I had a sticker on one of my first guitars; the motto of the Tamworth Songwriters Association:
First The Song.
Songs are made of two main things – words and music, to state the bleeding obvious. To do both you need two things – a sense of rhyme and a good feel for rhythm and melody.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? So why can’t you make those words and that melody work together? Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to do since I was 12 and struggling to find an original melody for my very basic poems. I was lucky to have parents who both loved singing and who gave me the great opportunity to learn to read and then to write music.
My background is filled with almost every style of music, blues, country, jazz, rock etc. I learn traditional folk songs from various countries because it makes me feel good, and adds to my knowledge of scales. Every chord I know (and all the ones I don’t) are found in scales. I keep the great book, “Tunesmith” by Jimmy Webb (The Highwayman, McArthur Park etc) on my work desk. It won’t teach me how to write but it helps me figure out how to fit things together in another way. Learn lots of chords, as this will broaden your ideas for melody. Use a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus. And remember, when you’ve got interesting lyrics with a nice melody, chords that please you and a rhythm that feels good – you’ve successfully arranged your first song!
Some of the greatest and most enduring songs of our time were written by people who never learnt to read or write music. Glen Campbell was a great session guitarist with a group of backing musicians called The Wrecking Crew (who were all good readers) on the west coast of the US. He had a great feel for music and a great ear for chords. He co-wrote a large number of songs; and he wrote some of his own including “A Little Less Of Me” which was one of his biggest hits and has been covered successfully by at least 26 top artists. And many years ago, when my brother Martin and I were doing our very first club dates in Sydney we often had a great guitarist in the backing band who’s solos were always amazing.
Only in recent years we discovered that he couldn’t read any of the notes on the chart we used.
His name is Tommy Emmanuel.
So whether or not you can read and write the music, if you have the desire to write your own songs then you keep trying! Study every song that interests you to see what makes it a song good for you.