How can you communicate the enormity of Love in a song? Simple! A list! The instructions would be easy-peasy, like Lego instructions. And in the end, you’ll have something that resembles… well, Legos. So let’s forget formulas and find out how to make a love song, a real love song.
‘You don’t love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song only you can hear.’ – Oscar Wilde
What we’ll do here:
- Explore how to write a song about someone starting with the source of all love songs, the common thread
- Stir your creative bones by looking at the 3 methods songwriters use to write love songs.
- Learn how to write a love song in 10 steps with The Love Song Exercise
See here for more ideas on how to compose songs.
If you want the formula to a love song, I couldn’t describe it better than Parokya Ni Edgar does here in How to Make a Love Song:
Sometimes in songwriting and creative work, we just need a way to clear the noise and focus on the essential tasks. So, don’t worry, I will give you a list of steps at the end. Everyone loves lists.
Even so, we won’t belittle love songs into bits of uninspired material that simply needs assembling. I assume if you want to write a song about someone, there’s something momentous cooking in your soul that needs out!
The Source of all Love Songs: The Common Thread
Love: an all-powerful, indescribable sensation that poets and musicians have been trying to describe since thought began. It can make the most hard-core gangsta rapper suddenly soft and vulnerable. It’s an energy that feels so personal and at the same time universal, existential.
What makes a love song a love song? There are I-miss-you love songs, I-want-your-bod love songs, I-love-you-so-much-I-hate-you love songs, My-universe-has-been-forever-altered love songs, don’t-leave-me love songs… It is a massive sea of shifting emotions.
Where is the common ground? We can all experience love. If Kim Jong-un, RuPaul, and the Pope each wrote a love song, would the songs sound similar? My guess is, no. And yet, what I think these three songs would have in common is raw energy.
Consider the raw energy in these three love songs below:
The solemn prayer of Leonard Cohen sung here by Jeff Buckley; the heartbreak of Nina Simone’s version of I Get Along Without You Very Well; or the direct, sincere dedication of Carole King’s Natural Woman.
This common thread of raw energy is why so many people say “All songs are love songs.” (There’s even a podcast called All Songs are Love Songs) Everyone who has ever fallen in love has felt this raw energy bubbling under the surface. It wants out!
So if that raw energy is in you and ready to erupt, you need to find a way to funnel that magma into your song.
But do I need to say, you know, that phrase?
It’s not easy to be sincere about our feelings sometimes. George Gershwin liked to think of music as “emotional science”. Few topics are as emotional as love and yet, many songwriters are afraid to express it directly.
Sufjan Stevens described writing the tracks With my Whole Heart and Love Yourself as an attempt “to write an upbeat and sincere love song without conflict, anxiety, or self-deprecation.” Parokya ni edgar says something similar, only more direct: “It’s hard not to sound corny when you’re singing from the heart.”
You might feel stupid writing the words “I love you” in a song. Love is the most frequently used word in the Billboard’s top 100 songs since 1965. Could there be anything new about you singing it? And yet, Whitney Houston sings the words, sung by zillions before her, “And I will always love you,” and what blows my mind, is that to my ears, it does sound new.
Creative Study: The Three Methods Songwriters Use for Love Songs
How to Write a Love Song, Method 1: Direct. Accept that You Look Ridiculous
The first method is the Direct Method. The Songwriter accepts her role as a fool in love and sings about it anyway. Most love songs fall into this category. Songs that use this method usually are in the form of a face-to-face serenade.
They frequently begin by talking about something abstract (like love), only to intensify the moment when the singer turns the focus directly upon the loved one. Their words express the following sentiments:
1.“I’m a fool in love and I don’t care”
- Like someone in Love, the jazz standard by Jimmy Van Heusen
- Beauty, The Shivers
2. “Before I met you I was like this, but now…”
- Natural Woman, Carole King
3. “You suck. I hate you.” (But obviously, I love you because all I can do is write love songs about you)
- Sorry, Beyoncé
4. “We’ve gone through tough times”
- Let’s Stay Together, Al Green
5. “We just broke up, but I still love you”
- With or Without You, U2
6. “This song is dedicated to you”
- Dedicated to You, the jazz standard by Sammy Cahn
- Eye Know, De La Soul
- You Are So Beautiful, Joe Cocker
- Julia The Beatles
- Your Song, Elton John
- Yellow, Coldplay
7. “I want you”
- I want you, Bob Dylan
8. “I want you in a sexy way”
- Feel Like Makin Love, Bad Company
- Kiss, Prince
- Let’s get in On, Marvin Gaye
How to Write a Love Song, Method 2: Indirect. Clever.
For those who cannot say “I love you,” you can always try the second method, indirect. These songwriters usually cannot accept the absurdity of themselves.
The obviousness of love brings pain, so they have to at least sprinkle a little irony, self-deprecation, or humor on top. The rule here is, however, if you’re going to try to look cool, you better be clever about it.
In the Magnetic Fields song Chicken with its Head Cut Off below, Stephen Merritt writes in a faux-country style to make fun of himself. At the same time, he manages to cleverly sneak some sincerity into the bridge with the words:
“We don’t have to be stars exploding in the night,
or electric eels under the covers
We don’t have to be anything quite so unreal,
let’s just be lovers”
Three Common strategies for avoiding the direct approach:
1. Using a different point of view or speak from the point of view of a character to express love
- Moonage Daydream, David Bowie
- Debra, Beck
2. Using humor and irony to reflect on how absurd this whole situation is
- I Don’t Wanna Get Over You, The Magnetic Fields
- You’re the One for Me, Fatty – Morrissey
- Most of the Time, Bob Dylan
3. Using third-person point of view (e.g. “There was a lover and his lass”)
- And She Was, The Talking Heads
- Sweet Child O Mine, Guns N’ Roses
How to write a love song, Method 3: Existential. The Bigger Picture.
And finally, with the third method, some find that “I love you” is simply insufficient. Everything has changed! Songwriters using this third method are often trying to answer the questions that love has roused in their souls.
Love has swept over them and they no longer see anything in the same light. The song becomes an attempt to express the inexpressible. These songs operate from the following points of view:
“Your love has altered the entire way I see the universe”
- Heroes, David Bowie
- Like A Soldier, Johnny Cash
- In Your Eyes, Peter Gabriel
“This is simply impossible to understand”
- Red, Red, Red, Fiona Apple
- Love Will Tear us Apart, Joy Division
“What I feel is so large, love is almost a side-note”
- There is a Light and it Never Goes Out, The Smiths
The Love Song Exercise:
How to Write a Love Song in 10 Steps
To avoid your love song sounding like a formulaic tired old thing, you’re going to need to give it careful attention. Plant the seeds, give them water, light, and of course, love.
Prepare your creative mind to find bits and pieces of material for your song over a week or so. The lava in your soul will naturally be a part of this process. Let your feeling guide you but also let the song guide you; let the process guide you. Collecting material is a way of getting out of your way so that your creativity can take charge. This might be more helpful than trying to wrench something profound out of your soul.
(See here for more ideas on collecting material for songwriting)
If you play an instrument, play a lot this week. Play and sing through songbooks or play through tab collections. If you like a song, what is its chord progression? What is the bass doing? Why do you like the melody? What intervals does it use? Write down the bits you like or record them.
Read. Find random words and phrases you like from books, poems, and songs. Read photos and images this way too. Describe what you see. Write it all down.
Listen closely to music this week. Collect chord progressions, drum tracks, rhythms in text, melodies, timbres (e.g. how do they make that guitar sound? Is that a Hammond Leslie organ?) Make notes of all that you like.
Gather it All Together
Let’s say for example, at the end of the week, this is what you have:
- You love the sound of a G-gm/B-C-am/C-D (I-i6-IV-ii6 – V) chord progression,
- you like a simple 1-2, cut time up-tempo rhythm
- you like the following words and phrases: wobbly, wish, why did you.
- Also, while you were listening to Beauty by the Shivers, you noticed that the chorus doesn’t appear until the end of the song. You want to write a love song using that form (Verse-Verse-Bridge-Chorus, or AABC)
Improvise a Melody
Find a memory of love in your mind. Give it a place and time even if you can’t remember the details exactly. Ask more questions. How did you end up there? What do you smell, feel, hear, see, taste? What is it you want in that memory? Improvise a melody over your chords. Let your inhibitions go and make some stupid sounds.
Collect More Words
Use the memory exercise in Step 6 to collect more words. Describe yourself and the one you love directly and with metaphors. Compare yourself and your love to anything.
I am the recycling, I am Axel Rose, I am July, you are death, you are blossom, you are in flight.
Write down individual words (not sentences) – a mix of nouns, verbs, adjectives. You’re still just collecting words here, not composing entire thoughts.
Choose a Love Song Method
Choose a Method as described above: Direct, Indirect, or Existential. Choose a method that suits you and the type of song you want to create.
With the Direct Method, your words might describe your journey of love, when you met, or your loved one directly. With the Indirect Method, your words might describe why this whole situation is absurd. Using the Existential method, your words might describe how love has changed the whole way you see your life.
Fill in the Gaps
By now you should have a melody, rhythm, and chords sketched out for two verses, a bridge, and a chorus following the form you decided on from The Shivers, “Beauty” (AABC). You’ve also got a bunch of random words that might already be taking shape in your mind. Shape the random words you have into verses, bridge, and Chorus.
*This is where your subconscious creative mind comes together with your conscious mind. Remember this is emotional science! Form the words you have to express that lava underneath.
10! Play the Song Through
Play the whole song through. Record. You’re done!
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