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Nancy Rost: Blog

Q&A from Individual Songwriting class

Posted on December 8, 2013 with 2 comments

Thanks to everyone who participated in my Individual Songwriting workshop at Madison Music Foundry on Saturday. This was my first time teaching this subject in such a short time-frame -- I usually cover this material over 15 hours! -- so I wanted to address some leftover questions and give you a chance to follow up.

Q: What resources would you recommend for someone who wants to write serious, personal songs? I have a musical background but haven't learned theory.

A: For music theory you can start with a website such as Another handy tool is a chord wheel, giving you a color-coded representation of how chords go together. (I've seen these at Ward-Brodt, and other local shops may carry them as well.)

You'd also asked about chord progression software. I'd recommend going with something free as a sort of training-wheels approach to writing your own progressions.

Try applying the melody techniques we discussed in class once you have the chords; if you have further questions, let me know. 

A lot of the lyric-writing resources that are out there, including ones I've found really helpful for personal songs, tend to direct their advice to those who want to write commercial songs. As always, take the advice that applies and leave the rest. I'm partial to Sheila Davis's books, starting with "The Craft of Lyric Writing", as an introduction to song forms, rhyme schemes and lyrical devices. Pat Pattison's "Writing Better Lyrics" has a great chapter on ways to make your lyrics more vivid.

Beyond (and before) the mechanics, there's great advice on getting started and finding your style in "The Complete Singer-Songwriter: A Troubadour's Guide to Writing, Performing, Recording & Business" by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers. Don't let the title put you off if you don't aspire to make this a business; his approach is authentic and mature.

Q: I know some music theory and basic chord progressions. How do I make my pop chord progressions more interesting?

I recommend taking a closer look at some songs you like and borrowing some of their moves. Maybe you want to try a modulation, some extended chords, or some substitutions. I mentioned Matt Blick's Beatles Songwriting Academy -- check out how he analyzes their progressions and try applying this to your favorite songs. If you have difficulty figuring this out, I'd recommend working with a music theory teacher for awhile to get you there.

Q: Is it okay to mix perfect rhymes and near-rhymes in a song?

It's usually okay, with some exceptions. Perfect rhymes will emphasize the words at the ends of the lines, and as they accumulate, they'll also set up an expectation for more perfect rhymes in that section. (The blues verse we wrote at the beginning of class used a form where rhymes are strongly emphasized, making consistency more important.)

Near-rhymes will sound more casual and conversational and can sound more fresh and modern. Basically, once you've set your tone with your rhyme types in the first verse, stick with it in the second verse. Davis's and Pattison's books both go into more depth on rhyming techniques. 

Q: Is it okay not to rhyme at all?

I encourage new songwriters to learn to work with rhyme first for a number of reasons:

  • Rhyme helps make a song memorable both for listeners and the person singing it.
  • A song goes by in linear time, and the mind grasps things more easily if they are repeated. Rhyme makes the words easier to grasp and understand.
  • Words contribute not only meaning, but sound to the song. Rhyme is a musical device, much like a melodic motif.

That said, there are times when non-rhyme can work. In a through-composed song, non-rhyme matches what's happening musically, for instance. Or you may be writing an art song or something avant garde. In the rare cases where pop songs succeed at using non-rhyme, they have a strong rhythm and a catchy melody.

Please drop a note here to let us know which of these resources you find helpful, and with any other comments on the material covered. Thanks again!


November 10, 2015

“Cathexis” is the word Freud used to describe what you are takinlg about. He viewed it as the libidinal energy we invest in people, objects or ideas. Since we have finite amounts of energy, if we become fixated on one object (e.g. a piano) we have less energy available to invest elsewhere. On the other hand, he believed if we invest no energy in something we will have no mental representation or memory of the person, object or idea. When I think of the oak roll top secretary that sits in our living room it holds tremendous significance for me because, as a young boy, I would sit by it in my grandparent’s home and play checkers on its corner with my grandfather. I seldom walk past it now without recalling those happy memories of him destroying me in checkers and then humbly suggesting to me, with a wink and smile, that it was only good luck. To you, it probably seems like just an old piece of furniture. To me, it is a piece of the very fabric of my being.We both have a cathexis with your piano and, of course, with each other. I suppose that is why gifts always have strings attached, though sometimes they are invisible to both parties until the light catches it just right. We all invest some part of our “self” in things. It is one reason I think what you are writing about is so important and resonates with so many people. When we lose those things we lose a part of our self and with loss comes grief. Yet, to not invest any part of ourself into the people or things around us leaves us a life without meaning. Like any investment, finding the balance between risk and reward is the trick. It’s important to not give ourself to something we can’t live without; but, to refuse to give ourself to anything is to not really live at all.

Matt Blick

March 25, 2014

thanks for the mention Nancy! I'd definitely recommend analysing songs as a method - it's made a massive difference to my own writing. I'd also say analyse any song you love, but also drill down into one writer/bands complete catalogue - good and bad