Let’s be honest not every folk artist gives the genre a good reputation. Not every artist can see past the ‘basics’ of the raw sound. Fewer can get the formula right when creating an evocative track. Folk music is often the first choice for beginner singer-songwriters, meaning that making a good first impression is often infinitely easier said than done. With that in mind, we have curated the top 5 tips for beginner folk singer-songwriters.
How to Write Folk Music
- Know The History of Folk
Don’t mistake the 1950s American folk music revival for the beginning of the folk music genre. In varying forms, folk music has been the epicentre of cultural communication and connection for centuries. Folk music pre-dates the invention of recording equipment quite significantly, and even though it takes a myriad of international forms, there are a few key characteristics. Nailing the sonic signatures of folk is one thing. Getting the substance right is quite another.
Traditional folk music was created and stayed within social and cultural discourses to share the history of villages and mark notable events in history. In time, the verses changed to be more reflective of the times. Unlike most other music genres, especially the more traditional genres, folk music has never been about virtuosity or technical skill. Instead, it is an accessible form of music that can be performed on folk instruments by a large proportion of the community. Most modern folk songs tend to use the same chord patterns and structure. However, that doesn’t mean that traditional-style folk songs can’t be equally as striking as original Avant-Garde pieces.
- Spin a Strong Narrative
Whether you choose to create a confessional folk song where you viscerally pour your heart out over personal issues, a protestive political track, or a narrative work, being candid and emotionally vulnerable is vital. The greatest folk songs stem from emotion. Not just the mere idea and inclination to mechanically write a folk song.
Writer’s block or lack of inspiration may not make this easy for all songwriters, but there are plenty of ways to find inspiration when the muse is playing hide and seek. Look to your favourite artists to see what they focus on for the themes of the music, read poetry, and if you need to, you can borrow a few poetic sentiments to throw into a stanzaic narrative verse.
The recommended topics to cover in your folk music include politics, religion, social phenomena, national culture, iconic figures, and rural landscapes. Yet, if you can write passionately on any given subject, don’t leave it off the drawing board.
- Familiarise Yourself with Folk Music Structure, Melodies and Chords
If you want to keep your folk music traditional, you need to use the traditional folk formats. The most common structure is a track with four lines in the verses, the ABCB rhyme scheme and a chorus following the verses. Or, you can use the one-part format, where the structure is the same. The only difference is that choruses are left out, and you use a repeated line at the end of every verse – make it a strong one. For beginner singer-songwriters, we’d advise not cutting the chorus; this is what makes your track catchy or memorable. For songwriters that are brave enough to try something a little more complex, add a bridge to alternating choruses.
If the traditional folk format doesn’t leave you feeling inspired, a folk subgenre may suit your style better. In 2022, there is an endless array of folk subgenres, including but by no means limited to neo-folk, psych-folk, folk-punk, anti-folk, country-folk and progressive folk.
- Try Writing the Melody First
Your melody should be the cornerstone of your folk songs. Once you’ve got it nailed down, you can continue to draw from it throughout the songwriting process.
To construct a melody, consider the desired tone by overviewing the lyrics. Are they sad and sombre? Play around with the minor keys; is it a riotously charged folk song? Feed that into the tempo, beat and rhythm. At this stage, it is ok to look to other folk artists for inspiration; be sure that you don’t end up copying the same rhythms and scales. Even if you think you can get away with it, you can’t – people will know, and you will hardly establish yourself as a pioneering songwriter worth space on people’s radars.
If you struggle writing melodies in your head or with your voice, try experimenting with different instruments. Some of the most popular instruments for folk songwriters use to construct their melodies include piano, acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins and ukuleles. While you’re running through the chord progressions, don’t be afraid to play with different scales, keys and rhythms.
- Use the Right Chords & Perfect the Art of Verses.
There is always room for experimentation in folk music but knowing how to get that definitive folk music sound down is key to being a successful folk singer-songwriter.
Some of the most common chord patterns in folk songs include:
– Triadic chord structures.
– Minor chords in songs sung in a major key.
– Diatonic; only using seven chords from either the minor or major scale.
Storytelling through lyrics isn’t exactly an easy feat. You need the same skills in your arsenal as novelists, in the sense that you will need to pay close attention to your lexicon, the imagery you use and the flow. For the imagery, lean on metaphors – but be careful that you don’t make the lyrics too abstract to be decipherable by the average listener. To build anticipation, start verses in low keys and build from there and make sure that every verse has a point to make. If you’re particularly proud of one of your lyrics, don’t be afraid to repeat them to hammer them home.
Once you’ve created a folk song that you’re proud of, use our folk music blog submission form to submit your music to our award-winning blog.