Rule #1 of Songwriting

rule number oneShortly after I moved to Nashville I had the good fortune to attend the ASCAP Country Writers workshop. It was taught that year by Grammy- winning, Hall of Fame songwriter Charlie Black.  The first thing he taught us on the first day was rule #1 of Songwriting. It goes like this: Rule #1 – there are no rules. If it works it works. I believed it when he said it back then and after 15 years of teaching people how to write songs, I still believe it to be true.

So if there are no rules, then what does it mean to learn the craft of songwriting? What is DOESN’T mean is that songs don’t need structure and anything goes. I’ve heard plenty of songs like that at the Bluebird Cafe open mic and, trust me, they don’t work. When I had the job of booking early shows at the Bluebird it was my job to screen packages from all the undiscovered touring artists who wanted to play there, and at times I heard rambling, unstructured songs on beautifully produced CDs nicely packaged with great artwork. They still didn’t work.

The way I see it, there are no hard and fast rules for writing a song, but there is a set of guidelines that give you the best chance of creating something that will engage, entertain and connect to your listeners. A few examples are:

Use a standard song form.
Start the chorus on a higher note than the verse.
Stay focused on one central idea.
Keep your language conversational.
Don’t tell your listeners something you’ve already told them.

When you craft your song to follow those and other guidelines, you’ll be on safe ground. Sometimes breaking the “rules” works, sometimes not, but following them will always work.

One frequently given piece of advice is, ” learn the rules so you know how to break them.” What that means is that if you learn how to write according to the rules you will develop an understanding of why they work and what they accomplish.  Then you might find a different way to accomplish the same thing but you won’t be sacrificing the benefit you gain by following the rules. For example, if you always start the chorus on a higher note it will make the chorus stand out from the verses. You might find a different way to make your chorus stand out, but if it doesn’t, your song will probably be in trouble.

I have often encountered writers who believe it is beneath them to write according to any rules, that they are so creative and original and however their songs come out as they write them is the way they are supposed to be. I suspect that for some of them laziness may have more to do with that attitude than artistic integrity, but in any case I can say that they almost always have day jobs. Or if they make a living from their music it is by singing their own songs as they tour 50 weeks a year in a Honda Civic sleeping on other people’s couches.

If you want to hear your songs on commercial radio, especially country radio, you will be at a great disadvantage if you don’t learn the craft. At my Play for Publishers workshops we start the first day by studying songs that have already made money in the commercial Country market. I get the list of songs to study by asking each participant to give me the title of one of their favorite country hits. I give them a list of what I consider to be the main elements that make a song fit the commercial market. As we go through the songs it is very rare to find one that does not have every element we look for, and I always remind them, we aren’t studying songs I picked to prove my point, they are their favorite songs.

Following the rules does not have to keep you from being creative and original and infusing your songs with your own personality and point of view. One writer, who came from a folk/indie background, attended three of my workshops. At the end of the third one she said to me, ” I don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out. It IS a formula, but within that formula that you can be brilliant.”

Some elements of the craft are the same for every genre, but there are also differences. For example, Country lyrics need make the story perfectly clear on the first listen, but indie fans often enjoy lyrics they have to dig for the meaning of, and many rock fans could care less if the lyrics make sense at all. I will never argue that one style of writing is “better” than another. Taste is subjective. If your sole purpose in writing is self-expression, then whatever you write is perfect. But if you want to make a living as a songwriter, I encourage you to study the craft that fits your genre.