Read how to write better songs
Sometimes to get creative, you limit something. It skinnies down your choices and provide something to push against, a tangible problem to solve or work around. And that fires up your imagination.
Sometimes it’s the length of time you choose to spend on your writing. You confine a songwriting session to 90 minutes – what can you generate in a manageable studio block on your calendar?
Sometimes, it’s meeting up with a collaborator or coach – you have to make that date or, like working for James Brown, you get fined.
Sometimes, it’s setting a ‘non-negotiable given’ for part of the songwriting process that acts as a prompt. For example, if you keep writing songs in a particular key e.g C major for keyboard players or A major for guitarists, run to the other side of that Circle of 5ths, and try writing in Ab or Gb for the session.
Another constraint can be returning to something extremely simple. Uncomplicate part of your songwriting. Try it 'just for today' and see what happens.
I was really struck by how effective this can be from one of the class ‘assignments’ for Songwriting School, where in the online teaching session, we looked at the simple song structure AAA.
For many of us, it’s the first type of song structure we learn, often by osmosis from nursery rhymes or hymns, carols and folk songs growing up. But it has stood the test of time and finds its way into multiple contemporary genres to this day.
The assignment asked the students to write a song using the AAA structure. No fewer than 3 verses plus or minus refrain. By constraining the structure, it forced the songwriting students to come up with other ways to create interest, tension and contrast within the song, because there are no innate sectional changes doing it automatically.
Each student did this in their own way – with imaginative narrative or metaphors or an illuminating chord progression or a powerful melody. But more importantly they were all able to complete the task within the week allocated – one immediately after the online class in a fever of inspiration.
And that was just one constraint!
So, if you’re floundering, try returning to something simple in your songwriting practice. You may surprise yourself or at the very least, write something new.
Talk more soon
PS To see some of Aotearoa’s finest songwriters working with constraint (song set to a Katherine Mansfield poem), come to Mansfield – In Her Own Words if you’re in Wellington Monday 14 June 8pm at the Michael Fowler Centre or Sunday 20 June 7pm in Auckland’s Bruce Mason Centre. 12 artists – 12 poems set to song - it’s quite a line-up!
PPS Songwriting School now has a second weekly class available on Wednesday evenings at 7.30pm. Email me to sign up.
So 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!
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.
KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is a great acronym to have at the front of your songwriting brain at all times. Here’s why. It reminds us that songs are short and they travel in real time. It reminds us that songs are heard. We hear them. It reminds us of the purpose of songs – they provoke emotion – we should be feeling something. It reminds us that we, your audience, should be able to remember something about your song after ONE listen. It reminds us that we should be able to sing along – not necessarily professionally, but at least in the shower or in the car in a traffic jam,or while we’re vacuuming or when we’re slumped on the couch heartbroken, sobbing under a blanket. Oh yes, my friends – keep it simple, stupid!
Simple does not mean shallow or dumbed down.
Simple does not mean easy to write. If it was everyone would be doing it!
Simple can be two chords – Eleanor Rigby, two words - Anchor Me, or two notes -Yesterday.
Simple means one story well told, one emotion well reached, a connection made with an audience.
Simple asks what are you trying to say, and expects an unequivocal answer.
Simple is authentic. Simple is uncomplicated.
Simple touches your heart and makes you listen.
And it’s not just my view….
Concision, admittedly, is the essence of pop: its discipline, its challenge, its genius. To tell a story or sum up an attitude in a handful of sung verses or a salvo of hip-hop rhymes, and to unite them with music that lodges those words in memory — and, at best, also summons the feeling behind them — is a songwriter’s job description…. Yet musical or verbal complexity can easily add clutter rather than depth, not to mention idle pretension. That’s why popular music regularly goes through back-to-basics purges like punk (both the 1970s and 1990s editions), electro (with iterations in every decade since the 1970s) and for that matter rock ’n’ roll itself. New York Times
Here’s how. Look at each of the building blocks of your song and see if you can do things, well, simpler!
1. The Point. What are you trying to say? What is the intention or purpose of your song? Is it easy to understand? Will enough of us care about it? Can you explain clearly what your song is saying in one sentence? Universal messages of love in all its forms, songs of longing and hope, sorrow, collective anger or outrage or something upbeat and danceable to get you through all have their place. From my experience, this is the bit that most newbie songwriters skip over.
2. Lyrics. Do you use everyday, conversational language? Like you're talking to us. Is there at least one image that helps us see what you see, clear as day? Do you have the title in the chorus? Does the title tells us the point of your song? Does your story keep reinforcing your song’s purpose?
3. Structure – does the shape or form of the song allow the purpose of the song to clearly unfold. We know where we’re going. There are verses, a chorus, maybe a bridge. It has pieces that are put together in a way we expect, with
a beginning, middle and an end.
4. Chords – the progression is strong, maybe even the same throughout the entire song. This is trending in pop songwriting now. Royals uses the same three chords throughout and they’re all major. (D/C/G).
5. Melody – the tune is easy to sing and easy to learn, in a range that everyone can sing (not more than an octave plus two). The melody is made a repeated motif (small group of notes that builds the melody, like words make a phrase). Yesterday uses a three note motif made of just two notes. Key professional songwriters like Max Martin start with the melody. Just saying....
6. Rhythm - your song has a clear groove or beat. It makes people move - a little or a lot. At same stage, preferably in the chorus, all the elements in your song hit the first beat of the bar.
7. Unplugged – if the song works with just you and a guitar, or just you and a piano or just you singing, and people get it, you’ve got a song!
8. Repetition – you repeat stuff – the chords you use, the melodic motif, the title in the chorus, the chorus, the groove.
Simple means that we can hear and understand each of the building blocks of the song. How all the pieces of the puzzle fit together is what makes the magic!
Talk more soon,
Charlotte Yates +021 685 561
ps I'm running a free workshop on this material this Saturday 13 May 10.30am-12.30pm @ Te Takere, Levin.
It would take a very brave friend to tell you your songs are boring. It’s so easy to be over invested in songs you’ve poured your heart out in and spent a great deal of time and energy bringing to fruition. Sometimes, the worst people to give you feedback on your work are your nearest and dearest, but, if one of them has the courage to give you the ‘boring’ comment, you should immediately show your profound gratitude with a massive hug, or if that’s not your style, shout them a beer!
Because this feedback gives you a clear way forward to how to improve your songwriting. No shit, Sherlock! Sometimes, it’s hard to know exactly why your songs aren’t connecting with your audience. And a boring song is relatively easy to make, er, less boring.
Think about it this way. Most songs are running at 3 to 4 minutes in radio format, with optional longer video, dance mix and live versions. So, once you capture a listener’s attention, you have to work quickly to keep it. One of the principle ways to do this is heighten your contrast. Contrast between your songs and contrast within them. Contrast within your song will give it shape and dynamic. Contrast between your songs shows the audience the range of topics, feelings and styles you have to offer as an artist.
You can do this in a myriad of ways and the trick is to be aware of contrast as an issue and be active about manipulating it. Tempo is one key ingredient – are all your songs in the same mid tempo groove? In some of your songs, is there a section you naturally rev up – even 1 bpm. This can give a real shove to the feel of the track and generate propulsion. Key is another. Are all your songs in minor keys? Imagine the feeling if you wrote one in a major key just for the mood change or, within one of your songs for once, you introduce a key change.
Then there’s pitch. What is the overall trajectory of your melody? Is it building at any point, preferably the chorus? Or is the range of your melody only within two or three notes? Are you putting the beginnings of your phrases on the first beat of the bar all the time? There are other beats, you know.
Song structure gives a great chance for tension and release by making the verse note lengths different from that of the chorus, changing the chord sequence for the chorus and again for a bridge. Having a song with a bridge for a change or starting your song with the chorus can spice things up too. Do all your songs have extended intros or does at least one of them rip straight into the vocal? And how long are your songs - can you say what you need to in 3 rather than 7 minutes, outstaying your welcome much. Are there any instrumental hooks that are essential to the structure of the song?
Time signatures give a real contrast between and within songs. Most contemporary music is sitting pretty in 4/4 but there are other places to go.
Lyrically, are you using repetition in the chorus enough, varying the rhyming patterns between your verse and chorus, giving us some instability in the verse rhythmically so we can’t just wait for the chorus to land. Are all your songs on the negative side of the love story or is there some light and shade? Are all your songs in first person? Are they all just about you or are the topics ones we can all identify with? Do you have some songs that have a short chorus – (one line repeated can work a treat) and others with a longer message? Do you have some vocal hooks without any meaningful lyric attached?
Remember, I’m just talking about the song here – not about production, either in the studio or live. This is about contrast within and between your songs. If someone tells you they can fix it in the mix, walk the other way and write better! And the elements I’m suggesting you try varying are just scratching the surface of the possibilities of improving contrast in your song. Get into it, play around with the options and your songs will never be called boring again.
Talk more soon.
It occurred to me this morning that the chorus is the soul of your song. I mean I’ve heard lots of descriptions - the meat in the burger, the point, the message and so on, but there is something indefinable too - an essence to a really good chorus.
For example, take the chorus in the Crowded House song, Weather with You. The chorus lyric is
Everyhere you go, always take the weather (x4)
the weather, the weather, with you.
Meaning maybe not immediately obvious or IMHO, not even that interesting, or useful even. But match it with the melody, it's catchy as all get out and audiences ate it up. It totally rated.
You can analyse why, for sure. Simple everyday language, the title features strongly in a key position, the melody starts higher than that of the verse and it’s easily sung and easy to remember, with loads of repetition and so forth, but in a song full of whimsy, this chorus is the highlight - not being particularly direct, yet working a treat. It is the soul of the song, a wee bit of magic and it connected with lots of folks.
Songwriting is often a solitary activity, at least in the initial stages of idea capture and development. Even in collaborations, you may be one of just a handful of intrepid soldiers of song. You can spend hours and days working on material, rewriting and revisiting your work and it can be easy to lose focus, to lose what you are trying to get across. If you want to write songs for yourself in your bedroom, that’s great –it’s valid self expression much the same way as a personal journal can be a terrific outlet. But if you want to write for an audience, there’s another process to consider and that is whether you are actually communicating something to someone else that they can relate too, in some form, at some time. If lots of people relate to your song easily and immediately, and can remember something about it – even sing some of it back to you, you’ve done something right.
Now, I’m not saying write shite. Not at all. To thine own self be true, for sure, but even if I don’t understand what your song is about, I can still have a very strong emotional response to it. (See above)
My point is that writing for an audience is about sharing an emotion, an idea, a story, a thought in song – the emphasis being on sharing.
One of the ways you can enhance that is by writing strong choruses that incorporate some of these features.
1. The Flying F--- Syndrome. Does your chorus have something a lot of people care about, understand or relate to? If they don’t give a FF, (children are reading this and they never swear), your song could be a dead duck.
2. Can I sing it? Or just Maria Carey. Keep it simple. And give me space to breathe!
3. Can I remember anything about it, preferably the title? Keep the chorus simple and short.
4. Repeat something. It will help me remember it. I may hear your song live for the first time in a bar or in a supermarket or when I’m driving. I’m not always going to be able to take notes! Songs are oral and aural.
5. Let me know this is the chorus. Make the melody different from the verse, start it higher and have a different rhythm – longer notes, on the beat, fairly resolved with any tension released. Lead me to it with a pre-chorus. I want to know where I am and have it feel good. I want to sing ‘I’m a Creep I’m a Weirdo’ or I Wanna Hold your Hand’ or whatever you want me to sing! Give me what Dr Pat Pattison calls the ‘Ahhhh’ factor.
6. Put the title in a strong position in your chorus. The beginning’s a good place. So is the end, and reinforce this by repeating it.
Even if you focus on one of these elements in your next chorus, you could improve the connection you make with your audience. It may feel clunky trying some of these things out and feel a bit ‘wooo who made the rules’ but songwriting, like most artforms, is a meld of inspiration, perspiration and technique. Have a crack and you may be well on the way to writing the soul of your next song.
Best wishes and have a lovely summer.
More next year.
PS if you want to really pick up your game, come to our next Songwriting Clinic.