Chiming In

  • Deborah Straszheim

4 Reasons You're Stuck on a Song

My daughter and I tend to get into songwriting grooves. We’re either banging them out, or we’re stuck on a song.

We write one song at a time. I’m sure other people write more than one at once, but we don’t. Sometimes, we get in a rut and can't finish a song.

About two months ago, I was feeling flat, blue and a bit dead-ended. I asked her, “Got any sad melodies?”

She sent me one; a beautiful melody with simple guitar picking. I don’t know how long she had it, but she filed it away, as she does such things, with the title, “sad.”

“I wrote it when I was really depressed,” she said.

It was perfect. I got this melody, listened to it probably 30 times before I went to bed, then woke three nights in a row at 4 a.m. and sang the lyrics back to her over the cell phone mic.

I always know when my lyrics work and when they don’t, based on when she replies. If she answers right away, they work. If she doesn’t, they don’t. I know that if I don’t hear back immediately, I’m likely to get, an “Eh. Not feeling it.” I’m not offended. We’re very straight with each other.

We named the song “Carousel” after a line in the chorus, about feeling like you’ve lost your highs and lows, that your life’s going round and round like a carousel, that you've stopped wishing for something more. I realize that’s terribly depressing, but it’s where I was at. I thought people would relate to it.

The song was so easy to write at first.

Then for some reason we started debating: Is the chorus too short? It just kind of ends. But if we extend it, it doesn’t fit with the verse. Does the second verse work? Maybe the song needs a bridge? And so on and so on.

She sent melodies of bridges and extended choruses and transitions. This time, I was doing the, “Eh. Not liking it.” I sent version after version of the second and third verses. We were getting exasperated.

“Dude, I’m so sick of this song,” she said.

Anyway, I have a theory about this: If you get stuck on a song, you’re dealing with one of four problems.

1. You’re not in the right state for it.

You can’t write an angry song with cutting lyrics when you’re happy, the same way you can’t write an upbeat song with carefree lyrics when you’re depressed. Songs are so internal you have to feel them.

2. You don’t know what you want the song to say.

I realize this seems incredibly elementary, but I believe it happens fairly often. You get so wrapped up in measures, timing or rhymes, you don’t realize that the real problem is, you don’t know what your message is.

3. You’re using the wrong melody for the song.

When my daughter and I first started writing “She Can Have Him,” we were working with a melancholy, slow melody. We didn’t get far. Now, looking back, I know why. The message of “She Can Have Him” is basically, “Screw you. Have a nice life.” It’s not melancholy at all.

Which brings me to my final reason. If you feel the song, believe the melody works and know what your message is, you get stuck because...

4. You’re not listening to your gut.

Instead, you’re worrying too much about following rules: Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge. Lyrics that makes sense. Melodies with perfect transitions.

I think this is what happened to us with “Carousel.” We worried so much about making sense, musically and otherwise, that we couldn’t step back and listen to our guts.

Songs don’t always have to make sense. They don’t have to rhyme. They don’t have to have a bridge; they don’t even have to have a chorus. While it’s not easy, the next time we’re stuck, I’m going to try to think Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.” He just rants for six verses.

They just have to resonate.

Positively 4th Street ~ Bob Dylan

She Can Have Him ~ Cassie Urbany

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