While listening to Margo Price’s “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)” and contemplating a few tequila sunrises of my own, it suddenly occurred to me that songs of loss and loneliness — worlds of hurt, in short — are among my favorites (yours, too, probably). But why? Catharsis, perhaps? A purging of pain via empathy for others?
Why not let the critics and scientists sort that one out while we pose a humbler but more interesting question, namely, “How do you write a song about a broken heart?” With the help of a secret weapon in the war against the blank page, I’m confident a solution can be found within.
The “secret weapon” in question is a tried and true cure for the creative blues I call the “fuzzy-to-focused method.” In essence it means, “Sketch with broad strokes first; fill in details later.”
I learned “fuzzy-to-focused” in art school and have been applying it everywhere ever since. Take this column: Though it’s No. 34, my reaction to the call of duty was an all too familiar sensation known to many a songwriter: panic. “Fuzzy-to-focused” saved the day, so let’s try it out.
Step 1: Research
Step one is easy: Fuhgeddaboudit! Yeah, just forget about writing a song, and do research instead. But here’s the secret agenda: You are anesthetizing your inner critic with facts, a tempting treat she just can’t resist. Kokopelli willing, your playful imagination will get bored long before you’re done and whisper something mischievously brilliant in your ear. Your song will virtually write itself from there.
Research begins with immersing yourself in some hurtin’ songs, so get out your handkerchief and a notebook, and as you listen, ask yourself one question: “When have I felt like that?” Answer in specifics: “Who, where, what, when, why.” Bad answer: “When I was 18.” Good answer: “Senior prom, when Zoey dumped me because…”
Now listen to the song again and take notes on imagery, symbols, metaphors, and similes. Listen again and diagram the structure (verse, chorus, etc.). Listen again for musical elements, such as hooks, melodic contours, phrasing, harmony, and cadences.
Short on sad songs? Just see the blog post for this column, with 100+ songs classified by type of hurt rather than genre. For example: parting is such sweet sorrow; she doesn’t know that I exist; it’s all over now Baby Blue; he treats me badly, but I can’t say goodbye, and so on.
Step 2: Sketch
Research complete? Okay, begin sketching from multiple angles. As soon as you begin to feel stuck, skip to the next facet of a song. Keep adding layers of detail on each return trip (Step 3) until your song emerges from the mist. Here are some “sketchy angles” you can use:
Genre: You probably already have a favorite, but remember that every genre has an attitude. Country, for example, acknowledges pain but seldom, if ever, indulges in self-pity. Be true to your genre.
Harmony: Keep it simple at first. Build around a chord change with high emotional impact, such as I – vi (e.g. C – Am). “Moody River” (find Chase Webster’s original) uses this change over and over, as does “His Latest Flame” (Elvis) and others. Many songs of suffering are in a major key (more solace that way).
Melody: The same sad tones are often recycled in different hooks. Compare “Sol, Do, La-Sol, Mi” over “Your Cheat i-n’ Heart” (Hank Williams) with “Sol, Do-La-Sol-Mi” on “Please lock me a-way” in “World Without Love” (Lennon & McCartney). Roy Orbison embellishes the same motif with “Do-Sol La-Mi Sol” on “that I’d been Cry-a – i-a – ing over you…”
Phrasing: Two-measure rainbows are recommended, with vocals entering on beat 3 of measure 1, peaking on beat 1 of measure 2, and fading fast. Accent the descending side of the rainbow (very common). Build phrases in measure groups such as 2+2+4. “Crying” provides a perfect example: “I was all right” (up), “for a-while” (up), “I could smile for a – while” (up-down arc peaking on yearning tone “Ti”).
This leads into…
Lyrics: Imply things; be indirect. No one believes it when Orbison sings, “I was all right,” and that is a good thing. In fact, it’s a great thing, because he shows us a vulnerable, wounded hero, immediately eliciting intense sympathy without ever asking for it. Also notice the lack of blaming. True love requires sacrifice, even self-sacrifice. Even “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is not about blame.
You will find potential subjects among your answers to, “When have I felt like that?” Pick one memory and brainstorm it. Free associate and amass symbols and imagery. Select later. Appeal to the senses, too, as in Orbison’s devastating line, “It’s hard to understand, but the touch of your hand can start me crying.” Home in on a single symbol or image, such as “Crying” or “Hurt,” that reflects your theme, and you have your title. Still having trouble getting in touch with your feelings? Find a “Wilson” (see Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks).