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How To Write a Folk Song

Tips for New Writers and Artists with Writer's Block

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I've been performing as a songwriter for years now, and I realize that what comes so naturally and fun for me can seem like a real daunting task to other folks; but I think everyone should try their hand at songwriting now and then. It's a fun thing to do on a boring, rainy day; and besides, you never know – you could be the next Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, and you just don't know it yet.

Difficulty: Average

Time Required: Anywhere from 15 minutes to several days

Here's How:

  1. Take some alone time – Sure, you can work on a song with a few of your closest friends. After all, that can be a great activity that helps you get to know people a little better; but if you're just starting out, I would recommend trying songwriting alone first. You'll have nothing to be embarassed about as you fumble through rhyming lyrics and saying things you wouldn't normally say in conversation.
  2. Go somewhere you've never been before – I'm not talking about picking up and heading to Peru for the weekend, though, if that's your dedication level, more power to you. Going to a park or a coffeeshop or bar in your hometown that you've never been to before can help inspire you to do other new things - like writing songs.
  3. Find a melody – If you already play an instrument, you're halfway there. For guitarists – try an open tuning. This puts you in a position of playing just about anywhere on the fretboard, and you'll always be in the same key. As far as a melody to sing, you can always borrow a traditional melody you already know; or just start singing notes. I swear. Sing random notes for about ten minutes straight, and you're bound to find a melody somewhere.
  4. Now, implant the words – from what I'm told, the thing most people have a problem with is coming up with the words. I think that's kinda silly: you can find the words to say you can't find the words ... ya dig me? If you want to write a song, it's because you have something to say. So just say it. Say it out loud first (yes, talk to yourself), and then write it down. If it's not poetry yet, don't worry. There are more steps ahead and you'll become a better lyricist with time.
  5. Pick a topic (optional) – The reason I say this is optional is because sometimes it can be just as inhibiting as deciding the words have to rhyme. Sometimes you have to just start writing before you can figure out what your song is going to be about. Sometimes you'll finish writing the song, and not know what it's about til months later. Still, if you're dying to write a protest song or a love song, it's always good to have that decided upon before you start, so you don't wind up on a tangent.
  6. Don't bother rhyming unless it happens naturally – the best thing anyone ever told me in a poetry class was: DON'T rhyme! Formulas are for people who have mastered basic math already. If you're new to this whole thing, you're just trying to make one and one equal two. Leave sonnets, haiku, and rhymed verse in your list of long term goals. For now, your goal is just to tell a story, set to melody.
  7. Tell a story, set to melody – and more importantly, tell the story like your life depends on it. Tell it as if you're telling it to someone who needs to hear it. Think of how it feels to tell someone you love them for the first time, for example. That's the kind of story you want to tell – the one you mean with all your might, and that you can't not tell any longer.
  8. Don't be afraid of metaphor – When's the last time you heard a folk song that didn't include some kind of a reference to the weather, the ocean, being on a boat, etc.? Certainly you don't want to overdo it (if you decide to liken something to the weather, try to stick to weather-related images when they make sense, throughout the song), but a smattering of analogies and metaphor can help your poet meter a bit.
  9. Be patient and kind to yourself – banging your guitar against the floor, grunting, and stomping off toward the kitchen isn't going to make you want to do this again. Magical songs happen magically in 5 minutes; but most of them take quite a bit longer than that. I've had songs take months to write, and I've been doing this for ten years. Keep the faith. Chances are once you lock a melody in, it'll stick itself in your head until you've written all the words, anyway.
  10. Know when to stop – okay, admittedly, this is the hardest part of the whole process. Many songwriters never quite figure out where to stop. Folk music certainly has its share of dozen-verse songs, sometimes to the detriment of the story. Unless you're Woody Guthrie, chances are your song shouldn't go on forever. The verse-chorus-verse-chorus format is pretty safe, particularly if you plan on heading to open mic with this thing when it's done.

Tips:

  1. Go somewhere you've never been before – it'll help to clear your head and get you open to trying new things like songwriting!
  2. Just start singing notes to yourself. Once you do this for ten minutes, I swear you'll find a melody in there somewhere.
  3. Write about something you know and care about. It's perfectly fair to write about your cat, your house, or your hometown.
  4. Don't hold back – you don't ever have to sing this song for anyone if you don't want to, so there's no reason to sugar-coat it. Conversely, if you do decide to share it with others, they'll appreciate it a lot more if it doesn't sound like you're afraid to say what you mean.

What You Need:

  • An instrument really helps
  • A pen and paper
  • Something to say
  • A willingness to try something new
  • No fear
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