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Ten Song Writing Tips from the Belfast Nashville Festival 2016

The Belfast Nashville Festival Song Writing Convention is a unique and wonderful weekend long masterclass in song writing with some of Nashville’s hit songwriters. The tutors explored song writing the Nashville way, bringing in their own unique perspectives having written country and pop hits and collaborated with artists in a range of genres. They stressed that these tips apply mainly if you’re trying to sell the song in the commercial country market, but they’re useful tips for all song writing. I listened carefully, took notes, asked questions and tried to learn what I could.

What is your song’s North Star?

Gary Burr asked, “What is the point of your song? Can you sum it up in one sentence?” This is the North Star; every line in the song should point to it. He suggested brainstorming lyrical ideas around the concept which then become the furniture you fill the rooms of your song with.

Title. Title. Title.

Ideally the point of your song should be encapsulated in the title. All the tutors stressed the importance of this. Jason Blume suggested that title must be in the chorus while Gary Burr indicated that a chorus without the title is really a repeated bridge. It seems you can’t repeat a title too often. Try to write a unique title. Don’t use a title that’s been used in another famous song. Georgia Middleman suggested you could put the title at the start or end of a chorus, or at the end of the verse. Everyone asked repeatedly, “Does it go to the title?” and stressed the importance of editing the lyrics with this in mind.

Vary the rhythm of the vocal melody

All the tutors discussed how varying the rhythm of the melody between sections of the song can add interest. This is not referring to the drum track. This is the rhythm of the words. You can hear it if you speak your lyrics to the beat. Does the verse and chorus sound different? Jason Blume suggested quirky syncopation or contrasting long notes in the chorus with a choppy verse to add interest.

Action, Images, Details

When it comes to lyrics, Jason suggested this AID to help you show rather than tell. A is for action; use verbs to show what’s happening in the story and help your listener to empathise. I is for images and D is for details – the specific nouns you use. Counter intuitively, the more specific the detail is in your song the more convincing and engaging it can become.

Collaborate

I attended a co-writing workshop with Grammy award winning songwriter Drew Ramsey. Co-writing is the Nashville way. He encouraged us to find our tribe – the people making the kind of music we want to make – and to work with them. When I asked how to come prepared to a co-write he suggested bringing possible titles, lines of lyric, song concepts and snippets of melody. Everything that doesn’t get used belongs to the writer who suggested it originally. He suggested not putting your most personal ideas on the table for a co-write. In Nashville, song writing credit (and therefore royalties) are split equally between the writers in the room but he said you should agree this before you start writing to make sure everyone is in agreement.

Get outside yourself

Krista Detor emphasised the importance of not being the person sitting alone in your room singing by yourself, about yourself, to yourself. She suggested writing from the point of view of another person or character.

Manure is used to grow things

I loved this from Krista. She encouraged us to keep everything, even snippets of lyric or melody that we think are rubbish. We need manure to grow things.

Do you need a bridge?

Georgia Middleman asked some very helpful questions about bridges. Does the song need something else musically? Do you need to clarify your subject? Can you say it in a simpler way or sum it up? A bridge is like a camera backing up to take a wideshot. The bridge is like, “What I’m saying is…”. Gary Burr added that you should try to use notes in the bridge that haven’t appeared elsewhere in the song to really lift the listener.

Write on an instrument you can’t play

Both Krista Detor and Gary Burr talked about writing on an instrument you can’t play to change up your songwriting. Do you always write on a guitar and find yourself defaulting to the same three chords. Write over a drum track, pick up a banjo or sit down at a keyboard. Trying a new instrument can unlock something.

Hook your listener

Georgia Middleman talked about a truism that a song should have three great moving parts. Jason Blume said you need a hook in your intro, your pre-chorus, your chorus and your bridge. I thought the warning about needing to hook in the intro or they’ll turn off / turn over was important. Don’t just stay on G for 8 bars. Give the listener something to latch on to.

Many thanks to Jason Blume, Gary Burr, Georgia Middleman, Krista Detor, James Elliot and Drew Ramsey. If you’d like to attend next year’s Song Writing Convention keep an eye on the Belfast Nashville Festival website for details.

Ellen Bomac
March 15th, 2016 at 11:21 am

I love that ” Manure is used to grow things” piece of advice. How freeing! We are all too eager to rubbish things we make that don’t satisfy our eyes or ears, holding ourselves too strictly to high standards. Having a spirit of playful discovery and acceptance of the good, the bad and the manure is the best way to be I think. We don’t have to love it all for it to mean something valuable.

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