Recipe For A Song

By Donna Ulisse – My taste buds are gearing up for my favorite time of year! Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are guaranteed to tempt my appetite with all of the most delicious, hearty, fattening foods. I will not be able to help myself. I am bound by some code knitted into my DNA to consume the scrumptious holiday fare until I leave the table miserable and needing a nap. What would my turkey be like without gravy and dressing? If I’m putting those foods on my plate I must have mashed potatoes with a big well in the center to hold even more gravy, yum! Yam pudding is a must at our table too. Look, I have gained 5 pounds just writing about the anticipated fare.

I suppose you are wondering how I am going to tie songwriting into this holiday dinner party? Well, each platter, bowl or baking dish included in these family holiday meals will have a recipe to go by. I have a red box in my kitchen filled to bursting with cherished family secrets that my daughters, their husbands and my grandkids would walk over hot coals to eat. If I follow those recipes to the letter, I am assured that the meal will taste like my mother’s and both grandmother’s meals, yet I have found that if I add my own spin on these time honored delights, they become my treasures to pass down. Someday my loved ones will have my recipes in a red box and will embellish them with their own hand.

Songwriting is the very same. There is a recipe one can use that will help create a song. The formula looks like a verse, chorus, verse, repeat chorus, maybe a bridge and then the repeat chorus again. An established rhyme pattern and syllable count will keep things nice and tidy. Add a melody that the lyric fits snugly against and voila, there is a song. However, some song chefs might add a pinch of this or a splash of that to make it uniquely their own and that is what I am hoping you will do when you are composing so that it is undeniably yours, and made with a stamp so personal that you will be recognized for your own style. By using your own language; how you would tell a story to your friends; by finding interesting rhyme patterns; by shortening some phrases and lengthening others; by coming up with a melody that reflects the story; all of these examples takes a composition to a different level.

There are countless ways a song can look and sound. There are no rigid rules in songwriting and that’s what makes music so interesting. Each one of us has different preferences and a songwriter can tailor a song for each of those preferences. To me, that’s what makes songwriting so much fun. You never have to be only one thing as an author. You can explore different genres just like you can explore different cuisines. You can enrich the body of your song with visual phrases just like a fancy chef will enhance dishes with rare spices. The end result will be a feast for the heart so write on my friends and Merry Everything!

In September 2016, Donna won the IBMA award for Songwriter of the Year award. Her recent song, “It Could Have Been The Mandolin,” co-written with long time friend Jerry Salley, stayed in the #1 spot on the Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine chart for two months in a row.
Find out more about Donna, and to connect with her directly, visit

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