AUDIO TIPS: Songwriting

Audio Tip #20: SONGWRITING

Songs should be built around a universal theme, idea or feeling. You want as many people as possible to relate to the material. The song should beself-contained. No explanation or mind reading is necessary to understand the story. If you have to say, "What I mean by this is" then you need to rewrite the song.

The lyric and the melody belong together. Its called prosody. Happy lyrics/ happy melody. The words and music flow naturally. No forcing more lyrics into what sings easily, no stretching out lyrics to fill in lack of ideas.

Controversial topics should be avoided, but, if you do choose debatable subjects, make sure they are presented tastefully. I don't think the listener would sit still for a blow by blow account of an abortion, for example.

Does the song change time frames? Has the listener been prepared to go from the past to the present or, one locale to another? An abrupt shift will cause you to lose the listener.

Does the song revolve around one main idea, or is the lyric scattered all over the place? It is usually okay to go somewhere else in the bridge, if it adds to the understanding with a different perspective on the same idea as the rest of the song.

If your intention is for people to remember the name of your song, then be sure to title it with a word or phrase from the song that you use more than once. That's why most people will use something from the chorus, if there is one, because the chorus is repeated. If you're really stuck on a title, but it isn't repeated, is there a way at the end of the song you can use it in a repetitive fashion? One way you can do this is record it with the background vocals repeating it between the lines of the chorus. Now, when you sing it in public, get the audience to sing those background vocals.

Strong lines. The lyric should get better as it progresses through the song. Many times, writers cop out on the second verse, and resort to clichés to get through it. This is where rewriting may be necessary.

Song lyrics aren't the same as poetry. Are your lyrics realistic in tone? Abstractions are hard for the public to grasp in the immediate sense, which is where the song is accepted or rejected.

The song is an acceptable length for radio play. Probably, no more than 3 1/2 minutes. The demo should not contain musical breaks. The lyrics are honest, believable and heartfelt. Ask yourself, would the singer want to be associated with the tone or message in these lyrics? If the male comes across as weak or the female as a victim, the artist will probably pass on the song. One big no-no is self-pity. I have also been told by other publishers they don't like to hear begging songs, though its' been done.

How many of these craft worthy details can you point to in the song? The title is up front, the first line of the chorus? It is repeated for memorability? The lyrics express a new way of presenting the familiar? They are cliché free? The lyrics paint vivid images with word pictures? The song/melody is short enough and simple enough to catch the listener's ear and be recognizable the first time it's heard? The song has a touch of suspense or mystery about it that pulls the listener in?

Be careful of repetitive ideas. Don't say the same thing over and over. Don't repeat an idea. Don't tell us something you've already said. Unlike this tip, avoid redundancy.

Here's a checklist for you to use as you begin the re-work of your songs. #1) do you have a memorable title? Your title should be identifiable, memorable, and substantial for music, puts singer in favorable light, and makes you want to hear it again. #2) Does your song have a strong start? You need to pull your listener into song, established who, what, when, and where, immediately. #3) your song should progress in a logical, meaningful sequence. It should lead the listeners to a conclusion, stated or implied. #4) the music should be appropriate for, support and enhances the lyric content.

Strive for clarity in your songwriting efforts. Make it absolutely clear who is doing the talking/thinking, etc. Him, her, they, them, it, make it clear; show any changes of time, setting, viewpoint in a transitional line. Never assume knowledge on the part of the listener.

Here are some thoughts that you can take straight out of a Freshman Comp class. First, even the most complex of concepts can be expressed in simplistic terms. Keep your plot simple. Stick to only one central idea. Eliminate all subplots.

Pitch in Songwriting: Before you begin to compose, establish the key by playing and singing the scale of the key in which you wish to compose. Then play and hold the tonic note in the bass and try to be aware of the tonal implication of each melody note as it sounds against it.

Don't Use Shortcuts in Song Composition: When you're actually composing the song, such shortcuts as putting in a repeat sign after four measures in a verse section may discourage creative possibilities and choices that might have existed had you allowed yourself the space to realize them. (These could be as simple as changing one pitch or rhythm or adding a couple of measures of new music.)

When you're writing a lead sheet, keep the indications to an absolute minimum. The lead sheet should represent the most essential ingredients of the song. These ingredients can then be embellished by the vocalist(s), the accompanist, the arranger, or the producer. So don't clutter the lead sheet with arranging ideas or instrumental sections that are optional.

Use Your Intuition Becoming Versatile: Saxophonist Ernie Watts (Berkeley '66) has toured and recorded with artists as diverse as Barbara Streisand, Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Rolling Stones. Here he shares his advice for young players:

"It's very important to go inside and see what you feel. And see what you want to play. It's part of the development process. When you're younger, you have people that you emulate. And then at a certain time, there's that period of thinking, 'What do I think? What do I feel? What do I want to create? I've heard how this guy does it, I've studied him. Now how do I feel about this music?' It's really important to get to that point."

If you use only your rational mind when composing a song, you most likely will have an undesirable result--a dry, unmoving group of notes, logically organized but emotionally barren. A song that moves others must be written by someone who has felt moments of inspiration, who has had an intuitive experience in the actual process of writing. Writing for the Voice

It is absolutely essential to the craft of songwriting that the writer sing the melody, feel it in the voice, reach for the high notes, and focus on experiencing the relationship between the lyric and the melody. Much of the melody writing done for instruments, especially for the piano, is difficult or impossible to sing. The following are to be considered when writing for the voice:

1. How disjunctive is the melody? Too many intervallic leaps can cause the melody to be difficult or impossible to sing. 2. Does the vocalist have time to breathe between phrases? Is the phrase so long that it doesn't allow the singer to breathe? 3. Is the vocal range of the song too great? Does the range within a section of the song change too quickly?

Develop Your Skills: "To further their careers, young composers should do anything they can. Participation in student-run films, television, commercials, even local commercials, whatever they can take. I would even suggest that they have their own computer operations and take videos of some of their favorite and most influential films, shut down the sound, and lay in their own music to show how they would approach a project. And having a CD demo of film music available is important." Patterns in Songwriting

Once you start putting syllables into patterns, you are mixing a rhythmic element with phrase length and number of phrases. Music is, by nature, rhythmic. So you must arrange syllables into rhythmic patterns, either to prepare them for music, or to match music that has already been written.

You will spend a lot of writing time trying to match patterns--patterns of notes, or patterns you have written in earlier phrases or sections of your lyric (for example, matching your second verse with your first verse).

Using Unstressed Syllables: When words work simply as grammatical road signs to show relationships between words (grammatical function), they are unstressed. The grammatical function is very important. Look at the opening lines of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky":

"T was brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe"

They seem to make sense. Of course they don't, because sounds such as "brillig" and "slithy" aren't connected to any ideas. So why do the lines seem to say something? The answer is in the unstressed syllables. They tweak our ears; tell us to get ready for certain kinds of words.

Controlling Phrase Length: Your goal as a songwriter is not to make songs faster, but to control the speed of your songs. The length of your phrases is one of your most potent speed controllers. Speeding up and slowing down are relative ideas. Longer phrases must be longer than something. Shorter phrases must be shorter than something. You must establish a pace before you can speed up or slow down. The contrast is what gives you control.

Sing Verse to Balance Phrases: Contrasting one section with another is a great use of balancing. When you already have a balanced section, you can write another section to match it except at the end, where you unbalance it, usually by adding another phrase.

This unbalancing strategy is useful when you have two verses that lead into a chorus. Make the first verse completely balanced, and then unbalance the second verse by adding an extra phrase. This unbalancing will make it move forward into the chorus. armonic Cadence and Its Use in Form

Various sections within song forms usually call forth typical cadential patterns. For instance, a verse ending with a refrain will usually cadence on a tonic chord, thereby, harmonically, closing it. A verse leading to a chorus will typically use a half cadence; a bridge (B) section of an AABA song would most likely use a half cadence to lead back to the last A.

There are no firm rules constituting what type of cadence belongs where, but keep in mind that functionally, verse structures and bridge structures tend to remain harmonically open, while refrains and choruses usually end song sys

tems and, therefore, tend to close. The Basic Structure of a Lead Sheet: The lead sheet format reflects the importance of the melody. Harmonic voicing, texture, and orchestration are not found in lead sheets. The lead sheet solely contains the melody, the lyric, and the harmony notated with chord symbols.

Take a very good concept and write several songs about it. Each song should give a different twist or perspective to the concept. This may very soon add up to a complete concept album.

Practice writing lyrics that have absolutely nothing to do with anything you've actually experienced. This could really add more variety to your lyric writing. Was it something experienced by someone you know? Write about it.

Try different rhyming patterns or formulas. Don't limit yourself to making the last word of every line rhyme. How about making the line rhyme halfway as well? On the other hand, sometimes lines fit very well together and there is no need to rhyme.

Start by writing down your thoughts as ideas or in the form of a story. It's not always necessary to start with lyrics. You could probably write out your thoughts as a story or a list of ideas. After you've done this, begin transforming these ideas or story into lyrics and rhyme.

Don't worry about finishing a song in one shot. You can keep jotting down lines on a notebook, as they come. Don't pressure yourself. Keep adding those lyrics and eventually you will be able to pick up the best ideas, phrases or lines and complete your lyric writing exercise.

You can get lots of lyric writing ideas by listening to conversations and monitoring activities happening around you. Sometimes a simple statement that someone makes can lead to that great hit you've been longing to write. There are lyric ideas all over. The radio, television, movies, magazines and newspapers are some of the many sources.

The only way to attain vision is to have reworked and redefined your musical style and ability to the point to where you become aware of yourself as an artist. One cannot tell you what their musical vision is; they can only show you. A musician with a vision has the ability to meld his personality into his music. He/She knows his/her strengths and weaknesses. Every factor is a building block to their music. When you realize your vision as an artist, you will begin to understand what you want, and where you need to go to get it. If you haven't found it yet, don't fret. Keep making music and assessing yourself as a musician. It will come in time. Will it help you grow as a musician? Definitely. It will put that extra edge in your music that screams your name whenever people hear it.

Don't forget to relax and breathe once in a while. When the chips are down, get some ice cream. You've got your whole life to figure out what you want to do. Just take it step by step, and every so often you've got to get away. Do something different. Go ride a bike. Go climb a mountain. Do something that gets you out of your room. As a musician you should be expressing aspects of life in your music. So go out there and have something to come home and write about.

Never ever feel you have to be better than or equal to or as good as anybody else is. Your job is to be yourself, that's it. No one else can do this job. No one else can be who you are, feel what you feel, say what you say. Therefore, even if you think it has been said, you haven't expressed it in your own way, and no one else can express "it" like you can, so don't be afraid to add your voice to the chorus. What you are doing is adding to the world, not subtracting.

Here's a neat little songwriter-ly trick. For emphasis, use important words at the end of the line. Always use the active voice in your verbs rather than the passive. Rhyme the words that you are going to stress.

Strive for clarity in your songwriting efforts. Make it absolutely clear who is doing the talking/thinking, etc. Him, her, they, them, it, make it clear; show any changes of time, setting, viewpoint in a transitional line. Never assume knowledge on the part of the listener.

Here are some thoughts that you can take straight out of a Freshman Comp class. First, even the most complex of concepts can be expressed in simplistic terms. Keep your plot simple. Stick to only one central idea. Eliminate all subplots.

Make a goal to make one new song every week, even if it is only 50 seconds long. It is the fact that you are working your brain out. Once you begin the song, you can latch onto ideas rather quickly. That is not the purpose of the exercise. The purpose is to get your brain to find new avenues by exploring different ideas. It's about trying something new every time.

Make a reason for why every part of your song exists. Find parts in your lead passage that really hook you. Now delete all the other parts. Now build off of the hook. Get it? Computers cannot find hooks, but your ear can. If you can't feel anything interesting from a part, get rid of it.

Sometimes just getting out of the house and doing something you haven't done in a long time (or never done) can open up the doors to musical inspiration. Open up a photo album, read old letters, visit family, friends, go do an activity, do anything but music. Read poetry, watch ballet, go to see a movie, walk around in a museum, look at oil paintings and sculptures as these are all different forms of art. Music is an art form too. Sometimes other forms of art can be inspiring to the musician. Come back, after your mind has been freed, and try to write a song about it.

As a songwriter, we need to all understand that there is no "bad" or "good" music. There are only songs people can and can't relate to. So don't feel bad if your music doesn't reach out to everyone. There isn't any one style of music that can. The trick is that you need to find people who already enjoy the style of music you write. From there, you can more accurately judge how well your music

communicates. When writing music, try not to appeal to every single type of listener. Write the music in the style you love to make, and write it for those people.

The second kind of critique (grain of salt critiques) judge’s music by using their own style as their frame of reference. These critiques do not make your music better, just different. Usually, this will just change the appeal of the different types of listeners instead of enhancing the experience to the listeners who would have liked your music originally. They may give you ideas to help your vision, but they are also tearing down walls that you have identified as your style. You can learn from these people, but you just have to be careful. Consider, possibly change and move on.

There are two kinds of critiques: The first kind of critique, my favorite, shows you ideas to help you express yourself while respecting the vision of the artist. These are the kind of people that can really help us grow as musicians because we are not being torn down and reconstructed to their image, they are building off of our vision and riding it out from there. Critiquers can give you a new perspective on your song, and your Musicianship may even grow as new ideas will be presented to you. If you get a bad critique, this can also prepare you for dealing with rejection. Consider the advice that is presented to you, have enough modesty to accept the advice (if you agree with it) and move on. Don't respond back to the critiques telling them "they didn't understand the piece". Your music just did not communicate it to them. You should never have to explain your music. It should speak on its own.

The lyric and the melody belong together. It’s called prosody. Happy lyrics/ happy melody. The words and music flow naturally. No forcing more lyrics into what sings easily, no stretching out lyrics to fill in lack of ideas.

Think about what the song needs as opposed to what you want. The 'both of you' might have varying opinions. When you make the music bigger than you are, then you'll understand what this means. Great songs tend to have a mind of their own

When you think in terms of the best interests in the song, you may have to rid yourself some very good ideas that you wanted to do. All of us have come up with very creative ideas that really didn't work with the song we were composing. Don't mess up your song by trying to fit it in. If you can fit it in and it feels right to put it there, great. If it doesn't, then you have an idea for your next song to ready to go.

Know your listeners: Overcomplicated songs will lose the average listener. Now, other hard-core musicians will greatly appreciate your abilities and probably get more feeling from it- but the common person will most likely not be able to follow. Once again you should ask yourself when you write a song: Who am I making this music for and will they be able to relate?

Never stop working at your abilities: If our main goal as a songwriter is to connect emotionally with our listeners, we should want to have as many tools as we possibly can to achieve that goal. The more abilities that we have, the more choices we can make musically. It's important to have a wide arsenal of choices at your disposal, because if we keep doing the same 'tried and true' methods, their emotional effects will wear off as the songwriting becomes caged into a predictable movement.

Write a rough draft of the first verse of your song: This verse should draw attention to your song and make your audience want to listen. Don't worry about it being perfect at this point; you will refine all the verses and the chorus later. Now, of course, you will need to write the second verse. In this part you will need to continue to tell the story and explain what the action is. Don't be too detailed; this is a three-minute song, not an opera. Next comes the third verse. Tell more about your story here, and add relevant information to your story. You really want to enhance the story line from verses one and two, because the next verse will close the song.

As in most endeavors, the songwriter has to begin somewhere. And the best place to begin is someplace where you feel comfortable. Do something (relatively) easy and then set out to branch out and grow. Also, a songwriter has to have a motive. Why am I writing this song? Do I have something to say? Something to share? Money to make?

Write down the subject of the song, the idea or the message you want to convey, and the story the song will tell. The subject of the song might be falling in love; the message might be that there is someone for everyone; the story might tell of a man and a woman that meet and fall madly in love with each other. This is a good time to write down the words to the chorus of the song. The chorus is a bridge or connection from one verse to the next. It must make sense to sing the words of the chorus in between the verses. From the chorus, you will also need to make-up a catchy title for your song.

The hook is the song's thesis statement. Every essay has a thesis that encapsulates its central idea; similarly, an effective song must have a hook that expresses in just a few words and notes what the song is about. The hook must be repeated several times throughout the song. If it isn't repeated, it isn't a hook. It is that one line, both musically and lyrically, that listeners will remember long after the song is over. It's that line that they will whistle or sing in the shower and what they will ask for when they call the radio station to request the song.

George Martin interview, Masters of Music: Conversations with Berklee Greats by Mark Small and Andrew Taylor.
Copyright 2001 Berklee Press