[HOW TO] Teach song-writing

Michael Davidson shares his ‘rules of songwriting’ when working with young people.

Last September, I ran a workshop for teachers on how to write songs with young people. It wasMichael Davidson based around 5 rules which I think are key to getting the best out of young people with little previous experience of songwriting.

1. Keep it simple – Many great songs make the most of a few ideas that people with basic technique can play. For example, ‘Wild Thing’ by The Troggs and ‘Three Little Birds’ by Bob Marley and The Wailers.

2. Don’t start at ‘home’ – Starting away from key chords, or key notes and ahead of the beat can build momentum. For example, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ by The Kinks, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ by The Beatles and ‘Trap Queen’ by Fetty Wap.

3. Get everyone involved – Any member of a band can write lyrics, and writing interlocking lines can create a great groove. A sense of social question and answer help build riffs and melody. For example, ‘Twist and Shout’ by The Beatles, ‘One Nation Under a Groove’ by Funkadelic, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ by Marvin Gaye or ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ by The Clash.

4. Go with first ideas, have fun, then edit later – All ideas are good ideas. First ideas in lyrics or music are often the best and having fun with them can help get over blocks. For example, just say the first thing that comes into your head – allegedly ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles began as ‘Scrambled Eggs’. It fits – try and see!

5. Play lots and listen to each other – Sometimes, students need reminding that playing a simple idea for a long time develops a groove, whilst complicating things disrupts this. The tutor or band members can act as producers by reinforcing strong ideas they have heard people play. Recording and reviewing sessions also helps this. And as rules are there to be broken here’s rule number 6… Break the rules! Think Punk, Motown, Grime. I used two examples to show how the songwriting process can begin with either the music or the lyrics: Chords First ‘Messing with my Heart’ by Dr Rock Freman College Rock School, Buntingford Listen here:

‘Messing with my Heart’ was written with the band Dr Rock, a group of Sixth Form students from Freman College Rock School, Buntingford. We encouraged the group to jam on a groove featuring the primary triads from D major (D, G and A).  The workshop leaders pointed out that the progression was immediately more interesting if the progression began on chord IV G, rather than the home chord. The chorus essentially used the same chord riff in a simplified form. One of the guitarists was more able and we encouraged him to work up riffs to play over the verse and chorus. The workshop leader supported with piano to allow the other guitarist/singer to begin improvising vocal lines without also playing.

The workshop leader picked up and sang back the fragment that became the chorus melody to encourage the singer to develop it, and he quickly came up with the lyric ‘messing with my heart’ as part of this. In the second session the singer brought in more lyrics the band had put together in the common room.

Lyrics First ‘The Friend of the Bully’ by Year 5 Group Tewin Primary School

Listen here:

We worked with the class teacher and a year 5 class who first were divided into small groups to come up with ideas for lyrics based on recent creative work on the literacy curriculum. We then used a brain storming session and flip chart at the front of class to write lyrics based on suggestions from the children. After building the lyrics with the children we created rise and fall of the melody with class, trying to match the sense of the lyric. We then invited the pupils to write the bridge as a rap.

Stuck for lyrics? Writer’s block happens to the best of us. If your young songwriters are really struggling to come up with a subject for their song, find an old newspaper, cut out words from headlines and have fun putting the words together to form the lyrics.

Changing Tracks is a programme of peer support and learning for and with music services wanting to improve equality, diversity and inclusion. It is run by Hertfordshire Music Service and funded by Youth Music as part of the Alliance for a Musically Inclusive England. It was previously called MusicNet East. We help music services to be more inclusive by providing a peer network facilitated by Music Mark, funding for action research, support and challenge, advice and resources.

Find out more about us, or check out the other resources and blogs on this site for more help for music services, or visit the AMIE Musical Inclusion Resource Hub for more inclusion tools and guidance, blogs, videos, and case studies, to help you break down barriers to music-making.

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