Professor Pat Pattison on the tools of songwriting

Pat Pattison

Professor Pat Pattison’s Writing Better Lyrics has become a classic text, read, treasured and utilised by countless students and practitioners of the art. According to three-time Grammy winner Gillian Welch, “I count myself lucky and proud to have studied with Mr. Pattison [at Berklee College of Music]. I would not be the writer I am today without his teaching.” Another student of Pattison’s, John Mayer, also attests to the power of his ideas in helping him to become a better writer. A frequent visitor to the land down under, Pat Pattison was kind enough to grant me an interview to discuss some of his key tools and concepts.

Key quotes

“The focus of lyric writing is to say what you have to say and say it as clearly as you can. Whereas poetry is primarily presented to the eye. Lyrics are primarily presented to the ear.”

“In songwriting, lyrics are made to married. And one of the marriages that I consider to be almost inviolable is the relationship between melodic phrase and lyric phrase. So when the melody phrase ends, the lyric phrase, in most cases, must end.”

“If you write verse one, once you’re writing verse two you’re writing lyric to melody. If you write melody first, then the melody rhythm has to find a lyric rhythm which matches it exactly. If you’re writing the lyric first, then your job is to find a melodic rhythm that matches your lyric rhythm exactly.”

“As a writer, you always need to bring two things to the table. Number one: who you are. And number two: what you know.”

“The what you know part is how you put it together. The structures that you use: the number of lines, the lengths of the lines, your rhyme scheme, your line rhythms and your rhyme types. Things you’re responsible in every section you’ll ever write in your life, those things are like your film score.”

“You need to get over the notion that the only rhyme type that exists is perfect rhyme; there are five different rhyme types, maybe six, all of which will give you a sense of either ‘I’m home’ or ‘I’m not quite home’, or ‘I feel really unstable’.”

“All I can give you is information and the information is going to help you put your stuff together in a way that creates a whole different level of emotion.”

“Your job, basically, is to use your melody, your harmony, and your structures, to support, to give a whole different level or meaning and emotion to what you have to say. That’s craft stuff; that’s stuff you have to learn.”

“The people who are really competitive, not only use their heart, but also use their brains.”

“The whole idea of prosody, which was first talked about by Aristotle in his Poetics (he called it unity), that every element of a work of art needs to support the central theme of the work of art.I define it as the appropriate relationship between elements.”

“Verbs are the amplifiers of language. The difference between great writers and average writers is almost always in their verbs. Start by circling your verbs and ranking them in terms of how much wattage they give you.”

“My feeling is that if it doesn’t come from inside you, you don’t have a chance. It has to come from your soul.”

“A rhyming dictionary is going to give you everything that rhymes with that sound. Then you can get creative. Then your emotions can kick in once you know what your options are.”

“I really think that creativity has gotten a really bad rap because it’s often confused with just off the top of your head, with spontaneity. But creativity and spontaneity are never the same thing. Creativity for me always implies that you have a series of options to choose from.”

“Get your [songwriting] pod together […] Your songs are not your children. Get over that. […] If something falls out onto the paper, great, now you have something to work on. How can I make it even better. For better you need tools. […] Once you understand that there are tools and strategies and techniques that you can use to make your songs even better, then you’re eager to have different viewpoints on your songs. That’s where it gets really healthy.”

About Les Thomas 106 Articles
Narrm/Melbourne singer-songwriter and Unpaved editor

1 Comment

  1. Awesome Les! I did many workshops with Pat over the years and especially at the beginning when I was getting serious about songwriting and wanted to learn the craft. I still draw on his material a lot when I teach or mentor others in the craft. Thank you for sharing.

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