Joiners Arms (17/1/06)

This workshop came about as a result of few comments I made after judging a FOOM heat in 2005. They are intended as suggestions on how to improve an existing song. Once you have your lyrics and and basic musical structure, how can you improve this raw material?

Most of the comments below are about the light and shade of a song or piece of music, and increasing the dramatic impact of your song. There are many devices that assist in increasing the dramatic impact, but most of the examples here focus on varying tempo, alowing for pauses (silence) in your arrangements, and experimenting with volume. Many very simple songs that sound quite pedestrian when sung at one pace and volume, become much more interesting when tempo and volume are exploited to strengthen the message you want to convey – lyrically and/or musically.

I hope you find the notes below useful. I am aware that the songs I have cited as examples reflect my own musical tastes, and there will undoubtedly be many examples of more recent songs, in other musical categories, that make these same points just as well. (I hope to put this article on the web and use it as a developing resource so if you email me with examples I will add them to the list.

The Beginning (how to start the song) – MAKING AN IMMEDIATE IMPACT

Minimal or nil accompaniment (to strong opening lines)

The Late Show (Jackson Browne)
The River (Bruce Springsteen)
Not Pretty Enough (Kasey Chambers)

Instro – strong chord structure, picking pattern, or signature

Eagle Rock (Daddy Cool)
If I Had a Boat (Lyle Lovatt)

Music and vocal together

Hey Jude (Beatles)

Vocal only

Banana Boat Song (“Day-o”; Harry Belafonte)
Wymoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)

Spoken or semi-spoken

Skating Away (Jethro Tull)

Sing/play the first verse much slower than the rest of the song – especially effective if the bulk of the song is upbeat



Pace/tempo – vary it for dramatic effect

Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)

Volume (dramatic effect)

Roland the Thompson Gunner (Warren Zevon)
Gentle Annie (Vin Garbutt)

Vocal interlude – try pausing all instrumentation and doing a chorus or part of a chorus acappella style

Dear Life (Michael Coghlan)

Hold key notes

Language (Dave Dobbyn)

Twist/bend notes

Runaway (Corrs) – a very commercial example but one reason why their melodies are so catchy is because they have perfect command of bending notes while holding (typically) a simple major chord

Instrumental break (a time honoured device)

Many and various examples

Key change (more challenging musically)


Verse v chorus – chorus should be stronger; if your verse structure is more engaging than the chorus consider swapping them around!


False fade outs – where the song fades out and then fades back in again

JBE (JustaBoutEverything) used to do this very well live


Guiding Principal: end on strength (musical or lyrical high note)


Chorus repeat


Last line repeat  (usually to reinforce key idea/message and/or ‘run the hook’; beware of overusing this effect – half a dozen repeats of a line is probably fine; anymore can get really boring and may leave the impression that you haven’t really crafted the end of a song.)

If I Had a Boat (Lyle Lovett)

Key idea:

Born to Run (Springsteen) “Tramps like us – baby we were born to run”
Boat Drinks (Jimmy Buffett) “I gotta go where it’s warm”

Sudden stop

Volcano (Jimmy Buffett)

Big note finish

Dear Life (Michael Coghlan)

Slow down, pause,  and hold the final note(s)

Desperado (Eagles)

Return to the beginning – some songs have a thematic intro that only recurs at the end of the song; this is a very neat device and brings a song full circle to an obvious conclusion

Adelaide Born (Michael Coghlan)

Unresolved – this refers to the technique of not returning to the final note or chord that listeners expect; it therefore affords that element of suprise

After the Goldrush (Neil Young)

Fade outs (can be difficult live but effective if done well)



Theme/focus – take great care with LOVE!!! Basically it has all been said. If you write banal lyrics about love you’d better make damn sure the music is superb otherwise it’s just more grist to the mill I’m afraid. Love songs are fine but there are a lot of love songs with trashy lyrics. See next point:


Mental imagery/leave room for interpretation

Leave Me on the Beach (Michael C):

Leave me on the beach
I don’t want to know
Leave me on the beach
The sun is going down

Deep Creek (Michael C):

When the wind comes up
You’d better brace yourself
It can catch you unprepared
And sweep you down to the valley below.

Narrative  (if genre is set it is OK for a song to be predictable)

Ballad of Widow Jean (Kate Battersby)

Vocal phrasing all important/scanning; group and sing the words in a way that reinforces the meaning

Positively 4th Street (Dylan):

“You got a lot of nerve” (In fact, any Dylan song is an object lesson in how to phrase lyrics.)

Other Issues:

Level of personalization – how personal do you want the song to be? The more personal the less others may embrace it.

The last verse – always the hardest to write (Paul Kelly in Songwriters Speak by Debbie Kruger 2005)

Avoid clichés – unless your using satire or parody

A word of warning – don’t do anything for it’s own sake. Don’t just throw in a bridge because you think you have to have one. Add it because it improves the song. If it doesn’t add value, omit it. If you slow a part of the song down, or sing another part louder, it needs to be adding to the integrity of the song. Whatever you add to the songs needs to add to the artistic merit of the musical work – highlighting a phrase or key idea, establishing a chord sequence as a theme, acting as a bridge from one part of the song to another.

Paul Kelly, again from Songwriters Speak by Debbie Kruger (2005), says Renee Geyer rewrites a song every time she performs it. Don’t be afraid to change the song during performance. Your mood, style of venue, and size and type of audience can alter the way a song is delivered. They are never fixed in stone. Songs are dynamic creations that constantly evolve, so in a sense, no matter how many times you may have a played a song, it is still raw material. Songwriting is a craft, and good songs rarely come easily. Gordon Lightfoot once said that it took him weeks and sometimes months before he was happy with the final product. It doesn’t come easy, and if you knocked something up in a couple of hours chances are there’s a lot of improvement possible! Good songs are works of art, and more the product of sweat than inspiration.

Michael Coghlan
January, 2006