On Writing Songs

I’m not just a novelist.  I’m also a song writer.

In the fifty-four years I’ve been playing guitar, I’ve composed close to two hundred songs,  a rock opera, and three or four musical dramas. While none of my songs have enjoyed wide-spread popularity–most of you aren’t familiar with any of them–I’ve been able to use them in prisons, migrant camps, and even occasionally in churches. Plus on mission trips to England, Wales, Romania, and Australia.

But writing a song is so much different from writing a novel that I decided to share my thoughts on the subject. I’m sure every song writer has his or her own methodology, but I doubt that many song writers can see–uh, hear–exactly what the finished work will be like until they actually get there.

That’s true for me.

I used to write as many as six or seven songs a year, but–since becoming a novelist–the number has dropped to one song every year or two. Not for lack of interest. Or even lack of time.

I believe God has very specific expectations  regarding the use of my talents. So it’s no wonder that I can’t simply wake up one day and say, “I want to write a song today.” Instead, I pray that God will lead me to an idea I can’t ignore. And then I wait. Sometimes many months.

I occasionally come up with a song idea that seems potentially worthwhile, but unless that idea comes to me in the form of a definite first line, I’m not even going to jot it down anywhere, much less try to do something with it.

But if I have a first line, I’m apt to feel that song is something God intends for me to write. I have two directions to go in at that point. I can try to complete the lyrics for the first stanza or I can just start singing that line to myself to see what kind of tune comes to mind. That normally works best once I have at least the rough version of the first stanza, however.

Sometimes I come up with what seems like a fairly catchy tune without much effort. Unlike years long past when I had to struggle to write the melody, note by note by note. I’m not apt to write it down yet, though. I’ve found that if that’s the tune God wants me to use, it’s going to come back to me again the next time I need it. I don’t recall ever having “lost” a tune that way.

But once I have the basic melody I start refining the first stanza lyrics and trying to determine where to go from there.

Many of my songs are based on Scripture, however, and that creates a completely different challenge: phrasing the Scripture my own way without doing the Bible an injustice. I’ll never forget sitting on the living room carpet surrounded with three or four different translations of the Bible and taking a word or phrase from one and something else from another. That was for “Let the Whole Earth Ring,” my rendition of Psalm 100.

Sooner or later I enter what I have of the new song thus far into Personal Composer software, which allows me to print professional looking lead sheets (words, melody, and chords). Then I start singing what I have over and over again, often making the tiniest changes to the lyrics. (See the link at the bottom of this page about the free lead sheets available on my website.)

Writing a whole song is apt to take anywhere from two to four weeks, and there’s no telling how many versions I print from Personal Composer in the process.

But alas! writing the song is actually the easy part. Then I have to LEARN it! That requires me to forget each of the discarded bits and pieces that are

Are you creative with words or music? Or in some other way? I know at least one of you is quite creative as a cook. How about leaving a comment and sharing a bit about your special talent?

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Links you might be interested in:

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Best regards,
Roger

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