How To Write A Rock Song

One of life’s great mercies is the fact that, for many songs, the music diverts a lot of attention away from the lyrics. Writing lyrics is difficult, but not nearly as difficult as writing poetry – in fact, most lyrics are little more than a rhyming-coupletised vehicle for the singer’s voice, and the actual semantics of the words may well be irrelevant. But what is the secret of writing a classic rock song?

The Originality Of The Species

One golden guideline for writing songs is that you shouldn’t try too hard to be original – in fact, trying to be original is the quickest way to dry up your creativity. No song is written in a vacuum; even the greatest, most ‘original’, songs draw heavily upon what went before. Songwriting is not about pulling something completely unique out of thin air; more often than not, it’s simply stamping your own unique variation on a motif that has existed for thousands of years. A (possibly apocryphal) story from the time Donovan was visiting the Maharishi recounts how Donovan played a few songs he had written (including ‘Sunshine Superman’). After each one the Maharishi recognised it as being an ancient raga from a particular Indian locale (much to Donovan’s annoyance).

Lyrics By The Numbers

Over at Ultimate Guitar, Nolan Whyte wrote an article that provides some succint guidelines on breaking through rocker’s block. For example, to write a Ramones song you just pick something you do or don’t want to do today, state a few reasons why you want (or don’t want) to do it and make them rhyme – “I Wanna Be Well,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “I Just Wanna Have Something To Do,” “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You”.

To write a Misfits song, just pick a movie you like (preferably one that suits your musical style) and base your lyrics on that. For Pink Floyd, anything with an anti-war theme incorporating the angst of a single-parent childhood will do the trick – although you should probably throw in an axe and a bicycle for good measure. But whatever you do, don’t forget the golden rule – feel free to look to others for inspiration. This isn’t plagiarism (as long as you put some sort of effort in) – as Ben Johnson (Shakespeare’s contemporary, rather than the sprinter) put it, you must observe how the masters have imitated, and imitate likewise.


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