Peter Case

Latest Words

Editing & Finishing


Once you’ve got a first draft down…

1) a. Is the melody defined? Is there a note for every syllable of the lyric?

b. Is the rhythm defined?

c. Do the chords support the melody?

2) Is there contrast between sections?  Or do the same musical ideas repeat in different sections of the song? This can often hold a song back. The different sections need to be different musically, creating sympathetic contrast. Also, a middle eight needs to get far enough away from the verse that the verse feels and sounds fresh again when you return to it.

3) The phraseology of the song: syllables and accents.

a) counting syllables

b) accents—do they fall in the right places?

4) Are the strongest lines in the key positions (before the chorus, at the end of a verse, end and beginning of a bridge…)

5) development: How does the song develop, verse to verse, section to section? Does it move forward enough to keep interest? Often a song that feels flat has stunted development between verses. The song needs to move forward lyrically.

6) Is there filler? How much? Where? How you handle filler lines is important. It can be done with style.

7) Are we free of cliches? Can the cliches be turned around, reversed? Or should they be removed?

8) Imagery. More on this Tuesday!

Waits: “You have to make yourself some kind of antenna for the songs to come to you. So you have to make yourself a kind of a musical yourself. You have to be of music and have music in you—someway for songs to want to live in you, in or near you. You gotta be real quiet sometimes if you want to catch the big ones. You wanna go into a teardrop or through a hole in the plaster. You wanna go someplace you’ve never been before.”

“Songs are really simple. You hold them in your hand. I can make one right now and finish it. But because they’re so simple, it’s like birdwatching, you know, you gotta know something about birds or you won’t see anything: just you and your binoculars and a stupid look on your face.”

“I heard a Mexican guy working with the horses today and the way he spoke to the horses was so musical, so beautiful, the way he would shape his body to get the right sounds.   I’ve always thought that in Mexican culture songs lived in the air, music is less precious and more woven into life. There is a way of incorporating music into our lives that has meaning: songs for celebration, songs for teaching children things, songs of worship, songs to make the garden grow, songs to keep the devil away, songs to make a girl fall in love with you. My kids sing songs they have made up that I listen to and know by heart, and these songs have become part of our family life. You have to keep music alive in your life or else music becomes an isolated thing, just a pill you take.”

“Children don’t know the first thing about music and yet they make up songs and sing them all day long,” says Waits. “Who’s to say my melodies are any better than theirs?”


“What does it need?”

“…almost a medical Frankenstein process. What does it need? It’s very beautiful but it has no heart, or it has nothing but heart, it needs a rib cage, or whatever. I’m usually good at the medical questions about music.”

“You can change everything if you want. If you don’t like the way something is, you can totally change the bone structure of a song or three or four songs in the way they work together….I like to just keep changing the shape of ‘em, & cut ‘em in half & use the parts that I didn’t want on that one on another one.”


Dylan:  “I overwrite. If I know I am going in to record a song, I write more than I need. In the past that’s been a problem because I failed to use discretion at times. I have to guard against that. On this album, “Lonesome Day Blues” was twice as long at one point. “Highlands” [a 17-minute song on “Time Out of Mind”] was twice as long originally.”


“To find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency.

To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering.

Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.”

‘I always try to turn a song on it’s head. Otherwise, I figure I’m wasting the listener’s time.’  —BD

‘The greatest guiding principle: boredom’

Make a list of your fifty favorite words, then write a page in your notebook, exploring each one. discuss them in terms of things, the sensual world.

Every word, every note, every beat is important

If you get stuck, move on.

” Develop a friendly attitude towards your own thoughts and ideas.”

William Blake–“Without unceasing Practice nothing can be accomplished Art is Practice. Leave off Practice and you are Lost.”

William Burroughs: Kerouac… he was a writer. That is, he wrote.

Andy Warhol : “You think too much. That’s ’cause there’s work you don’t want to do”   –quoted in Lou Reed’s song Work, from Songs For Drella.

Leonard Cohen: On his relatively paltry recorded output and how he sets about the creative process, he is blithely dismissive of his talents. “Writing an album, it always feels like I am scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to get the songs together,” he says. “I’ve never had the sense that I’ve had a multitude of choices. There is no sense of abundance – I’m just picking at what I have. It’s like what Yeats said about working in ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. I do get discouraged by the work.

“It is a mysterious process, it involves perseverance and perspiration and sometimes, by some grace, something stands out and invites you to elaborate or animate it. These are sacred mechanics and you have to be careful analyzing them as you would never write a line again. If you looked too deeply into the process you’d end up in a state of paralysis.

He does confess to a troubling kind of perfectionism. “I wrote 80 verses or something for Hallelujah . That song was written over the space of four years and that’s my trouble – I can’t discard a verse. I have to work on it and polish it. I can work on a verse for a very long time before realizing it’s not any good and then, and only then, can I discard it.

‘ Just the right phrase can go a long way.’  -Chris Rock

Robert Graves–“Poetry is rooted in love and love in desire, and desire in hope of continued existence.”

Assignment: write a song about something you desire. Flesh it out with details.

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