This is a follow-up to my article “So You Want to Write a Song?” where I introduced my sooper sekrit songwriting process.
Asking, “How do you write a song?” is much like asking, “How do you build a house?”  That’s a big question, one which contains a whole bunch of little questions (“How do you pour a foundation?” “How do you install plumbing?”). There are people who produce piles of lyrics but claim they “can’t write music,” people who make up tunes all day but don’t know where to start with words, and people who don’t know where to begin either process. My process looks something like this:
1. I get AN IDEA.
2. I write some words.
3. I start to write a melody. <%&$^*>
4. I fix some words.
5. I tinker with the melody. <&^$%^>
6. I get sick of it and throw it into a corner.
7. I dust it off and decide I like it enough to finish it.
8. It’s a song!
On some rare occasions, my Muse blows pixie dust into my ear and I go right from step one to step eight. Sometimes, pieces get stuck at step six and never see the light of day. But usually, it’s a process of vision and revision. I am a wordsmith; for me, the words come first 99.9% of the time. If you are a melody-first person, some of your steps will change order, but you’ll find the process isn’t all that different.The full article is here: https://www.ravenboymusic.com/so-you-want-to-write-a-song/
So, you have part of a song, maybe some words, maybe a tune, maybe both, but it just isn’t coming together. Before you can treat, you must diagnose.
Why is this Song in the Sock Drawer?
There are MANY reasons why we set a song fragment to one side. Determing the reason will tell you a lot about whether this particular proto-song can be saved, and often, about your creative process in general. Be brutally honest while it’s just between you and you.
Its time has passed. † Political humor, that thing that happened at Coronation that everybody thought was so funny five years ago, a complaint about a situation that no longer exists, a subject you have lost interest in. It is not impossible to make a good song out of a “no s#it, there I was” story, but it’s not easy, either. Keep in mind that an SCA “generation” is 3-5 years, so if the anecdote is older than that, the ship has likely sailed.
I have two songs that will likely never leave the sock drawer. One is an intricate catch-duet that I started writing to perform with someone I no longer perform with. It is fiddly enough that it would be a lot of work to finish, for no return, because it’s not the sort of thing I would sing now. Requiescat in pace. The second is an “I am so homesick for my kingdom” song that I didn’t finish while I was still homesick. I have lived in seven kingdoms, and there is a definite expiration for those feelings of longing. (Missing people can last forever; missing the kingdom may end with the next drama-filled reign.) I sing several homesick songs written by other people; there is no shortage of them, and the world is no poorer for not having my contribution to the genre.
It is just not coming together the way you want. Welcome to songwriting. The songs that simply spew themselves onto the page will always be the minority. You are no less likely to end up with an amazing song if you have to work for it; quite the contrary. Those magical ta-da songs often have something in them that, over time, you’ll wish you had tinkered with, but it seems dangerous to offend the magic. You will ultimately be prouder of the ones you crafted than the ones you were gifted.
I realized I need to do some research. Woo-HOO! Go you! Most artists have more fun in the creative phase than the research phase. (I LOVE research, but I’m weird that way.) But the only way to take your art to the next level is to inform your process. Eventually, you will look forward to this part.
I have a new, better idea, and maybe I’ll finish this one later. Danger, Will Robinson. Will you? This is like New Cow syndrome. (Look it up.) The shiny new thing is always the favorite. 
I like the words, but not the tune (or vice versa). Very common. Keep reminding yourself that if you already like either the words or the tune, you are half-way to a good song. We’ll talk about some resources later; also, consider showing it to other (knowledgeable) people. They may be able to suggest some easy fixes. They may also tell you that you’re being needlessly hard on yourself, like many of us are.
I have worked on this for what seems like (and may be) years. I’m sick of it. I feel you. This is when the sock drawer is a good thing. Sometimes you have to put things away for awhile; hopefully, when you come back to it, you’ll remember why you liked it.
Once you have determined the why, it’s time to think about the whether.
Can This Song Be Saved?
Of course it can. Whether it SHOULD is another question. If you chose #1 above, that the song’s time has passed, let it pass. Unless you have a good reason to complete it, even as an exercise, do not waste your valuable brain power on a song that you’ll never sing more than once, if at all. This idea also draws on the eternal argument between the “give yourself permission to write bad songs” crowd and the “I don’t have time to write bad songs” crowd. Some people swear by the notion that if you don’t filter at all, and you write 50 songs, a lot of them will be garbage, but you’ll produce a few good ones. This has always struck me as far too close to the “infinite number of monkeys” theory. I believe that if you give yourself permission to write bad songs, you are more than capable of writing 50 bad songs. Diane Warren, one of the most successful songwriters of our time, has repeatedly sad that she simply doesn’t have the time to write bad songs. This woman has made $100 million writing songs; you should listen to her.
If you think there’s still life in the joke, then (if you *must* filk) IMO the best and highest use for filk is the “funny of the moment,” the song about what happened at last Coronation (and you really had to be there). Last Christmas, the two things on the minds of virtually everybody I knew was The Mandalorian and “Karens” refusing to mask, so I filked “I Want a Hippopatamus For Christmas,” about roaming the town with my favorite bounty hunter scaring the non-mask-compliant. I chose the song entirely because Mandalorian scans to hippopotamus, and I intended it to be ridiculous. It was funny, but now it’s done. (NB: the underlying song will be in the public domain in 2027, and obviously my Facebook post didn’t bother anyone enough to send me a cease-and-desist letter, so there you are.) Filks are easy, because most of the work is done for you, and for a joke, that’s about as much effort as you want to put in. If it’s something you care about, or that you think people will really like and run with, PLEASE don’t filk. Borrow a traditional tune, or filk something from before the 20th century. The more work you put into something, the more you want it to be YOURS by the time you are done with it.
The IDONWANNA is Strong
It’s 100% easier to not do something than to do it. Finding the motivation to pick up something you have laid aside is NOT easy. This does not make you lazy, it makes you human. If you find yourself wishing you could order motivation through Amazon, here are some tricks that might help:
Create a deadline. Start telling people that you’re going to have a new song for X event. Whether it has anything to do with the event or not, advertising that something is coming puts pressure on you that you cannot put on yourself. Ask other people to hold you accountable. The lyrics to Son of the Sea were finished in the car on the way to the event where it was supposed to be entered. The lyrics to the Feast Song were finished at 35,000 feet, because we were flying out to Caid, and I knew that the first thing we would be asked is whether we had something NEW.
We know a song about that… Peruse your newsletter and/or online announcements about upcoming events and check for themes. Finding that an upcoming event has a Borgias theme might be exactly what you need to get that half-written Borgia song out of the sock drawer. We had already done “Agincourt, the Musical” on Human History, and I had started the Harfleur rally speech (“Once more unto the breach…”) but it hadn’t come together, and I thought, oh well, into the sock drawer. And then we were Royal Bards for a king who wanted to do a Henry V reign, and there was a sucking hole where that song should be. I pulled it out of the sock drawer, and it came together, words and music, like it had actually been written years previously. You sometimes find that a little piece of your subconscious has been working all along, just waiting its chance.
Procrastinator’s Paradise. I get more artistic stuff completed when there is ironing to be done or taxes to file. Most of us look for reasons to put off unpleasant things, but still have a parent/teacher voice in our heads telling us that the Devil makes work for idle hands. There are lots of opportunities in daily life to look at a job you should really do, and head for the sock drawer instead. Unless someone is paying you (i.e., don’t put off actual work), find a really unpleasant task, consider it, and decide you’d rather finish a song. And that is why my kitchen floor is so dirty.
Punt. If you have decided that it’s a good idea, but you can’t make it work, and you don’t care to try anymore, consider offering it to someone else. Roz wrote a song about the death of King Arthur, and couldn’t get it right, to her satisfaction. It’s not like Roz hasn’t written some of the most beloved songs in the SCA, so of course she could have finished it, eventually. But she was tired of trying, so she sent it to us. I reworked the lyric and Ken wrote the music. It’s a song! We love it, she loves it, everybody’s happy. It might still be in her sock drawer otherwise. (NB: be SURE that you have reached the “fly, be free” point with the song, because it is not cool to ask someone else to finish it, then whinge because it’s not the way you would have done it.)
My Muse and I Have a Love-Hate Relationship
My Muse is, quite frankly, a stubborn bee-yatch (they take after their owners). The more I push her, force her, attempt to control her, the more she pushes back, or goes out for a mani-pedi and leaves me hanging. I jest, of course, but I’ve done this for awhile, and I know myself, and I know that if I am not in the proper frame of mind, I will produce nothing but swear words. If you don’t already know what work habit suits you best, you need to figure it out. Here are some possibilities.
Inspiration has struck. Was it something on the radio? Did somebody say something familiar? Did I sleep especially well last night? Wherever it came from, heaven bless it. Suddenly your Muse is shouting, “Sit your sorry behind down and write!” Sadly, this is completely unpredictable (but it rocks, and you ignore it at your peril). You can jiggle the handle, though. Listen to a beloved old album. Watch an old favorite movie. Go to Poetry Foundation (DOTorg) and read the poem of the day. You’re trying to warm up what is stored in your brain already, and kick it with something that might be new. If you’re lucky, it will turn over.
Treat it like work. A number of famous writers, when asked about inspiration, quip that they know that inspiration is going to strike at 9am when they sit down at their desk with their tea and start writing. If you were one of those weirdos who laid out important due dates and progress points for papers and projects in your college classes, and hit them without fail, then treat songwriting the same way. Schedule a session, get your research materials, laptop, scratch pad, rhyming dictionary, etc. together and have at it. If you were like the rest of us, and knew exactly how long you could wait to start your paper and still have it in by 8am on the due date, then consider the artificial deadline approach discussed above, because unless it’s how you’ve always worked, sitting down and expecting creativity is going to end in tears.
Join a club? If you think you want to work methodically, but you don’t think you have the discipline to do it on your own, don’t. The writing coalition NaNoWriMo has a number of poetry-focused programs, including the Chapbook Challenge and Poem a Day. If that’s too formal for you, find a like-minded person and become accountability buddies. People do it for diet and exercise, why not songwriting? Establish goals, and agree on deadlines, challenges, and maybe even forfeits for missing them. Keep it fun. Note: this is NOT the same as a writing partner (below). This is a taskmaster, or a cheerleader, depending on how you define your buddy contract.
Get a partner. I married mine; you don’t have to go that far (unless you want to). Again, be sure to team up with somebody who works kind of like you do, though I highly recommend finding somebody who has different strengths (e.g., words versus music). If you’ve seen Get Back, it’s a stunning peek into the working style of the Beatles, and it was awesome and it MADE US CRAZY. They are jamming, talking over each other, shouting, calling out chords and changes with the whole band at once. If either of us worked like that, we’d have quit making music, or we’d be divorced. We generally stay in our own lane, me mostly words and Ken mostly music, and when we overlap, it sometimes gets to where I have to write down suggestions and leave the room.
Alter your mind. I often comment that I wrote the lyrics for the last three songs for the Outlaws & Bystanders album while recovering from surgery and hopped up on Percocet. I seriously found that my brain made connections I barely had to consciously think about. I am obviously not unique in this, as “poppy poetry” is its own sub-genre of 18th/19th c. Romanticism. In his introduction to the poem “Kubla Khan: Or, a Vision in a Dream,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge says, (in 1797):
“the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm between Porlock and Linton. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed [ed = laudanum], from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment he was reading this sentence: ‘Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built…’” 
And when he woke, he noted down his “fragment” which we pretty much all have studied in poetry class. My High School English teacher did not mention the laudanum. I do not for a moment suggest you take drugs, legal or otherwise, for writing purposes, but if you find yourself on them for a good reason, unless you are on strict bed rest, try some writing. (It turns out I am also a dextromethorphan lightweight, and I got a very nice song out of a bad cough.) This extends to any substance you may already partake of, including alcohol and caffeine. Sleep more. Sleep less. Meditate. Do yoga. Go for a walk. Go to the zoo. Go to an art gallery. Go to church, preferably an old one, with great acoustics. Create a sacred space. This is the exact opposite of treating it like work. You’re trying to tell your brain it’s not in Kansas anymore. Most of us are artists because we see the world just a bit differently; lean into that feeling.
I Need to Fix the Words
Okay, what don’t you like? If you are staring at a blank page, go back to my first “how to” article, which will help from square one. If you have words you aren’t pleased with, it’s once again time for diagnosis. What do you expect of the final product? Is this going to be for your bardic bag of tricks, or is this for a high-level arts competition? Knowing what you want the finished product to look like will help a lot. To that end…
What is the basic structure? Stanzaic? Verse-chorus? How long are the verses compared with the chorus? How long is the chorus? If this is for a competition, I hope you have one or more period model(s) to which you can refer, and they should be your bible. If it’s just you making the decisions, then picking a structure should be job #1. If you are mostly a poet, and you are going to be singing this, consider that sonnets make bad lyrics (do as I say, not as I do <snort>). There is a reason “ballad meter” is alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter, 8 syllables and 6 syllables. Octosyllables are the foundation of a lot of early music and poetry; if your lines are 10 syllables or more, you are going to have trouble singing that without breaking it into two lines, or sounding VERY modern. If you can’t get the words to sound like a song, it’s probably because it’s not currently structured like a song. If your process is to start out your lyrics by writing prose, you’re going to have to dial in an extra step EVERY time you write a song.
If you slept through the poetry unit in English class, consider using a “foster melody” for your structure. If you want to end up with a song structured like Barrett’s Privateers, then sing it to that until it’s done, then change the melody. Just don’t crib the words. (If the melody then gets SO into your head that you have trouble making a new one, refer to my discussion on the “The Sesame Street™ Method for Avoiding Copyright Litigation”.)
Did you do that research? Even if it’s not a competition piece, if it needs research, there’s no point in tinkering until you do it. I was only able to write the verses for Son of the Sea in the car, because we had spent several hours sitting on the floor in the Mythology section of Barnes & Noble, reading stories about Mannanan mac Lir, and taking notes. Gather your notes, and keep them close by for reference.
Are there any words or themes that will rebel against the structure? If you have decided on an iambic meter, and you want to say “Trimaris vanquishes enemies,” we’ve got a problem. You can replace most words to preserve the structure, but NOT THE THEME. If you find a lot of the words you’d like to use have three or more syllables, be sure there is room for them. Stan Rogers famously got the word “superannuation” into a song (and gosh darn it, it was the PERFECT word), but I don’t recommend it. Don’t write yourself into a corner where you need to put the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble.
Why won’t it rhyme? I feel your pain. Sometimes I write a line, and I think it is SO brilliant, and I waste hours trying to make the next line, or the rest of the stanza, work with and around that line. This is where being ruthless is a boon. If the line doesn’t work and play well with others, it’s NOT a good line. Change it. After you do it a hundred times, you’ll realize that something better WILL come along, but it’s really hard to kill your babies. The more you love them, the harder it is. But -a- great line, or image, or expression, does not a song make. If you have a chorus, stick the cool line in the chorus, feature it, and if you have to, make the structure around it. Just be sure it’s as good as you think it is. Also, PLEASE use a rhyming dictionary. Even if you have a stunning vocabulary, you will miss something. I happen to like RhymeZone (DOTcom), because in addition to rhymes, synonyms, and antonyms, it has a drop-down menu with things like “search in Shakespeare” and “search in the Bible” to check period/trad word usage. It also has tools that allow you to search rhymes and synonyms based on meter and syllable count. You just can’t do all that in your head .
Why won’t it sing? One word: consonants. If you think poetically, and choose all those cool poetic words, you may find when it comes time to sing, that you are tripping over your tongue and spitting on the audience. You can and should use a few of those eloquent turns of phrase here and there, but think of them as salt. Too much will ruin your song. You can’t get them out of your mouth, and your audience can’t take them in. If it’s poetry, your audience can read, re-read, and consider; the listener has to get it in the first pass. The third time you trip on the same word, change it.
Don’t bore us, get to the chorus. This is a modern songwriting mantra, but if your song is going to have a chorus, WRITE THAT FIRST. It needs to be the strongest part of the lyric, just because the listener is going to get lots of chances to hear it. Decide right away whether you want a sing-along, and if you do, use the time-honored tips of repeating words or lines, and keep the words simple enough for people to pick up. This is where your ”hook” (another modern songwriting concept) is going to be. And don’t worry if it doesn’t look like what you have for verses; I can give you lots of examples, both pre- and post-1600, where the chorus structure is completely dissimilar to the verses.
Going back to the Barrett’s Privateers model, a traditional burden/chorus line (“How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now” and “God damn them all!”) is another option to use and reuse something you are especially fond of. (Traditional songs rarely have, as BP does, burden lines AND a chorus, though.) Whether you like it or not, the chorus is what is going to stick with the listener, so you should really try to like it.
I Need to Fix the Music
Give it to your husband, bwa-ha-ha! Truly, when I write the melody, it has usually been piped in by the Muse with the lyric. But I’m also usually the melodic trouble-shooter. Again, if you have no tune at all, go back to the “how to” article, or go to someplace like the Traditional Tune Archive and listen to royalty-free tunes . Go to YouTube and play Cantigas, especially if you’re trying to write something in the style of the Cantigas. Put lots of tunes in, and something is going to fall out. If you have a tune that isn’t working, at least you have a start!
It doesn’t go anywhere. I am second to none in my appreciation of A-minor and G, but if your WHOLE SONG is A-minor and G, I don’t care how good it is; the listeners will slip into a coma before you get to the end. Period and traditional tunes don’t tend to have very broad ranges, but there will always be a variation somewhere. If it’s stanza-only, the variation will probably be in line 3 (and sometimes 4). If it has a chorus, the beginning of the chorus will be your change. This isn’t a rule, but it’s what you expect, whether you think about it or not. How about “99 Bottles of Beer”? Line 3, melodic shift, tempo shift. The Great Silkie, huge melodic jump in line 3. And for chorus? Think Greensleeves, plodding along across the verse in minor, then the chorus jumps to the octave and into the major. That’ll wake up the listener. There has to be a variation to avoid fatigue to the ear.
This is also the place to mention an INSTRUMENT. Even if you don’t intend to play one when you perform, composing with one is helpful. Get a cheap keyboard, or use Chrome Piano or another app. Being able to see the notes will always show you a place to go next, while also being a visual reminder that maybe that’s a little too far.
It goes too many places. The opposite is also true. If you want people to sing along, don’t plan a big range and a lot of big intervals. Think Mozart playing Salieri and saying “too many notes.” The more chords there are in your accompaniment, the more chords you will forget and/or screw up on. Less is more.
It doesn’t work with the lyric. This is why foster melodies are helpful. If you wanted the finished song in ¾ and you didn’t write in a triple meter, something is going to have to give. Happily, with a few well-placed rests, you often can shoe-horn a lyric into a different time signature, but it shouldn’t be Plan A. You may find that the words are at fault; I have a bad habit of writing the first stanza, and the tune that goes with it, and then unconsciously changing the stresses on later stanzas. When I go to sing past the first verse, I say bad words. I cry. And then I change something, usually the melody.
If you’re working with a writing partner, and you don’t have a foster melody, at least provide a spoken scratch track to the composer. You may think the stresses are obvious, and the composer may not agree, and they will say bad words when they put the stress on 1 and 3 when you meant it to be on 2 and 4.
It doesn’t support the lyric. If I close my eyes, I want the words and music to work together to make a picture in my mind. If the words are talking about flight, and the melody is plodding along near the tonic, my picture isn’t going to form. From a period standpoint, words were often set “to anie pleasant tune” , so the melody often existed completely apart from the lyric. On the other hand, some hack selling broadsides wasn’t particularly concerned with psycho-acoustics, where, say, John Dowland was . Listen to “Flow, My Tears,” how the lines start high and tend downwards, and then the last little trill just a half-step below the resolution on “forlorn”. It’s irritating. It’s MEANT to be. The exception here is if you are modeling a working song, where the rhythm is paramount. A group of women waulking wool could be singing about loves of their youth or how much men suck, but the reason they are singing is to keep the tension even on the wet wool, so regardless of the lyric, the strong, steady beat is what’s important.
Does it make you feel something? In our house, my husband’s test of whether “it works” is whether the hairs on his arms stand up. This is psycho-acoustics again. The more you pay attention to the emotional impact of certain sequences of notes, or of the juxtaposition of certain notes and certain chords, you’ll start to notice that parts of songs where the guy gets the girl sound a lot alike, as do the parts where the guy loses the girl. The writers are using musical tricks to elicit an emotional response in the listener. There is a particular emotional impact for any two notes played together, and composers have been making use of it since ancient times, and so should you. If you are trying to inspire the troops, the trend of the melodic line should be up; if you want to make them cry, it should be down. If there is a ta-da at the end of the line, you have to build to that. Again, listen to a bunch of music that thematically fits the song you want to write. What do they have in common? Watch movies, and listen to what the score does at critical moments. You don’t have to have a degree in psycho-acoustics to know what makes YOU cry, or feel uplifted, or yes, make the hairs on your arms stand up. Listen to LOTS of music. TAKE NOTES. If there is a song that makes you say, “That gets me every time…” Don’t you want to know what IT is? So you can do IT to somebody else?
 I love the house metaphor. I got it, and quite a few other useful tips, from a fabulous book by prolific songwriter Jimmy Webb called Tunesmith (New York: Hyperion, 1998.) Though obviously aimed at modern songwriters, a lot of the advice is useful. Just remember our goals are different; in one exercise he lists words from a rhyming dictionary, and immediately throws out several because they sound archaic. I laughed, because those were the words I chose first!
 “Eight Marvelous & Melancholy Things I’ve Learned About Creativity,” Chapter 3, “Creativity is Like Breathing,” The Oatmeal, published online, by Matthew Inman, © 2020. He says pretty much everything I would like to say on the subject, but way funnier, and it has pictures. Read this entire piece, but not while you’re drinking soda, or if you have bruised ribs.
 Dalrymple, Theodore, “Too Much Claret,” PubMed Central, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, reprinted from British Medical Journal, WWW: NCBI, 2008. Too much of anything is bad. Coleridge was an addict AND an alcoholic.
 Rhyme Zone. An online rhyming dictionary and thesaurus (any poet who says they don’t use a rhyming dictionary either lies or writes bad poetry). Best of all, there’s that search engine to the complete works of Shakespeare; check for period word usage!
 Traditional Tune Archive by Andrew Kuntz & Valerio Pelliccioni. LOTS of music, generally copyright-free under Creative Commons, but not much pre-1600. Mostly geared to fiddle tunes.
 Rollins, Hyder, ed., A Handful of Pleasant Delights (1584) by Clement Robinson and Divers Others, Dover, 1965. A reprint, the original was published in 1924. Several songs in “Delites” have completely open direction, such as, “A proper sonet, Intituled: I smile to see how you deuise. To anie pleasant tune.”
 If you don’t know what I mean by psycho-acoustics, it’s basically how different types of sounds make reactions in your brain. There is a series of videos on YouTube from Berklee (Music) Online, with Susan Rogers. She holds a doctorate in psychology (specializing in music cognition and psychoacoustics), but dry as she often seems, she was also Prince’s staff engineer during his commercial peak, so her fingerprints are all over Purple Rain and several other albums. She is six kinds of amazing geek. If you’re brave enough, here’s her lesson on Tonotopicity, Consonance, and Dissonance. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A83gc7qnCPI)