What Makes Interesting (Song)Writing?

One thing I love about songwriting is the added challenge of making one’s stories and ideas fit a particular musical meter. It is, I find, difficult enough to express myself clearly in an engaging manner by simply writing prose; when I put a cap on syllables and insist on ending in rhyme, however, the complications multiply—though what flexibility I lose in available words I can sometimes regain with the alluring power of clever wordplay.

Thing is, not everybody tracks words. And among those of us who do, not everyone tracks them the same way. Some people simply love the groove. Some dig cadence and rhyme over narrative continuity; others vice versa. Or (self-indulgent reference warning!), as I bemoaned in my May 2011 Bushwick Book Club Seattle song inspired by Richard Feynman’s memoir “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character:

“One man’s Mona Lisa is another man’s cartoon.”

But, ah, the thrill of pursuit!

A few Book Clubbers and I were doing a program at Academy Schools in Tukwila recently, and I decided to poll my class of high schoolers regarding What Makes an Interesting Song? Disclosing my belief that there is no one magic list, I opened the floor for discussion (and invite it to remain open in the comments section below). Here’s what came back:

  • Arrangement
  • Conveys emotion: words & music
  • Memorable (catchy?)
  • Good beat/music
  • Harmony

And when I shifted the focus to What Makes Interesting Lyrics?:

  • Confidence
  • Imagery
  • Voice
  • Tone
  • Relatability
  • Message
  • Originality

Damn! I’ve facilitated college-level discussions that didn’t dig that deep or acknowledge in list form that these qualities are ALL important… and ambiguous. One writer’s confident message may come across as unrelatable pushiness to some readers/listeners; one’s honest, original, tangible story wasted as a derivative or forced exercise on another.

That we are a world full of people who connect in so many diverse ways is a beautiful, and occasionally frustrating, reality to me. I am fascinated by the ways that different authors and songwriters choose to share, by the similarities and discrepancies within and between the two processes, and by the incredible range in responses any one work can receive.

So good luck writing that perfect “all-things-to-all-people” song/poem/novel. But keep trying—I do.

Wes Weddell

  • Mike Votava

    Lots of times I put lines in my songs that I think are super clever and am almost certain will garner a big response from the audience. Then I actually perform the song and nothing, nobody laughs at that part. But then they will laugh at something stupid like the word “mustache” or me forgetting the words to the song – and then in my head I’m all like, “You dummies! That’s not the funny part!”

    • I know a lot of creative writing classes teach you to “kill your darlings”–strike every line and phrase that you’re really in love with and see if the story still makes sense. Sometimes with a song, though, my witty line is all I have!

      • I’m gonna “kill your darlings” if you know what I mean

  • For the record: whenever The Bushwick Book Club Seattle offers students a chance to perform in public, we require that a parent or guardian also be on-hand. These opportunities to share one’s work with an audience outside of school are always optional and by-permission of each student’s respective parents/guardians.