April 3, 2008

How to Write a Song: The Three H's

The New York Times has a new blog called "Measure for Measure," which is about the creative process of writing songs. I love music and have been involved with a number of groups since I was a child (primarily drum corps), but I've also found that the art of song writing is both interesting and difficult. (I've created one song so far, Pterosaurocity1, which I didn't think came out very well.) The following quotation comes from songwriter Darrell Brown, who explains that a good song must have three "H's": honesty, humanity, and hooks.

We then proceed to vent and hash out our thoughts and feelings, our anger and frustrations, our longings and hopes and try to gently coax them into the shape of a song. And that song must have the three H’s in it: Honesty. Humanity. And hooks.

First, honesty, because I believe that people will only put up with a lie for so long and I want my songs to last forever. For me, finding out if a song is honest or not is a gut thing. An honest song will show innocence, vulnerability and strength all at the same time: “I Can’t Make You Love Me” sung by Bonnie Raitt and written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” or “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding and Steve Cropper or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Songs that rise above the songwriter and performer and have a life of their own.

Then, it has to be full of humanity, and by that I mean the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual sides of humanity. The big themes — the brokenness and the triumph of it all. So people can relate to what I am writing and singing about.

Then, finally — and this is extremely important to a song — it has to be filled with hooks, basically because I don’t want to bore people to death with all the honesty and humanity I am parading about. Hooks, as most of you know, are an absolute staple of pop music, bits and pieces of rhyming syllables or words, rhythmic chords and melodies chiming in and out and strung together in some fresh way so they never leave your brain, so you can’t stop thinking about or humming that song wherever you go. No hooks? Then it is not a great song and never will be.

Examples of great hooks? There are so many, but here are a few that come to mind. The chorus of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears (“Take a good look at my face….”). The refrain of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” (“I can’t get no…”). The very first line of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” or of “Killing Me Softly With His Song” sung by (but not written by) Roberta Flack.

I also know this from experience: Not all of the songs I write will be good ones. Actually, a lot of them will be ridiculously bad (experience has also taught me not to show those songs to anyone for obvious reasons). But when an honest, four-dimensional, hook-filled piece of humanity is finally born, there is a clue to recognizing it’s timelessness.

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