How To Tell An Unforgettable Story With Songwriting

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History shows storytelling inspires change and connection. Here's why and how you should include stories in your songwriting.

From as far back as the 18th century, musicians used songwriting and melodies to draw attention to the injustices pressed upon the lower rungs of society. In churches, factories and fields, songs rallied women at the height of the suffrage movement, unionized illiterate workers, and protested slavery.

Why We Need Stories

It was the 1960s, with the volatility of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, the singer/songwriter took the stage with a form of storytelling that galvanized listeners and called them to action. Acts like the Staple Singers and Aretha Franklin started as gospel singers whose dynamic performances were in demand by black churches throughout the country before getting the attention of record labels. With the power and money of the music industry behind them, they reached bigger audiences and spread their messages of freedom and respect for all people, regardless of race, gender and background. They were the sounds of a society in flux, inspired by scripture and the promises told them by their pastors and civil rights leaders of better and more fertile pastures.

The 1960s also heralded highly educated and well-traveled folk stars like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Through songs that retold stories torn from the news of abuses and crimes committed against blacks, they brought the civil rights fight directly to young white audiences.

The 60s grew into the 70s and peacetime. Storytelling in songwriting turned from global events of the day to a more introverted focus. Call it the narcissism of the decade if you will, but artists took on serious and painful subjects ranging from the regrets of their relatively young lives to their own relationship break-ups to suicide. Stars like Jackson Browne , Stevie Nicks and Carly Simon showed us nothing was off limits when it came to songwriting. But even as we listened and cried along to such soul-baring lyrics, we consistently heard a line or two of optimism that told us no matter how painful life got, we weren’t alone nor were we to give up. Tomorrow was always a brand new day.

How To Make Songs From Your Stories

Since the beginning of the 80s, stories in songwriting have been de-emphasized. All the stories have been told. Nothing is new anymore. So how can a songwriter tap into the stories of our lives in a new way and create gold with the power to change thinking or soothe our miserable spirits?

Nicks is famous for her diaries and letters. Get into the habit of journaling every sordid detail of your life. Get personal by using your own story for inspiration. No one has lived the life you have. Names aren’t necessary in your songs, but your fans will always wonder who you’re talking about. Bonus points if the music press hounds you for decades about who you think is so terribly vain. Bottom line is leave fans wanting more of you.

Turn your feelings about the inequities and troubles of today into song by examining the past. Choose a topic that is a passionate one for you and research its history. How far have we come or have we learned nothing along the way? What does the future hold? Channel your inner Bob Dylan and charm us with your objection.

Introduce the conflict as early as possible. That’s your hook. But it’s more important to make the first line  extraordinary and memorable so people know they want to continue listening. Make it poignantly urgent we engage with you from the first lyric until the last note.

Set the scene. Be as descriptive as possible. In your journal, note adjectives you like or turns of phrase that caught your attention. Little details help ground listeners and frame the story. If you saw a yellow bicycle parked behind the woman who broke your heart, give it some context and include it in your song. Maybe the bicycle symbolizes freedom. Take us on a sensual journey.

Whether you’re writing to sell records or a product as part of a brand partnership, storytelling is the most intimate way to send your message. Don’t miss an opportunity to connect to the listening world. Tell your stories. We need them.

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