Richard Middleton
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"Form as a Songwriting Tool"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, September 1999.

When I was a kid, there was a rich oral tradition of songs passed along to us by other kids (never by our parents). You probably know them, too, classics like "Happy Birthday to you/you live in the zoo/you look like a monkey/and you smell like one too." Many of these songs are just old tunes with new words that reverse the intent of the original song through potty humor or irony. Grown-ups do it too, for example Weird Al Yankovic's parodies of Top-40 hits, or songs that skewer some politician or the celebrity du jour to the tune of "God Bless America."

This shameless recycling has always been with us and, in its less satirical form, has yielded some famous songs, including "The Star Spangled Banner" (based on the English drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven"), and even "Happy Birthday" itself (based on the kindergarten ditty, "Good Morning to All").

For those trying to write original work, there's still a lesson to be learned: form can be a liberating catalyst for songwriting, particulary with lyrics. When we write, we can use form creatively both to spark our imaginations and to serve as a container for the ideas that come. Turning again to "Happy Birthday," think now about the lyrical form rather than the tune. If you strip the melody away and just say the words in time, you have what amounts to a rap waltz, with lines and stanzas of specific lengths, specific rhythms, and a specific rhyme scheme. These elements are the form, the container into which you can pour an infinite variety of different lyrics. If you were to change the melody notes, you'd have a new song.

Though it may seem paradoxical, form is liberating to the mind, and tremendous creative energy is released when we create within boundaries. It gives us something to relate to, to work with, to push and pull against. The reverse is also true, that too little form can be disorienting, both for the artist and the audience. Even in improvisational music, theater, and dance, where it might seem that "anything goes," good improvisers are actually embodying the form as it evolves. The game has "rules," however loose or fluid they may be.

Songwriting is improvising, too, and if we pay attention to form as we write, the form draws ideas out of the unconscious mind and gives them shape. You can use the form of an existing song, or you can let it emerge as you write. It's helpful to speak or sing the words aloud in rhythm as you write. With the very first line, a form begins to appear - in the number of words, the accents, the rhythmic feel, alliteration or internal rhyme, etc. The second line will respond to the form of the first. It may mimic the rhythm or "answer" with another, it may or may not rhyme (if not, perhaps an alternating rhyme scheme will develop). Don't censor or control anything. Just watch for and follow the emerging form, and it will inspire a flood of lyrical ideas. The form can also evolve, perhaps into verses and choruses or something entirely new. Using form this way brings a musical quality to your writing right from the start, it gives you a sense of a larger whole, and you can dive in without any initial material -- no melody, no chords, not even a topic.

Even if the words aren't too hot at first, the form may lead to something better. Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" is a famous example. The original words were, "Scrambled eggs," and something about "I like your legs." But just like the mythical Everykid who first sang "you look like a monkey/and you smell like one too," McCartney used that form to play with words until he got what he wanted.

Listen for form in other people's work and get to know how lyrics are built. Some have one stanza form that repeats, with the "hook" appearing in each stanza (Greg Brown's "The Poet Game"). Some use the classic post-50's pop form of verse/chorus/bridge (Alanis Morissette's "Thank U"). Some are a hybrid of the two (Joni Mitchells "Help Me"). Some use tight rhyme schemes (Herman Hupfeld's "As Time Goes By"), and others rhyme hardly at all (Linda Creed's "The Greatest Love of All"). The varieties are endless. Whatever form you choose or discover, use it consciously to inspire your writing. It's a powerful and often-overlooked songwriting tool. Enjoy!

Copyright 1999 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).