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Basic rules for writing a song

I would like to try writing a song,
what are the 5 basic rules to write one?

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Hi Angela,

For me writing consists of the following:
1. Have a story in mind. Having a story with character and a backdrop makes it easier to write and easier for people to connect.
2. Put the guitar down and Focus on the story, put yourself into it, and see what comes to mind. When you begin to feel it and the melody or vocal lines begin to come, then pick the guitar up and play what you have already begun writing. This way your not just sitting down with your guitar, a desire to write and nothing but a blank slate.
3. Remember if you don't feel it, you won't hear it ( in you mind) , and if you don't hear it, then you can't play it.
4. Breathe. Open your mind and breathe, the story is the and wants to be told. Provide an environment for it to grow.
5. Allow yourself to like what you wrote. We all want our expressions to be great, but we are not always the best one to say that. We tend to allow our critical self to take over, tell critical self to go have a beer and relax.

This is what I think would be a great beginning to writing. You can always go back and clean it up later if you choose. We all tweak our work ov time. But, right now you need to learn how to make the connections between heart, head and hands. Writing, for me, is an extension of who you are, just reach that place. Don't over think it.

These suggestions are just a few, I'm sure you will receive many other great ideas as well. Just remember Angella, you already are the guitar player/writer that you want to be, you just have to get to know that, and be comfortable with her. Express yourself.
Be well

Bob

Hi Angela,

Based on the "story" technique, here is how I did it...first you can write a short story incorporating the characters, setting (both place and time, and idea of what will end up a song.)

First here is the story I wrote:

Times Were Hard and Coal Was Dirty…Tinder City Pennsylvania, Near Bethlehem

It was 1942.  Times were hard in Pottsville, PA, God’s country, the middle of nowhere.  Not much work except logging and moonshine. Moonshine was not looked on as a good way to make money by the “Law’, or the church for that matter. I heard that half the time the sheriff would dump it out in front of you and the other half the time he kept for him and his deputies.  Okay, I sometimes “cooked up” moonshine for scratch to keep the family fed, but I wouldn’t have never been caught dead “running” it.  Not because I had such great church morals, but because my truck was too slow compared to that Sheriff’s.  We lived way out in the mountains and the back roads were hilly and steep and curvy and I think my truck was sometimes only held together with mud from those dirt roads after the rain. The wife and me did raise chickens to eat, and for eggs to sell, but so did everybody else on that God-forsaken mountain.  There weren’t any jobs in the lowlands neither, at least none worth traveling for.  Only other thing near us was the Mine, and like I said, the coal was dirty.  There’s an old miner’s prayer that ends with a line that goes “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” In the Fall of 1947, I came to realize what that meant.    

Like I said, times were hard.  I was 23 and already had a wife and three mouths to feed. We lived in an old house near the family farm that had once been a work shack for the wife’s grandpa, who had a leather business.  He made all things leather that were needed in the early 19’s, like for farm horses; saddles and plow bridles and mostly for the loggers, climbing straps…and even belts and suspenders and work gloves and other people stuff like that. Anyway it was not a real big house, but it was enough for me, the wife and our three, and what is it they say; “beggars can’t be choosy.”  

Oh yeah, speaking of logging, I tried that for a while but pretty quick I realized I was scared of heights, even with one of Grandpa’s hand tooled leather climbing straps, I realized that “up in a tree was no place for me.”  Hey, I made a rhyme.  I needed to be on the ground to earn a living. 

And once we were married, and we had the first young’un, the wife said “You got a family now and you need to keep your hands clean and earn a living…” “keeping your hands clean” was her Mama’s way of saying that I shouldn’t be cooking no moonshine to keep us fed. I think it was something she read in her old family Bible, but I don’t think it was a Jesus saying, just something one of her people scribbled in there as a reminder for the future…probably by one of her long since dead women people whose husband got arrested for moonshining.   Anyway, whoever said it, I knew in my heart they were right. Every time I looked into that first young’un’s face I knew I had to be around to work and bring home the scratch…and like I said, I knew I had to be on the ground to do it.  It didn’t take long before I realized that, like it or not, I was going to have to earn our scratch not by working ON the ground, but UNDER the ground. 

One day, while in town to get cooking materials for the wife, I saw a circular on the post outside the General Store saying that they were looking for strong young men to work at coal mining in nearby Tinder City.  At first I turned and walked away.  I had heard from the wife’s people about the hardships of a coalminer. But then I came back and looked to study the pay schedule. I realized that there wasn’t no separated pay schedule, I knew that meant they were just hiring “shallow diggers”, that’s the bottom of the rung in coal mining…the “deep diggers” make more money, considering the extra risk.  Now understand here, “shallow” ain’t really shallow like you might think, you are still a good few hundred yards in the mine, but going horizontal like, instead of a few hundred straight down!


The shallow diggers work deepening the new mines, putting up the big rafters that the loggers supply as braces, and then once that’s done, laying the tracks for the coal cars, which ain’t really “cars”, they’re more like little train cars that you put the coal in and they get hauled on the little train tracks up to the “light at the end of the tunnel.”  I went over to the mine office and they hired me quick. 

They could see I was a young 23, strong and fit for the backbreaking work in coaling.  But I think they could see in my eyes that I had a clear head and honest look about me.  Of course it helped that I had a family, cause that meant that once I brought that first bit of scratch home and the wife saw what it could buy, (and it didn’t take much mathematics skills to figure), that I’d sell my soul to the “Company.” 

We were poor PA farm stock and they figured that with one young’un already, more would be on the way, and once bitten by a regular paycheck, I would have to stay with that job, they were big-city smart, and they were proved right.  

So, anyway, I met with the Bosses, the “Company Men” as they were known, and took that job and I headed on home to break the news to the wife.  I told her that the work would be steady and regular, not too limited by the weather cause it don’t rain in the “Hole”, that’s what her people called the mines.  I told her the money would be good and my hands would be clean.  She said "How could your hands be clean doing such dirty work", and I told her not to be smart-alecky, she knew what I meant.  She was comforted that I wasn’t fool enough to lie about my mining experience and ask for a deep diggers pay, ‘cause that was way more dangerous, and it was a stupid man who lied just to get more pay without having paid the dues to earn that right.  Those were the men who got killed in those Holes for something little, liked just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  She knew that if I was a shallow digger I would be safer.  She told me she would ask her Mama about what works good for mid-day meals down in those Holes, ‘cause she had always only made me table meals mid-day, and packing them was a different thing to know how to do right. When we went to bed that night she cried, and she didn’t have to tell me why.

She said that maybe I could do this just til we could get a foothold and then I could go back to farming, where the air is clean and it’s God’s light that shows you where to step…and more important, where not to! 

Like I already said, the Coal was dirty…

They gave me a Company helmet with a little lamp on top to guide me in the dark…and Company boots, and even work gloves, good leather ones like the wife’s grandpa used to make…not better, but just as good.  Grandpa’s gloves were for farming and these were for keeping your knuckles from getting beat up in tight digging spots.  The mines were dark and the work was hard, but we would go in each morning knowing that an eight hour shift would only take eight hours, and then we could come home.

One of the guys was called “C. A.” (Never did find out what that stood for ‘cause it didn’t really matter, I guess).  C.A. used to say, and I am direct quoting him here:  “ I live for leaving, dread going back in.”  He would always say that when he got asked how he was doing, be it morning, lunchtime or heading toward that “light at the end of the tunnel” at the end of the shift, and that was all he would say.  

 Despite the helmet with that little light, which some of the God-fearing diggers called their own little “Guiding Star”, (I guess like the North star that guided the three wise men to Jesus in the Bible), despite each of us having one on our own helmet, and them having the brighter light when we were in a group together, and despite the Company lights on the walls, called “Torches,” you can believe it as the honest truth when I tell you that those mines were dark!  If you were alone and that little “Star” on your helmet burned out, you couldn’t see your “company-gloved” hand in front of your very own eyes.  I guess that’s why you were to never, and I mean never, go off by yourself. We had our own little work groups of 5 or 6 men who always stayed together…and you stayed together no matter what the Crew Boss said. 

The Company Men Bosses weren’t going to like it if you went back and told them that your Crew Boss told you to venture off by yourself, not even in twos…but if that DID happen and you went back to the Company Men in the office and told them that’s what happened, we all knew that the Crew Bosses word would take hold over ours…but still, you just didn’t let that happen.

It was rumored that once one of those Crew Bosses told old C.A. to go off and bring back some tools left in a part of the Hole all by his lonesome, and he told that Crew Boss “NO” in no uncertain terms. He didn’t mince words or offer any further explanation; he just said “NO”.  Old C.A. never had to go to the Company Men and complain 'cause there was something in his eyes that told that Crew Boss not to ask him again, that Boss just sent a few other diggers. 

So, back to describing what it was like in “The Hole”…like I said, the mines were dark, and the air got thinner as you ventured deeper.  Even us shallow diggers feared that cold dark. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to the deep diggers, but then again, I guess dark is dark. 

We were supposed to get breaks when we got winded due to that thin air, but breaks were looked down on by the Crew Bosses, and even if you smoked you couldn’t smoke on a break because of where you were. We worked in silence because the air was so thin…I mean there was plenty of noise with all the picking and digging and loading, but we were told not to talk much because it would cause you to get winded faster.  Some of us wondered if the Company Men just made up that rule to keep our minds on our work and not on what each of us had to say. 

They knew that some men would brag and that bragging led to squalling and that led to fighting…and deep in the Hole was nowhere to swing anything but a pick. It was said that getting all worked up over someone else’s bragging and fighting in that thin air had caused men to pass out.  ‘Course none of us had much to brag about anyway…and nobody was stupid enough to brag at old C.A., now you know that’s true!    

We had steady scratch, and believe me, all things considered, “the money was good, so we wouldn’t complain, but we were always uneasy and if you worried 'bout the braces it could drive you insane”…hey I made another rhyme, maybe I should have been one of those book poets.

We began opening a new shaft and that was the first time I had been on a crew with those orders.  I didn’t tell the wife about it over supper that night 'cause I didn’t need to scare her or the young’uns. Oh yeah, since I started mining we had had two more young’uns.  See, those Company Men knew their trade and the diggers who worked it. 

So, we began the new shaft. Ahead of us a black wall just daring us to pick and dig at it, and behind us a stack of rough cut timbers for braces.  We worked and worked, but progressing was slow.  Three months passed before we had made a dent in that wall that could be measured as decent, as reported to the Company Men by the Crew Boss.  Then one day we were chopping away at a particularly mean part of the wall when we heard a sound that made our dirty skin crawl. 

The Crew Boss just laughed and told us not to be so spooked and keep at it, and then we noticed how quickly he left us there alone.  ‘Bout and hour later we heard another squall that sounded like the Devil warning to us to leave that place be. At this point we wished we had C.A. on our crew to stare down that Crew Boss, but none of us knew where he was.  Then there was a shudder in those walls, like a death rattle, and those walls moved enough to make a brace behind us come loose and down it crashed and came a good bit of rock and dust with it.  We all jumped to the front wall we had been torturing and covered our faces, some even knocked out their “stars,” making it a little darker.  After the dust settled and we counted heads, we got real silent, hoping that it would preserve the thin air, as it got thinner.  We sat for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a day.  We all, each and every one, prayed to ourselves, because prayer, whether you considered yourself God-fearing or not, seemed like the right thing to do at that moment. After what seemed like another eternity, we heard noises on the other side of the fallen wall.  At first they were just scratching noises and then they got louder. 

The less God-fearing diggers began to reconsider about the power of prayers. After what seemed like another eternity, they broke through, and blinded us with some kinda fancy high-powered light. 

Again, as I looked at the dirty faces around me, I noticed that some of them looked relieved that God had answered their prayers by allowing them free diggers to find us…and at the frightened faces of the less God-fearing men, unsure if that bright light shining on them might be from the Almighty coming to bring them home! 

After what seemed like another eternity, the free diggers made a hole just big enough in the broken wall to get us through, one by one.  We God-fearing pushed the “newly transformed believers” out the hole first, and then we came on out too.  They piled us into them little train cars, two by two, as them cars weren’t meant to haul coughing diggers, only piles of lifeless dirty coal.  I was crunched in the front of my little car and I didn’t smile until I saw a pinpoint of light ahead of me, and then widened that smile as the pinpoint slowly got bigger and the light got brighter.  

‘Course none of us trapped diggers could have known it, but outside the whole town had heard of the cave in and had showed up to see the progress of the rescue, or if there was going to be any living to rescue. 

Of course the wife was there with our three young’uns, and they stood there in the cold waiting to see my dirty mug amongst the living.  The Company Men pulled us out of the little cars and laid us lined up on the ground to wait our turn for the Company Doctor to make his rounds and give us the okay to go home. All around me families were rubbing the black off the faces of the rescued, searching for their man.  The wife screamed when she finally found me amongst the living and hugged me tight enough to squeeze out the clean air I was trying to fill my lungs with.   The young’uns cried to see me too, not sure of what to make of all the commotion, but sure enough that their Daddy was once again safe in their Mama’s arms, where he belonged.  Before I stood to head home, I threw off my helmet, breaking that little “star” clean off as it hit the ground.  The same ground that I knelt and kissed for all I was worth. 

The ground I had promised myself right then and there that I would never venture below again…I promised the wife that I would, from that moment on, leave the below ground to the Devil, who obviously owned it.  We all walked home, together. 

As a last note, I found out ‘bout a week later that all of the men in my crew, and two others who were trapped that day, made it out.  I also was saddened when I read that amongst the brave casualties who had not made it out trying to save us trapped diggers, they found Old C.A.  May God have mercy on his soul.   

 

Copyright M. Edward Sparks/Imagine Books/Pepperland Productions 2011
All rights reserved

 

Second here is the song lyrics:

Light at the End of the Tunnel


There’s a light at the end of the tunnel

I see a face at the end of the trail

And though the star on my head is quickly failing

A few hundred yards to the end of the rail

Five years ago I had no job

only a wife and three mouths to feed

Then one day I came home and their faces turned to look at me

I told them we’d have money for all of their dreams

and I promised my wife my hands would be clean

The work was hard, the mines were dark

but the money was good so we wouldn’t complain

But we were always uneasy

if you worried ‘bout the braces it would drive you insane

We worked in silence because the air was so thin

We lived for leavin’ dreaded goin’ back in

Three months later deep in the hole

we had a cave-in and I lost a few friends

The wife went cold and the kids all cried

Until the smoke cleared they thought I’d met my end

But I walked out, threw off my hat and stared at the sky

The clouds looked so good I wished I could fly

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel

I see a face at the end of the trail

And though the star on my head is quickly failing

A few hundred yards to the end of the rail

 

© M.Edward Sparks / Pepperland Productions 1993

 

And finally the finished piece:

http://www.edwardsparksmusic.com/music/Light%20at%20the%20End%20of%...

 

Hope this helps! 

Edward

 

Hi Angela,

There are a thousand suggestions out there but I prefer to call "rules" limitations. For me writing it is like a journey with many possible routes and means of transportation, each has its own advantage, some faster or more direct, some more pleasant. Limitations help me focus. To add to suggestions made for a first song, I would suggest if you want to start from scratch, start very simple, maybe select a phrase you say often or have heard and like. Speak the words in the phrase like you have or would in conversation, find a rhythm pattern that the phrase matches to, one or two chords that seem to sound right with the voice inflections to make the phrase and use one or two notes from those chords to build a melody. Then start writing down everything you can think of associated with the phrase. Feel free to expand from there. Write some lines, maybe they rhyme. The most important thing for me is to write something every day (maybe a line, or a poem or a chord progression idea), keep the ideas together, and have fun. 

First start with a great name like Angela BlackMoon! ;)  Then write a song. Then write another one. Then write another one. Try your damnedest each time but don't be afraid to move on and let them go as you progress. You can write a dog of a song with a nugget of gold that you can retrieve later and recycle into another one. Be fascinated by your own process. Be personal. Be universal. Be confessional. Be expository. Be obscure. Be topical. Be frivolous. Be serious. Don't get stuck following rules. Use a rhyming dictionary. Amuse yourself. You'll get more mileage doing it than thinking, talking or reading about it.

As far as I know there are no "rules" which makes it what it is.

 

Write what you know is the best advice I can give.

 

Bob

How kind you are!
Thank you very much for your advice.

I wanted to try writing a lullaby for children,
Perhaps it is more simple.

Personally I don't follow rules. Songs seem to come through me and I have no idea where they come from but sometimes they come fast and I have to capture/write it down before I ,lose it. Most of them get away but I've captured a few.

 

If there is one thing I've learned for myself is that I cannot sit down and decide I'm going to write a song. Something has to spark it and when that happens I need to stop and capture it if I can.  I have tried to figure it out and this is the best I can figure.  One day I was walking in town with my kids and suddenly my mindset became aware of the very moment I was living in.  As I became aware of feeling the moment I looked around and time seemed to slow down.  A strange feeling.  While in this state of being in the moment and nothing else cluttering my mind songs started forming.  Unfortunately they ran through me and I could not capture them. Like trying to catch a butterfly without a net I guess.

 

Other times I can be watching a news story or reading something and become so overwhelmed by emotion that a song comes and if I can i write it down.  Lately I've had nothing coming but I do have about 4 songs on the backburner waiting to be finished.

 

So for me rules don't apply mainly because I think applying rules to anything hinders true creativity.  You have to free your mind of unimportant distractions. I guess you could call that a rule but I cannot do that on call. It has to happen on its own.  My own songs may not be very good in the opinion of others but to me they are my songs so a part of my soul.  I like them all.  It comes down to inspiration....what are the things that inspire you? what are you passionate about?  I tend to write straight from the heart because that's what happens when songs come.

Gil, I think you have said what is in my heart as well...It's there and will come out when it is ready!  Thanks, Edward

I could not help but notice that you posted this in the middle of the night, so maybe I can offer some advice or guidelines, cause most songs are written out side of any rules:

Have a notebook of some sort, or a small recorder, with you wherever you go. [I have many, too many, notebooks of various sizes, one of which fits a back pocket, one for the backpack, some conventional spirals, some three ring binders.]

As you are watching the world go by, daydreaming, sitting in a meeting, [I ride the bus and train to my part time jobs, or sit/walk  by the lake, on long drives, over hear someone say something] whatever, as any idea, line, snippet, hook, hits you, write it/them down, each on its own page.

Later look back at the idea(s) you have see if any can be taken further. Maybe spread them out on the table. Write whatever comes to mind then down. Maybe it’s the story line, maybe it’s the outline for verses, maybe a full chorus. [here I sometimes go thru a couple of books to see how one idea might work with another.]

Then, as some others have suggested, maybe fiddle with the guitar, seeing if a melody comes along. Play the melody over and over, till it flows thru your mind. Let the words and music intertwine. I call this ‘letting it percolate.’

Sooner or later, the two will become one, and the rest of the lyrics, music will follow. When that moment hits, you’ll know. [last time this happened to me was two weeks ago at 4AM. By the end of the day a song that I had been ‘letting percolate’ since Feb ’09 was finally finished. OK, they are never ‘finished,’ there will almost always be tweaking, but  . . . ] And strike while that iron is hot whatever time of day or night it is.

Yours in song

JJ

You forgot a couple of rules about song writing

 

The Rules Rule - Rules where meant to be broken!

 

Al Stewart Rule - If it doesn't come naturally leave it!

 

Rick's Rule - Let it happen!

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