Read about how to write better songs
"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
At certain points of your songwriting journey, you're likely to encounter some fairly overwhelming feelings that can well upset your applecart. One of these is the fear of failure, and it's an important one to face off.
Sometimes, it manifests as the infamous inner critic - quite shouty, telling you to not to even bother trying because YOU'LL NEVER MAKE IT, so GIVE UP AND GO HOME! Or it's more nebulous, presenting as a sneaky feeling of worry or discontent, which produces a lethargic slump, quite effectively derailing any efforts you actually want to make with your songwriting.
There's a reason we fear failure. Like many inbuilt fears, it's a protective mechanism, protecting us from the anxiety that comes with freedom and taking risks. But if you're trying to write new songs, or present new material to your band, a live audience or simply play an open mic, fear of failure can seriously limit us. It's 'safer' not to try anything new or different just because it might fail. It can strike major artists who have had significant success as well as rank beginners, and it's an enemy of creativity. We literally stop doing what we actually want to do, because we might muck it up.
So how do we deal with it?
I used to work with a festival director whose mantra if something didn't quite work was ' did anybody die?', and I think that's a pretty good place to start. The perception of what failure is is just that - a perception. Songwriting, like any other artistic practice, is full of 'failures' - ideas that don't quite work, demos that don't get listened to, competitions where songs aren't placed, bands that break up, funding applications that aren't successful, venue owners that don't return calls and albums that don't sell. 'Failure' comes with the territory, so get ready for it and reframe your perception of it.
Artistic endeavour is also rife with countless stories of musicians and actors and writers who persisted through what could only be described as 'high rotate fail' to achieve their goals and dreams, from the Beatles to JK Rowling to Fred Astaire, whose first screen test at MGM read "Can't act. Can't sing. Slightly bald. Not handsome. Can dance a little." And Stephen Spielberg was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three times!
This is the second tactic. Be clear what success means to you by figuring out some goals. The more personal you can make them the better. A goal may be as simple as 'I want to write a song for our anniversary' or 'I want to enter my original songs in Rockquest this year' or 'I want to learn how to record my music' or more complex, like 'I want to tour the US next year' or 'I want to have my second album produced by ....'.
This means you measure your outcomes against yourself, rather than the rest of the loud and noisy world, and your perception of success is intrinsic.
Thirdly, songwriting demands 'failure' in many ways. The proportion of songs that are actually hits versus 'misses' is astronomical, but so are the number of choices available to us from chord sequences, melodic variations, vocabulary and production techniques. Give yourself the freedom to try as many choices as you can. Spending more time on songwriting with more 'attempts' creates an environment for incremental improvement, and success on your own terms. In the book Art & Fear, authors David Bayles and Ted Orland described this experiment made by a ceramics teacher.
The ceramics teacher announced that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.
Well, grading time came and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity!
It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat around theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
And I rather like Thomas Edison's wry remark after 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked, "How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?" Edison replied, "I didn't fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps. I failed my way to success.
Rather makes the term for inspiration, a lightbulb moment, even more relevant!
Talk more soon,
ps Two opportunities for Song Doctor Mailer readers to learn more are
1. Use this code SONGDOCTOR10 for 10% off any Mainstage course on the online music education site, Soundfly. Great folks and great info on a wide variety of music topics.
2. Join us on our Songwriters Retreat Feb 5-9 next year in Akaroa for a deep dive songwriting intensive, fully catered and accommodated. Treat yourself! Early bird tickets available until Jan 5.
What does your audience want to hear?
Here are some questions to answer when you want to improve your material. Why do people like to listen to songs? What do they need from songs? What will make an audience listen to your song? How do you capture their attention and hold it?
When many of us start writing songs, much of it is totally unconscious and self-expression is the name of the game. Rightly so! Sometimes, our songwriting is profoundly imitative, heavily influenced by our favourite artists. No surprises there! The audience is often the last thing on our minds. As a consequence, some songs might connect but others are way off the mark and we don’t always know why.
While we have yet to identify a specific ‘music centre’ in the brain, there’s plenty of neural science that shows when we listen to music, there is increased blood flow to the areas in the brain associated with reward, emotion and arousal.
Songs work when an audience is moved. When an audience feels something they care about deeply, you’ve made a real connection. Creating a strong and clear emotion with your song is a top priority for any songwriter. It doesn’t particularly matter what the emotion is – angst, joy, disillusionment, anger, sorrow, regret –we love them all, and at an intense level. Just don’t be boring!
Choices you make about the chords you use, the trajectory of the melody, the groove and the lyrical content all contribute to the development of your song’s emotional appeal. Quite small shifts in a song’s construction can have a huge effect on the song’s impact. Anything from a slight tempo shift to changing just one of the intervals in the melody or simplifying the chord progression or adding that unexpected chord can heighten emotion. Of course, major surgery can help your song hit home too. Shifting the chorus to the front of the song for a change, dramatically increasing contrast in the melody between the verse and the chorus and adding (or deleting) a bridge can really spice things up.
Substituting stronger words in your lyrics can up the ante in a song too. While erring on the side of simplicity, you can spot check your verbs – should you go or should you walk/stride/run/stagger/stumble? And your nouns – is she wearing a dress or a gown/skirt/bikini/shorts/jeans? Is she a Spanish lady/ a virgin/ a queen/ the girl next door? And adjectives can colour your world - is it a car or a little red Corvette, a big yellow taxi or your daddy’s Thunderbird?
Once you start consciously trying to develop the emotional impact of your songs, test them on an audience who have never heard them before – open mic or your songwriting circle. You’ll soon know if your listeners are feeling it.
Talk more soon.
ps if you want to really deep dive into improving the emotional impact of your songs, join us in Akaroa for our Songwriting Retreat Feb 5-9.
Last month, I mentioned amping up your creativity as part of dealing with imposter syndrome (I’m not good enough/everyone will find out I’m a fraud) or in songwriter speak, the ultimate throw your toys out of the cot tantrum, my songs suck!
Well, newsflash! Lots of them will! Not every song you write will be a number one hit, or even a number 53 climber. In the same way no one picks up a guitar and plays a solo worthy of Jimi Hendrix immediately, neither does a budding songwriter have a number one on first attempt. (please someone prove me wrong!) Get used to the long haul, the multiple shots at goal and making incremental improvements with each completed song. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I repeat, completion is the enemy.
Finish what you start. What that does is make you commit to a process and allows you to progress with each finished song. You may have started with a flurry of inspiration and got stymied by the sixth line of verse 1. You may have found an idea for the chorus but run down a rabbit hole with the melody. You may have set up a fantastic groove but not been able to come up with any powerful lyric. But by staying in the room, you will have had to face these problems and solve them, thereby developing your songwriting resilience, confidence and shock !horror!, even a sense of satisfaction. Your completed draft is now also available to show your collaborator, your band mates, your producer or whomever you make yourself accountable to, with the very clear possibility of further refinement and improvement. Note - it's a draft!
Just how you deal specifically with the ‘problems’ in your songwriting process is part of what makes you a unique songwriter. It’s what’s in the personal toolkit you bring to the table. Everyone will have a slightly different take on how to come up with a great hook or smash out an unforgettable chorus. Everyone has different strengths for the curious recipe of a good song, which is partly why collaboration works so well. A better sense of harmony, an infectious rhythmic sense, a bent for melodic contour – each of these facilities is at a different level in all of us, just as our varied backgrounds in musicianship, vocal ability or vocabulary contribute.
Finishing what you start also brings up the idea of constraint as a spur to creativity. Songs have form and expectations for listeners. Songs have multiple identifying features, which tells us they are songs, even when fabulous iconoclasts and innovators subvert them or fashion changes them. Songs don’t exist in anarchy. This contributes to the sensation that they have brick walls we sometimes bang against – arghhh! my lyrics don’t fit that eight bar phrase or I can’t sing that high – only Mariah Carey could sing that high or my song sounds like cheese…arghhhh! But constraint reduces scope to manageability and makes you focus on creativity with borders. I’m not talking about a crossword mechanistic type of formulaic approach but recognising here’s the raw material I can work with and here’s the rough sketch of what I need to build. Right, let’s do this. Time is one of those constraints you can easily apply – as a defined session - I’ve an hour to work on this – I’m going to finish that verse at lunchtime, or as a deadline – Song One draft by Thursday, ready to sing at Saturday’s open mic.
Talk more about er, constraints next time but right now, I'm finished!
ps these folk completed their Songwriting Clinic at Akaroa. Fun much!
(left to right) Robyn-Lynn, Cindy, me, Sol, Matt, Yve, Jake, Hanni, Lisa and we were joined by Neville on Songwriting Circle with his new tunes under production
Some of the folks I work with are exceptionally good musicians –really great guitarists or sensational singers – for whom putting songwriting as a front and centre occupation is a relatively new experience. They face a disconnect between their skill level (and comfort level) for something they may have been honing for ten, twenty, thirty years and something (songwriting) that they’ve recently felt the need to focus on. It’s a particular type of frustration that presents a divide which can appear impossible to cross. Sometimes, this comes as a real surprise for the musician, but more often than not, it presents as a nagging sensation that ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘I’m not good enough’ highlighted by their contrast in seriously competent performance ability. Result – loss of momentum and enthusiasm, loss of patience, personal disappointment, and feeling, well, a bit shit!
I think this is a particular version of good old imposter syndrome. And the shock that comes from realizing that musical performance ability doesn’t have as much to do with the songwriting skill set as expected. It also means that a very good musician might actually be a rubbish songwriter at first attempt. And here’s the thing – folks that spend a lot of time working on their songs and finishing them are songwriters! They may not be famous (yet) or critically acclaimed (have mercy!), but they’re on task.
The kid holed up in his dorm room writing shitty songs is still a songwriter.
The kid worried about writing shitty songs so much he doesn't write anything...just isn't.
The feeling of not being immediately excellent can put people off trying and learning new things – including songwriting. It reduces risk taking – one of creativity’s most important tenets. It literally stops us offering ideas – however ‘dumb’ and stops us playing. (Remember, we play music!).
There are a number of ways to combat this. The first is evidence based. Look how long it took for you to really learn an instrument – lessons, training, the number of productions or gigs you’ve done. Think about applying the same amount of effort your songwriting to be of an equivalent level. How many songs have you written? Workshops or lessons taken? Seminars attended? Tutorials watched or attended? Have you had any songs performed? Sent to competitions or masterclasses? Had any independently assessed? How many songs have you co-written or let’s be honest, re-written, post critique. Here’s a very big reality check to life in the professional songwriting lane. Sure, there are levels of talent but most musicians have added a ton of homework and experience to their natural flair before they consider themselves ‘good’. Cut yourself some slack and look at the relative time/money/commitment you can or want to put into your songwriting. Any moves forward in that direction will increase your growth and output as a songwriter, one step at a time!
The second way is to amp up your creative input. This comes back to fostering your curiosity and imagination. When you’re a grownup, you sure can forget this bit! When you’re a kid, you don’t think twice. Look for ways to experience and appreciate creativity long term. Listen to your favourite songs and writers, deeply. Read up about them. Try working on things with your musical mates. Go to concerts. Go to exhibitions. Find new music. Find new songs by established artists. What are they doing? How are they doing it? Get nosey! You’ll be surprised by the habits of many artists who continually stoke their own fires to create new and distinctive work. Suddenly, the feeling of fraudulence and stalling dissipates, and profound involvement returns.
The combination of effort and enjoyment can bridge the gap between what you want to write and what you do.
Talk more soon
ps I look forward to seeing those of you coming to the Akaroa Songwriting Clinic real soon! (June 1-3)
It seems to me that one of the most challenging times in songwriting is finishing. In fact, I’ve often said in workshops, ‘completion is the enemy’. Beginner songwriters often struggle with completing the first draft of their songs. They may have ideas for the first verse and the chorus, an idea or riff from where the inspiration sprang or a really cool chord sequence and feel. But when it comes to getting all the various bits of the song structure, lyrics and melody in one transmissible package, something stymies them.
‘Not finishing’ is one of the main issues that provokes folks getting some more input into their writing. Generally, the conversation goes something like this: ‘I have heaps of ideas floating around for songs’ or ‘I’ve got pages of lyrics and poems in a folder/notebook’ or ‘I’ve been working on this groove for a while now and I think it’s got some legs’.
Then comes the‘Big But’. ‘But I don’t have time to put it all together’ or ‘but I don’t know how to get it happening’ or ‘but I don’t know where to go next’ followed by ‘then my brain turns to mush’ or ‘whatever I write is so cheesy’ or ‘I know I need to get back into it – I’ll do it next summer.’
Remember, the trick isn’t to be number-one-hit-perfect with your song draft, but just to finish it. There's a bucket of psychology behind why we don’t want to finish work or put barriers in our own way – partly fear of failure, partly self-doubt, partly fear of leaving our comfort zone and more, but here’s three useful things to help you write your way out of this quagmire.
1. Reduce the size of your task. I read about one chap who was going to the gym and never quite made it, so his task reduction became “I will do two push ups each day for five days”. Now even one of our guinea pigs could manage that, but it meant he actually completed a very manageable regime and could then progress to something more substantial. What if you lowered the bar for a minute, dropped your anxiety load, and said to yourself ‘I’m going to write the next line of my verse each day for 4 days’. Now note – there’s no quality control, no editing, just a small bite sized chunk of songwriting designed to help you finish ONE song.
2. Give yourself a time limit. With the suggested bite-sized goal, I said ‘each day for 4 days’. You could put whatever time works when you were going to write – ‘I’m going to write the next line of my verse each day for 4 days at lunchtime’. So I’ve now linked the writing time frame to a (hopefully) pleasurable activity, but also one with a defined limit to help your focus. Schedule theory – if it’s scheduled, you’re more likely to action the task.
3. Switch off your devices when you write. This reduces temptation, distraction and pester power. You want to encourage creative flow, not dissipate it. Anything that helps you avoid having to use the limited supplies of willpower we have is a boon. Willpower is over rated. Help yourself to help yourself.
Let me know if any of these techniques work for you and see you at the finishing line!
ps If you want to really spice up your songwriting process, try our clinic.
Sometimes, when you start to really work on your songwriting, trying to figure out what you can do better, trying to learn what makes a song tick, you might take a class, sign up for another mailing list, google the latest songwriting websites or go Amazon crazy reading up anything - everything you can find about songwriting. You can find yourself veering from one 'hot topic' to another, one author who you think nails it, the one website that's going to really crank your pencil. Woohoo! What a roller coaster!!!
Part of this is really exciting - so much new information. All this stuff you didn't know, stuff that you didn't realise was bubbling through the music you love, stuff that wakes you up at night - the techniques, the jargon, the 3 Most Important Things to remember, the 5 Keys to Success, the 7 Simple Steps to Superstardom! It's so stimulating and all you have to do is just do it - right?
You sit down the next morning determined to rip into the latest batch of new songs - this is gonna be a cinch. You start writing - but wait, you haven't used the Second Key of Success so you put one of those in. You charge along to the chorus - and proudly whack in one of the Most Important Things to remember - cool. Then, you 're ploughing through the second verse, faltering under the weight of 6 of the 7 Simple Steps. The song looks weird - doesn't sound too good either. Suddenly, it's not so easy as everyone made out. In fact, it's dumb and you don't wanna play anymore. (Could be tears of frustration at this point) The roller coaster has become a big spaghetti junction. Arghhhh!
OVERWHELM OVERWHELM OVERWHELM!!!
The good news is that this is quite a normal consequence of submerging yourself in any new field of endeavour - especially one that involves such an amalgam of creativity and craft. Many beginning songwriters who dig a little deeper start to realise there's a lot more to it that first meets the eye, especially when good songs can sound so simple. Not so easy as it looks.
But being overwhelmed is hard to get out of when you're in it. You don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but how do you process the feeling? What can you do to work through it? Here's a couple of things to reflect on.
1. Apples or Oranges??
As aspiring songwriters in our hyper-connected mass media mad digital world, we're exposed to more music than ever before. Recording production standards have developed exponentially and the rate of music generation and the number of folks that pop their work up whenever on YouTube is mind boggling. It leads to constant comparison - with some very average writers and performers, to really talented people at the top of their game. You can see Prince live with a single click of a mouse, or watch your third cousin from the left playing Raspberry Beret on the harmonica in his pyjamas.
A more realistic yardstick to 'measure' yourself with is your own progress. You may have some goals - some big, some small. Maybe you've written them down or have them filed in your reptilian brain. Even just making your writing a habit and getting one of your songs actually 'finished' can be massive progress. Not to be sneezed at. Having the guts to go to a workshop or actually show someone else your work may be huge steps, let alone firing a song off to a competition. One of my students rang me when she received her first royalty cheque. It was $NZ68, but you would have thought she had won Lotto! What have you done since you started your own journey ? It may be more than you think!
2. I am Songwriter - hear me roar!!
By spending more time writing songs, you are, in fact, becoming a songwriter! No shit!
The kid holed up in his dorm room writing shitty songs is still a songwriter. The kid worried about writing shitty songs so much he doesn't write anything...just isn't. John Mayer
This means you're changing the way you see yourself, and the ways others start to see you. It's a change of identity, and that's hard at any time of your life. You're absorbing a ton of new information, learning new skills and focusing on different goals. You may be doing something you've always actually wanted to do, and dammit, you're doing it! But it can contribute to feelings of being overwhelmed by provoking discord with those around you who 'just don't get it'. Pretty hard going through that on your lonesome.
So, reach out to like-minded folks who can support you - songwriting circles, music clubs, open mics, facebook groups, mentors, whatever. Surround yourself with people who support your new identity, who support you as a songwriter. It helps!