FREE Songwriting Workshop: Navigating the Roadblocks

Did I get your attention? Of course I did. Free stuff is awesome.

This is no scam. I am going to give you a free songwriting workshop. And even better than that, I’m going to do it without even listening to your song. Amazing? Of course it is.

But how is this possible? I’ll tell you how: there are a handful of song roadblocks that appear in almost EVERY song under the microscope, and after doing enough song analyses, I’ve handpicked my favourites to share with you. Read on, and consider (honestly, now!) how many of these apply to your song.

Roadblock #1: Your Lyrics are not Universal, They’re Just Plain Vague

I know, you want your listener to come to their own conclusion, so you’ve avoided being detailed in your lyrics. Instead of writing about a single red rose, with petals yearning to open in the dewy morning sunlight, you chose to write about “a beautiful flower”, because, come on, not everyone loves roses. You want your listener to come up with their own flower. You’re serving everyone with your song, even rose-haters. This is such a great choice. You’re brilliant.

Here’s the problem. When you get to your chorus (or your song title, if you’re writing without a chorus), you want your listener (that’s me) to care about the emotion you’re feeling, or the epiphany you had which sparked you to write the song, and which your chorus TOTALLY delivers. Which means – back the car up a little now – your verse(s) must – I repeat – must set me up to experience the same emotion or epiphany as you. If you’re counting on me to understand the factors that led to your awesome revelation, you CANNOT allow me to fill in all the blanks. If that’s what you’re about, then basically you’re expecting me to write the song myself, and I just won’t do that without a co-writer credit.

No, your responsibility is to start a movie rolling in my brain, from the first line of your song, which sets the stage for me to actually experience something with your great reveal, come Chorus-time. In order to start that movie rolling, you’ve got to feed me something specific.

But, wait! Time for songwriter protest! As a songwriter, isn’t it my job to reach into my listener’s personal experience, to find something that’s familiar to them? How can I do that, if they don’t like roses? I need to be universal, to write without detail so that my listener uses their own experience to fill in the gaps! This workshop is crap!

Calm down, smell the roses. (Sorry, that was a cheap one. I’m marginally ashamed.) Yes, your song must touch the listener’s personal emotional experience – you’re so smart – and that’s going to happen, I promise. If your song talks about a single red rose, with petals yearning to open in the dewy morning sunlight, your listener will see an image pop into their head, with a rose, and sunlight, in the morning, but that rose will be in a different garden in everyone’s image! For your grandmother, that rose will be in the garden her mother tended, behind their cottage with the stone wall and the ancient vines. For your best friend, that rose will be in a window box, on the balcony of her high-rise apartment. Their own experience will fill in the details around yours, but you’re in control of the important parts, the parts which set the mood. And both listeners are now “in the moment”, ready for you to keep their movie going, up to the part where you ask them to share in your emotional reflection. (By the way, if it’s important that all of your listeners picture a cottage with a stone wall, then you had better put that in your lyric, or I’m going to pack up and go home.)

If your song, however, talks about “a beautiful flower, more beautiful than all the lesser flowers”, your listener will acknowledge that there’s a flower, but there will be no image in their head upon which to set your scene, and if there is, it will quite likely be an image that’s all wrong for the moment.

Try it for yourself. What comes to mind when you read the following two examples?

  • All the things he kept, because he loved me more than anyone I’ve ever known.
  • The shoe box on the shelf in the closet, containing every birthday card I’d ever made for him, the movie ticket from when we saw “E.T.” together, and a purple sea shell from our first trip to the beach.

I’m willing to bet you the cost of this workshop that the second example actually conjured images into your mind, and that the first example struggled to come even close. Both examples talked about a father’s love for a child, without actually saying that much, but I’m certain you got there faster after examining the specific items in that shoe box.

Remove the Roadblock

Examine your song lyric. See where you can replace obscure, vague references with specific, detail-rich images that will spark your listener’s brain to life. Look for the usual suspects: “it”, “everything”, “the things”, “it all”, words that fail to garner anything better than a lukewarm reaction.

Here’s an idea that will work wonders – focus your energy on getting such detail-rich images into the first lines of your song. If you can start the movie rolling in your listener’s head right away, every line that follows will benefit from being “in the movie”. Don’t wait until line five to start the movie!

Go, now, and work on that song!

Next time: Roadblock #2…

If you like what you read above, maybe you'd like to work with Allister at Tilted White Shed? Reach out through the Contact Us page.