Read about how to write better songs
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 support 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!
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.
Content alone in a lyric may not be enough to sustain a listener’s attention throughout an entire song, without a strong enough melody for the words to ride on – no matter how important the topic.
It’s worth investing time developing a melody that allows your lyrical idea to fully register with the audience. So how do you write a tune that folks can remember irrespective of the lyrics? One that you can play as well as sing, one that is immediately recognisable covered by a glockenspiel band or a choir, a bagpipe as well as a thumb piano?
The answers lie in the way that melody takes words and frames them in a different time and space. Melody can change the amount of time we spend on certain words (rhythm) lengthening or shortening the length of notes or ‘space’ – by changing the pitch between words (intervals), up or down. This makes song so different from speech. And yet, there are parallels you can take advantage of.
Melody isn’t made up of random notes anymore than speech uses random words. There’s as much grammar in a tune as there is in a paragraph. The notes in a well written melody are organised into small groups called motifs. A motif is a group of 2, 3, 4 and not many more notes that played in that way, that order together make the tune easily identifiable. Like a mugshot. You hear the motif, you know what song it is. Like the three notes that make up Paul McCartney’s Yesterday motif. ( First bar, right hand, G-F-F).
Once you get a motif, you can REPEAT it. A very good idea – repetition is the songwriter’s friend. The more times you repeat the motif within a song the more easily it will be remembered. You can repeat it at the same pitch or another.
You can vary the motif by LENGTHENING or SHORTENING the notes within it. You can make it change direction by INVERTING it, making a mirror image of the motif. You can ADD notes, extending it.
And later in the song, you can CREATE A NEW ONE, usually for the chorus. Contrast is another very good songwriter’s friend.
If you already have some lyrics written, really think about how a motif would work with your most important words or phrase. Start by saying them out loud in a few different ways. This will give you a really basic idea of the rhythm you might use and an inclination of where the pitch naturally rises and falls. Use your phone to record yourself.
Once you’ve got something you like, try shifting it out of your normal speech pitch pattern by using steps (one note up or down), skips (a third up or down) or a leap (a fourth or more) between words.
Remember, you can break words up with a motif, like in ‘SOME-WHERE over-the-rainbow’. Somewhere gets split in half by an octave because the songwriter wanted to really draw our attention to the idea of longing for this magical place.
Tying your motifs together in musical phrases also allows you to link with lyrical phrases. If a four line verse has a rhyming pattern AABB, ie the first two lines end rhyme with each other and the second two lines rhyme differently but again with each other, making your melody do something similar can really lock in the idea for an audience.
One of my favourite examples of this is Cruise Control by Headless Chickens. The first two lines are matched with the same repeated musical phrase repeated and end rhyme and the second two lines have a new rhymes and a new melodic phrase.
Sometimes days seem to move just like a big fat man A
Sometimes days seem to end up where they first began A
I’ve got my TV tuned to channel you B
Because there’s nothing else that I can do B
The song then repeats the first melodic phrase with the chorus as a refrain, which ends on the title. Nice work.
Maybe I should have set my heart to cruise control
This idea of changing melody with changes in lyric idea is called topic movement and it’s a winning technique for stopping endless lists of lyrics with no direction that can really clog up your listeners’ ears. Professor Andrea Stolpe of Berklee School of Music expands on this here.
One final note is looking at contrasting the delivery of words per second for an audience. High speed, high energy lyrics need careful delivery to hit the spot for a first time listener and one of the ways songwriters can meet the hunger for surprise, sass and audibility is highlighted in this song by Lizzo, Jerome.
It starts Motown style with the chorus which uses a dotted sustained two note motif on the lyric, title and hapless subject Jerome, with variations, before the verses crank up the pace. Enjoy and take note of the contrast.
Talk more soon
ps bookings are now open for the Tahora Songwriters Retreat held over 17-20 January (Wellington Anniversary Weekend) 2020.
A big issue for aspiring songwriters is imagining how on earth they can actually get any time at all in their busy lives. But once you wrap your head around making writing a habit, you find it much easier to get on a roll generating more material more readily. All good.
Aligning what you actually want to do with your songs can help clarify how much time you can spend on writing them. Is it to make your first album? Get something down for your son’s wedding in March? Write your first original song for your band to play at a gig next week? Each of these situations puts a different spin on the schedule. The endpoints are reasonably clear and have associated deadlines – which many folks are used to responding to.
A little trickier to manage but no less valid to pursue are the more nebulous drives to write, like ‘I want to finish a song I’ve been writing for years’ or ‘I’ve always wanted to write songs – I’ve diaries full of poems and lyrics’ or ‘I feel this urge to write songs since my baby was born/ marriage broke down/ kids left home/etc.’. No particular deadline or clear outcomes, but I’ve met plenty of people who have experienced such a profound compulsion to write songs that it can surface a little unexpectedly to friends and family. How do you incorporate that satisfactorily into your everyday life if you’ve a family, a job or a business and all the other commitments of adult life?
I get it. It can be a real head spin. One of the things that can trip us up is that when you’ve been successfully ‘adulting’ for a while, you’ve got pretty good at some things by now – driving a car, making a garden, getting teenagers from a to b in one piece, earning an income, building a deck – all sorts of full on skills you take for granted. Now, exploring this songwriting lark can push you back to L-plate status. And that’s a graunch!!
When I work with teenagers or young adults, they’re a lot closer to doing the one thing they excel at – learning something for the first time. Adults get more frustrated more quickly and are less like to try things out just because. But ‘just because’ is the perfect antidote to ‘it can’t be done’ or more importantly ‘I can’t do it as well as I want too.’
So here is something to try. Book whatever schedule you can manage - once a day or once a week. Choose something you can honestly manage. Here’s one for 15 minutes a day that made NZ author Pip Adam write a book that garnered her a $50,000 prize.
But to help yourself get past perfectionism, use a warm up routine at the beginning of each session.
For example, if you’re able to write for an hour, spend 10 minutes on words and 10 minutes on melody. Take some time to free write or do some destination writing, just for 10 minutes. Then play around with scales and melodic phrases, recording them on your phone. Try some new intervals in the melody – 1 to 3, 1 to 5, and 1 to 7. Vary the rhythm of the phrase. A long note, then two short and reverse it. Just 10 minutes worth.
Then, spend 40 minutes developing any ideas you’re working on. Some lyrics become rhyming pairs maybe, a chord progression that might go somewhere might spark a groove. Try writing the second verse. And that’s it – the hour’s up. You don’t run the tank dry. You make it manageable.
By starting off your session with routine warm ups, just like zumba or running, you can do the equivalent of stretches to get your ideas flowing before you move up a gear into writing your songs, time after time.
Talk more soon
ps Bookings are now open for Tahora Songwriting Retreat 17- 20 January 2020.
"Several years ago, I attended my son’s freshman orientation at Belmont University. He was headed into the Music Business program. During the parent’s session, one mother raised her hand and asked (In all seriousness) “So, if my daughter gets a songwriting degree from Belmont, she is pretty much guaranteed a slot on Music Row, right?” The Dean of the School of Music stood in stunned silence for a moment. Then, he said “No, getting a degree in songwriting doesn’t mean you are a great songwriter any more than a degree in art says that you are a great artist.” The woman then commented under her breath, “$120,000 is a lot to pay with no guarantees”.
I’d like to reinforce the concept of asymmetric risk that songwriting or pretty much any other artistic pursuit brings – the relative number of hits to misses is astronomical. A particular song’s or artist’s ‘success’ is massively unpredictable. A so-called ‘normal’ job has one very appealing feature: your effort is directly proportionate to the reward you receive. If you’re a plumber, the more taps you fix, the more cash you earn. The flipside is that there’s a limit to how much money you can make - you can only fix so many taps in a day. You have to physically be there to fix the taps, but also, no one is really going to argue too much about the right way to fix a tap, or what a great tap is, or how great taps have influenced you since your adolescence or what tap was pouring when you had your first kiss! Taps and their repair are clearly definable. A tap works or doesn't so once taught, most anyone could fix a tap who completes the training.
A particularly great tap
This is what risk analyst and author Nassim Taleb calls a ‘non-scalable’ career. Richard Meadows outlines this clearly in his article The Barbell Strategy: How Not to Be a Starving Artist. Here, he explains, a baker can only bake so many loaves of bread on a particular shift. Artists, including songwriters, have no such upper bounds. Something idea-based can be sold over and over again with almost no extra time or effort. It can potentially be 'infinitely scalable.' Your debut album might sell 10 copies (three of which your mum bought) or 10 million, but the amount of work that went into recording may be just the same. Unlike getting a medical degree or a plumber’s trade certificate, there’s no set career pathway to a stable lifelong income guaranteed by learning about anything about songwriting.
So, just being musically literate and knowledgable about songwriting won’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to write a sure fire hit each week. This is why these dream crusher sentences fall out of your parents’ or partners’ mouths when you say you want to pursue songwriting more intensively: ‘what’s your back up plan?’, ‘make sure you have a second string to your bow’, ‘don’t give up your day job’ etc etc etc. I’m sure there are many more you’ve come across!
However, maintaining a positive approach, spending time doing what you love and developing your own creative plans and goals will certainly help you bring your songs to life. As does enjoying the company and support of like-minded souls, rather than feeling like you’re working in isolation. Figuring out your own ‘risk level’ will help you move forward with your songs at a pace you determine.
Talk more soon
ps download my free article here on more ways to mitigate the dream crusher vibe!
pps if you want to get started moving with your songs, come to this workshop May 17-19
Most contemporary recordings of songs aren’t unaccompanied single melodic lines. They will sit in well-supported beds of chords played by supporting instruments or vocals, whose combinations can provoke deep emotional responses in us. Harmony is not just a musical metaphor - it really underpins the social aspect of what we’re doing.
From a songwriting point of view, having the ability to use a chordal instrument, like a guitar or piano – instruments that can play several notes at a time - is a powerful tool. The chords you use and the way they’re ordered (the progression) can point how a melody will literally come into existence.
But before you flinch and say ‘but I’m a singer/drummer/saxophonist – are you saying I can’t write songs because I can’t play chords?’ – no, I’m not. I’m saying that learning chordal instruments even at a really basic level can enhance your understanding of what makes songs work. It introduces you to some secret infrastructure – let’s you look under the hood of your favourite songs and influences how you can write your own music more readily.
If you’re a parent and your kid wants to play something, this is one of the reasons why learning either keyboards/piano or guitar is a really good musical starting point. They are one stop shops for creating rhythm, melody and harmony.
If you’re a vocalist, singing harmonies is one of the most joyful things you get to do. And it’s no surprise that many of our most successful musicians come from backgrounds where collective singing was commonplace in their childhood, from church to amateur theatre to the marae. Creating chords from your vocals is also an interesting way to use what you’ve got to develop a song.
Other entry points into what chord progressions can do are online chord generators like ChordChord and Autochord.
But hang on a minute – won’t I be using the same chord progression as other songwriters?
Quite likely, yes. You can’t copyright chord progressions, unlike melody and lyrics. Music education site Hooktheory.com undertook a detailed study of over 1300 songs charting on the US Billboard top 100 and found overwhelming that the most common pop song chord progression was:
I –V- vi –IV
The most common key was C major so this became:
All over the internet are debates about the tyranny of this, the control that a handful of songwriter/producers have over popular music and the undue influence it gives them. I’ve linked two but you can google all pop music sounds the same and you’ll go down a rabbit hole for a while.
What I want to do is show you how manipulating the ‘magic formula’ can quickly give you a myriad of combinations that can change the music you write by changing your chord progression, yet still use the same ‘alphabet’.
I –V- vi –IV
Look what happens when you alter the order of chords but still start with the tonic or root note.
If we stay in C major it looks like this, your options look more like this:
The other thing you can do very quickly is vary the length of time you stay on a particular chord – there’s no rule to say each chord needs a whole bar of it’s own. Try two beats on the first two chords and four on the second two. Or whatever combination you may like to try.
The point is not to feel stuck in a rut or trapped, but get comfortable shuffling chords around so they work for you and your songs to create the sound you want.
Talk more soon
ps To read more on chord progressions, here’s a more detailed article I wrote for Musician on a Mission
pps To join me on a songwriting workshop, here’s a really great opportunity at Hanmer Springs, May 17-19.
So I'm working on a new song with French Kiwi producer Monsieur E and was excited to receive his first draft last week. The tempo was increased and this, plus a judicious edit, had lopped 20 seconds of the song taking it down from 3' 42'' to 3' 22". I liked the effect and commented that the 'sogginess' had been taken out.
But exactly how long should a song be? Is there a preferred length for recorded music?
While there is no doubt that songs are short form works in miniature, average song length has varied throughout recorded musical history and it is undergoing change right now.
Firstly, songs are getting shorter. From 2013 to 2018, the average length of song on the Billboard Hot 100 fell from 3'50" to 3'30". Secondly, a significant number of hit songs (6%) were really short - 2' 30" seconds or shorter in 2018, compared with just 1% in 2013. Thirdly, this is happening across the genres. From rap artists Drake, Kendrik Lamar and Kanye West through Nicki Minaj and J Cole to current country artists Eric Church and Jason Aldean, the trend is well documented.
The change in song length seems to be hand in hand with the change in music distribution with streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music claiming 75% of all revenue in 2018 compared with 21 % in 2013. Furthermore, Spotify pays the same fee per song - no matter what the length. Some artists are putting more songs on their albums, but that's by no means ubiquitous.
There are arguments put forward about the diminishing attention spans of young people but delivery format has always played a part in popular music. The entire idea of an album of songs became really possible with the LP and when compact discs arrived at a whopping 78 minutes without a flip of the disc, album length increased. 1960's Motown radio mixes were short and to the point around 2' 30" or 2'40" so perhaps the reversion 50 years later to a more compressed song length has something to do with grabbing our attention now that we're inundated with content choices. And playlists maybe more critical than albums in the very near future.
It is rare that I see newbie songwriters turn up with a bunch of tightly packed short songs. It's not unusual to have tracks of 5 minutes and more forwarded, and that's not the dance mix! While it's hard to be the judge of your own music, it's a good idea to learn how to get to the point in your song and not outstay your welcome. In fact, it's fashionable!
Talk more soon
PS Had a blast working with these guys at Songwriters Retreat Akaroa!