By Mary Dawson - 06/03/2002 - 04:20 PM EDT
If you have been following my last three articles, you know that we have been examining the crucial concept of the Hook in songwriting. The Hook, you remember, is that one key lyrical and musical phrase that summarizes the Great Idea which is the basis for the entire song. In fact, the Great Idea and the Hook it hangs on, are so important to the songwriting process, that I have been referring to them as the RNA and DNA of a Hit. In my last article, we looked at a concept I call Destination Songwriting, which means approaching the writing of a song much like we would approach taking a road trip -- with the Hook as the “destination” for all the other musical and lyrical ideas. The Hook should be the arrival point….the punchline…..of everything else in the song. We also looked at strategic ways to place the Hook in the three main commercial song forms – the AAA Song, the AABA Song and the Verse-Chorus Song – so that the song maintains focus throughout.
Once we know where we are heading with our song, we need to plan the route to the payoff. It's time to "get out the map" and just let our minds go -- looking at every possible route with its corresponding advantages and disadvantages and deciding which path is best. I call this the Freeflow Phase of the songwriting process and it will require at least one -- if not several -- focused writing sessions.
To start "freeflowing" you will need a legal pad, a great thesaurus and some peace and quiet. Begin by taking a few moments to just think about your Great Idea and its Hook -- that ONE concept or thought you want your listeners to remember from this song. Then just let your brain run wild! Write down anything that comes to mind that even remotely relates to that thought or concept. As hit songwriter Jimmy Webb puts it:
On a legal pad write down at length every word, phrase, comment, cliché, historical reference, literary reference, poetic reference, feeling, instinct, remembrance of actual fact, image, dream, fantasy or observation that can be made or connected with the "idea" you wish to express. Devote at least an entire work period or more to the collection of these materials.
The objective here is to achieve unlimited creative flow -- BUT a flow that is focused on the core Idea. Anything goes -- the only stipulation is that what flows MUST relate to and support that one central Idea summarized by the Hook.
Many songwriters tend to hold back a little at this stage. If they have written songs before, they instinctively tend to shy away from multi-syllable or unusual words because they know such words can be extremely hard to rhyme. Get over that hangup quickly! Don't even worry about things like rhyme or
melody now. The fresher and more uncommon the words and images you come up with -- the better. You are a builder assembling the raw materials you will need to erect your song. The more varied and interesting the materials, the greater the options for creating something truly unique and beautiful.
It is at this stage of song building that you may begin to experience the odd but exhilarating high of "word addiction." Several years ago my eldest son, who is himself a phenomenal prose writer, turned me on to a book called The Synonym Finder (Rodale Press). It has 1361 pages of over one and a half million synonyms -- a literal Nirvana for a "word junkie." You can spend hours just compiling lists of interesting words -- words that create fresh mental images and are also simply fun to say or sing. Then, of course, there is Barlett's Roget's Thesaurus (Little, Brown & Co.), which even expands your options beyond synonyms by grouping words according to concepts rather than simply alphabetically.
After one or more very focused freeflow writing sessions, you are ready to begin to sort and group your raw materials. On another sheet of legal paper, separate all the words you think are the most interesting and have the most potential. On yet another sheet, list those you think are least useful (don’t just cross them out because you may find that they become useful later). Then use still more pages to list the words that might be easiest to rhyme…. words that tend to be cliches etc. Don't throw anything away -- just sort the words into as many groups as you need. Now spend some time just meditating through your lists. Don't rush this part of the process. Ruminate a little!
Next, try moving some of you words around so as to create a complete sentence that includes the Hook/Title and fleshes it out into a real thesis statement for the song. I call this thesis the Hook Statement. The Hook Statement will be extremely important as you continue to craft your lyric -- and also (believe it or not), it will help you to determine the musical style of the song and even the melody. So take your time. Try several different combinations of creative words until the Hook Statement captures the essence of the song.
When you have decided on the Hook Statement that you think is best, begin saying the phrase over and over again in your mind -- listening for the rhythm of the words as they are said in normal conversational speech. This is called cadence and is a word you will notice that I refer to often. By definition, cadence is the rhythmic sequence or flow of sounds in language. Cadence is the one quality that often separates lyrics from free verse and is essential to songwriting because lyrics must be combined with the rhythm or beat of music.
As you continue to repeat your Hook Statement, you may even want to tap out a rhythm on your knee to make sure that the words sound natural and conversational in their cadence. (Hit songs almost always have lyrics that are conversational rather than poetic or abstract.) Avoid reversing natural word order to put an "easy rhyming word" at the end of a line, and NEVER allow the rhythm of your lyrics to place stresses on syllables that are not stressed in ordinary conversation.
Here's an example of the above process from my own songwriting experience. Several years ago, a co-writer and I came up with what we felt was a Great Idea to write a song about -- the complex and important issue of verbal abuse of children. We decided to use the phrase "sticks and stones" as the Hook to hang our Idea on. That phrase, of course, is from the familiar little children's rhyme:
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words will never hurt me
I realized that this little rhyme is often said by children as a defense mechanism when someone's words have, in fact, definitely hurt them! So I wanted to create a variation of this verse to communicate the real power of words to scar and hurt kids. As I reviewed my freeflow lists of words, I came up with these lines:
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words hurt me much deeper….
Sticks and Stones
Lyrics: Mary Dawson
Music: Bruce Greer
Copyright 1992 / CQK Music
ASCAP / Admin. Music Services, Nashville
This completed sentence encapsulated the entire idea we hoped to communicate through the song. In this case, the cadence of the Hook Statement was the same as the children's couplet.
I was definitely on the way now! I knew where I was headed; I had a Hook Statement and I had a cadence. Tune in next time and I'll show you how this song continued to develop as we crafted the supporting ideas and music that made that simple Hook and Hook Statement really pay off!
OK -- now it's your turn! If you have your Great Idea and its Hook, you already have your destination. Now it's time to start looking at all the possible lyric "highways" that can take you there. Sharpen your pencils. Grab your legal pad. Ready….Set…..Freeflow!
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