Bob Franke's Notes for Songwriters

Talking points from Bob's Intensive Songwriting Workshops

Why write songs?




Songmaking requires paying attention to one's inner and outer lives, and their relationship to each other.

It often involves paying attention to dream/imaginative activity, and organizing that material to make it communicable to others.

For those of you who have been in therapy or 12-step groups--does this sound familiar?


In native American societies, the shaman of a village would often have a dream, and write a song about it with a chorus. In this way, the dream of the shaman would become the dream of the community.

It is a truism that the more personal a work of art may be, the better chance it has of being universal (read "The Wounded Healer" by Henri Nouwen, and/or "Witness To The Fire: Creativity and the Veil of Addiction" by Linda Schierse Leonard). Psychotherapy is an individual affair and 12-step groups confine their efforts to the needs of the group, but each activity creates a ripple effect in society. Songwriting creates artifacts that then go out into the world to facilitate the healing of the larger community, and occasionally the culture.

Why teach songwriting? It is one of the most empowering things you can do for your students.



Self worth in a job well done.

Song (using rhyme, rhythm, meter and melody) uses a different half of the brain to bypass emotional resistence (and establish new brain patterns–e.g. in aphasia and Alzheimer’s disease). Songs often make people weep; essays seldom do.


Teaches the power of rhyme, meter, and form. Encourages use of a rhyming dictionary. Demonstrates how concrete visual images have much more impact than either cliches or curse words. Demonstrates the power of editing. Demonstrates the creative process–making a line fit or rhyme often leads to a more powerful image. Prepares exploration of the verse of earlier eras (e.g. Victorian poetry).


Although it shouldn’t be your job to create hits, it might be your job to show a student how to research markets on the internet, or more likely (and more creatively) find or create local markets for good songs.

Core issues in teaching songwriting


Ask: “What kind of song do kind of admire, but can’t imagine yourself writing?” Listen carefully to the reply and respond with an assignment that enables the student to get over this hump. Nothing new in this approach: see Sylvia Ashton Warner’s book Teacher.


Negotiate with the student–allow that student to reject your first assignment, and try to come up with a second that does the job. Allow “wild card” songs that may not seem to respond to your assignment (as long as they are new songs). We are talking about students’ emotional lives here, so you must respect them and be prepared to back off with a less demanding assignment if it seems appropriate.

Demand mutual respect in group criticism, and the students’ compassion for each other as artists while being equally compassionate to an audience who might hear these songs. Keep the student’s “inner critic” as well as critical attacksfrom the student group in check, and substitute honest feedback from yourself and the student group. Discourage “that sucks” and demand proofs: what exactly about the song doesn’t work? (Thank you, Rainer Maria Rilke). What lines do work? Call attention to what does work, and encourage the student to build from that.


Rhyme–encourage attention to rhyme and rhyme schemes (e.g. aabb, abab, aabbc-ddeec). We are conditioned in western culture to expect rhymes in certain patterns. When the rhyme is there, we are pleased, and the form becomes transparent. When it is not there, that word calls attention to itself, and usually it is inappropriate attention–the audience stumbles while the narrative moves on, and the audience misses the next part. Struggling for a true rhyme (or finding one in a rhyming dictionary) mostoften results in a stronger image.

Meter–the same cultural expectations apply, and the same benefits. A consistent pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables directs the images to a different half of the brain, and gives the song power. Breaking that pattern calls attention to itself–if you it, you’d better do it like a dancer rather than like someone tripping. Ballad meter (four iambs in one line, three in the next) has lasted for hundreds of years because it works.

Melody–enlist the aid of the music department if you can: bring in a pianist to arrange whatever melodies your students come up with if they have no instrumental skills. If that’s the case, and if they don’t know how to write music, encourage them to write lyrics double-spaced, and to put numbers above the syllables to indicate melody (1 for do, 2 for re, 3 for mi, etc.) This system is very similar to the Chinese classical system of musical notation. Write new lyrics to an established melody, then change the melody.

Scale–most songs are tiny, because the language of song is like the language of dreams. What carries most meaning in a song as in a dream are concrete images. Songs make lousy essays, much better stories. Keep the form short (e.g. verse/chorus x3, or verse,verse,bridge,verse) unless writing a traditional style narrative ballad (many narrative verses in ballad meter). Even the great old traditional ballads get edited, though, by people who forget the boring verses. Writing a great song is 90% editing. Your students can tell which lines in their colleagues’ songs have energy, and which are just place holders.


Songs can be so powerful that you must encourage your students to tell their truth, emotional, political, whatever. It’s an ethical issue. Teach them to write for an audience of peers rather than a market–if they tell the truth, sooner or later the market will catch up to them. This is what being an artist is about.


Treating songs as fiction gives students both privacy and the freedom to borrow from their own lives. All my songs are fiction, even if sometimes they look like docu-drama. When I sing my song I am both actor and playwright. My goal is not to expose my life, but to find truths that I share with my audience, and to articulate them in a useful way.


Expect them to meet deadlines–deadlines open up creative blocks in a wonderful way. But if the song isn’t finished, explain that everyone goes through creative difficulties, and encourage them to offer what they have to contribute to the general discussion. They get to decide when the song is done, but most people put the song away before the hard part of the process. Encourage your students to finish; paradoxically, most people leave songs unfinished because they can’t stand the guilt of the fact that the song doesn’t live up to the vision that inspired it. But no work of art does, not even the great works of art. The artists who can assume this guilt and finish the song are, well, artists. Most students can finish a song in a work week.

Resources for songwriters



Pay attention to them. Have a notebook or tape recorder next to your bed. It's a discipline that gets easier with practice, and the Workshop is an ideal place to start, in some ways.

Share them with someone you love and/or trust. Often someone who knows and respects you may have some insight into the material. Take whatever they or you may have to say with a grain of salt.

Explore the dream. In your imagination, take the role of every person/creature/feature of the dream. Each part has something to say to you.


Often breaks in in response to fatigue or boredom. Listen to it.

Guided imagination--settle down, take the journey yourself step by step. You can help each other do this.


Traditional spirituality

  • The religion of your childhood contains riches as well as terrors. As an adult you may want to reexamine it, with an adult's resources.
  • It helps to have other people around who use the same vocabulary in describing the life of the spirit, shared rituals, and a shared community that extends back into history. Trust your instincts: don't hang around sick communities with bad theology, but keep looking for a community you can recognize as home.

Twelve-step programs: coming to terms with your limitations, with others, can only help in discovering that within you which is truly limitless. Again, trust your instincts.

Your own path--actually more accessible with the aid of 1) or 2), but in reality the only path of healing. You can't decide what it is, but you can decide to say yes to it when you find it.


Folk songs are the product of years of spontaneous editing by their communities. Only the interesting verses are remembered, only the compelling stories, only the beautiful (or useful) tunes. They require only a basic level of musical technique to begin with, yet offer opportunities for the most sensitive musician. They are a standard that has kept me honest as a songwriter for 25 years or so.

I learned how to sing from hours listening to tapes of Billie Holliday and Hank Williams. I don't sound like either of them, but I know a lot more about phrasing and emotion in singing than I would have otherwise. Take a poll of bluegrass flatpickers and ask how many of them are Charlie Parker fans. American music is a rich collection of musical traditions waiting to be used in the service of a living culture.


Victorian poets were among the first to tackle recognizably modern issues, and among the last to use rhyme and meter. Robert Browning is my favorite--the "dramatic monologue" technique is one that has been used by countless songwriters. On Stan Rogers' posthumous album of his family's favorite songs, you can see the connection between this tradition and his work.

Keep an ear out for rap and reggae music. There are riches here.

There is a newly published collection of the poetry of the late Philip Larkin, my candidate for the best poet of the 20th century.

If you've got another language than English, don't limit yourself to English.


Modern songwriting in flower (a partial list):

  • Bruce Cockburn has never stopped being a superb songwriter, whatever idiom he uses.
  • Ditto Richard Thompson.
  • Bob Dylan and
  • Joni Mitchell opened up and defined the field in the sixties.
  • Women's music has produced a number of songwriters dedicated to expressing the truth with courage and style, including but not limited to Chris Williamson, Margie Adam, and Judy Fjell

The "folk circuit" and Texas music

  • Insert your Texas favorites here–you know this community better than I do. Some of my non-Texas favorites are the late Kate Wolf, the late Stan Rogers, Si Kahn, Claudia Schmidt, Ferron,  Gordon Bok, Linda Waterfall, Carol McComb, John Gorka, Andrew Calhoun, David Wilcox, Patty Larkin, Ellis Paul, Brooks Williams, Dar Williams, etc. I emphasize N. American performers because I emphasize the live music experience; if you find yourself on another continent there'll be a whole new world of live music culture to explore. But the good stuff is where you live if you're committed to finding and supporting it there.
  • Newer arrivals/undiscovered treasures: Jim Infantino, Peter Keane, Chris Chandler, Martin Grosswendt.. Amongst the usual chaff of media-distorted music there are younger and/or less active people who have gotten the point of a living culture, and are giving it their own often very mature gifts. They're worth looking for, and worth supporting.

Songwriting groups: Out of any dozen people committed enough to get together weekly and share and critique each other's new work (that's writing a song a week), within nine months' gestation you will get:

  • 12 much-improved songwriters and much matured human beings;
  • 5 or 6 real resources to their local musical community, and
  • 2 or 3 world-class songwriters. I have seen this come to flower myself more than once.

In conclusion: You have within yourself and within your community the resources to develop as an emotionally whole human being in an emotionally whole community, and who knows, maybe even an emotionally whole culture better equipped to make decisions about the survival of our species.

© 1989, 1990, 2003 Robert J. Franke