“Anybody can be a songwriter,” Robin Laing tells the audience at the Edinburgh Writers’ Club. Perhaps he hasn’t met anyone as musically challenged as I am. I used learn piano as a child but I was so hopeless that my teacher told my parents to stop sending me to lessons. I have dabbled in a little bit of poetry writing but singer-songwriter Laing is quick to point out that “song writing and poetry are not the same thing.” That’s not to say that he agrees with a close friend of his who insists that lyrics are light verse while poetry is art; Laing’s view is that “a poem is like a song with its clothes off.”
So how do you write a song if you are a complete beginner like me? Laing says there are two approaches: take an existing set of words and put your tune to it or take an existing tune and put words to it. If you are going to do the former, Laing suggests starting with one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden poems which he says have an “inherent musicality and rhythm.” For the latter approach, you could try writing a song in the form of a list (this is also a useful exercise in writing poetry). He demonstrated this by performing a song he had written naming fifty whisky distilleries.
What about structure, rhythm, rhyme and key in songwriting?
- Structure is very important but it doesn’t have to be rigid. If you are telling a story in a song you can break it down into verses in the same way that you would break a novel down into chapters.
- Rhythm can be used to complement the subject of the song. For example, he wrote a song about coffee with a lively rhythm to mimic the stimulant effect of the drink.
- Rhyme is “almost inescapable” in songs. Laing believes that you should use at least three rhymes, preferably more. He avoids rhymes with two syllables because “they tend to be clumsy.” As well as rhyming the ends of lines, you can include internal rhymes and hidden rhymes. Laing sometimes refers to a rhyming dictionary for inspiration, although the rhymes that he is most proud of won’t be found there.
- Key can be used to convey the mood, apparently. Being tone deaf I have no idea what Laing means when he says that “a song about ghosts or murder can be written in a minor key to give a sense of horror,” but he has an honest face so I believe him.
Finally, if you want to be a songwriter then it is imperative that you listen to a wide range of music and that you listen in an analytical way. “If you can identify what’s bad about a song it can steer you away from making the same mistakes yourself.”