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Saturday, November 26, 2011

How to Write A Song

Most songs tell a story. Not all songs tell a story in the way that we usually think of them, (like a Grimm's Fairy Tale), though some certainly do but, they are stories nonetheless. They tell you about something that happened and what the consequence/result of the event or action was. They can also describe the feelings the writer has in response to the event. These feelings can be expressed not only through narration but also by the way the music sounds, the choice of words, the pace (fast, slow) and the way that you then play or sing it. All songs do not include attention to all of these things, but they can.

The example I'm going to use here is very narrative. The reason I'm choosing this is not so much because I think it will be your new favorite song, (though it's a great deal like a fairy tale and you may well like it), but because it is such a good example of story-telling. Similar to the idea that, though knowledge of anatomy is not essential to being a good artist it makes visually interpreting people a lot easier, however abstract you ultimately decide to make them, learning to write a very narrative song makes writing less comprehensive narratives easier, (and makes you better at it).

So, lets take a look at 'St. John the Gambler' by Townes Van Zandt to see what I'm talking about:

The beginning of the song introduces the protagonist, (the central character of the song, daughter) and the antagonist, (St. John the Gambler, the villian who leads the daughter to a bad situation). It also starts with expository action, (she turns to her mother and tells what she has done and what she is going to do):

When she had twenty years she turned to her mother
Saying Mother, I know that you'll grieve
But I've given my soul to St John the gambler
Tomorrow comes time leave

Then she tells us why: (Songs very often contain the ever important 'who, what, where, when and why')

For the hills cannot hold back my sorrow forever
And dead men lay deep 'round the door
The only salvation thats mine for the asking
So mother, think on me no more
The song is also telling us feelings and internal reactions - that the daughter knows the mother will grieve, that she is doing what she is doing becaue she is so sad and also that she feels she has no choice. It also contains what is called foreshadowing, hinting at what will happen later - when she says 'mother think on me no more' we can infer that this means she's not coming back.

Then Mr. Van Zandt does something especially wonderful that not a whole lot of songs do, he paints a picture for us of what the place the events we're hearing about take place looks like. The setting matches the tone of the song - sad, difficult, harsh:

Winter held high round the mountains breast
And the cold of a thousand snows
Lay heaped upon the forests leaf
Next, he tells us what the main character of the song looks like and from this description, we see internal things about her also. She's dressed rather insanely for the weather, indicating that maybe she's at her wit's end and he tells us why she's dressed like this, (brilliantly re-addressing the 'who, what, where, when, why' that he's already covered different aspects of in the preceeding verses):

But she dressed in calico
For a gambler likes his women fancy
Fancy she would be
And the fire of her longing would keep way the cold
And her dress was a sight to see
Now, undoubtedly, Mr. Van Zandt could have gone on for many more verses about what the landscape and the characters looked like but, however beautifuly written the words might be, too many verses about one thing can get a little repetitive, (which is why adding elements of narration like he does here to even the simplest song tends to make it better - if you just write verse after verse about how you love or hate or etc someone, well, that's not really going to hold attention too well. If, instead, you tell why, how you came to feel that way, etc it's going to be much more interesting:.)

So, next he returns to action, telling us where her next steps take her:

But the road was long beneath the feet
She followed her frozen breath
In search of a certain St John the gambler
Stumbling to her death
She heard his laughter right down from the mountains
He also returns us to the idea that was foreshadowed in her words 'think on me no more'. We hear again of the mother and also learn what the girl meant:

And danced with her mothers tears
To a funeral drawn a calico
'neath the cross of twenty years

To a funeral drawn a calico
'neath the cross of twenty years
By adding 'a cross of twenty years' he returns us to the first verse 'when she had twenty years...' which is not only a really nice way to write a song but also enhances the tragic tone of it/repeats what was, perhapst to him , the saddest thing about it - her youth and, maybe even how sad it was that this is what her prettiest dress was worn for.

Now, lets try writing our own song, following Mr. Van Zandt's structure. You may use an event in history to base it on or make up your own. Here's an abreviation of my notes above minus his verses for you to follow:

Introduce the protagonist, (the central character of the song) and the antagonist, (the villian who leads to a bad situation). Then tell something the protagonist has done and the thing he or she is going to do. 

 Then tell us why this is happening (Songs very often contain the ever important 'who, what, where, when and why')

Try to add feelings and internal reactions - Also add foreshadowing if you can think of a way. Remember, that's hinting at what will happen later - like when she says 'mother think on me no more' we can infer that this means she's not coming back.

Also add a verse that paints a picture for us of what the place the events we're hearing about take place looks like. Have the setting match the tone of the song - sad, difficult, harsh if the song is etc.

Next, tell us what the main character of the song looks like. If you can, try to have the description show internal things about the character too. 

Then, return to action, tell us what the person now does. Return also to the foreshadowing you touched on in the beginning if you were able to add it, tell what the character meant by what they said.  

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