of songwriting. If you want to reach most people (and that’s a big if) then give them something they can immediately recognize and connect to. Listen to the new Coldplay song “Paradise” for instance. This song is terrible but it connects quickly with lots of people.
  • The Wiggles used to be in an “adult” band called The Cockroaches but have admitted that musically the main difference to The Wiggles was “just the lyrics”. And maybe the skivvies!
  • I really liked the adult versions of the songs. What makes a song sophisticated is sometimes NOT the music but rather the performance and arrangements. How complicated is your music and lyrics? Try starting simple and adding finesse at the production stage.

PS: Never start a new blog before Christmas again. What happened to the last 4 weeks?!

Introducing BeeSong – for beginner songwriters

Everyone is a songwriter. We are born with an innate ability to makes sounds, beat a drum, hear pitch and sing (well most of us!).

When we are young we are taught children’s songs about lambs, incy-wincy spiders, errant eggs and farmers dogs. This teaches us basic rhythm and melody and how to communicate and pronounce sounds effectively but mostly it’s fun.

Songs are a shared tradition from the age of cavemen to the age of iTunes but people have become passive to music, listeners and not contributors. They have lost the confidence and practice of this most natural skill through the rise and dominance of broadcast media. Songwriting has become a niche skill.

Some, like me and you, have been inspired by bands or singers to take up the lost art, and immediately were railroaded into concerns about marketing, correct song formats and how to “100% write a hit song”. All this rigidity over complicated and took away the fun and mystery.

At the heart of songwriting, is a journey, an exploration and a discipline, and like all great arts it leads us to surprising discoveries, inspiration and wonder.

But you need to know the basics and how to do the work.

And this is what I’m starting here. A place for lovers and writers of songs to learn and share their craft.

Songwriting at its heart is natural and everyone who has ever hummed a tune, made up new lyrics to a song or been inspired by other songwriters has the aptitude to write great songs.

Over the next few months, I will be firing up this blog with a series of songwriting insights aimed at those starting out: beginner songwriters.

The aim is to build towards the release of an e-book or training series that strips out all the rubbish and gives you the basic building blocks with which to build your craft. I promise that I will research all the best information out there for you, distil it and make the journey affordable and fun.

I’ve been writing songs in bands for over 20 years and have been amazed at what songwriting offers and would like to give the next group a leg up in this amazing journey.

To start the ball rolling, I’m asking people to fill in this simple 5-minute survey. For your efforts, you’ll be on the beta list for my e-book/series and as such receive all the goodies before everyone else, and you’ll also get the final copy for free. There’s really nothing to lose so jump in and complete it now. Click here to take survey