Can you write a song "to spec"?

Can you write a song "to spec"?


It’s something I certainly pay attention to when listening to music. I’m intrigued at how you do this as I’m sure I could get better at ‘implementation’. Almost every song I listen to, especially old standards from 70’s Rock onward, I pick out things like hooks or arrangement or production techniques that I’d like to use. Presumably, some of the things I notice and think are cool are things that listeners also appreciate even if they don’t have the insight to understand “how the sausage is made”.

So it sounds like you’re approaching it like a ‘science’ of songwriting values. The scientific approach, analyzing the individual components and testing the hypothesis to recreate results. Is that a fair assessment of what you do? And is there some kind of methodology you use to accomplish this, or is it a somewhat intuitive process for you in that it just falls into place naturally?


When I write a riff or chorus or whatever, and it becomes the basis for a song, in my mind I’m usually thinking ‘mmm that sounds a bit like Xsong by Xartist.’ So rather than fight that, I take my cues from that particular recording. I’m thinking of the word ‘emulate’ rather than ‘copy’ here. As for lyrics, I’m naturally good with the English languge, so I don’t find them a particularly difficult part of the process.


I have come across a number of things talking about this, including (IIRC) a website called “Steal Like An Artist”. The idea is that all great artists have ‘emulated’ from their own artistic influences, and basically “that’s how things work” and to not feel bad about it. Obviously, there’s a line (perhaps a fine one) between copy and emulate. I guess I’d invoke the phrase “make it your own” in terms of emulate. I think we have seen this with Led Zeppelin (among probably many others) where some people accuse them of blatantly ripping off old blues artists and not giving them credit, but yet others marvel at how they took something and made it their own - and rocked the hell out of it.

It certainly has some bearing on “to spec” though, as we all need references in order to define something specifically and work toward it - if that’s our goal.


Here’s that thing I was talking about. I don’t know that he had music in mind, but it seems like a good reference to me.


Yes, the ‘good theft’ list is more or less where I’m at. If you’re sticking with mainstream western music I don’t think you have much choice.


Speaking for myself, I tend to use both approaches and often at the same time, within the same song. When I first started songwriting back in the early 80’s, I would write mostly intuitively but there was often an inclusion of “science”. Just understanding music theory tends to direct you to use “science” in your writing, especially if you want to create something that “makes sense” to other people’s musical taste buds. Sometimes I try to push aside my own understanding of scales and music theory in order to stretch my songwriting limitations. I do the same thing with rhythms, phrasing and harmonies, although harmonies ARE just contents of scales. What I’m saying is, I intentionally go against the rules of music theory. Now, that by itself doesn’t bode well for crafting a salable pop tune but it does give you the potential of adding some unusual flavour to an already well written commercial-sounding song.

I’m not sure if I know how to even voice how I approach writing. I intentionally write in different styles all the time …I’ll write a hard rock/ metal tune, then a country tune, then a pop ballad, something folk-like, goofy-comedy songs, classical-ish, rap etc, but I value my hard rock/ metal tunes the most. I tend to not like country music much and there’s hardly any rap that I care for at all, but creating it is another matter. I’ve been wanting to experiment with writing songs/ music that is almost the exact opposite of commercial and digestable. My hope though would be to make that musical undigestable piece of chaos into something palatable…That’s the ultimate goal for me as a songwriter.

I have what I believe are a few really palatable, commercial light rock and pop songs. My lighter music is probably much more potentially valuable than my heavier music. I’m a bit …I hate to say it, but…fearful of allowing people to hear my softer side because I’m trying to be known as a hard rock artist. Also, some of my lighter stuff feels a bit sentimental…At some level I find that a bit embarrassing. I’m trying to figure out how to be both a heavy rock guy and yet still allowing some of the mellower stuff to be released to my audience…You know how judgmental rockers/ metalheads can be, with a hard rock artist going soft on them. Maybe I’ll have to start a few different bands/ brands. Man, this must be what it feels like for a gay person when they’re coming out of the closet. I hate the desire for acceptance! But I also don’t want to lose potential fans just because I release some lighter music.


It happens, but’s a relatively rare occurence in my experience. In any case, even metal bands (including Sabbath) write balads.

Metal is one ofthe few genres where the fans are deeply into the musicianship as well as the recordings. In my experience as long as the quality is there, they will rarely be negative about a song. And even if they are - well, that’s their problem, not yours.


Wow, that gives me a bit of déjà vu … I started writing songs about then too, after I got the Fostex X-15 that had just come out. And I had just taken a couple years of guitar lessons, had played drums before that, also got a bass guitar and taught myself to play that. I had a little keyboard with a drum machine too, so did some basic keys. That was the most prolific songwriting period of my life, and most of it just “came out” without planning or thinking. Of course, I also taught myself recording on that little 4-track tape gizmo. So in that sense, I was really in touch with the ‘intuitive’ process, yet had enough musical knowledge and skill to create things that sounded cohesive.

I have done some ‘experimental’ things, that appeals to me a lot. But there’s also wanting to make it into something that a significant number of people really enjoy and want to listen to.

Well, I think trying it out here at IRD would be a good platform. It’s not as public (though most threads except Backstage will show up on the web), but I’d guess we have a fairly limited audience. You could always ‘park’ it in a Backstage thread it you want to share something for members only - an experimental idea for feedback for instance. I for one would really enjoy hearing more and diverse stuff from you. I really liked those songs Boogie Man and Not Your Clown you posted here.


I agree with that. I don’t think the public perceives the audience that way, but I think it’s consistently true.


I was a taxi member for ten years. I had over4,000 posts etc. My songs were all rejected for sounding too old fashioned. I only tried for the first year and then just was on the peer to peer forum. All my old friends faded away and so did I. Just another page to turn.


Yeah, Sabbath have some great ballads. I love "Changes, "She’s Gone and "Solitude. Those are all mellow songs but they’re dark and depressing. There’s one mellow song from the album Technical Ecstasy called “It’s Alright”, that seems to diverge from the dark, melancholy feel. That song is my least favourite of their mellow tunes,…but I still like it. Actually, now that I think about it, that song could be considered a bit melancholic too.

I have some mellow songs that have a similar darkness and I think those types of songs would fit into a hard rock/ heavy metal album but I have quite a few songs that have too much of a pop vibe. I’m talking about AM Radio sounding songs. Some of them are upbeat but are really unlike metal or hard rock.

I’ll probably post an example for you to hear sometime. I want to hear what you guys think, whether the songs would be compatible within the context of a heavy band or not. I really prefer variety within an album/ band but there’s some songs that have a higher probability of alienating your core audience.

True. When it comes down to it, I won’t be able to control what others think. If I feel really strongly about a specific song, I probably would just release it.


That whole album is very melancholic, though that particular song may be the brighter point. :slightly_smiling_face: It’s like this reassurance, but also a wink and a nudge at the same time. Kind of an existential realism, not dark, but almost a meditative chant. I loved that album, used to put it on once in awhile when I was in a particular mood. The critics, and even fans, rejected the album IIRC. Other than some of their classic songs I love, I think it’s some of their finest work. Very much a concept album IMO, though it was never pitched that way. The artwork was really something too, I still have the vinyl album. I guess I tend to like things that are not highly mainstream, or even outcasts from commercialism. Not exclusively, but my tastes have certainly run contrary to the accepted popularity in some aspects.

I think it would certainly be worthwhile to explore them, especially if you already have them recorded or in some listenable form.


The Fostex X-15 was the first multitrack recorder I used, also. My brother bought it for $800 or $900 back in 1984. It was hell trying to mic a drum kit with that little thing! :smile: BUT I did record one original song with an acoustic drum kit. Sounded like crap though! :laughing: In December of 1987 I did a two or three day recording marathon with that machine. I’d start recording at 11 am and finish at midnight, running downstairs to the kitchen once or twice to quickly wolf down a peanut butter-banana sandwich and a glass of milk…Then I’d excitedly run back upstairs to continue recording original songs. I had written the songs from 1984 to 1987 and was really excited to finally lay them down to tape. They were all hard rock/ metal songs except for one “comedy-country” song (the lyrics are somewhat vulgar) (I’ll eventually re-record it and post it on here for a bash). Almost all the songs I wrote during those years were written on the old piano in my family’s living room. The country song was written on piano too. When I recorded them, on the Fostex X-15, I turned them into guitar songs. Exciting and fun times! Life wasn’t always great but music always was.

You kind of woke me up to that idea. I think that’s a good plan! I’d probably be able to gain some insight, especially from the hard rock/ metal crowd on IRD. As I mentioned to AJ, I would like to hear opinions as to whether my lighter music would be appropriate or not, with fans of heavy rock music.

I consider it a compliment that you can even remember the names of those songs. I’m really glad you liked them! Thanks Stan.


Sabbath seemed like a band that didn’t chase the mainstream. Think of the Ozzy years. Which song from those years has the sound of a hit…I’m quickly mulling it over in my head right now…I can’t think of an answer. Maybe the song "Am I Going Insane?..Maybe “Hard Road” ? Even those songs don’t seem perfectly radio friendly.

AC/DC didn’t seem to care about making hits either.

KISS seemed to aim for a hit on every album after KISS Alive!!, but their best songs were usually their less commercial ones.


I think I got mine in 1983 or 1984, I know it was right after they first came out. I feel very certain that I paid like $499 or right around $500 (plus tax of course) for it. If you’re in Canada (?) they may have cost more to export up there?

Wow, we were doing those things right around the same time. I consistently used the recorder during that whole time, and a bit beyond, recording a song as soon as I wrote it or writing during recording. I found that I could do a song in about 5 hours, and as many beers :wink:, at least for the basic tracks. I would frequently bounce tracks to another cassette deck so I could add more tracks, so that sometimes added a bit more time in subsequent days - overdubs and final mixdown. I still have that X-15, and have been meaning to plug it in and see if it still works.

That’s what we’re here for. :grin:

Oh, I was quite taken with those two songs at least. I really enjoyed that YouTube video of Boogie Man. I may have seen some others on your YT channel too. Those songs were very rocking, but had really good musical expression as well.


No, I think their wide success was quite a surprise to them. They purposely did this ‘dark’ thing, kind of rebelling against the mainstream. Ironically, they hit a nerve with the zeitgeist and people were like WTF is that? I like it! :sunglasses:

Not usually. You might think that they bent that way a little bit with Back in Black, though. Some of those songs were huge radio hits with MTV videos and all that. Maybe it was a fluke. The album was done quite fast, and the writing had to be adapted to Brian Johnson as the material was in process of writing when Bon Scott died.

“Beth” was a complete surprise, they didn’t even want to put that on the Destroyer album, but it ended up catapulting them into the mainstream a bit. A times it seemed like they wrote more “pop” type stuff, perhaps on purpose. Certainly, the song “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” seemed to purposely cater to the disco craze. I do actually like the song, but I remember a lot of fans giving them grief for that.


It probably did cost more in Canada, but it’s possible I’m mistaken about the price. In my mind it was worth a million though. :joy:

Yeah, when you’d bounce stuff there was no turning back, no undo! If you made a mistake you were SOL, haha. You had to be creative to do vocal harmony overdubs and dual guitar parts while keeping your drum and bass tracks reasonably untainted. I was usually too excited and impatient to really put the effort into attaining hi-fidelity. I was just amazed at having my songs recorded and getting to hear them with bass, drums, guitars and vocals, playing back to me through a ghetto blaster or stereo.

I remember back in 1985, me and my older brother had recorded an original song that we wrote together…(He’s a drummer. I played the guitar, bass and sang). The song was sounding really good. I was really excited about the sound and performance that we’d done. My brother was tasked to do the mixdown at his friend’s house, using a really good stereo system/ with cassette deck. He took the cassette with the 4 tracks and came home later with the master/ mixdown… It sounded horrible! The song had slowed down A LOT!.., and everything sounded just so dull. He couldn’t understand why it turned out so poorly. I was totally perplexed too!..I still don’t know how the hell he messed it up so badly…Now that I think about it, he probably turned the pitch wheel down without realizing it. It’s also possible that his friend’s cassette deck played faster than the cassette player that we used as a playback device. But I still don’t understand how the tones were so degraded…


I bet it was the pitch wheel. You had to watch that thing. I know I had to calibrate it and mark ‘standard’. It could be used to interesting effect though, even then I used it to record at high speed and slow down or vice-versa, during the recording itself … long before Reaper. :smirk:

I even learned how to record with active EQ (treble or bass knob), because during the track bouncing (whether on-board or to the external tape deck) you’d lose high end fidelity on the bounced tracks. I guess they call it “tape bias” or something. So I would literally bake in extra high end knowing that some would get rolled off.

Yes, it was an amazing time. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was able to impress a few people who listened, but for the most part it was just for my own education and edification. If, with all this recording technology now, I just had that youthful zest and exuberance again … I think I could slay dragons. :triumph:


Oh man, I’ve had that thought so many times! With that youthful energy and this modern technology!..It blows my mind to think of the audio recording power we have now! Ah, imagine if we had this in the 80s !!! :partying_face::partying_face::star_struck::star_struck:


Does it really matter? It seems that you are allowing the (perceived) opnions of others to stifle your creativity. I think you may be pleasantly surprised with the reaction you get, but even if you do get some negativity, you will gain a wider audience.