Writing Songs of Social Commentary

U2No matter what song genre you’re writing in, at some point you’re likely to find yourself wanting to express your thoughts about your generation, your community, society, or the state of the world in general. Given the unsettled times we’re living in, it’s not surprising that songwriters are turning toward their art to express feelings of solidarity, uncertainty, pride, indignation, or hope for the future. Whatever your thoughts or feelings are about the world, a song is a great way to express them.

What are songs of social commentary?

The words “social commentary” are not, in themselves, either positive or negative. These songs are a means of expressing an opinion, observation, or message, the way you see and feel about things, especially things you feel strongly about. For example, one person might look at a community and see the good that comes from a sense of belonging, while another might see a close-minded group banding together to keep outsiders at a distance. What’s your view? What’s your experience? Your observations may be lauded or they may be unpopular, but it’s still up to you – and no one else – to say what you want to say, to make your opinion heard.

Songs of social commentary are not limited to politics or protest. They can help us define a sense of purpose and place, identify with those who are like us and not like us, chastise and forgive, identify our strengths and our failings, and help us work our way through an ever-changing world.

Most importantly, a song of social commentary seeks to persuade, to convey the songwriter’s observations, beliefs, or experiences in a way that allows the listener to see and understand the world as the songwriter does. In doing so, the hope is that through songs we can understand each other a little better.

This list includes a few of the most popular themes that come up in commentary songs. Each theme can be expressed in individual terms: its effect on one person or on the singer. Or painted with a broader brush: its effect on a whole society or the world. I’m sure you’ll think of more themes, so feel free to add your own, ones that have meaning and energy for you. Continue reading

Contemporary Holiday Hits

Every holiday season, we’re surrounded with recordings of Christmas standards and traditional carols. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a few new songs every now and then? I mean, tradition is fine but we all need a break sometimes. So, how about giving us something fresh this holiday season, something just a little bit different?

Here’s a list of contemporary holiday songs that take a slightly different approach to the season. I chose these songs because each one has something interesting to offer in the way of song craft or an inspired idea. Give them a listen and try some of these ideas yourself. Maybe you’ll write the next holiday hit!

  • It’s that TIME of year

SkatersMost of our holiday standards are in good old familiar 4/4 time. How about breaking with tradition and writing a song with a different groove? There are some (but not many) wonderful holiday songs with a waltz feel – “The Christmas Waltz” is one of a handful that comes to mind. So, let’s write a couple new ones. Time signatures based on 3 beats (3/4, 6/8, 12/8) evoke the swirl of falling snowflakes and skaters twirling on the ice. Perfect for the holiday season!

To hear a contemporary Country take on a holiday waltz, check out Alan Jackson’s “Let It Be Christmas.” The irresistible swing and sway give his sweet lyric an uplifting energy.

PLAY IT:  Let It Be Christmas – Alan Jackson

Don’t feel like waltzing on the ice? How about a Christmas shuffle? Or explore more unusual time signatures, like 5/4 or 7/4. How about a Dave Brubeck “Take Five” feel this holiday!

  • New Year, new song …

Aren’t we all getting a little tired of ‘Auld Lang Syne” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Continue reading

Hold Back the River – James Bay

James Bay“Hold Back the River” became a huge international hit soon after its release in late 2014. Universal themes of nostalgia, regret, and lost innocence are conveyed in conversational yet evocative language. The chorus melody is memorable and has a folksy authenticity that adds to the singer’s credibility.

There are many simple songwriting techniques here that you can use in songs of your own: a family of related images, words that have emotional associations, varied phrase lengths in the melody, and an easy trick for catching the listener’s attention with your chorus. Let’s take a look at how these work together to create a hit song.


• Use images to intensify emotion.

• Create contrast between sections with phrase lengths.

• Add an octave to lift the energy.

Read the lyrics here: Hold Back the River – James Bay

Buy it now or listen on your preferred music site (Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, etc.)

Watch on YouTube.

Recorded by James Bay
Writers: James Bay & Iain Archer

GENRE/STYLE  (What is a genre?)
I’m going with Folk/Rock on this one. The lyric palette features images of nature and rural life. The melody is fairly straight ahead, closer to the Indie Folk style of “Gone Gone Gone” by Phillip Phillips than to the quirky, unpredictable melodies of Alt Pop or Alt Rock, where it is sometimes classified. The track relies on acoustic guitar-style melody lines and strumming (although played on electric guitar), there’s not a whiff of synthesizer or electro anywhere around. The drums are live (and great). Folk/Rock has made a very successful comeback after being out of fashion for the last few decades.

This structure looks complicated but sounds cohesive and natural when you listen to the track. The verse melody functions as both an instrumental and vocal hook. The bridge reappears at the end of the song as a tag, after which we hear the hook one more time. Every melody is used and reused. There are, in fact, only three different melodies: 1) verse and hook, 2) chorus, and 3) bridge. Continue reading