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Inside Music:
"Songwriting Games"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, January 2002.

Many of my songs were begun essentially as word games, as playful exercises in putting words together in musical ways. I have several such games that I use often in my writing because they're simple, they're fun, and they're surprisingly powerful tools for creating new material for songs.

The simplest, and perhaps most powerful, game is to "write in rhythm," that is, to improvise words to a specific rhythmic pattern. Choose a simple rhythmic phrase, and then write words that conform to it. The idea is to go as fast as you can, letting the words flow freely — no editing, no censoring. The only rule is that the words must follow the rhythm pattern. I find the game works best when I say the words out loud as I write. For this reason, I often do this at my computer, because I can type fast enough to keep up with what I'm saying.

This game may seem childishly simple at first, and offer little hope of producing material of any worth. While it's true that much of what comes out is useless, a good deal does tap into something deeper, something more interesting and worth exploring. And to continue that exploration, the rhythmic pattern can be a valuable tool.

This kind of structured improvisation has broken me out of more than a few periods of creative stagnation. The process fascinates me, and it reminds me of the structured improvisation approaches I've explored in theater and dance settings. Perhaps it works because the left and right halves of the brain are each doing what they're best at, collaborating without interfering with one another. Whatever the psychology behind the game may be, it works.

You can introduce additional complexity without compromising the game's effectiveness. For example, you can add a rhyme scheme. The simplest, of course, is end rhyme, but you can use internal rhymes, too. You can rhyme every line, every other line, or whatever scheme you choose, as long as it repeats in some regular pattern. You can also group your lines into "stanzas," with each new stanza following the pattern of the first.

Many songs have very little rhythmic variation: "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," "America the Beautiful," and "Frere Jacques" are all good examples. But many songs have more phrase variations, and we can do this in our game as well. The simplest way to do this is to use two different patterns that alternate in a call and response scheme (e.g. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?").

If I'm feeling loose and open, I might begin the game with no set structure in mind at all. I might just start writing, and as I do, watch carefully for the patterns that emerge in the first few lines. Once I see a pattern, I use it to generate new lines. If I don't like the first structure that emerges, I might keep playing around until I find a better one. I'll try this game right now:

knocking on your back door
calling out your name
things will never be the same

The pattern is:

Since I'm always on the lookout for structures I can use, I also notice that lines 2 and 3 rhyme. I'll improvise a second group that follows the patterns of the first:

digging up your back yard
I won't take the blame
we both know that I was framed

I used the "-ame" rhymes again in this new group because I wanted the last lines of the two groups to rhyme with each other. But this means that lines 2, 3, 5, and 6 all rhyme — too much. I'll try a less monotonous rhyme scheme:

knocking on your back door
calling out your name
I can see you pull the blinds
digging up your back yard
I won't take the blame
tell me what I'm going to find

Now, lines 3 and 6 rhyme with each other, lines 2 and 5 rhyme with each other, and lines 1 and 4 almost rhyme — a very tight, compact little structure. And the lyrical ideas are interesting, too. Sure, they're offbeat and a bit creepy, but I'm curious where they'll lead, which is always a promising sign. The real point, though, isn't whether any of these lines ever make it into a song — they might, they might not. The point is that the game gets me writing, gets me working with song forms, and sparks interesting ideas and images that I would never have thought of otherwise.

And the beauty of it is that everything is completely improvised. I had no intention of writing a murder mystery or psychological thriller, nor did I have any preconceived groove or musical style in mind. All I did was open my mouth, start talking and typing, and get something going, while paying careful attention to the structural/formal implications of what I was doing.

It's this attention to form that makes this game different from simple freewriting, automatic writing, brainstorming, clustering, and other less structured kinds of improvised writing. While I'm letting the words and images flow freely, I'm also making sure that they fit into a rhythmic, musical form. In doing so, my right brain gets to create whatever weirdness it wants, while my left brain gets to flex its organizational muscles — each doing what it does best without interfering with the other. For me, engaging both modes at once is especially productive and liberating.

The example above uses a "call and response" scheme on several different levels. The first line is a call and the second a response, and they then become a kind of unit that the third line responds to. The rhymes serve to reinforce these relationships. I find such alternating patterns especially useful for lyrical improvisation, because they have an inherently dramatic shape, producing a sensation of tension/release. This triggers similar relationships in the words, leading to situations, characters, and images that are themselves dramatic.

Again, the idea here isn't to write a "keeper" lyric the first time out (although that certainly can happen), but to get the ideas flowing, while directing that flow into a container that has musical and dramatic form. If you try these games, let me know how it goes. Enjoy!

© Copyright 2002 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.

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