Read how to write better songs
I’ve been forcibly reminded this week of just how much learning is a two-way street. Not exactly a ‘duh’ moment but not far off.
I’ve been involved in mentoring and coaching songwriting students in various guises for some years now. But I also fill my own cup working with a great mentor and taking courses in supportive subjects where stars align.
It keeps me paddling in a sort of happy tidal estuary with information, experience and knowledge sharing flowing in and out pretty much simultaneously. Quack, quack!
However, the recent conclusion of a 12 week one-on-one mentorship with a student who delivered as much as he received plus starting a university programme on modern poetry with a most enthusiastic lecturer, has been a right royal rev up.
I’ve also really enjoyed working on a couple of pre-production projects and watching students in my online Songwriting School make some serious headway, now in their second year. My own experience of being mentored once a week has been a real eye-opener too.
The big surprise for me is how much I learn from students. Sometimes, it’s been incremental, but every now and then someone has a decent epiphany - a leap forward or break-through.
It’s particularly satisfying when they’ve been able to apply whatever they’ve gleaned from a class, article or workshop specifically to their own songwriting or music career and get the results they'd hoped for.
That makes me want to upgrade my own study, create more useful targeted resources and deliver them more effectively. Quack, quack!
I’m very excited to be welcoming a fresh group of students to Songwriting School starting Tuesday August 2. If you’d like to learn more about songwriting or the online school, just get in touch.
Ps here’s a link to 25 songwriting assignments by US educator Tony Conniff supplied courtesy of Soundfly mentoring student Spencer Brill.
To play an open mic you can start with one song, but two is preferable. To play an opening set for a headliner, you’ll need 25-30 minutes of material. To headline, you need at least one 50 minute set. To secure a restaurant spot, you’ll need at least 2 x 45/50 minute sets.
A single is just one song. There is no ‘B’ side in the digital world – it just becomes your second single. An EP (20th century definition Extended Play Record) is a collection (or medium length album) of 4-6 songs while an LP (20th century Long Playing Record) is usually considered an album of collection of 7 or more songs – more commonly 8-12. And then there’s the ‘difficult’ second album to consider.
To be a working songwriter, you can see you need a bunch of songs once you poke your head above the parapet. You can also see there’s a pattern of releasable songs – multiple singles, a stepping stone EP and an album you can consider manufacturing to merch at your shows, where you need to be able to play a set or two live.
You also need some sort of process to generate enough material to fill sets and release schedules once you ‘play out’ . Being able to write a number of songs reasonably regularly is mandatory. And then there’s making sure that the songs you (or you and your collaborators) write is of sufficient quality to release or perform to an audience.
Once the ball gets rolling with your fledging career, it can be very challenging to lock in writing time when the posters need to get printed, the venues need booking (and in COVID life, re- and re-booking!) plus all those coveted carefully lined up interviews and live to air performances need to happen plus the many routine tasks associated with promoting and producing indie music.
While there are lot of ‘shoulds’ and ‘got to be dones’ in this flurry, it’s important to stick to your knitting and write songs! No songs, no gigs. No good songs, no repeat gigs. No new songs, no audience or catalogue development.
Quantity is hugely important because the number of finished songs you write allows you to begin connecting with an audience – live or broadcast. Quality is equally, but differently important because some of your songs will be of better quality than others. Pay careful attention to those.
Better quality songs attracts larger audiences and more discerning audiences. They start to garner the attention of music business folks from studio operators to music media, producers to playlist curators.
Better quality songs lift you up the hierarchy allowing your career opportunities to compound as doors start to open for you.
Quality is also relevant in the level of performance you offer, the way you interact with which media, and the support contractors you use from audio engineers to promoters to advisors. You start to build a reputation as a quality act. You can progress.
To create Michael Jackson’s Thriller, producer Quincy Jones auditioned 600 songs to get to the final 12 tracks. That 's a lot of song sifting to get quality material to create a hit record!
But improving the quality of your songs can start with one word. Here’s the multi-award winning genre-crossing producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Dixie Chicks, System of A Down, Johnny Cash) in an interview with the slightly odd Tim Ferriss.
Tim Ferriss: When you’re working with an artist who believes they can’t do something, or is just hitting that wall, what are some of the ways that you help them get past that?
Rick Rubin: Usually, I’ll give them homework, a small, doable task. I’ll give you an example. There was an artist I was working with recently, who hadn’t made an album in a long time, and was struggling with finishing anything. And, just had this – it was a version of a writer’s block …. But, I would give him very doable homework assignments that almost seemed like a joke. “Tonight, I want you to write one word, in this song that needs five lines, that you can’t finish, I just want one word that you like, by tomorrow, do you think that you could come up with one word? “ And, usually, he’d be like yeah, I think I can do one word. And, just very quickly, by breaking it down into pieces, … and chipping away, one step at a time, you can really get through anything.
Note - quantity and quality aren’t at odds with the approach taken by top-level artists. Quantity and quality are intertwined, hand in helping hand. Not a bad idea to have at the forefront of your songwriting journey.
Once your song is completed, how does it reach an audience?
Indeed, part of the process of even deciding the song is actually done is by connecting with select audiences for a road test.
It does depend on where you sit as a songwriter.
If you’re well ensconced in the industry, it may just be a case of slipping it into your live set. Or if you’re fresh to the scene, running a new song at open mic has been a supportive testing ground.
However, sometimes people come up with ingenious ways to release material by thinking outside the box. Here are two recent examples.
Case Study 1 Take Me Back to Karamea
Rachel Hird wrote this song as the result of a particular Songwriting School exercise – one that the class did not enjoy! The idea of setting a rhythm before pitch to come up with a melody and lyric was utterly alien to the students, but they did all complete it, and with quite unexpected results.
A tribute to her WW1 veteran grandfather, the lyrics were taken from letters he had written to his sweetheart. Rachel used her home studio to create a track which she had professionally mixed for release plus her notation skills to whip up some sheet music. She set up a Bandcamp page and added a self-published book to the merch page, making quite a ‘family history’ package.
However, she timed the release of the material with ANZAC Day (for international readers, this is 25 April – a national holiday for commemoration of the Australian-NZ combined forces getting hammered at Gallipoli).
Timing proved to be everything. She was interviewed twice by different announcers on Radio National - once for the story of her grandfather presented in the book and once where her song, Take Me Back to Karamea, was broadcast nationally.
Case Study 2 Song for the Bad Guys
Nick Feint independently released a professionally recorded full-length album, Next Exit to Babylon, in Janaury. He’d crafting both his material and live show over the last couple of years and attended three Songwriting Retreats. But his plans to promote the release were stymied by the pandemic.
One of his songs, Song for the Bad Guys, was also a tribute – this time to his father-in-law, a German submariner in WW2. Nick made contact with the producer of a podcast series on WW2 military history, and his story plus the full song were subsequently incorporated in this episode in February. And there’s more to come!
What both these examples show is how music is delivered via different outlets. For independent musicians, providing programmers and media producers with project relevant material can be just the ticket, especially if it lands at the right time.
Upstairs for thinking, downstairs for dancing!
A question that comes up over (and over!) from songwriters I work with is how to create more time to write songs.
I know many of you feel crunched between demanding jobs and family commitments. Or you’re so knackered by the type of work you’re obliged to do, you have no bandwidth for your music left at day’s end. This makes you feel disappointed, guilty and frustrated.
Try this. What you want to build is a habit you don’t have to think about.
You’ve already got at least one like cleaning your teeth or getting dressed.
The thinking here is something short but regular, that you can say ‘YES!’ to, instead of all the reasons to say “but I don’t have time’.
The regular ‘practice’ or action builds continuity.
The second part is what you actually work on in the short time period.
Rather than ‘write songs’ (large goal, easy to get stumped and give up) choose some very particular part of songwriting to do in this short but frequent window of writing you have.
Now you have a chance of achieving something in your short, regular songwriting window. And guess what your brain will do – reward you with a flood of dopamine – your very own internal happiness neurotransmitter! What gets rewarded gets repeated.
The types of things you can do in a 5 – 15 minute period include:
*Writing a list of 5 titles
*Looking up rhyming options for a word in an online dictionary
*Recording a chord progression on your phone to listen to
*Singing a potential motif idea and recording it on your phone
*Uploading the previous day’s phone recording to your DAW
*Previewing 3 synth pads on your DAW – just 3
*Learning a new scale on your guitar – just 1
*Trying a new rhyme scheme you’ve never done before
A further layer to developing incremental songwriting practice is use times and places where your busy thinking brain takes a back seat eg daily commutes by train, lunchtime café trips, exercising inside or out, or doing housework or gardening.
For these times, you preload a phone or a tablet with something you’ve been working on to listen and respond to. You might use time to think of a melody to your chord progression or get a seed for an idea of one. Or go analogue and use a notebook to freewrite.
Finally, when you know you’ve got ‘blank time’ coming, plan to harvest it, especially in environments other than your home.
Three real life examples:
1. Famous NZ songwriter gets snowed off a gig in the US so spends the evening writing song with famous NZ guitarist.
2. A Soundfly student of mine asks what he should work on to best use a 6 hour flight on a budget airline (er, no inflight entertainment!) without buying more gear.
3. Creative writing post grad student colleague covers off all her reading logs while doing evening dishes or on the train travelling home.
Kitchens, planes and hotels are not your home studios, but they are still places you can create. So are cafes. Silence enhances focus but creativity is enhanced with ambient noise, at around 70 decibels to be precise. Plus a dynamic lowlevel bustle provides plenty of new stimulation for your novelty hungry midbrain.
This mindset needs a little bit of thought about the cues to use in your songwriting windows, but set up just one small action for tomorrow’s session and you’ll find your own groove.
Because in the words of the great Australian troubadour, Paul Kelly:
From little things, big things grow.
Ps you may find this recently published article with 5 ways to write melodies helpful too.
Her song, My Sister, was an early hit for her and here’s a very charming solo acoustic performance outside some campus many moons ago, and it stands up so well against the full performances by her then band The Juliana Hatfield Three.
Structurally, the song has no chorus – an intro, and a great outro, nail the title, and the 4 verses cite it too, but from very different angles – hate, love, sibling rivalry, adoration and lost opportunity, and all of it about a sister Juliana never had.
The lyrics are highly emotive - but with illuminating rhymes from the get go. Grabs your attention straight away.
I hate my sister, she's such a bitch.
She acts as if she doesn't even know that I exist.
The language is also terrifically sensory full of details that place the singer in family birth order, where she is in her life cycle – full angst of early-mid teenagedom, and chronologically - in the early 90s.
She's the one who would have taken me
To my first all-ages show.
It was the violent femmes and the del fuegos,
Before they had a record out.
Before they went gold,
Before they started to grow.
But its the arrangement of the song and its narrative that propel the song forward and build energy. The song uses two great riffs – one moody melancholic power chord arpeggio, and later, a second simpler two chord riff drives between F# and a higher voiced E major between verses 2, 3 and 4. These separate the verses, and level by level, crank the song right up.
But then the dynamics suddenly change, and the first two lines of that final verse 4 are pretty much sotto voce until the rhythm section cracks in again and a full throttle coda takes the song out.
The vocal melody follows a dynamic contour too – more pensive in the early verses but higher and louder as the song progresses – an octave above her starting point. Full saturation tension/release with plenty of nice surprises - no wonder the song struck such a chord for so many!
Therefore, Happy Juliana Hatfield Day to you all, and if you find someone good in your songwriting travels, don’t leave them on the shelf – rediscover the gifts they have to offer you over and over.
Talk more soon
ps Songwriting School presents BEHIND THE SCENES: Open Mic to Single Release
Join us for an hour with up and coming Chilean recording artist, Carlos Montecinos recently signed to Division Records. However when he lived in New Zealand for 3 and a half years he studied dance (hip hop) winning a year long tuition scholarship, and music (guitar/singing/live performance), all the while working as a cafe manager. He got to grips with songwriting and his home studio and began crafting his material and performance. Hear how his journey unfolded from open mics in Wellington's Cuba St to the successful release of 2 singles/videos, Te Vas and Sin Censura. This is an interview in real time via Zoom at 2pm on Saturday 2 April NZT. You will receive your Zoom invitation once you purchase your seat.
Motivation sure is a hot topic at the start of the New Year! However, in my realm, the repeated cancellations of performances have had a demotivating effect, even though one actually expects this is inevitable and fully understands that’s the safe and logical way forward.
But cancellations hit at one of the central tenets of performance life – ‘the show must go on’. Except when it shouldn’t, or can’t!
Certainly one is motivated to look for solutions and be prompt about the dismantling logistics that have to happen, but ‘cancel culture’ slows or completely puts a brake on the secret ingredient to maintaining motivation for the entire year - and that’s momentum.
Motivation only goes so far but it’s momentum that keeps you moving forward.
What I totally appreciated this last weekend was the momentum I gained or rather regained from the very motivated participants at our Stage Level Songwriting Retreat.
With several repeat clients, getting further tutoring and feedback on their songwriting and presentation plus sharing their successes from the previous year to like-minded folks was restorative and a reminder of how infectious momentum can be.
Some had restructured their free time or were in the process of rescheduling work arrangements to spend more energy on their music. Some had contacted producers and were in pre-production and some had performed their first sets in concert or at open mic. And one person had released an album two weeks earlier.
Each was working and tweaking their own particular pathway but sharing the small steps that had compounded throughout the year and was obvious in a ‘where I was then’ and ‘where I am now’ discussion.
This showed the power of converting the more ephemeral motivation into tangible habits, routines and behaviours that happened more regularly, needing not quite so much mental effort. Where motivation had become the hum of momentum.
Retreat had a reinforcing effect on this, with no one thinking twice about whether to harmonise or not on someone’s song – just ripping into it. Participants were stimulated by each other’s efforts and it rubbed off – on me.
So if you find yourself disheartened by the current state of play in our live performance landscape, please remember this too will pass and key into creating some momentum for your music.
It might be doing revamping your studio, finally learning that plug in or creating a practice schedule or revisiting a favourite artist’s catalogue or getting in touch with a co-writer or play some music with people, in whatever form you can – audience or no.
Rather than ‘should’, just do. Get the ball rolling rather than let the pandemic flat line your limited reserves of motivation.
Out with the old variant and in with the new, the pandemic continues to challenge both music makers and supporters.
With an eye-watering drop in live music performance/physical sales and a hockey stick up-tick in streaming, how music reaches us changed in a heartbeat.
Same for songwriters with lockdowns and border closures making digital collaboration and remote working par for the course.
Some songwriters found they responded well finding new creativity at home while others missed the in-person snap-crackle-pop of studio sessions. Whatever the scenario, every one’s routine sure had a shake up!
The start of a new year in this complex ever-changing environment raises the question of how will you approach your own songwriting in 2022. Is it something you’d like to foster or perhaps you’re not sure about where to next?
One of the most common challenges songwriters have raised in Reddit is how to keep writing regularly when you’re working full time at a ‘soul sucking job’.
Here’s something to think about. Consider committing to your songwriting by signing up for Songwriting School – with an online real time session once a week.
If you’ve wanted to pursue your songwriting but find it hard to keep motivated, regular weekly online classes in real time really help. How do I know?
Songwriting School has been running for a whole year now and various members have had all the things of life, let along COVID to deal with – illness, travel, busy as jobs, changing jobs, no job, death of a parent, moving house – and they were still able to continue with songwriting, as part of their lives. Not perfect, but not stopping.
Here’s what they said.
‘The weekly deliverables has really helped me to lighten up on the perfectionism and just work at the songs. This course gives me a sense of living a creative life because I'm actually writing not just thinking about writing.’
‘I have built up a resource of songs like I've never had before.’
‘The class has been great, I have enjoyed it thoroughly. I have really liked getting the opportunity to meet other people who are much more experienced in song writing. Delivery on Zoom has certainly been perfect for COVID year, and perfect to allow us to have a class with someone who is in a different place and if we are in a different place.’
‘I have loved song writing school more than I dreamed I would. I have learnt heaps yet feel I just scratched the surface. I am excited about where my music creativity is going. It has brought a new dimension to my guitar playing. I am looking forward to next year so much.’
‘I love the genuine delivery, fucks and all. Thank you so much.’
With Songwriting School, you get accountability, good content and supportive online interaction with other students/tutors in a private forum. It’s the Goldilocks recipe – not too much - not too little - just right!
If you think this might be right for you, you're welcome to call me or email now to arrange a free consultation. I'm on 021 685561.
Photo by stillness-inmotion via Unsplash
Much music involves the creation of tension and resolving it. A little bit of dissonance here, a little bit of anticipation there and then, relief!
It also means having a conflict to resolve within your lyrics, whether that’s within the story that you tell, the situation you find yourself in or the attitude you express.
This is part of the point of writing a song at all.
That there is something to push against – the lover who dumped you, the one you dumped or the one you’re not sure you want to be with. Then there’s the authority figures you’re totally over, the quest you’re on or the struggles you encounter.
This can happen in a handful of words or a whole host, depending on what genre you’re in. The trick is enrolling us in it as soon as possible. Here’s the opening of Papa was a Rolling Stone by the Temptations.
It was the third of September
That day I'll always remember, yes I will
'Cause that was the day that my daddy died
And Billy Paul’s Me and Mrs Jones
Me and Mrs. Jones
We got a thing goin' on
It can be just the thought of potential conflict like in Dennis Lloyd’s Nevermind
What if I left and it made no sense
And you tell your friends
And they hold your hands
Baby, nevermind, nevermind
Or that while conflict is all around you, you are mercifully buffered from it for now, like in Daniel Caesar’s Get You
Through drought and famine, natural disasters
My baby has been around for me
Kingdoms have fallen, angels be calling
None of that could ever make me leave
Whatever conflict you decide to imbue your song with lyrically, remember that while your audience hears a song ‘linearly’ as real time audio, you don’t have to write it linearly. In fact, the set up may be the last thing you write!
The point is creating some sort of conflict you can supply a release or resolution for lyrically, just as you do musically.
We love it when you do that!
Wishing everyone the best Christmas and summer holidays for 2022!
Thank-you all for reading and feeding back.
How Do You Write Songs?
One of the things we’ve been doing in Songwriting School is looking at how students actually write their songs. The way they do it, when they do it, what gear they use, what rituals they foster, what gets them going and what stymies them.
As an exercise, each student was asked to have a really good think about their own way of conjuring up a song in honest and specific detail and then write it down and post on the Songwriting School forum.
The results were fascinating. They showed that a process is different from a hard and fast formulaic ‘5 Steps to Writing A Hit Song’. The processes were much more malleable and change responsive – evolving as the songwriters incorporated new ideas or approaches.
They also showed how a ‘cookie cutter’ one size fits all formula will never really work because it doesn’t take into account the innate individuality each songwriter has in terms of the experience, ability and motivation they contribute to their chosen creative pursuit.
Writing it down encouraged each songwriting student to allocate some in-depth time to self-reflection, to identify the things they find easier in songwriting and isolate areas that could be nurtured. It also created a wee snapshot of where they are now and clarified what to focus on for the future.
Each account of ‘how I write songs’ had significant differences and some surprises. People wrote while out for a run or watching a movie on their computer (half-screen). Some folks struggled to get a tune in their head without an instrument in their hands while others wrote anywhere anytime. Some were larks and other owls. And one person couldn’t do this exercise because the rest of life was too big that week and that’s just gonna happen sometimes! All good.
The important thing is they got to read each other’s accounts, as well as think about their own way of doing things for better or worse. It’s a stock take as well as a ‘learning moment’ – learning both by committing to doing the task and by gaining insight into other songwriters’ creative processes.
Worth having your own look at how you write your songs now. Professor Andrea Stolpe of Berklee College of Music has a detailed ‘moving song parts’ list to help.
Some words punch above their weight in song. Where there’s little time and space in the real-time audio experience of a 3 minute track, not every word in a lyric is going to get the spotlight. But some words need to
Yes, there’s the title – the rule of the thumb being it’s often repeated, potentially the most repeated word or group of words in the lyric, and for good reason. Er, it makes us remember the name of your song and tends to encapsulate the point of the song – the takeaway. But other types of word have a different function.
Action verbs express something that someone or something can physically do – like kick, scream, run, dance, smother, stab or kiss. Yup, these verbs are active! That’s in contrast to verbs that describe a state of being – particularly any derivative of the verb ‘to be’ – am, is, was, are, were, be, been, being. They’re called linking verbs and useful for sure.
But in song lyrics, it’s useful to minimise their appearance in favour of action verbs. While I was aware of this as a concept, I wasn’t quite so aware of the recommended relative balance to aim for – which is why I’m bringing it up! Rule of thumb here is for every linking verb you use, colour the rest of your song with five action verbs and your song will spring into life.
Action verbs bring direction and momentum. They contribute to your audience’s connection with the lyric because they contribute to imagery – we can see someone kissing or stabbing. We can readily imagine someone jumping off a bridge or diving into the ocean.
Action verbs make us feel like we’re present in the drama or narrative of the song, like we’re part of the experience.
Action verbs also make the point concisely. This is highlighted when you boil down a sentence to a noun followed by an action verb eg love hurts. Now there’s a song right there.
So the tip is when you’re editing, comb through your verbs and pump up the action. If you’re stuck, don’t forget the online or real life thesaurus. Or just type ‘action verbs’ into your search engine and see what treasure surfaces. Even substituting just one linking verb for an action verb could do wonders for your words.
Talk more soon.
Shout out to reader Glenda Rogers who forwarded this very cool podcast episode of Strong Songs on ever inventive duo, They Might Be Giants and their technique of creating ‘microsongs’. Check it out!