Read how to write better songs
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.
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.
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.
Melodies are made up of notes, in much the same way that lyrics are made from words. But like lyrics, it's how the notes are connected that is the trick. The way notes are joined together varies with the space (intervals) and time (rhythm) between notes. An interval is just the musical distance, or height if you like, between two notes or pitches. If you want to get from one note to another , you can go up or down or stay where you are. For example, in Somewhere Over the Rainbow, there is an interval of eight notes ( an octave) between 'Some' and 'Where', and because you go up in pitch, it's an ascending interval. But in Born Free, the interval between 'Born' and 'Free' is four notes and the melody goes down at the point, making it a descending fourth.
Some songs are instantly recognisable from the intervals they use. Some, like these examples, purely at a two note level. Intervals really start to invest music with a powerful emotive pull - it's no coincidence that these two particular songs were also extremely successful movie theme tunes. It makes sense for songwriters to work more actively with melodic intervals and see the impact it can have on making a fantastic unforgettable melody. There are a number of charts out there on the internet that are a good starting point to prompt you to try something you mightn't naturally use in your melody making, although I gotta say my favourite ascending minor second is still the theme to Jaws!
The issue is not so much whether you know all the technical terms for the intervals although yes, it's helpful to communicate but that you, (yes, you!) can use them freely. You can create leaps and bounds within your songs to enhance and emphasise the direction and contour of your melody and to underline the lyrical message you want to get across. Most of you will write reasonably naturally in steps and skips - the smaller intervals where there are differences of two or three notes and that's great for an easily singable contour, but using a leap or a drop of a fourth or greater can really send your song on its way. Don't worry if you can't sing it - play it! Don't worry too much if you can't notate it. Record your ideas on your phone and stitch it together from there!
More importantly, bring your ears into play. I found this great audio example list compiled by Ashley Evelyn Mazur. The examples are contemporary but she performs the intervals so you can tune in and then recognise them within the song examples. Enjoy!
Talk more soon.
ps if you'd like to incorporate more practical tips and techniques into your songwriting, join us at the Wanaka Songwriters Clinic this coming Labour Weekend 19-21 October.
I think we’re really lucky being songwriters. We get to say things that many folks will never say out loud in their lives. We can get people to sing them over and over, with every fibre of their being if we do it right. That’s the world we live in. Because a song don’t mean a thing if it can’t make you FEEL something. As a songwriter, it’s the emotion that you need to get right above and beyond pretty much anything else.
So, how do you get your songs to strike an emotional chord?
1. Write Like a Human - sometimes, a songwriter will show me a lyric that I will have no idea has been written by them, because it bears utterly no relation to how they speak. They use words they’d never normally use in everyday speech like old fashioned slang or weird sentence construction just to fit a rhyming template. At this stage, I’ll ask them to tell me IN THEIR OWN WORDS what they’re trying to actually say, and suddenly you get this really interesting or powerful story coming out. And I’ll say that’s what you should put in the song. This is often referred in copywriting circles as the bar stool test. Think of your song as something you’d tell a good friend in a bar - the tone is authentic, real, intimate, conversational, connected, passionate, interesting. Like a human. Make the song like that.
2. Groove Is In the Heart - the rhythm of your song has a powerful impact on how we feel - at a deeply physiological level. It can make us tap our feet, nod in time or dance the night away. In fact, musicians talk endlessly about getting the ‘feel’ right in songs. Partly it’s the tempo and beat you choose, but it’s also the elements you leave out - every 4th high hat, or not strumming constantly through the verse. Whether you ‘push’ the timing of the song bringing a whole bunch of drive or you lay back relaxing the tension can give a completely different feeling to the music. Remember, this is the most repeated aspect of your song and getting it ‘right’ counts - literally. Make us feel.
3. Spice Up the Chords - the chords that you use and the order you use them can hit you right in the heart from the minute the song starts. This can be profoundly simple Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl uses just two - Eb minor & Gb major. The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby uses E minor and C major. But the magic is in how the chords are used. Not always with the root in the bass. Sometimes with added extras - sixths and sevenths - major and dominant. Sometimes missing the third or with suspensions. But wonderful triggers to make us respond emotionally. Learning one new chord can give you a whole new songwriting seam to mine.
4. Contour - the shape of the tune has a huge impact on how songs make us feel. Not just the big money notes but the way a song builds or creates uplift can, well be, uplifting. And there’s comfort in the sound of silence too - making us wait to land on the chorus. I’m not saying every song has to be a box of fluffy ducks - far from it - but I’m more than happy to sing along with the chorus of Radiohead's ‘Creep’ because of the shut down on 'Creep' and the satisfying falling melody on 'Weeeir-do'. Just saying,
The point is don’t tie yourselves up in knots under the microscope of ‘songwriting correctness’. If you create something that makes you feel good or sad or upset - in fact anything but indifferent - then set to and finish it. We need all the emotion in songs we can take!
Talk more soon
ps we’re now taking bookings for both Wanaka Songwriters Clinic Oct 2018 and Akaroa Songwriters Retreat Feb 2019.
3. Intervals and rests.
A word about what's actually not even there in songs. Space! Where will you put your nothing? The space vertically between notes is called an interval, and it can be up or down in pitch. The space horizontally between notes is called a rest and it can be a very short time or several bars worth. It's space that makes us wait and long for the next line or the next beat. Think about where you put nothing in your song. We need some of that too!
Try this exercise today. Here is a short lyrical phrase: I want you in my life forever
Use this lyric above, write and record the following variations a capella ( with no backing - super basic!) on your phone
1. An eight note melody that rises throughout the phrase.
2. An eight note melody that falls and rises throughout the phrase.
3. Try it at 120 beats per minute - an uptempo rhythm
4. Try it at 90 beats per minute - the downbeat version.
Feel the difference! Let me know how you get on.
ps Pleased to announce that the Song Doctor Mailer has been awarded one of the Top 75 Songwriting Blogs & Websites for Songwriters in the world. Well, fancy!
pps Preparations are going well for the upcoming Songwriters Retreat this Waitangi Weekend Feb 2-6, 2018. Thanks so much for all your bookings and inquiries so far - exciting! Prosody, and how to really incorporate it into your songs, is a topic we'll cover in detail on Monday Feb 4 ( first session) Retreat Day 3. Get into it!