The Basics of Writing a Folk Song

What is Folk Music?

Folk music can be found across all musical genres and in all cultures. It has been a method of entertainment for numerous generations and it has been a means for people to record memorable events that have happened in their lives or in their communities. Folk songs have long been used by musicians to address political and social issues and situations.

Folk songs aren’t just used to deliver political and social messages. They tell us stories and entertain us; often teaching a lesson that otherwise may have been forgotten. Many folk songs have been handed down from generation to generation and carry with them bits of history along with reminders of where we came from and who we are today.

The First Steps to Writing a Folk Song

Folk songs are intensely personal to those who write them, and that should be one of the first things that you consider when you set out to write a folk song. What are you trying to convey with the song? Is it intended to be a message for other people about a situation that you feel strongly about? Or perhaps you want to tell a story about your heritage or culture? Maybe there’s a legend that you would like to translate into a musical piece. The following steps can help you along your way.

Research: If you intend to write a folk song, it’s important that you know your topic. If you’re writing about politics or social issues, watch the news, read the paper, and stay on top of what is going on. Jot down key points for later reference. If you intend to create a song about your culture, or if your intention is to write about a legend or a historical figure, visit libraries and cultural centers to learn all that you can.

Go with the flow: Writing music is not the same as writing a research paper or a business report, you need to encourage your creative flow. Write down a few key phrases that relate to what you want your folk song to be about. Consider them as you go about your day. Carry them with you in a small notebook that you can use if you are inspired by new lines for your song. Try and visit locations that relate to or remind you of the song that you’re creating. Write down lyrics that come to you, even if they’re just snippets, so that you can consider them later.

Start looking for the tune: As you begin to write down the lyrics for your song, also take the time to consider what kind of tune that it should be set to. What emotions are you trying to convey? Think about what kind of music would best suit your song. Play around with different tones by humming notes to see if you can determine exactly what kind of tune that your song needs. A pocket recorder can be very helpful at this stage so that you can record any notes or tunes that seem appropriate.

Building the Tune

Once you have a general idea of the feeling that your song is intended to evoke, it’s time to start creating the melody. If you know how to play a musical instrument such as a guitar or keyboard, the creation of your tune will be a lot easier. Try playing around with different keys to see what emotions are evoked, switching up your strumming or keyboard rhythms to express different feelings. You can also develop a melody with the use of your voice. Start out by singing random notes and playing around with them, switching between flats and sharps, high notes and low notes. Eventually, you will come across a melody that suits your song.

Creating the Lyrics

Now that you have your basic melody down, it’s time to put your song together. The most common folk song structure is four-line verses, rhyming the 2nd line with the 4th line. Typically, a chorus is included between the verses. Or if you want something different, it is also common for folk songs to be arranged in a one-part song format, where the chorus is omitted and a repeating line is included at the end of each verse. Both of these methods are intended to make the song easy to follow as well as easy to remember.

Gather up all of the lyrics that you have jotted down and start putting them together to create your verses. Even if your initial efforts aren’t producing the desired result, this stage of the writing process will often guide you in creating your finished song. Rearrange your wording and tweak your verse layout to help build the song structure. Sing the phrases repeatedly to get a feel for them and to aid you in developing lyrics that have a natural flow and rhythm.

Finishing Touches

Once you have the general layout of your song completed, with verses in place and choruses or repeating lines written, it’s time to finalize your song. Start by reading and then singing the song through several times. Does it have an easy natural flow? Does it evoke the feelings that you intended? Does it convey your message? Don’t be afraid to edit your song. Often when working on a song, it’s easy to become so attached to what you’ve written that it’s hard to remove any parts that don’t seem to work. Change or remove any lines that don’t seem to flow easily in the song in order to prevent break-ups in the storyline or the melody.

After you’ve got the song to a point where you feel satisfied with it, practice singing it until you’re able to do so in a smooth manner. Then, if you intend for it to be accompanied by a musical instrument, continue to practice singing the song along with the music until you are able to sing along in a natural, appealing manner. Now, share the song with family and friends to continue a tradition that has been a source of entertainment and enlightenment for generations!