Read about how to write better songs
Elliott Smith live @ the 70th Academy Awards
ne of the features of my lockdown was guiltfree Youtube roll -around -scroll- around for alternative viewing and listening pleasure. And I clicked on a poor quality snip of songwriting breakdown by the late great songwriter Elliott Smith, a softly spoken man with a signature style.
He released several fine albums and had significant success as a songwriter and performer before his untimely death at 34 in 2003. His song Miss Misery featured in the closing credits of the film, Good Will Hunting, was nominated for an Oscar, and it led to him playing live in a white suit at the 1998 Academy Awards.This was my belated introduction to his seemingly simple guitar playing, wistful lyricism and sometime surprising chord progressions.
For someone who said he'd never be a big rock star, this was pretty close to the fire. There were more records and touring, and a persona that seemed to confuse interviewers, with lots of footage to watch. Unfortunately, it didn't end well, but he left a very rich and thoughtful legacy well worth being submerged in.
If you can cope with the really grainy footage, you can see the underlying strengths that this artist brings to the show from playing every day to focusing on his own way of approaching chords and strumming, using implied melodies rather than riffs per se and a bunch of other tactics and building blocks that contributed to his songs and sound. And he pursued it diligently.
I found that his interview excerpt on songwriting, creativity and comparisons relevant.
'I think it's pretty easy if you just relax and quit thinking about what you think other people want to hear, you know. If you can keep finding new things that you personally like about music and put it into the blender and see what comes out. And if you like it, there must be something good about it...
I think ...you just gotta give yourself a little confidence to do what you personally like, not get all bogged down with what you think people wanna hear.....If you see someone playing music they really like, it's really compelling regardless of what style it is.'
And there's a fundamental - to 'not get all bogged down' . When there's so much information easily accessible about music in general, about recording and songwriting, about the nuts and bolts of the business in all its funked up portrayal, the extremely likely outcome of consuming all that is to most definitely get all bogged down, right up to the tip of the last hair on your head!
The consequence of being stuck in that bog is stasis. All that energising momentum lost.
Luckily in the same interview, Elliott hands you the secret sauce - the very thing he was great at, which was creating interesting, heartfelt and unique sounding songs. Not talking about it - strangely involving though he could be, but doing it and what he spent the most flying hours on was playing guitar and piano, singing, writing and recording music and schlepping it.
While I don't advocate his model of self care, his suggested ethos of unleashing your imagination, listening to what it has to say and turning that into your own big beautiful songs makes a great deal of sense to me.
For those of you all bogged down, come back to fundamentals - play a lot, write a lot and make the strongest set you can.
Or take one step towards that.
Talk more soon
ps application are now open for the Next Level Songwriting Retreat Jan 22-25 2001
Each song comes with its own rhythmic imprint of how many beats are in each bar. In music theory speak, this is called the time signature. In written music (sheet music or notated score), that gets popped at the front of the piece represented as something that looks like a fraction which indicates both the number of beats in each bar and the type of beats they are.
The most common time signature in Western music, particularly for popular or contemporary music is 4/4, which means 4 crotchets or ‘quarter’ notes in each bar or ‘measure’. It’s so common 4/4 is often referred to as common time or C.
A whopping 94% of pop songs are in 4/4 ( blame it on the blues) and that reign doesn’t look like ending particularly soon.
But like any rule of pop music, there are always exceptions and when the rule of common time is challenged, it makes the song stand out instantly. There are two main ways of doing this – one is to set the time signature of your song in an unusual (for pop) time signature like Pink Floyd’s Money which ticks along in a groovily unsettling 7/4.
The other way is to change part of the song into another time signature for a short while and that’s what I want to point out today. This is like changing the key of the song – it’s just as attention grabbing for the audience - and it also has a great musical theory handle. It’s called metric modulation when the songwriter changes the metre or ‘beat' of the song from one time signature to another within the song.
You’ll be completely aware of this when it happens - it will literally make you move differently and a cracker example of it is in Hozier’s Take Me To Church.
The song starts off in a lilting 3/4 for the verse but when it gets to the line
We were born sick – You heard them say it,
we jumped into one bar of 4/4 before switching or modulating back to 3/4 for the rest of the verse.
Further metric modulation happens at the chorus when the song rocks out in pop’s standardly glorious 4/4.
Now why do this mucking with the timing? Well, it’s a great lever to pull because it grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and says listen to this! That element of surprise can highlight a particular lyric line (which is what happens in the verse) or it can create real contrast between sections (which is what happens when we reach the song’s chorus).
Another example is in Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, where she jumps from 4/4 to a bar of 2/4 on the verse lyric
I hated you, I loved you too,
which snaps us to attention.
And in the chorus we jump bar by bar almost imperceptibly from 4/4 to 3/4 to 2/4 to 3/4 underneath the lyrics
Heathcliff It’s me I’m Cathy I’ve come home
and I’m so cold let me in your window.
These changes in metre allows the songwriter to manipulate the lyrics and melody to fit in as she wants creating a unique sounding song. There’s no having to wait for the end of the bar – no extra or unwanted space.
Metric modulation can be a really exciting way to make your song stand out. If this is something you think will work for your song, just make sure the time signature changes on the first beat of the bar and that once changed the metre stays in the new time signature from then on, until you switch back.
May you all have a great time working on this technique!
Development is about choosing ideas, tune fragments, snatches of lyrics, titles and techniques from your ideas file and figuring out how to use them, how to weld them into new songs, or a decent sized song-like chunk anyway!
Development involves decision. It involves your musical tastes and personal preferences – both artistic and stylistic. To follow one idea, you wind up discarding others. What you decide to do on one day won’t necessarily be what you choose the next. That’s the beauty of a regular practice.
But here’s the exciting part - what you do with the basic ingredients – all those song ideas and triggers that you’ve gathered - will be utterly unique and completely individual. No one else can write a song exactly like you. There is no template!
Development is the process of moving from an idea to a draft or more likely a series of drafts. The more often you do this, the more intuitive it becomes. Remember the end result may appear effortless, simple and elegant – but appearances can deceive!
Things can get pretty messy in development! And they should do – you’re testing new connections, and newsflash – they won’t always work. You should expect plenty of dead ends. So don’t get too attached to your first or any idea. They may not ‘work’ or be the best fit for the song. You have to be able to let things go and come up with a different approach, preferably multiple approaches. Give yourself options.
Assessing what works or not is initially your decision. When you’re in the thick of it, keep recording what you’re doing, saving all drafts on your phone or Save Copy As in your DAW or on your laptop. Write stuff down so you can mix and match. It’s easy to forget small variations that may come into play further down the track. Don't worry if what you produce isn't perfect. You’re building right now. Refinement comes later.
Some of the things you’re looking for: do things stick? Does a piece of music catch your ear or a couple of lines stand out in your journal? Does something hit you in the eye from the list of titles you’ve kept? Run with that and free write as long as you can.
Does the chord progression you’ve started feel really good to you? Can you sing something - anything - over top of it? Can you sing three different things over top of it? Record them and then start adding lyrics.
Can you take the linear melody you’ve started with and try some skips or a leap up or down and see where that goes? Vary the rhythm a little or lot and record that. Can you change a couple of notes? It may not seem like much, but small motifs or groups of notes (2 – 8) are the raw material of great melody.
Lyrically, are you saying what you want to say? Are there five other ways you could do that? One of these will be ‘better’ than the others. So the more the merrier. Are you being the observer in the song or should you be the subject of your story? Try both approaches and record them.
One of my clients recently sent three options per line for a song. One line looked unusual on paper but was very difficult to sing, and hard to make out. Even though he loved what he had written, it didn’t fit with what words actually need to do in a song, which is to be sung. Decision made.
Remember you are also developing several things simultaneously. There’s interplay between rhythm and melody, harmony and melody, melody and lyrics, verse and chorus. Which is partly why pieces like this can come across a bit ‘here’s the magic formula’. Trying to ‘explain songwriting’ as a purely sequential process isn’t the point. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your creative brain doesn’t travel in a straight line! Go for trying as many things as you can.
In one of my own collaborations, we discussed how my first lines weren’t hitting the spot. They were ok. Just ok. But rather than being asked to write them again, my songwriting partner said ‘Write 10 verses’. What a breath of fresh air!
Wishing everyone the best of health during lockdown
Talk more soon
Some days, your ideas flow quickly, but others - it’s a blocked pipe, mate! Recognising that inspiration is ‘random’ but more 'probable' when you’re writing consistently, is huge. The good news is that getting fluent, whether you’re feeling inspired or not, is totally trainable.
Cop this. If you’re learning to play guitar, you‘ll be encouraged to practice every day even if you don’t feel like it. And you’ll know it takes time to learn the instrument and the music, and for your body to manage it. Your skill develops incrementally.
Same goes for songwriting. For some reason, when we try to write a song, we can feel pressure to create an instant hit, which can turn the tap right off!
So, flip your mindset and write a little every day. Don’t stress about writing complete songs.
Book time to play with fragments, with words, ideas, phrases, riffs, melodies and chords.
Collate raw material and build your ideas file.
In fact, this whole phase is called ideation, and really, all things are welcome. You're looking for whatever sparks your imagination - what images you can conjure up and jot down from as many sources as you can access. From people you’ve met, small or large events, things you’ve read, sights and sounds, dreams, hopes, desires and everything in between, and capturing all this data.
Keep a list of titles as you go. Titles are a great place to start because they encapsulate a song’s ‘message’, and can trigger chorus lyrics.
(A word about your ideas file - use your phone, use a notebook, use your laptop, whatever but keep it close and backed up. Saves pain later.)
In another session, you look for which ideas you think can go places, which can be developed. You may have several songs on the go – it can happen that way. You may have an ideas bin on your desktop with tracks in progress and a list of titles in your phone.
Some ideas may go nowhere, which is normal. Some can be cannibalised and wind up in other songs. Also normal. The point is exercising your songwriting muscles regularly and positively.
You are in the process of making something. You’re ‘in flow’!
Talk more soon
ps here's an interview I did on RNZ about songwriting
Happy New Year Everyone!
Often the beginning of the new year or, in this case the decade, provokes a flurry of goals and resolutions, wish lists, schemes and plans to exercise regularly, quit smoking, eat less, save more, study harder or even have that nebulous thing - a 'better work-life balance'. Exhausting just to write them down! Folks start off with high hopes and good intentions, but come February things can dwindle and peter out as so-called 'real life' encroaches.
This can happen with our songwriting goals too. We get fired up big time but somehow lose momentum with our ideas, drafts, schedule, practice - all the bright and beautiful things we said we'd do. How do we keep things going once started?
Here are some interesting strategies that might resonate. Some may work better than others or you could go the whole hog and have a go at all of them. But they work on the principle that motivation and self-discipline is extremely finite. Rather than winging it, arm yourself with a more systematic approach.
1. Accountability - make yourself accountable by enrolling the support of a buddy or several in an active songwriting circle. This helps you get your songs written because you commit to sharing them or drafts with someone else on a designated day at a designated time. Using Google Calendar or similar to send you reminders is a good start too. Other 'professionals' can help with this source of momentum from bandmates to publishers to producers.
2. Consequences - making your goals more public can seriously draw a line in the songwriting sand. One of the boldest goals I've heard publicly stated belongs to local musician Troy Kingi who announced his recording goal of 10 albums over 10 years in 10 genres - so far he's completed 3, but his ambitious declaration has garnered support too, as well as the threat of negative feedback if he's 'unsuccessful'.
Note I said 'more public'. You can restrict how public to a certain extent. On a smaller scale, you can use a closed facebook group/songwriting circle to state your goals and set up a 'fine' /'reward' system if you don't or do meet your 'deadlines'. Flip side is getting the pot if you do!
3. Pay someone to keep you on track - whether it's just scheduled accountability calls - yes, people will do this for you - or specific coaching sessions, tailored systemised support contact/tuition on a formal basis can keep up your momentum. Like a personal trainer - but for your songwriting.
4. Pay someone to do it for you - major recording artists and labels with staff writers do this, understanding that more writers mean more new songs. This in turn means a higher probability of finding songs that fit an artist, perfectly. Quincy Jones auditioned over 600 songs before deciding on the tracks for Michael Jackson's Thriller. But from a more domestic perspective, cutting in other co-writers or producers can lighten your load and really add to your own momentum.
You can also pay or barter for other services that take you away from songwriting - from mowing the lawns to getting your car washed, cleaning your house, getting foodbags delivered to doing the books. Comes a time, even just once or twice.
5. Small Steps - setting up smaller achievable tasks can mean quick wins, which keeps the ball rolling. If your goal for 2020 was 'Write New Album', and that paralyses you, start with 'Write 5 Song Titles' this week. The scope is reduced and completing the task moves you forward quickly. Momentum!
6. Song Prompts - getting on to a songwriting challenge or using song prompts functions like reminders on a calendar, but with given starting points that act as triggers to starting some aspect of a song. There are loads of free ones online, but I've just finished Ed Bell's useful book, The 30-Day Speed Songwriting Challenge, which pokes and prods you to write for 60-90 minutes every second day.
Sure I had to modify which were my 30 days, but the combo of manageable task (quick win) plus supplied prompt made it too convincing to ignore over a really busy time for me. While I wasn't looking at the productivity side of the challenge, rather wanting to see what it would do to my comfort zone, it definitely made me stick to the output. Plus I'd told you ...so no way could I shame out! Haha! Double whammy.
Whatever works for you of course, but keeping the wheels rolling makes it a heck of a lot easier to move in and out of active songwriting sessions and mulling things over. It helps with your continuity.
best wishes and talk more soon
ps here's an article that might help you with rhyming.
I can always tell when my partner has been writing a short story because something in the house has been tidied to a freakish level. Today, the linen cupboard is so ordered I’m too scared to put away a single pillowslip for fear of misfiling, so I’ll just leave this small pile of folded laundry here to discuss later….! This is how I know something’s a-brewing on her laptop.
But is it really procrastinating when you suddenly see things you have to do rather than knuckling down to the scary blank page? Or is it part of a ritual – a preparation phase that you knowingly use to mull ideas over or nut out the ‘gnarly bits’ in a song?
Turns out that many famous writers of all genres have favourite rituals they use and techniques they employ to spur them on. Some are extraordinarily elaborate – author James Clear has an assistant reset and withhold all social media passwords until he finishes a scheduled writing session, rendering him incapable of a single, sneaky scroll. He’s very big on choice architecture.
Others are very simple - Ernest Hemingway stood while he wrote, working from dawn until midday when he visited his local bar to get smashed. His mantra while writing The Old Man and The Sea was ‘done at noon, drunk by three’.
Jerry Seinfeld’s famous strategy to write daily was to put a large red X on a wall calendar for every day he wrote jokes. Eventually, there were multiple X’s in a row lining up like links in a chain. His mantra was ‘don’t break the chain’. Note nothing about whether the jokes were any good – just that he was writing daily and this increases the probability of the jokes getting better! Which brings me to the next point.
Creativity is all about probability. There are no guarantees that you’ll write a good chorus or a brilliant melody in a particular session. Your session is all about trying things out and exploring your ideas and connections. Which is why it can be daunting and contributes to you procrastinating. The outcome is always uncertain, which is why doing ‘must do’ tasks – those which have a determinable end result - can be very comforting, and actually supports your creative process. If you mow the lawns, the result will be a mown lawn. If you tidy the linen cupboard, you’ll be able to find the sheets and towels.
But if you sit down to write a song, you can’t predict what the song will be or even when it will be finished. Songwriting is not a linear journey. It’s generally full of twists, turns and cul-de-sacs before you wind up with something that you’re happy with. No wonder you’re procrastinating!
The answer is do or get whatever it takes for you to show up and increase that probability of writing a good or even a great song. Whatever ritual you need, whatever support structure works for you, grab it with both hands and hold it close! If you’re not sure, take time to explore what works best for you, what feels ‘right’ and develop your own creative process. It will be as individual and unique as the songs you write.
Today, I’m starting a new technique in my own songwriting by using a series of song prompts from Ed Bell, a songwriter and songwriting coach whose blogs and articles I’ve enjoyed reading. He’s just released a couple of new books – The 30-Day Speed Songwriting Challenge & The 30-Day Music Writing Challenge – and I’m going to quietly work through them to see what falls out. And I’m telling you to keep myself accountable! See you on the other side!
Best wishes to everyone for the summer and I hope you have a great Christmas and a very Happy New Year,
Talk more soon
This morning I’m working in a slightly unusual situation with a colleague and old friend I’d done a lot of work with over 20 years ago in Wellington. Now he’s back in the USA and we’re re-kindling that collaboration in situ at his studio in Alburquerque.
It’ s highly likely something productive will come out of a face to face session but there’s always a chance things won’t gel. And I’m doing a little second guessing.
The ‘big girl boots’ part of me is excited and aware that nothing ventured nothing gained, but the niggle that comes with second guessing (what if it’s a blow out - what if I’ve got no good ideas - what if - what if) is taking a bit more to dislodge. Meh.
However, I’m taking a leaf out of Houston Symphony principal horn player Bill VerMeulen’s book and liberally applying it to songwriting! He was asked how important it was to listen to an orchestra’s recordings or play for its members in advance of an audition. VerMeulen’s response was not to focus solely on making the audition panel happy - the theory that if you play to make them happy, chances are, nobody winds up happy. But if you play in a way that makes you happy, at least one person will leave the room happy (you), and likely, the audition committee will be happier too.
It’s easy to worry about what an audience, a jury, an audition panel, and your peers might think. Harder to ignore the feeling.
The magic bullet is to develop strong convictions about what you believe in, making for a more compelling audition by reducing the second guessing that could derail your performance. I read this in Bulletproof Musician’s great newsletter.
Hmmm, I reckon the same principle applies to collaborative songwriting. Both of us definitely have a strong well of artistic vision, values, tastes and musical choices to draw on and that means strong convictions. And I know the personal connection can sustain a robust to and fro that comes with co-creation.
I’m feeling wry even writing this, because I’ve just convinced myself.
Best I practice what I preach! ‘
Talk more soon
PS Attention Nelson songwriters, Susan Jeffrey is arranging for a small group of songwriters to get together and share songs, talk songwriting and get motivated to stay writing. Contact her for more details on email@example.com.
Prefacing a blog post on creative writing I enjoyed by Willow Love Little was this pearler from Hemingway
It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way. Ernest Hemingway
A central thought was that intensive study of great and canonical works of literature highlights artistry and cultural context but fails to study the manuscript as process. There is ‘no glimpse behind the curtain’ at the effort, drafts, self doubt and rejections that go into the final texts.
The piece argues that while the idea that successful writers are born full of unadulterated talent is attractive, it denies the efforts that have gone into artistic development, that glamourising the creative process ultimately makes it more difficult to create.
Far less sexy to study the morass of cul de sacs, flops and inevitable duds that are as part and parcel of creation. That artistic endeavour has many more misses than hits and that craft, technique and experience are necessary to an artist’s personal growth and ultimate expression is perhaps less attention grabbing than the myth of being an overnight sensation.
For artists who don’t create or interpret in front of live audiences – painters, songwriters, producers, authors, filmmakers - artistic effort can be less immediately calculable than performance artists. How many pirouettes can the dancer do – how high can the soprano sing. There’s the concept of ‘10,000 hours’ as a tipping point to achieving mastery propounded by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers and although the ‘magic number’ been challenged as a simplification, there’s food for thought in considering what that approach as a writer – specifically a songwriter – might do.
Or are you just born that way?
Talk more soon
ps final 3 spots left for Tahora Songwriting Retreat 17- 20 January 2020. Grab yours.
Dame Judi Dench’s emphatic response to a question about preparing for performance has great relevance in songwriting too methinks! This lovely little nugget of an answer is concise and emotive – two qualities that are highly prized in effective lyric writing. Her spin on stage fright is positive – she lets us know that it’s a good and necessary thing for performance, in fact fuel. But there’s an element of excitement and danger too.
Because lyrics are words to be heard rather than read, they have to be impactful and easily remembered, but most of all they should evoke an emotional response. Emotive language elicits emotional reactions in an audience. Using it deliberately can help shape the audience’s response to your song.
At first I was afraid. I was petrified.
This is the opening line of I Will Survive, a smash hit for Gloria Gaynor. The songwriters Dino Fekaris and Frederick J. Perren took a word that described an emotional state, afraid, and ramped it right up to petrified. Now there’s no doubt of the extremity of the situation. And this is in a power position in the song – the opening line.
Like a virgin, touched for the very first time.
Songwriters Billy Steinberg / Tom Kelly used this emotive and provocative simile which fitted right in with Madonna’s artistic style and persona.
And Johnny Cash used this deadly simple phrase in Folsom Prison Blues to describe just how badass and hopelessly lowdown he could be
But I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die
Finding the right emotional intensity in your lyrics is a question of figuring out how you want us to feel – remember, we, the audience, love to listen to powerfully emotional songs! Then, review your draft lyrics and move them from conceptual, complex or strictly factual to emotive by hitting the synonym switch! Try substituting words that are ‘just ok’ for words that slap you in the face. Don’t forget the online thesaurus here to open up the possibilities!
Use it on your nouns – is this new love or is it like a virgin?
Use it on your adjectives and nouns – is it a car or a little red Corvette?
Use it on your verbs – do I go to you or am I running up that hill?
Use a whole phrase - my momma don’t like you and she likes everyone
Make us feel something with your song with the words you choose to use.
Talk more soon
ps there are only 5 spots available on the Tahora Songwriting Retreat. Dive in!
Perhaps overlooked in contemporary chord clusters, the augmented chord has more than paid it's dues in popular music. If I ask beginner songwriters whether they ever use them, the majority won’t have given the poor augmented so much as a backwards glance. Awwwww!
But if I point out great songs that have augmented chords in their progressions, faces change from perplexed expressions to a definite look of recognition at the distinctive sound the chord has and the dreamy, quirky, hopeful feeling it evokes. Songs as different as Life on Mars by David Bowie, Stormy Monday by the Allman Brothers, Crying by Roy Orbison and Let There Be Love by Oasis have used augmented chords to great effect.
Firstly, what actually is an augmented chord?
Here are the four primary types of chords - major, minor, diminished and the one on the far right, the augmented, a major chord with the fifth raised. That’s a sharp – not a hashtag! (The guitar chord chart symbols for this are C+ or C aug)
The bright hopeful quality the chord produces comes from the fact that it’s made from two major thirds stacked on top of each other. But this also gives it an ‘unstable’ aspect – the augmented chord wants to go somewhere and this is how it's mostly used in songwriting – as a transitional chord within a progression or at the start or end of a section ( but not the end of the song).
The good news is that there are two fairly standard ‘real world’ methods to put an augmented chord in your chord progression:
EITHER use the augmented chord travelling from the root major chord (I) to the fourth (IV) like Roy Orbison did in Crying eg D D+ G Gm
OR from the root major chord (I) to its relative minor (vi)
like Oasis did in Let There Be Love eg C C+ Amin G
In both these cases, the augmented chord supplies tension and movement within fairly standard I-IV or I-vi chord changes – a nice twist.
Here are a link for keyboard players and one for guitarists to go into this in more detail.
Putting an augmented chord at the start of a section really announces something is about to happen, like the Allman Brothers do at the end of Stormy Monday’s wiggly intro and they arpeggiate it for good measure.
Am7 Bm7 Bbm7 Am7 Abm7 G7 C7 G7 D+
No surprises that this turnaround heralds the first verse, which starts on G7 (a fourth above D)
But the maestros of augmented reality were the Beatles. This link runs through 23 of their songs with augmented chords and I hope it inspires you to sharpen your fifths every now and then!
Talk more soon and if this is too theory much, gimme a yell ( 021 685561) and I'll walk you through it.