How I Compose Folk Songs

  • Posted on: 5 December 2017
  • By: Friends of Music

I still haven’t figured out what inspires me to write a song or how it is created.

Most of the songs I compose are about family and friends. For example, our daughter died suddenly a few years ago on Jan. 11; by the time of the memorial on the 17th, I had written a song for her called “Flying Beyond the Moon,” which became the title track for a CD I released in 2014. This summer, I wrote a song for my niece’s wedding. But often, the process starts by fiddling with my acoustic guitar and playing a chord sequence or a melody that’s unconnected to any theme or idea. Then I turn the melody or sequence into a verse and I write out the music. Then I work out the rhythm, writing in something like Morse code—e.g., short, short, long—so I can write words that will match the music.  Only twice in writing a song have I started with the words; the title track from my latest CD, “Slow Dance” (2017), is one of them, because I liked the poem. Sometimes after I have achieved what I think is a good correspondence between song and guitar arrangement, it turns out to be in the wrong key for my voice. So I either have to transpose the song to another key, or use a capo (the metal clip that presses on the strings and raises each note by a half tone for each fret).

More and more people resort to a laptop for help in composition. My guitar teacher used a software program called Finale; he could play the notes on a Yamaha keyboard and it would automatically organize the notes and print the music. Unfortunately, he is mostly retired and no longer has the software. I have been using something called Noteflight. It seems to be best suited for orchestral writing. For my songs it is very tedious: It’s a four-step process of writing each note of the melody; then again for the guitar arrangement; a third time for the guitar chords; and a last iteration for the lyrics. But in the end, I have a printed version of my music!

Music isn’t my métier; I was trained as a hematologist. But when I grew up in New York City, I studied piano for 12 years at the 92nd Street Y (with one intensive year of music theory). During high school, a friend introduced me to the guitar and I started playing folk songs. When I went to college I couldn’t take the piano, but I could take a guitar. It was the 1950s and ‘60s and I listened to records (remember those?) and went to concerts by Pete Seeger/The Weavers, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins, among others. I also listened to classical guitar records and attended concerts by the great Segovia, Julian Bream, and John Williams
(the Australian guitarist, not the composer of movie scores).

In the ‘70s I started writing songs (after a break-up, of course). I decided I needed to learn more about the guitar, so I started studying with Jerry Silverman, a well-known folk singer, guitarist, and author (his The Art of the Folk-Blues Guitar is definitive). At various times we have worked on Bach duets, Scott Joplin, and folk songs from around the world.

At the same time, I formed a folksong/guitar group with several colleagues in the hematology department where I worked. For 40 years we met monthly (except in the summer) and took turns hosting the group. Unfortunately, the gang disbanded after the grandmother of the group died in her 90s and one couple who were “regulars” moved away so they could be near their children and grand-children. 

In recent years I have participated in the Pleasantville Circle of Friends on the second weekend of each month (when it doesn’t conflict with Friends of Music concerts). On Fridays we literally sit around in a circle and take turns singing and playing songs. On Saturdays there is an open mic with an excellent sound system and about 15-20 singer/songwriters; each performs two songs.

I decided to try recording some of my songs about 10 years ago. A friend from the open mic sessions told me he had a studio. It turned out to be the size of a telephone both that barely had enough room for the guitar! Later, I found an excellent recording engineer who has had a studio for over 30 years and has the latest ProTools equipment, so it is much easier.

I may not yet fully understand my process of composition. But I hope I will continue to write songs.

Sue Harris has released six CDs. You can check out her recordings at