Read about how to write better songs
Sometimes to get creative, you limit something. It skinnies down your choices and provide something to push against, a tangible problem to solve or work around. And that fires up your imagination.
Sometimes it’s the length of time you choose to spend on your writing. You confine a songwriting session to 90 minutes – what can you generate in a manageable studio block on your calendar?
Sometimes, it’s meeting up with a collaborator or coach – you have to make that date or, like working for James Brown, you get fined.
Sometimes, it’s setting a ‘non-negotiable given’ for part of the songwriting process that acts as a prompt. For example, if you keep writing songs in a particular key e.g C major for keyboard players or A major for guitarists, run to the other side of that Circle of 5ths, and try writing in Ab or Gb for the session.
Another constraint can be returning to something extremely simple. Uncomplicate part of your songwriting. Try it 'just for today' and see what happens.
I was really struck by how effective this can be from one of the class ‘assignments’ for Songwriting School, where in the online teaching session, we looked at the simple song structure AAA.
For many of us, it’s the first type of song structure we learn, often by osmosis from nursery rhymes or hymns, carols and folk songs growing up. But it has stood the test of time and finds its way into multiple contemporary genres to this day.
The assignment asked the students to write a song using the AAA structure. No fewer than 3 verses plus or minus refrain. By constraining the structure, it forced the songwriting students to come up with other ways to create interest, tension and contrast within the song, because there are no innate sectional changes doing it automatically.
Each student did this in their own way – with imaginative narrative or metaphors or an illuminating chord progression or a powerful melody. But more importantly they were all able to complete the task within the week allocated – one immediately after the online class in a fever of inspiration.
And that was just one constraint!
So, if you’re floundering, try returning to something simple in your songwriting practice. You may surprise yourself or at the very least, write something new.
Talk more soon
PS To see some of Aotearoa’s finest songwriters working with constraint (song set to a Katherine Mansfield poem), come to Mansfield – In Her Own Words if you’re in Wellington Monday 14 June 8pm at the Michael Fowler Centre or Sunday 20 June 7pm in Auckland’s Bruce Mason Centre. 12 artists – 12 poems set to song - it’s quite a line-up!
PPS Songwriting School now has a second weekly class available on Wednesday evenings at 7.30pm. Email me to sign up.
So here’s April and we’re now firmly into the second quarter for 2021. That felt pretty quick to me. While I’m not a particular fan of New Year resolutions, I think taking stock of where you’re at in your own ‘dream scape’ is valuable.
Because while clearly articulated goals, especially SMART goals sure can help you get stuff done, dreams bring the magic.
Dreams let you run riot in your imagination creating all sorts of fantastic possibilities. In your wildest dreams, you can be or do anything. You can ask for whatever you want. You can ask what if.
Dreams completely change your everyday pace and perspective. You can try things on for size – big or small - with no strings attached. They really are free. It costs you absolutely nothing to dream. And no one need know about them – except you.
Dreams are hugely motivating – they can help you create a better vision for your life or your way of life.
They have an interesting relationship with goals - their more prosaic but practical cousins! Goals without dreams can be a little dry and dusty - more raspberry cordial than sparkling burgundy.
Dreams can extend your horizon while goals have the potential to settle for ‘this’ll do’. While goals can be the tactician allowing you to draft the most intricate day planners and morning rituals, it’s the dreams you want to chase that bring fuel to the fire.
That fuel is a heady mix of excitement and hope. It’s present in creativity as part of intrinsic motivation and it's there as part of you feeling ‘right’ about the direction you’re headed with your songwriting.
So this autumn, clock in with your dreams – do they light you up? Or are you ignoring them, just because you have get a bit ‘goal-ly’, a bit organised to make them come true?
ps new class opening for Songwriting School Wed May 5.
pps First Level Retreat's open for bookings now
Photo by Unsplash - Jonathan Hoxmark
Despite Eddi Reader’s great vocal for Fairground Attractions’ hit song, Perfect, being perfect ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. That terribly effective chorus is a curse of an earworm if you’re at all susceptible to perfectionism.
While I totally get wanting your work to be good, better or even best, there’s a downside to over polishing or waiting until ‘it’s just right’ before sharing or releasing a song. There’s also a potentially shady side to repeatedly comparing your music or your performance with other artists.
Sure, anyone involved in creative work is prone to losing perspective. Being fully immersed in a project or a production is a fine thing, but when you’re never satisfied with a job well done to the best of your abilities, then something’s amiss.
Songwriting is wildly subjective. There really is no single formula to follow for a hit or a magic pill you can take to ‘make it’. Yep, there are fairly generic songwriting conventions, sometimes misconstrued as ‘rules’ or ‘absolute truths’. But a song can technically tick all the boxes and still not appeal to an audience.
Terminology - perfect fourths and fifths, being ‘in tune’, having perfect pitch, perfect rhyme, hitting the ‘wrong’ note – applies a little pressure! And the countless mathematical qualities in music from time signatures to the number of accidentals in a key can also put you into ‘gotta get it right’ mode.
Arming yourself with great technique and theory is hugely useful – a lifetime resource. But, and there is a big but. If you feel you always have to ‘get it right’, you never give yourself permission to fail.
That’s a worry because songwriting is asymmetric – an astronomically high number of misses for every hit. There are cul-de-sacs and dead ends, ideas that don’t fly, songs that people like more than others, duff records, bombs, flops and things that seemed like a good idea at the time! Madly imperfect!
You need to fail to make your best work. And have fun doing it! You actually need
to enjoy the process (intrinsic motivation!) or your sense of play, your creativity – the very fuel of your fire - is stifled. You procrastinate, fearful of critique. You ruminate, pointlessly. You become resistant to risk, feedback, new suggestions, collaborations or live performance. You shut the shop on yourself.
To turn this around, know these things:
1. Perfectionism is an abstraction. It is like infinity – you won’t get there because there is no there. Set benchmarks for yourself you can imagine and party hard when you meet them!
2. Shit happens – the things of life that look like accidents or bad luck. No, the world doesn’t hate you! It’s just a case of being human. Prepare a little for inevitable setbacks – cue checklists, insurance and spare strings!
3. There will always be people better than you. And worse! The reality is that your songs won’t connect with everyone. So find your audience, your own artistic niche and your tribe – supporters, colleagues, your natural network.
4. Listen to the positive as evenly as the negative feedback. Keep a success portfolio to track your progress (things you did better than before). Then you can balance rumination with hard evidence when things go awry.
5. If you can’t get perspective, get diverted. Sleep, exercise, take a bath, hang out with (non)musical mates, talk to your kids, volunteer somewhere. Regroup, shake it off and go write a new song.
with very best wishes
Repetition is endemic in contemporary song. Not only is it an important feature, but in popular music, it's a defining feature. It totally dominates rhythmic arrangements, but it's also rife in harmony with repeating chord progressions, melody with it's motifs and phrases and song form (verse-chorus) before we even take a good look at the lyrics.
Yet this very clear and present device can lead to disparaging comments by audiences and musicians alike, where repetition is confused with banality, a lack of originality or even juvenilia.
To counter this, consider how repetition does indeed bring joy to songwriters and listeners both, and contemplate how you can work it more effectively.
Firstly, music and the capacity to appreciate or create it is present in every single human cultural group. It's part of us. As humans, we are the ONLY species to entrain. That means we can synchronise to a rhythmic source outside the body. We can clap or nod our heads or march or dance to repeated, evenly spaced beats. We join in. And if you change the tempo, we can (mostly!) lock in and go faster or slower. And we do this from a really young age. We like it.
Secondly, we can synchronise single discrete pitches (notes) into chords by harmonising our voices. Oof! We like that too.
Rather than banal, harmony and synchronicity - two forms of repetition - are highly evolved in humans.
Thirdly, all human cultures have developed certain music making tools - instruments - from wooden drums to reed pipes, Moog synthesisers to hurdy-gurdys, with which we make sequences or patterns of melody and repeat them.
Repeating rhythm, harmony and melody with our voices, our bodies and our cool tools has evolved - it's been selected for. You can be perceived to be technically 'shite at music' but still appreciate all these things, simply because you are a human.
Fast forward to current songwriting practice and the balance of high level repetition with variation and release is a multi-billion dollar industry. Not only are the individual components of songs repeated, but the more popular the song is with an audience, the more they want it repeated.
Songwriters who can use repetition deftly not only enhance memorability of a song, but can supply nuanced expression, to highlight and intensify certain emotions, from disenchantment to erotic fervour. There's joy in repetition indeed.
From simply repeating a word for rhetorical importance, often the title, to making sure the words of repeated chorus still make sense after the second verse has shoved the song's plot along, repetition is constantly contributing to connecting with listeners. From repeated vocal hooks, like David Bowie's stuttering 'ch-ch-ch - changes' or David Byrne's 'fa-fa-fa-fa' syllable repeats in 'Pyschokiller' to Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine's 'I know I know I know I know...' repeat 26 times, repetition can really and truly make a descriptive point!
How can you use layers of repetition to give your songwriting more impact?
ps We had a great time at the NEXT LEVEL Songwriting Retreat in Tahora over the weekend. Thanks to all the songwriters that came and gave it their all: Juliet McLean, Nick Feint, Farley Hokopaura,Tim Jardine, Hanne Jøstensen, Nycki Proctor, Rachel McAlpine, PH Lim, me and Nancy Fulford. Love your work! Thanks to Debb Stewart, Kerry Turner and their mate, Alix for the lovely catering and cossetting at 3 Bullock Farm, Tahora.
The next event will be a FIRST LEVEL Songwriting Retreat
over Labour Weekend, 22-25 October 2021. And you can book now!
pps Songwriting School, my online songwriting weekly tuition session, is on it's way next month! Get into it here.
Illustrations by Leanne Shapton
The free filesharing platform WeTransfer runs a series of creativity profiles and while waiting for an upload, I spied a story from resident New York illustrator Leanne Shapton. Stuck in COVID apartment duress with her daughter, this 46 yr old woman outlined her transition from cooking illiteracy to not-so-bad-more -than-getting-by-preparer-of-food-for-the-whānau in her essay/exhibit, I Could Drink A Case of You: A Joni Mitchell Grocery List.
Initially cringingly bad at cooking even the basics, Leanne catalogues her culinary progress and memories alongside lyrics from albums devoured during lockdown and presents a charming series of illustrations of Mitchell's lyrics that specifically mention food or drink.
There's a ton and in terms of highlighting sensebound writing, you couldn't really get a better archive. You can taste and smell these words from 'Singapore slings' to 'muffin buns and berries by the steamy kitchen window'. Truly food for thought!
Which brings me to the (almost related) topic of feedback.! I frequently come across songwriters wondering how to get it or how to avoid it or how to recover from the results of feedback that may be well meaning but has effectively crush their will to live.
In this article for Bandzoogle, I cover why it is important to utilize feedback as part of your songwriting took kit, but discuss how to curate a feedback loop that's relevant to your career stage. Needs vary wildly depending on where you are in the songwriting ecology. You can learn to be strategic about developing a supportive and open feedback loop and save yourself a lot of grief!
Finally, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
See you in 2021 if not before.
with very best wishes
ps the Next Level Songwriting Retreat @Tahora 22-25 January has sold out. However, you're welcome to contact me about going on the wait list. It's gonna be a great start to 2021!
pps Songwriting School is coming soon!!
When you start to write your own songs, you may think that because songwriters have been using many of the same words in so many songs, there’s no room at the table for anyone else.
Important words - especially those simple, clear, really useful ones - like love, you, I, us, me, heart, always, eyes, night feel well thrashed. How on earth do you make your mark?
Strategy Two is to use words differently. There are many ways to do this but here's three.
How you set common conversational phrases up in a lyric can make them virtually pop. The lyric immediately before or after becomes almost a wrap-around balance of familiar vs. surprise.
Exhibit A - Fiona Apple
In her song Shameika, the first line sounds utterly conversational and normal usage but it's a great set up for the second line where the lyric come alive with the unexpected postpositive adjective (invisible) and an internal rhyme (teeth with streets). Both lines scan exactly the same, rocking along at 4 dactyls apiece.
I used to walk down the streets on my way to school
Grinding my teeth to the rhythm invisible
Exhibit B - Prince
The phrase 'moon-June lyrics' is a dig at the Tin Pan Alley perfect rhyme pair that stumped songwriters resort to. But it depends on the context. Here's Prince using it in Sign O' the Times and you barely notice because the set up is so deft.
Sister killed her baby 'cause she couldn't afford to feed it
And we're sending people to the moon
September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time
Now he's doing horse - it's June.
The power of metaphor can revitalise words you need to use. Finding new ways to describe love is always a challenge!
Exhibit C - Lori McKenna
Here Lori McKenna creates a pretty picture in her song Rocket Science.
Love is rocket science
What comes up it must come down
In burning pieces on the ground
We watch it fall
Maybe love is rocket science after all.
Exhibit D - The Weeknd
And The Weeknd is so struck he can't feel his face in this memorable love twist, Can't Feel My Face
I can't feel my face when I'm with you
But I love it, but I love it, oh
I can't feel my face when I'm with you
But I love it, but I love it, oh
Singing and speech have a great deal in common but melody allows the extension, compression and dilation of words to shift emphasis and underline emotional impact. Singers spend lungfuls of time on vowels and luckily 90% of contemporary songs are in the first person, so that's a lot of chances to sing I!
Exhibit E - Whitney Houston with Dolly Parton's I Will Always Love You.
Greatest vowel allocation rhythm presentation ever!
ps Only one spot left on the Next Level Songwriting Retreat 22-25 January in Tahora. Come get busy!
One problem that can confront songwriters is the balance between simplicity and originality.
Simplicity is fundamental for lyricists. Simple words tell it straight.
You, me, I, love, we, good, hot,
skin, heart, girl, lips, kiss,
time, gone, sad
The words are unequivocal, clearly understood by most folks who speak the language the songwriters do. They're easy to sing.
They cut to the heart of the matter. What could be simpler than I will always love you, help! or let it be?
The issue is that songwriters have been using the same words in so many songs, it can feel like there’s no room at the simple table for anyone else.
There are two strategies that songwriters have to get around this (either consciously or intuitively): use different words or use words differently.
And yes, I’m hugely simplifying things here, but it might be a helpful framework when you’re stuck down the well.
Strategy One is: Use Different Words.
The reason this can catapult your songs into the realm of unexpected and delighted surprise is that stretching your vocabulary carves up conceptual space more precisely according to linguist Geoffrey Nunberg.
It can also push you into using words that are more specific and relevant in particular situations your lyric describes. Therefore, it can make your song more authentic.
It can mean Prince using Corvette instead of car.
Or rather than Bob Dylan saying jobs, he says
Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters’ wives.
Or Eminem on pushback,
You think I give a damn about a Grammy
Half of you critics can't even stomach me, let alone stand me
Different doesn’t necessarily mean difficult.
Changing just one word in a song can be the difference between raw or wild - both could be useful but one might work better.
It can be adding an adjective like yellow dress, leather jacket, Venetian mask, Spanish leather.
However, it can also mean atmosphere instead of air or oxygen instead of air. The syllable count goes up but that might not be a bad thing. It might make your song fresh as mint sauce on a roast lamb!
The tactic here is making friends with your online thesaurus. Full of visual prompts, it can shower your frontal cortex with words you hadn’t considered - all good song fodder.
Sure, stay local to stay vocal, but if you’re feeling your songs are cheesy or that it’s all been said before, sharpen your chisel and try some synonyms.
Thanks so much for all your feedback and queries. Keep 'em coming!
Talk more soon,
ps to level up your songwriting, come to the Next Level Songwriting Retreat I'm presenting 22-25 January in Tahora. We have just two places left. Jump in!
pps thesongfoundry.com's Ed Bell's just released a very practical book you may find helpful called How to Write A Song (Even If You've Never Written One Before and You Think You Suck).
Nothing but a polite smattering of claps - a fucking clap smatter! A response so spectacularly underwhelming, it leaves you with nowhere to run.
Meanwhile, another songwriter wipes the floor with a song that sounds like it fell from the sky. WTF!
Where does this leave you? I got three words.
Comparison, for example apples with oranges, can be a strenuously soul-destroying occupation. It's a right royal joy robber and if there's one thing that little undie-packer Marie Kondo has taught us, it is to do things that spark joy. And music is a place of enormous joy! Think of the most fun place you have in songwriting and go there. Often.
There will always be better songwriters, better songs and better musicians than you. And in turn, you'll be further down the track than countless other folks. Reframe comparison into admiration, a spur to up your own game.
Relish the influences and interactions you have with other songwriters and musos. It's a grand party to be at and you'll learn far more from rubbing shoulders than isolating yourself. Ask other songwriters how and what they go through. Most are happy to share their stories.
Use close listening to your favourite artists to dig deep into subtleties and nuances in their songs because now you have experience of buckling down to write your own, with variable success, you have a stronger appreciation of how much it takes to cut through the noise.
Use selected reference tracks in your recording process to support and extend your decisions. Be influenced by music you love and stretched by practitioners more advanced and experienced than you.
I was on the same bill in a concert that the Topp Twins were MC'ing, where Linda told the highly excited audience they would be handled like horses. My, how the audience loved it! Being told what to do and how to behave by confident consummate performers - also expert horsewomen in their own right!
Do the same with your songs. Any time you play a song - live or recorded - for an audience, your song either will or won't connect. It's not the audience's fault if it doesn't.
The audience needs to be able to relate to your song, to feel something that you've encapsulated and delivered musically. They need to get it and you need to lead them, like horses, to where the 'it' is.
Finding out how to clarify your ideas and communicate them effectively in song is your job, and if you are not getting the impact you want, then luckily, you - the songwriter, can try other techniques. The onus is on you and your writing.
So write, write often, write with other people, learn as much as you can about songwriting, and use a feedback loop to improve and make adjustments.
You are not the song. If a person doesn't love - love - love your song, it doesn't mean they hate you. Some songs are strong and some are dogs. Build your catalogue and acknowledge that while your personal experiences and values may be tied up in artistic self expression of songwriting, to an audience songs are theirs and all about them.
Plenty of songwriters write about characters and mashups of their own and other folks' life events. The balance is the level of specificity of detail to create clear, unique images against the universal emotions and topics of the human condition. Too specific can get bogged down in lyrical minutiae while too universal can often come across as bland or inauthentic.
The more you get involved in songwriting, the more objective you can become about which songs land and less defeated by the ones that don't. Remember, it's a highly asymmetrical business with gazillions of misses to a hit single, so volume is key.
Thanks so much for all your questions and queries. Keep them coming and I'll do my level best to answer.
Talk more soon
ps if you want to take your songwriting to the Next Level, please join us at the Next Level Songwriting Retreat this summer in beautiful Tahora. There are only five places left!!
pps if you struggle with singing or can't play for peanuts, don't let that stop you writing a song. Read this.
Today's blog post is in answer to a reader's question. She wondered whether to "include interesting jazz chords" in her songs, but worried it would limit the number of capable musicians available to play them. Or should she "simplify them?" The chords - not the musicians!
I think there's no particularly right or wrong answer here, but I would like to offer two framework to think this through.
This first is who are you writing your songs for?
If you already have a significant audience who have enjoyed your previous work live, online or on air, then there's an level of expectation on the style of music you'll produce. Established artists will very often moonlight or do side projects, but their audience will very often follow them into another genre because the relationship between audience and artist is already well formed. Julia Deans singing opera in the Hawke's Bay earlier this year did not hurt her long held career as a rock chick, and neither is Troy Kingi going to suffer by recording his 'Folk Album' currently. He has enough sales and awards to warrant experimenting further down his stated path of ten albums in ten genres.
But if you have no label or long term audience to attend to, then my advice is write what you want to play. If you love ska, then eat it up with an upbeat! Your commitment to the songs will be stronger, your process more productive, your chops more sound and your enjoyment will be infectious. An audience feels that and so will other musicians.
Musicians don't just want to play the best paid gigs - although how nice a thought is that! Musicians want to play - that is connecting with other true 'soldiers of song' - in that fine, fine time on stage in front of a live audience. It's different from streaming live, different from rehearsal and from recording. If the quality of songs and performance is high, it doesn't matter what the genre is - it's the bus you wanna be on!
If you love playing 'jazz chords', use them write great songs you're proud of. Then enthusiastically seek out musicians to help play and perform them. Preferably, play with people who are better musicians than you - it ups your game and will encourage you to write even stronger songs. (On a personal note, I'm usually now the least fluent musician technically when I play live in an ensemble. It makes me work harder to keep up, and I utterly look forward to those bigger shows!)
The second framework to consider is how do the chords you choose serve the song?
Are they providing enough harmonic support for your melody to take shape within the verse-chorus structure? Is the harmony operating as infrastructure to the lyric? Is there enough accessibility, yet some welcome surprise that keeps us hooked into the vibe, the story, the message of your song?
You can write terrific songs with only one chord while at the other extreme you sink the entire ship in a mass of fusion confusion that loses the listener by the end of the intro.
There are also certain conventions and signifiers that indicate roughly what genre your songs sits in. Using chords extensions and non-diatonic chords for more complex harmony is considered part of the jazz grab bag, but pop music is a magpie's lair and plenty of current artists from Adele to Khalid are working wonders incorporating diminished chords, major sevenths, minor ninths and thirteenths into their hits. And it comes across as effortless.
Your own sense of aesthetic and musical taste is a huge influence on the type of songs you create. But the clearer you are about what you want your song to project, then all the elements that go into writing that song need to interconnect and align to present that vision. This includes the chords and their progressions.
The decision to include a particular chord is not dissimilar from the decision to include a particular word. Does it fit the song? If not, then outski! But having a broad palette of chords at your fingertips is a great resource for any songwriter, because then the choice is truly yours to make.
Talk more soon and thanks for the questions!
ps Chord Spice is one of the sessions in the Next Level Songwriting Retreat held at beautiful Tahora over Jan 22-25 2021.
We'll be talking more about song harmony, how to progress your progressions and add to your chord catalogue to level up your songwriting.
One of the ways to contribute to your song's rhythm is to intentionally stack the patterns of stress in your lyric's syllables. Oh yes, words are unspeakably groovy! The very word 'rhythm' comes from the Greek word for 'flow' (so does rhyme fyi, but that's really no surprise).
If you're writing songs in English, this particular language puts little stresses on particular syllables. The stressed syllable sounds a bit higher, louder and longer.
For example a word like banana is heard as ba na
The middle syllable is the stressed one, nudged higher, longer and a little louder.
You lean on it. The syllable - not the banana!
Hearing where the stresses land becomes important for lyricists to take note of. Otherwise, you can put the wrong em-Pha-sis on the wrong sy-Lla-ble. That reduces intelligibility, feels forced at worst, or just contribute to a sense of 'off'. Not a sensation you want to create for your audience.
Professional songwriters will often line words up so there are stress/unstress schemes within song sections, much like rhyming templates. Not to be bound by some arbitrary rule-a-rama, but to align all the macro and micro elements of song structure to mesh like a mother! Thus, the song rolls off the singer's tongue and into your heart.
Finding where the stressed and unstressed syllables are in a word is pretty solid. Say it out loud. Or get a first language English speaker to, if you're not sure. (irl or online).
Finding where the stressed and unstressed words in a sentence is a little trickier because the meaning in context can change how certain words are stressed.
It's the difference between Help! I need somebody
and I really need your help
or I really need your help
and I really need your help.
This figuring out where the stresses land is calling scanning. The reason you want to do this is to match the stresses in the lyric with the stresses and important 'positions' in the song's music. Not all positions are equal!
Songs will often exaggerate the natural 'music' of speech. So both rhythm (how long a note is and where it lands in the bar) and pitch (how high or low the note is) plus volume contribute to underlining the importance of particular words and syllables. It also depends on what you're trying to say in your song.
But take a leaf out of Dolly Parton's large song book, especially this one covered by Whitney Houston.
The sentence I will always love you becomes.....
The emphasis on I ( long, high and loud, mate!) and you (long, loud and given lots of decoration) is extremely underscored musically. One is in no doubt which words the songwriter wanted our focus on.
So there are actually two kinds of stress to notice. One is the cadential stress - what happens in words when we speak them naturally and the other is rhetorical - what are the important words in the context - here it's I and You.
Give prominent musical positions and attention to the natural accents and the critical words in your lyrics and you're off to the races! Or risk squashing the banana!
Talk more soon and I'd love to know what you'd like to read about so please send in suggestions and I'll have a go at covering them.
best wishes and good health!
ps applications are now open for Next Level Songwriting Retreat Jan 22-25 2021
pps if you'd like to get up close and personal online with your songwriting project, I'm now working with Soundfly as one of their mentors.