Photo of Marvin Gaye by Jim Britt with Ed Sheeran's dopey face pasted in the corner.

Learning to Write

Let’s say you want to write a sonnet. This means you have 14 lines, typically written in iambic pentameter, and separated into an octave of eight lines (or two quatrains that sum to eight) as well as a sestet, or a six-line stanza. And you then choose a rhyme scheme. There’s, for example, the Shakespeare approach: ABABCDCD EFEFGG. Or you might opt for the Petrarchan sonnet: ABBAABBA CDCDCD.

Or let’s say you’re feeling somewhat more adventurous and decide to pen a villanelle. Here you are going to write five three-line stanzas and end with a quatrain. However, the first and third lines of the first stanza are alternatively repeated in the subsequent stanzas. The consequent rhyme scheme is: ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA.

Or, frustrated with either of those, go for a haiku. This is certainly simpler: three lines with a combined 17 syllables, with five in the first and third and seven in the middle.

(Writing a haiku/can cause a feeling of calm/as others frustrate)

Regardless of which form you follow, assuming that you’re writing in English, there are some 470,000 words that you can use.

However, if you’re opting for the sonnet or the villanelle, there are a few more challenges, in that there are several words in English that don’t rhyme. Yes, orange. But the colors purple and silver don’t have rhymes, either. Wolf and walrus. And many others.

So there are restrictions, or boundaries, that are necessary in order to create something within a particular form or genre. Things can be done differently (Shakespeare published 154 sonnets), but in order to be in a particular form there are things that must be there.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the lawsuit brought by the heirs of Ed Townsend against Ed Sheeran in which it was claimed that there was a copywrite violation with Sheeran using chords and rhythms from “Let’s Get It On” in “Thinking Out Loud.”

The jurors found Sheeran, who co-wrote the song with Amy Wadge (though she was not a defendant), not guilty.

One of the interesting bits of testimony came from a expert witness for the defense, Dr. Lawrence Ferrara, a musicologist. He presented examples from other songs with similar chord progressions, including “Since I Lost My Baby,” written by Smokey Robinson and Pete Moore, and released on Motown in June 1965. “Let’s Get It On,” written by Townsend and Marvin Gaye, was released on Tamla in August 1973. Tamla is a subsidiary of Motown.

After the trial, Kathryn Townsend Griffin, daughter of Ed Townsend, explained that she brought the suit because he had promised her father that she would protect his work, and said “I’m glad it’s over. We can be friends.”

Sheeran said when leaving the courthouse, “I am not and will never allow myself to be a piggy bank for anyone to shake.” Sheeran is worth an estimated $200-million, so that would be quite a bank to shake.

A question is whether a genre that we’ll call “sexy pop song” has a structure that, like one of the aforementioned poetic forms, that is just fundamental to making it a sexy pop song. If it is done otherwise, can it be that or is it something else?

But there are certainly cases where there is no subtlety, no real sense of simple structural execution: think of “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis and the News and “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker Jr. (and now you have both of those songs in your head) or The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and P Diddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You.”

A bigger issue is something that could overwhelm copyright and leave physical songwriters flipping burgers at McDonalds (until they are replaced by the RoboBurger, robotic fast-food machine).

According to musical AI company Boomy, there have been 14,470,921 songs (as of this writing, on 5/6/23) “created” by Boomy users.

How do you “create” a song on Boomy?

“Start by tapping ‘Create’ and then ‘Song’ from the menu. Then, choose a Style, select any custom settings, and tap ‘Create Song.’ Boomy will create an endless number of song options for you to reject, save, or customize.”


“Boomy uses AI-powered algorithms to emulate musical styles. Styles aren’t designed to be perfect copies of a genre, rather their design is influenced by aspects of a genre. Try different styles to see what you like!”

Why do the work? Why learn how to write songs? All you have to do to create one is two clicks and then a third for saving it.

Note the results are “influenced by aspects of a genre.”

Certainly this is a case where one undoubtedly wants to carefully read the “Terms of Service” before simply clicking “Accept.”

And as for those who have done the work, who create without availing themselves of a Boomy?

It brings to mind what is arguably one of the most famous villanelles ever written, one by Dylan Thomas, which concludes:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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Video: Ed Sheeran – “Thinking Out Loud”

From Subtract (Atlantic/WMG, 2023).

* * *

Audio: Marvin Gaye – “Let’s Get It On”

From Let’s Get It On (Tamla, 1973).

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