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Songwriting

Timmy Abell
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The following is a letter which Timmy wrote to a group of aspiring 4th grade songwriters in Florida.

Dear Songwriters and Folk Poets,

     I wanted to send you a letter with a few thoughts about my experience as a songwriter. I'm looking forward to seeing all of you next semester, in March, and I am hoping that between now and then we might work on some songs together. If we are successful, maybe we'll include our finished products in the concert.

     First of all, think of all the songs you've heard, all put together, every song you've heard in your whole life. Who wrote all those songs? Somebody sat down and spent time writing each one of those songs. Believe it or not, they were people just like you and me. They had arms and legs, and a brain, and a simple desire to express an idea in the form of a song. Some of these ordinary songwriting people wrote only one song in their whole life, and others wrote hundreds of songs. Most of them wrote songs just for the fun of it, lots of them wrote songs to their sweethearts because they were in love, some wrote about terrible tragedies, train wrecks, coal mine disasters, murders and war battles. Some were funny, some sad, some were inspiring, some religious, some were sweet and some were angry, some were about animals, some about the weather, and all of them were about life, each one a little window onto someone's experience as a human being, living on the earth.

     A very few of these songwriters actually pursued the writing as a career, and even though our project doesn't focus on the profession of songwriting, but rather on the fun and adventure of creating something new out of our heads for the fun of it, you should realize that it can be a profession, and it is possible to practice this art so that you can make a living doing it. When a song is recorded on a record, or tape, or CD, or when it is played on the radio or on TV, the songwriter is paid. That's right, every time you hear your favorite song on the radio, the person that wrote the song is making money, so you can imagine that the people who are writing the hit songs are doing pretty well.

    They started out just like we're starting out, with a simple desire to write a song, and they developed their skill over many years, practicing, writing, re-writing. The more we do it, the better we get at it, just like anything else in our life.

     So where do we start?

     Well, I'd like to describe to you how the process has worked for me in my own songwriting.

    First, there's a desire for a new song to come out. And along with that, a willingness to take the time to "get it right". Why write something if you're not completely happy with the final result?

     Let's face it, songs don't just pop out all at once. There are a hundred ways to say the same thing, and you have to search around until you find the best way to say what you're trying to get across.

     Second, a topic comes to mind. What is the song about?

     Third, in my case, once I have a general idea what the song will be about, I fuss around with an instrument, banjo or guitar, and try to sense what sort of feeling or mood the song will try to carry. Fast tempo, slow, sweet, or hard driving, playful or thoughtful, and then around the feeling I begin to put together a melody. Sometimes the melody is suggested by a line or a phrase which I already have in mind.

     In your case, in the classroom, you might try writing a song first as poetry, and wait until you have a verse or a chorus already completed before putting on a melody. Usually if you write a verse that has a regular meter or rhythm, and maybe a rhyme at the end of the line, then it's not too difficult to work out a melody. Figuring out a tune for the song is really fun because there are so many possibilities. A lot of times you'll find yourselves putting your new words to tunes that are familiar, which suddenly makes your new song sound like one that somebody else already wrote, so you do have to search around and experiment a whole lot to find just the right tune which is original, and which suits the mood and the lyrics of your song.

     Fourth, is writing the first rough draft. You now have decided what the song is about, some of the words are already down, maybe the first verse, and you have a tune, which of course can be changed a little at any time to improve the song. Now you have to brainstorm with ideas for the verses until the song has successfully said whatever you wanted it to say. Remember there are no hard rules about how long or short a song can be, (that is, unless you're trying to write a hit for the radio, then it should be between 3 and 3 and a half minutes long). Some of the most powerful folk songs are really quite short. Here's one that was written by an eight year old in Russia:

         May there always be sunshine
         May there always be blue sky
         May there always be Mama
         May there always be me.

     Simple. I and dozens of other folk singers have sung this song hundreds of times all over the world, singing first in English, then in Russian and then in sign language. So there's an example of a very successful and very simple folk song.

     Fifth, the final step is refining the verses and finalizing the melody. All of your ideas are down, but there may be a better, more poetic way to express the idea in a few of the lines. Sometimes this final step is what makes great songs out of boring and uninteresting songs. It is worth spending days on this step. If you could only see the pages of crossed out words and phrases from my songwriting, you would see what I mean. It happens sometimes that the final version of a song has totally different words in every line from the original rough draft, but still the song is saying the same thing. My record producer and sometimes co-writer, Steven Heller, really taught me about the importance of cleaning up and refining the lyrics of a new song.

     So there are a few ideas about songwriting. Everyone has a little different style of writing, and there is no formula that works for everyone. The exciting thing is jumping in and trying it out, over and over again until you get familiar with your own creative process. When you are writing songs together, you really have to work together as a team. If one person spills out a line that sounds stupid, don't make a big deal about it, just use the line as a starting point and change a few words until it sounds a little better. And be careful not to be too attached to some line that you thought of because it's possible that somebody else's idea might improve it a little. Brainstorming means throwing out ideas left and right and all over the room, then discussing them, working with them, throwing out the things that don't work and re-working the things that are worthwhile. If you do this with a desire to write a really good song, you will be amazed how much fun it is and how really good your new creation will be.

     If I could write a song about New Shoes, then you should be able to write one about your new dog. If I could make up a song about going to the Farmer's Market, then maybe you could make one up about all the adventures of going to the Mall. If I could write one about wishes, then I'm sure you could write one about keeping secrets. But don't get stuck on these ideas. Write about your own stuff. And have fun.

     Send me some of your ideas. Let's keep writing back and forth until I get to Florida

     Have fun! See you,

Timmy Abell



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