Writing a song doesn’t have to be complicated. A simple song is just lyrics and a melody, think Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star or Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner (before DNA got a hold of it). However, you may itch to add more depth and texture to your song, but wonder how to add music to your lyrics. Previously, I described the contrafactum approach which keeps you focused on the lyrics by using someone else’s music. In today’s post, I’ll show how to compose your own melody over an established chord progression. For illustration, I’ll use a song I wrote in honor of Banned Books Week as a case study.
My current home state of Texas leads the nation in book banning. As I read this year’s banned books list, a lyric formed in my head, “Call the firemen, Ray. We’re gonna have a burn!” I was thinking of Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451. It’s a novel about book burning, which was, ironically, censored upon its release in 1953. The title refers to the temperature at which paper spontaneously ignites.
Book banning statistics are telling. From July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022 alone, 1,648 unique book titles by 1,261 different authors were challenged or banned in the United States. Of these titles, 41% have LGBTQ+ themes or characters and 40% had a person of color as a main or prominent secondary character. Books that have influenced me personally are on the list of the most commonly challenged books of the decade. The Kite Runner and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian opened my eyes to cultures unlike my own. The richly imagined worlds of Harry Potter and His Dark Materials have changed the way I look at fiction. To Kill a Mockingbird is still one of the most commonly challenged books of the decade despite the New York Times proclaiming it as the best book of the past 125 years. Why are we so worried about these stories being told?
On the flip side, should anything be available in the children’s section of the public library and taught in schools? Should there be some limits to free speech to reign in fake news, propaganda and racism? Who should be the gatekeeper? I have no great answers, but history shows that in the future we will wonder what all the fuss was about regarding the titles on this year’s list.
Writing the Song
With censorship stuck in my craw, I wanted to write a song to give shape to the “Call the firemen” lyric. I intended to write a “list” song like R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know it (and I Feel Fine)“. I went through the banned books lists and picked out titles, authors and characters that I thought listeners would recognize. Then I looked at the list for rhymes and rhythms. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a lyric in itself. I noticed a theme of colors: “A Clockwork Orange”, “The Color Purple”, “Fifty Shades of Gray”. I made note to rhyme “Huckleberry Finn” with “Daisy Buchanan” from the Great Gatsby. Disconnected lyrics popped into mind:
“Should we silence Atticus Finch?”
“1984 and 2022, big brother still knows best”.
“Cuz you’re ahead of your time, or behind the time”
“I see you sitting in your red recliner, throwing stones onto the pyre,”
“You’ve got your words; I’ve got my gun”
Although I still liked the R.E.M idea, I started to get a “Sweet Home Alabama” vibe. However, I could not shape these ideas into that groove. At this point, I had a song concept and a list of banned book related words. I still loved the line “Call the firemen, Ray. We’re gonna have a burn”, but I was stuck on the music. I discovered a melody I liked for the lyrics by improvising with the piano, but I was really struggling on the chords and the song structure. There were some parts I liked, but overall the song had too many words and was too direct with the message, bordering on preachy.
As a parallel project, I’ve been practicing blues soloing on my ukulele. My teacher gave me a C minor 12 bar blues jam track so I could practice improvisation. I tried singing my song lyrics with the jam track and saw a potential for a banned book blues song.
I rewrote the song, this time using the structure of the C minor blues jam. I kept the “Call the Firemen, Ray” line and reworked everything else. This was a new way of working for me. Usually, I start with an idea for lyrics, then improvise a melody for those lyrics, then find chords that work for that melody. When a song structure starts to take shape, I fill in more lyrics and chords, and I repeat the cycle until I like the song. However, by using the jam track, I already had the chord progression and song structure, I just needed to write the words to fit.
I pulled the jam track into GarageBand, so I could record my improvisations and keep the bits I liked. I did this in a low tech way, playing the jam track from my iPad speakers and recording it through my laptop’s microphone into GarageBand. I then segmented the imported jam track into one region per bar and labelled each chord. This created a map of the song to help me keep my bearings within the 12 bar progression. You can repeat the 12 bars in a 12 bar blues until you, or your audience, gets tired. Once I had the 12 bars marked and labelled, I pasted them a few times to make the song length about 3 minutes.
I had to fight my natural impulse to fill every space with lyrics in order to leave room for instrumental solos. I pared down my lyrics to a minimum, removing all commentary, and let the book titles do the work. I made a new track each time I experimented with the placement of different lyrics and different melodies. Had I thought ahead to write a blog post about this, I would have taken a screenshot so you could see the chaos. I was cutting and pasting between eight different tracks. To keep keep track of the lyrics, I used a notes app on my iPad. As I rejected lyrics, I’d move them to the bottom of the file, as a poor man’s version control.
Surely, there are better tools and more efficient ways to work. However, this was a fun experiment. I got different results by starting music-first. My lyrics were sparser, with a simple story, no lecturing. I hope I still convey my message with the mournful sound of the blues. When I sing it, I feel like an evil Disney villain. I visualize in my ears1 that the character is excited to set fire to dangerous thoughts. I do my best to imbue the words with a sultry, controlling personality.
Putting it all together
To Summarize the Method:
- Come up with a song concept and some inspiration words.
- Find a jam track
- Improvise lyrics over the jam track using your inspiration words and theme
- Record yourself (optional, but recommended)
- Fill in any additional harmonies and instrumental tracks (optional)
If you are not lucky enough to have a teacher to give you a jam track, the internet will provide! I like soundslice.com because the sheet music helps me follow along. Here’s an example on soundslice.
Another source for jam tracks is YouTube. Search for “blues jam track” and you’ll get a lot of promising hits like this:
Click here for the finished song, “451“.
Do you like to write music first or lyrics first?
What’s your favorite banned book?
What tools do you use to write songs?
- Is there a phrase for mentally hearing something? like visualize is for eyes, is there a concise word other than the phrase “hear in my head”? audio-ize?
4 responses to “Jamming with Banned Books : Music-first Songwriting”
I never thought of writing a song before! Though I’ve tried poetry. I have to admit that the book banning of late brought to mind the classic Fahrenheit 451, also, which is of course very scary!
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Book banning is scary.
I was always intimidated by the music portion of songwriting. I’ve realized that writing a basic song is like doodling with notes. Like poetry, the constraints force you to think a little differently than with other writing.
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I find that trying my hand at other forms of writing keeps me fresh.
For sure! Keep growing and stretching. And all experiences become fodder for more writing.
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