In every songwriting workshop, one question always gets asked: which comes first, the words or the melody?
I try hard not to reply, “The beer comes first.”
It’s a reasonable question, but the answer varies with each song and songwriter. Sometimes a few words appear and you have to come up with a melody. Sometimes a melody wanders into your head and it needs a line.
Sometimes it’s as if you just walked in on the lyrics and melody in bed together. It may be a surprise, but it makes you feel like you have to go tell somebody.
The goal, of course, is that, whichever comes first, you need to make the song sound as if there was no other way of singing those words but with that melody, and no other way of expressing that melody but with those words. (We’ll forget that there are about 100 songs to the tune of the Wabash Cannonball.)
I think what most people mean when they ask that question is “How do I start writing a song?”
I heard Laurie Lewis once say that she sometimes sets a challenge for herself in writing a song. I emailed her recently and she elaborated:
On Return to the Fire, I decided I would write a 4-line verse that rhymed AABA, and further that the B line lyrics would be the beginning of the next verse, which would go BBCB. Verse 3, of course, would go CCDC, etc. The amazing and surprising thing to me was that the third line of the last verse was the first line of the first verse. I loved the happy accident (or clever crafting, or timely intervention of the Muse) of that.
On Willy Poor Boy, I set out to write a story song a la Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd.”
So, one way to answer the question “How do I start writing a song?” is to set some sort of challenge for yourself.
Now, if you’re like me, the last thing you want to do is face a challenge. Which is where this songwriting series comes in. I will occasionally come up with a challenge for both of us. Safety in numbers.
I would love to hear the results if you care to share them. You can either post lyrics or links to the songs below or send them to me.
Of course, I should do the same, but if I write something awful, you’ll never hear it.
For the first installment of the series, I thought we’d start with something that I’ve been meaning to write for a while: a one-verse/one-chorus song.
There are a few notable examples in bluegrass, probably the most famous being Blue Moon of Kentucky (Bill Monroe, © Southern Music Publishing, BMI):
Blue moon of Kentucky keep on shining,
Shine on the one that’s gone and proved untrue,
Blue moon of Kentucky keep on shining,
Shine on the one that’s gone and left me blue.
It was on a moonlight night, the stars shining bright.
They whispered from on high, your love said goodbye.
Blue moon of Kentucky keep on shining.
Shine on the one that’s gone and said goodbye.
That’s it—the whole song. Simple, huh? Right.
It might be the most difficult type of song to write because you have to get everything into one verse and one chorus. Usually in a song, you have time to tell a story in the verses and let the chorus linger on the heart of the matter.
In a one-verse/one-chorus song the verse and chorus need to share those duties. Or, maybe not. That’s just an observation about a few of these songs that have already been written.
The only rule I know for sure in songwriting: there are no rules.
Here’s Laurie again:
“As for one-verse songs, there are so many great ones (but always a little too short for me). Here are some off the top of my head: Virginia Waltz, Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues (I wrote a second verse on my latest album), Dream of a Home (I wrote a second verse for that one, too). . . I don’t think I’ve written any one-verse songs that I deem finished. They are all waiting for another verse.”
And that’s the temptation, isn’t it? As songwriters, most of us enjoy writing songs and want to get as much out of a song as we can. But let’s see if we can find a few more characteristics of one-verse/one-chorus songs just to get us going.
A lot of them are waltzes. Blue Moon of Kentucky was, of course, a waltz, before Elvis recorded it. Monroe changed his version to begin as a waltz and kick into 4/4 time, after the success of the Presley version. As Monroe supposedly said, “They was powerful checks.”
Another one-verse/one-chorus Monroe song is Sittin’ Alone in the Moonlight (Bill Monroe, Southern Music Publishing, BMI)
Sittin’ alone in the moonlight,
Thinking of the days gone by,
Wondering about my darling,
I can still hear her say goodbye.
Oh the moon grows pale as I sit here,
Each little star seems to whisper and say,
Your sweetheart has found another,
And now she is far far away.
I think waltzes work well because they usually have such memorable melodies, but also because the verse/chorus gets repeated, usually, so that the melody and the words seem like they are perfect matches. Or maybe not. Maybe we’ve just heard the song so many times that it sounds right, but I can’t imagine another set of words with this melody.
Another favorite of mine is the Pete Goble, Doyle Lawson song Please Search Your Heart (Pete Goble & Doyle Lawson, Brandykeg Music, BMI):
Please search your heart and maybe you’ll find,
A reason to stay, I’m begging this time.
I know I was wrong, but darling I’ve paid,
Please search your heart before it’s too late.
When you left me I said that I’d never be blue,
That I wouldn’t cry if you found someone new.
But this is my plea, give me one more try,
Please search your heart, don’t tell me good bye.
One thing that jumps out about these songs is that they are almost an AABA structure. Not rhyme scheme, but there are two parts that kind of sound like the same melody and then a bridge-like part and then a return to the original melody. Or, maybe not.
Of course, just to prove that there are no rules in songwriting, here’s another one in 4/4 time, an Osborne Brothers favorite, Once More (Dusty Owens, Acuff/Rose Music Inc, BMI):
Once more to be with you dear,
Just for tonight, to hold you tight.
Once more I’d give a fortune,
If I could see you once more.
Forget the past, this hurt can’t last,
Oh I don’t want it to keep us apart,
Your love I’ll crave, I’ll be your slave,
If you’d just give me all of your heart.
Again, a beautiful melody seems to be the emphasis here, whether it’s in waltz time or regular time. And an emotion that doesn’t get into too many specifics.
So, that’s the challenge: write a one-verse/one-chorus song that people want to sing. I’d love to hear the results, or if you can come up with other songs like this as examples. Post your examples in the comments, or send them via our contact form.
Ladies and Gentlemen, start your pencils. And erasers.