Are covers getting boring? Are you eager to express yourself through music? Then it’s time to learn how to write a folk song.
Folk music is universally catchy, it’s been around for ages, and it’s here to stay. There’s endless room for personalization, and it’s not very demanding. Whether you want to tell stories or express deep thoughts, writing your own folk song is an excellent idea.
Why Writing a Folk Song is Great
Folk music tends to be simple and catchy. It’s easy to write something that people like and get them to sing along. Even if folk music isn’t your favorite, it’s a good place to start learning the ropes of songwriting.
Folk music has had a strong resurgence in the mainstream over the last 5 to 10 years. Beyond the natural cycling of music styles, it could be that people have grown sick of hearing plastic party music and bubble gum pop everywhere at all times.
Folk songs have a mature, timeless vibe that allows for both sitting and dancing. Further, it works well in the background and as the main focal point. The progressions and lyrics can speak to people of all ages and walks of life, so there’s always a place for a folk song.
What Makes a Song Sound like Folk Music?
It’s hard to define what folk music is, as it can refer to so many things. Generally speaking, any traditional music from a common folk culture is folk music. There's even folk metal! These days, most people tend to think of a modernized American folk genre. It originated among rural communities of English and Irish migrants in the Appalachian mountains and midwest. These influences are easy to hear.
Over time, it evolved in its own direction. Also, it blended in elements from the music of other cultures. That includes the music of native tribes, African Americans, and European cultures. You’ll find distinct Scandinavian, Slavic, Spanish, Jewish, and Cajun influences in many American folk songs. More recently, elements of country and bluegrass have bled over, and a more pop-oriented vein has emerged.
How to Write a Folk Song
Now, let’s cover each step of the songwriting process. The order isn’t crucial, but it’s often easiest to follow this sequence.
While folk music can be very diverse, there are some conventions for instrumentation. String instruments like guitars, mandolins, and banjos tend to be the meat and potatoes of a folk song. Things like flutes, violins, and woodwinds can add more melodic interest. However, they can rarely carry the song on their own.
If you’re writing a song to play on your own, you should play whatever you’re comfortable with. For a band, you’ll want to think about what each instrument should do.
Chords and structure
Now, picking the key and mood for your folk song is crucial but not always straightforward. No perfect formula works for every folk song or musician. Think about the message and feelings you want to convey, and pick a suitable scale to start with. The right mix of major and minor chords is essential for a convincing mood. Don’t be afraid to mix in some fancy chords. Experiment with strumming patterns and finger picking to perfect the vibe.
Although a chord sequence may sound perfect in theory, it’s only as good as what you can do with it. Fitting it to your vocal range is as important as the vibe itself. Transposing your chords into a compatible key is usually very easy.
Folk song structure varies a lot. Traditional songs often have a simple chain of verses with a little interlude between, often repeating several times. A more refined approach with verses and repeating choruses is more likely to engage the listener. Furthermore, throwing in a bridge toward the end or after every other chorus will break up the repetition and prevent boredom.
It helps to listen to your favorite folk songs and take notes. What chord progressions do they use? Which ones can you comfortably sing over? What’s the structure of the songs? What makes them catchy?
Writing folk song lyrics
Folk music usually has lyrics, and many listeners consider them to be the most important element. They want to sing along, or at least agree and remember the message.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of folk song lyrics is also the greatest challenge, and that’s the fact that you can write about almost anything. Popular folk musicians cover everything from love and life struggles to politics and tales of interesting characters.
Therefore, you can choose whatever theme is close to your heart. Keep in mind that things like politics are always a gamble. On the one hand, it may resonate with and engage some people a lot. However, it can also make others stop listening.
It’s easiest if you begin by writing down all the thoughts you want to convey. Next, you’ll want to arrange them in a logical order. Try singing them to determine what the melody should be. Then you can start rewording and refining each phrase to make it fit better and sound more lyrical. Even if you don’t want a chorus, a repeating catchphrase will help you hook the listener.
Don’t be afraid of phrases that sound highly poetic, metaphorical, or abstract. People can figure things out or enjoy the song without understanding every detail. Sometimes you may not even completely know what the song you just wrote is about until much later, and that’s fine. There’s no reason to feel pressured to write anything fancy, though. It’s a folk song, so keeping things simple and direct is fine. As long as it flows, it’s good.
Conveying emotion is essential to catchy folk songs. Working some humor or sentimentality into your lyrics can make a big difference. However, you’ll want to stay genuine and mean what you sing. Put your heart into it.
Should a folk song rhyme?
The simplest answer to this question is that it should if you want it to. Generally speaking, the typical folk song tends to rhyme. That doesn’t mean every line has to rhyme with the next. Often, you’ll see a pattern where a line rhymes with the line after the next one. Furthermore, breaking the lyrics into sections of four lines where only the second and fourth rhyme is very effective.
You can also rhyme the first line of each section with the last one of the same section. Although it’s not as common, a limerick pattern can also work well for a folk song.
Not every song has to rhyme. And even if write a song full of rhymes, a stray line that doesn’t rhyme isn’t the end of the world. It could even add some suspense and interest to your folk song. Moreover, rhymes don’t need to be perfect.
Perfecting the tune
Creating chord progressions and lyrics is often a surprisingly fast process, and it may only be half of the journey. Fine-tuning and polishing your folk song is important. It’s wise to play it a lot and experiment with the vocal melody to find what works best for each phrase.
Sometimes, changing one chord can breathe new life into the song. For example, replacing a straight major chord with a seventh chord at the end of a phrase can improve the transition into the next section.
Regarding the lyrics, trying out synonyms and different wordings can change both the flow and vibe of a line. You may be missing something if you don’t experiment a bit.
Before you call your song finished, you should play it to some friends and see what they think. Ask them if it conveys the feelings and messages you were aiming for and if anything could be better. This way, you get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Removing a part of your folk song can feel difficult, but sometimes it’s necessary to keep your song from breaking up or getting too long.
Then, all you need to do is practice a lot until the song feels natural and you can communicate your mood and thoughts without a struggle.
Tips on Finding Inspiration
Music is all about what goes on in your mind and your heart. Sometimes it can be hard to sit down and write on command, even when you want to and feel a general sense of creativity. Trying to force a song rarely works. However, finding inspiration for a folk song can be easy. Especially since folk song lyrics are often about things most people can relate to.
First of all, some time in solitude can help a lot. It lets your deep thoughts and feelings come to the forefront, and that’s where most music comes from. It’s also easier to write genuine high-quality music when you don’t have anyone to impress.
When nobody’s looking, you can be more uninhibited, and you can make as many mistakes as you want without anyone knowing. And there will be nobody there to distract you from songwriting or occupy you with other activities. Ideally, finding a way to disconnect from the stressors of daily life will help you access those creative thoughts.
Inspiration tends to come in times of amazement, stimulation, profundity, or shock. You won’t find much of that in mundane routines and things you know like the back of your hand.
Traveling is one popular way to refresh your mind. That doesn’t mean you must fly to Thailand or Hungary or anything like that. Spending a few days in a nearby town you haven’t visited can give you plenty of inspiration. Another option is to go hiking in nature.
Trying new things, in general, will give you inspiring experiences of various kinds. Is there something you’ve been curious about but never gotten around to doing? You should try it. Sometimes it’s enough to find a movie theatre that plays classics you haven’t seen. You can also join an activity group for people with shared interests. Going on dates is another abundant spring of artistic inspiration.
Retrace your steps
Surely, you’ve heard many songs with lyrics about how “I remember when” and “my mama told me” or other things like that. Your history is full of stories and feelings that you can turn into music.
Actively remembering your life and all its joy and sorrow can give you many ideas. Think of the adventures you’ve had, the relationships, the achievements and failures, and the best and worst experiences you can remember. Love and heartbreak are among the most common themes of music for a reason. You can tell your life lessons through your music, or retell stories and perspectives that will resonate with people.
Read some stories
Folk songs often tell the stories of real or fictional characters. They can be epic tales or accounts of the everyday experiences of a common person, or anything in between. Therefore, you can find ideas almost anywhere.
One idea is to write the story of a local legend into your song and share his or her story with a wider audience. You could also look through a history book for an interesting life story. Fiction novels are another rich source of ideas for folk songs. Genres ranging from romance to fantasy and adventure can all fill this purpose. Movies are also viable options.
If you want something more unique, you could browse the internet for real people’s stories. Since there are a plethora of anonymous but incredible real stories on forums like Reddit, you can get plenty of inspiration and let more people hear these amazing stories.
Ready to Write Your Folk Song?
Following the steps above, you’ll have a complete folk song ready before you know it. And the more you do it, the more natural it becomes. Your repertoire will grow and eventually be enough for shows and albums. Whether you’re aiming for that or simply want something to play by the campfire, building up your folk song arsenal is always time well spent.
If you want more ideas and inspiration for songwriting, keep reading our blog. If you have any questions or suggestions, please leave a comment below. Enjoy your folk song journey!