I heard a great line a while ago. Sean Ono Lennon was being interviewed. He was asked the inevitable question that every songwriter is asked: Are your songs autobiographical? His answer has stayed with me as a reminder of what songs really are. He said… “Songs are myths about things that have happened to you.”
I can´t think of a better way to put it. We all write about our lives, our feelings, the things that happen to us. But the idea of myth-making is what´s important here.
Sometimes when we play our autobiographical songs for others, they don´t respond as strongly as we think they should. The problem is that real life events are often messy, unfocused, and confusing. It´s impossible to communicate in a single song lyric all the details, the personalities, the specific history that came together to create the Big Thing that happened – the broken heart, the missing friend, the misunderstanding, the great discovery. This is where myth comes into it.
Facts vs Truth
A myth is a story that seeks to explain a larger truth about life. A myth may start with real life events but it shapes them to create a deeper understanding. In other words, the factual reality of events becomes secondary and the expression of an idea or emotion takes over. As a songwriter, you have the right to play with reality! Go beyond the facts of what happened and get to the heart of what happened.
Write about emotions, not things
One of my songwriting clients brought in a song about a friend and mentor, someone she loved and admired but was now separated from. The friend was living half a world away, truly unreachable. In the song, my client described specific events that were somewhat confusing for me as a listener. After she finished singing, I asked her what the song was about and she proceeded to give me an account of her friendship with this person, where they used to meet, what the person said. If she had included ALL of that, it would have been a VERY long song and I would probably still have been in the dark.
After she finished explaining, I asked again: What is the song about? She thought for a moment and said, “It´s a song about losing someone wonderful.” Right. So I suggested she rewrite the song and select only those details, images, and examples that expressed that feeling of loss. If it meant “opening out” the facts to more effectively express the feelings, then that is what she should do. Let go of physical reality and reach for emotional reality, then your listeners will understand a larger truth about life – your life and their own.
by Robin Frederick
This post is based on my books Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV. Each book includes over one hundred useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to write songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.
All rights reserved. Reprints by permission.