Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Q♠ Know your audience

Q♠ Queen of Spades in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

It's always good to know your audience and write songs that are appropriate for them. For example, if you're writing for young children, use simple puns; save your clever literary allusions for a song for New Yorker subscribers.

The Queen of Spades invites you to take this audience-pleasing art to its extreme by writing a song custom-tailored for a single audience member. Pick one person whom you hope to please with your song, and figure out exactly what that person would like in a song.

If you have an opportunity, find out what's in their music collection. And take notes on their personality, interests, and personal values. (But don't be a stalker! Your ideal subject is someone who's already a close friend or family member.)

After doing your research, write a song that your chosen audience is sure to love.

When you have a chance, play the song for him or her. It's a success if they sincerely like it. If not, you can attempt to figure out where you went wrong, and you might learn something in the process. You might not know your friend as well as you think you do. Or you might have strayed too far outside your core strengths while trying to complete this assignment.

But if your song does succeed with your chosen audience member, you might find that there are other people outside your usual audience who also like this song. Have you learned a few new tricks that might help you appeal to a broader audience?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why we use chord notation

In rock music, a chord is a flavor of sound that occupies a specific period of time as part of a song. For example, when someone says "in this bar, play a D chord," they're telling you the name of the chord, D, and also when to play it. It's up to you, as a musician, to decide specifically how to play the chord, based on the style of music, the mood of the song, and your own musical skills.

Writing out rock songs as chords is a form of shorthand. It's possible to write every note for every player, but it's not a good idea, for several reasons.
  • it's a lot of work
  • most rock musicians can't (or won't) read written music with that level of detail
  • what really matters is the groove, or feel, which can't be expressed in music notation
  • as soon as the musicians understand the song, they know better than you do what notes they should play
What chord notation can't do is convey the feel or meaning of the song. You must have some way to convey this to the musicians.

You might have heard this conventional definition of a chord: three or more notes played simultaneously. This is sort of right, but not quite. A chord is defined as a set of notes, but those notes might not all be played simultaneously. Some of the notes might not be played at all in a given time slice. And there usually are other notes heard in the same time slice that are not part of the chord. The chord is an abstraction, a flavor of sound.

Each chord's name, or definition, has three components:
  • root: the "most important" note in the chord, this note appears first in the chord name.
  • bass: the low note. This is usually the same as the root, and if a bass note isn't specified, you assume that the root note is also the bass note.
  • type (or suffix): a code that tells you what other notes appear in the chord. If there is no suffix, then the chord is a major chord.
So, for example, a Dm chord has a root of D, a bass of D, and a suffix m, which stands for minor. The other notes in a minor chord are a minor third higher than the root (F, in this case), and a fifth higher than the root (A).

To take another example, G7/B has a root of G, a bass note of B, and a suffix 7, which indicates a "dominant seventh" or "common seventh" chord, containing, in this case, the notes B, G, D, and F.

There are literally dozens of chord suffixes, too many to cover here. As is so often the case, Wikipedia is your best source for further information:

Tuesday is Beastly Fundamentals Day.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sobering Truth: Computers will write songs by the billions

As far as I know, no one has built a computer program that writes ordinary rock songs from scratch, but it's bound to come. There are no technical barriers; and eventually someone will be willing to spend a few months writing it. Consider these examples of computer-generated material:
  • My Songwriting Assignment Generator combines randomly selected words and phrases in a limited set of formulas to create a nearly infinite set of songwriting suggestions.
  • Wolfram Tones generates actual musical compositions in real time. The resulting music doesn't quite sound like the music we're familiar with, but it doesn't sound like it's from another planet either.
Either of these approaches could be extended to creating formulaic rock songs from scratch. It's not a trivial challenge, but it's easier than any number of clever computer programs that have already been created.

When computers are writing songs, will that make songwriters obsolete? Not at all! But it will make it even clearer than the value of your songwriting doesn't come just from creating stuff. It comes from what you have to say. Art is different from manufacturing; it's about expressing something.

This means, more than ever, you'll want to find the value in who you are. Think about what's unique about yourself. Learn to love your imperfections -- those are now assets!

Don't try to write perfect songs; we can let the computers have that niche. Aim to write your songs.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Which comes first: chords or melody?

Which is more important: chords or melody?

Which do you write first: the chord line or the melody line?

There's no right or wrong way to build your song. But as a rule of thumb, in rock music the chord line is more important and is written first, and the melody line is written second to coordinate with the chord line.

In classical music, the melody line was more important and was written first. The chord line was written second to support and lend structure to the melody line. (And, as I mentioned in yesterday's post, the chords were mainly [one] and [five]7).

(Note that I'm talking narrowly about the Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven classical tradition. The classical section of a record store includes a rich variety of traditions and genres, as diverse as the rest of the store put together, so it's hard to make any general statement that applies to all of that different music.)

You can easily hear the difference in these two approaches. In the melody-first approach, the chord rhythm is irregular. The chords can move quickly and arbitrarily to support the whims of the melody.

In the chord-first approach, the chords usually have a simple, neatly structured rhythm. Often it's as simple as one chord per bar. But when the chords have a more complex rhythm, it has its own internal logic, and it's not dictated by the shape of the melody.

Sometime in the middle of the 20th century, songs broadly switched from the melody-first approach to the chord-first approach.

If you want to evoke an older style, or if you just want to do something different, try the melody-first approach. Write a melody that makes musical sense even without any accompaniment. Craft your entire vocal melody before you start thinking about chords.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The two chords of classical music

In the days of my small-town youth, much ado was made over the supposed lack of musicality in rock music, music built, so they said, around only three chords. The great irony is that many of the same people who dismissed rock music were fans of early 19th-century classical music, which is built around only two chords.

Maybe some other time I'll revisit that senseless old rock vs. classical debate and speculate about how it might have steered me towards being a fan of progressive rock.

For now, let's take a look at the two chords of classical music. The two chords are the tonic chord, which we call [one], and the dominant chord, now known as [five]. To be specific, the dominant chord of classical music is a seventh chord, [five]7.

In the key of C, we're talking about the chords C and G7.

In a minor key, the tonic chord is minor, [one]m, but the dominant chord is still major, still the same [five]7. But for now, let's keep things simple by sticking with the major key example.

Classical music is sort of like a sports match, with the ball endlessly lobbed from [one] to [five], back to [one], back to [five], and so on. Within this extremely constrained harmonic world, composers nonetheless managed to create some compelling and complex music. They found various ways to slip in other chords on the way from [one] to [five] and back, and to create bits af drama, making you wonder how long [five] was going to hold onto the ball and how [one] would ever get it back. But [one] always won the final match.

I'm sure there were riots and looting the first time a composer ever dared to break the formula and end a piece with a chord other than [one]. Like wearing mismatched socks or marrying someone your parents didn't approve, it just wasn't done.

To expand their narrow world just a little bit, classical composers were very free about temporarily changing keys. Let's say we're in the key of C, and the interplay between C and G7 starts to wear thin. We then let G pretend to be [one] for a while, and let G fight it out with its dominant chord, D7. When that fight runs its course, G would turn back into G7, reclaim its dominant role, and you'd end up back at C again.

Of course I'm oversimplifying classical music here, and you could spend years studying its subtle details. But it's important to understand this centerpiece of classical music, because it lives on. You can't fully understand rock chords without grasping the interplay between [one] and [five]. It's still alive and kicking in rock music, but, thankfully, it's not the only card in the deck.

We'll come back to these two chords again and again over the next few months. Here are a few key lessons to take home today:
  • [one] and [five] are rivals, fated to fight each other for control of the musical playing field.
  • Every chord has its own private dominant chord, its own [five] or [five]7. That adds up to a lot of extra chords available for your use at a moment's notice.
  • For the most familiar and powerful chord movement, you'll want to build up to a [five] chord, and then resolve back to the [one] chord.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Four places to use one chord

Yesterday I wrote about songs that use only one chord. One-chord songs aren't for everybody; they might or might not fit your style. But any songwriter can make good use of one-chord sections of a song.

There are four parts of a song where it's common and conventional to stick with one chord through the whole section.

Verse part A. In songs with formulaic 2-part verses, part A sits in one place for a while, until part B comes along and gets thing moving. There's no better way to sit in one place that to stay with one chord -- typically the [one] chord.

Chorus. Especially with short, hook-laden choruses, you might see a whole chorus stay on one chord. Since the chorus is the musical core of a song, its single chord is the [one] chord by definition.

Bridge. In a certain mid-20th century tradition, the bridge was called the "middle 8" -- and it was exactly eight bars long, and usually eight bars of the [five] chord. Thank goodness we've moved away from that terribly limited formula! But you'll still sometimes hear a bridge that sticks on the [five] chord the whole way through.

Introduction. Sometimes the beginning of a song is just a groove that repeats until the singer comes in. There's a word for that kind of repeating bit -- it's called a vamp. And a vamp is often just a single chord. Similarly, a song's fadeout is sometimes just a single-chord vamp. And if you need a little connecting piece between verse 1 and verse 2, sometimes a few bars of the [one] chord will fill that space perfectly.

I can't tell you how many times I've struggled with various combinations of chords while writing a song, only to finally realize that I only needed one chord after all. It's the desire to make things interesting that trips me up. Of course we want our songs to interest the listener. But if we make everything interesting, you know what? It's boring. Some parts of the canvas need to step back, to be background, white space, or texture. That's why our songwriting toolbox need to include rests, monotones, repetitions, and one chord.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

One chord

I wrote recently about writing with no chords. What if we change that zero to a one? Surprisingly, there isn't much different between no chords and one chord.

In either case, you aren't getting the sense of movement that a chord line usually contributes to a rock song. The difference is more a matter of texture than structure: the chord instruments get to play something instead of staying silent.

While it's quite rare to hear a whole rock song with no chords, a song with only one chord is only slightly unusual. There are thousands of them in all different styles:
  • funk and hip-hop songs with tasty grooves that just keep on grooving
  • blues songs that eschew the "12-bar blues" formula and just stay on [one]
  • ambient and electronic pieces where sound textures create enough interest without the need for chord movement
  • folk- and tribal-influenced songs with strong, active melodies
When your song uses only one chord, that chord is the tonic chord (the [one] chord) by default. Typically the lone chord is a major or minor chord, a seventh chord, or a minor seventh chord. (In C, those options would be C, Cm, C7, or Cm7).

Some great examples of one-chord songs are "Electric Avenue" by Eddy Grant and "Punk" by General Public. In both cases, a well-crafted arrangement keeps things moving, so you might never realize that the chords aren't going anywhere.

What are your favorite one-chord songs? Please list them in the comments.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A♠ Set these lyrics to music

A♠ Ace of Spades in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

Someone gives you lyrics, and it's your job to write the music. In real life, many songs are written this way. Think of the long, productive collaboration between Bernie Taupin (lyrics) and Elton John (music), for example.

If you find yourself in this songwriting situation, where do you start? A great deal depends on your relationship with the lyricist.

Sometimes the lyricist has no attachment to their work and is just glad to play a part in your musical efforts. In other cases, the lyricist might be maniacally invested in every nuance and syllable. It's better to be clear about their attitude before you start composing. In any case, it's good to ask the lyricist if they had any bits of musical ideas, and if they have a particular musical style or mood in mind.

Finally, when you're alone with the lyrics:
  1. First, figure out how to fit the lyrics into a conventional song structure, usually with verses, choruses, and a bridge. If the lyricist hasn't provided a chorus, can you invent one by picking a phrase that sums up the song and repeating it a few times?

  2. What is the emotional tone of the lyrics? What kind of feel and mood do you want to create with the music?

  3. Start with the most central part of the song, usually the chorus, and figure out a mood, a tempo, and a rhythm that makes that part of the song work.

  4. Work out specific notes and chords for the chorus.

  5. Then rough in the music for the rest of the song.
Now you've got a first draft of the song. How well does it work? Play it through for yourself, for the lyricist, for a test audience. As always, identify the weak spots and keep working on them until you're satisfied.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

N.C. = no chord

We'll be looking at chords in painstaking detail in the months to come. But first, a quick reminder: you can make music without chords. You can write parts of songs, or even entire songs, without chords.

In written music, the songwriter writes N.C. (no chord) where the chord symbol would go, as an indicator that the chord instruments should take a break. This can happen for several different musical reasons:
  • A melodic riff has taken over.
  • A breakdown, with a simplified beat continuing but most instruments dropping out.
  • A brief rest, with all instruments dropping out for dramatic punctuation.
  • An a capella (vocals only) section, where all instruments drop out to focus full attention on the vocal line.
  • A contrapuntal section of music: two or more interweaving melody lines, but no chords.
Consider using N.C. when you want to depict aloneless, emptiness, or simplicity; when you have musical ideas that just don't fit into chords; and when you want to evoke a traditional or tribal musical style. You can also use N.C. to put the spotlight on a new melodic theme; let it play once by itself before sharing the stage with the chord instruments.

Here are a few examples of songs that make artful use of N.C. in a minimalistic In each case, you can hear that adding chords would ruin the effect.
  • Tori Amos' "Me and a Gun" powerfully relates the stark emotions of a traumatic experience
  • Queen's "We Will Rock You" uses a primitive beat and a pentatonic melody to create a memorable singalong
  • the first minute of Yes's "Tales from Topographic Oceans": vocal tone-painting evokes the emerging light of the dawn
Do you know other instructive examples of songs without chords? Please post them in the comments.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sobering Truth: You have 30 seconds

It's sobering but true: Your musical success may depend on the first 15 seconds of your first two songs. If those openings aren't strong enough to convince people to listen further, you might not get a second chance.

We all know that, ideally, you should listen to an artist's entire album two or three times through before offering an opinion or judgment. You have to live with music a little before you can fully grasp and appreciate it. It's somewhat demeaning that thumbs go up or down after as little as 30 seconds.

But you can have some sympathy for the person faced with a big stack of demos, or for the music fan poking around on the web hoping to find interesting new bands. There is so much to listen to, and life is busier than ever.

Don't count on infinite patience. Put your best stuff up front. Of course, you still have to follow through. If people decide to listen further, you have to show off your depth and artistry and deliver something distinctive and worthwhile. But none of that matters until you pass the 30-second test.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Online resources

Take a look a Sharon Goldman's blog Songwriting Scene, which offers practical songwriting advice and cheerful encouragement for performing singer-songwriters.

M.C. Lars offers a detailed primer on how to succeed as a musical artist. Not the usual romanticized rock-star story, this is direct and pragmatic business advice based on his own observations and experiences.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Frustrated by the gap

Let me just say I'm frustrated by the gap between an inspired idea and its effective realization. In this case it's the gap between a finished (brilliant!) song and a proper (adequate) recording of that same song. Writing a song takes 2-4 hours. Recording a song takes 20-40 hours. The idea seemingly comes floating into my life for free, but the realization carries a heavy price: my life — or at least a discrete fraction of it.

Of course, this gap (and its accompanying frustration) is not unique to songwriting, or even to creative work. In every field of endeavor, the mind moves quickly, but the physical body is slow and clumsy. The spirit has access to infinite possibilities, but the material world is all about limitations and imperfections.

Life is full of limitations, like having two perfectly good songs and time to record only one of them. And imperfections, like my guitar playing that (no matter what I do) always seems to be a little bit out of tune.

You might be faced with different limitations and imperfections, but I'm sure that you have your own gap between inspiration and realization, and I'm sure that it gets frustrating sometimes.

We wish we could close the gap, bring the idea to perfect realization in no time at all, but we know it will never happen. At best we can narrow the gap a little bit. Even if I got my guitar playing all figured out, I would still be struggling with some other aspect of recording.

The only way to get rid of the gap is to reject the inspiration, to close the door on it, to say "things are fine the way they are, and I don't want to create anything new." But that's not a solution; that's just giving up.

A better solution is simply to feel better about the frustration. Take it as a sign that you're alive, that you have something you care strongly about, that you're engaged in a worthy struggle. Learn to love the gap. It's your playing field in a game that challenges your skills like no other. As long as you're in the gap, you know that your game is still on.

On Fridays, I write about my own songwriting efforts and personal opinions.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tip: One simple central idea

Songwriting tip: The heart of a song should be a simple idea, a single experience, or a universal emotion.

It's a song, not a novel, not an editorial, not even a business presentation. If it takes more than half a minute to explain to someone what your song is about, then your idea needs work — it's not clearly focused enough. Indeed, if it takes more than one sentence to sum up your song, you should take another look and see if you can make it simpler.

Now, this doesn't mean a song has to be simple-minded. You can have many layers of meaning and convey sophisticated ideas and subtle emotions. But there should be one central idea, a mood or message that's clearly expressed, one theme or point that any casual listener can grasp even if they miss everything else.

Thursday is Tip Day for the Unruly Beast.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

10♠ Roll the dice

10♠ Ten of Spades in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

Write by dice. For every artistic choice, list six possible options, and let a random roll of a die decide which option you choose.

Dice are the embodiment of randomness, and randomness is a great tool for creativity. Random choices create artistic challenges that are more interesting and rewarding than any that you could purposefully invent for yourself.

It's not that randomness per se is good. Randomness by itself is just noise. Randomly-generated computer music, for example, is not very interesting.

The value of randomness comes from its interaction with your artistic process. Your creative mind can't help but organize things into meaningful structures, even when some of your input is random. So if you work with random materials, you can bet that the song as a whole will make artistic sense by the time you're finished, whether your even trying.

Using random elements is a good way to interrupt your creative habits so that your artistry can find interesting, surprising new shapes.

A single 6-sided die is all you really need for this exercise, but you can have a lot more fun if you get yourself a whole set of dice with different numbers of sides. I have a beautiful set of dice designed for use with role-playing games. In addition to the standard 6-sided die, my set includes 4-, 8-, 10-, 12-, 20-, 30- and 100-sided dice. You can buy your own set at any well-stocked game store or comic book shop.

With more dice, you're better equipped for more kinds of random choices. For example, since there are 12 different keys, you can use a 12-sided die to decide what key to write in.

I recommend getting a set of dice for your songwriting toolbox. You say you don't have a songwriting toolbox? Well then — it's time to get started! Just pick a nice-looking small box and start to collect fun and inspiring tools (or toys) that you can use during your songwriting sessions. Then get yourself some dice, and let them help you write a song.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

One key is as good as another

Here's a fundamental tenet of modern music: there are twelve different keys, but they're all functionally the same. You can transpose your song into the key of A or C or Eb and it's still exactly the same song.

That's why we can talk about musical things in abstract. If you have a [one] [five] [six]m [four] chord progression, it's the same musical statement regardless of whether it's in E major (E, B, C♯m, A) or in B♭ major (B♭, F, Gm, E♭).

It wasn't always this way. Scales used to sound significantly different in different keys. Then J.S. Bach came riding into town with his "well-tempered" scale (also called equal temperament or EDO) and made all the semitones the same size. (Read the actual story of what happened.)

Today there are only a few concerns that would make you pick one key instead of another:
  • Singers care about what key a song is in. Singers have a very limited range of notes at their command compared to any musical instruments. Always set your song in a key that puts the melody in a good range for the singer. If you switch singers, be prepared to switch keys. If you're singing the song yourself, don't be lazy: put the song in your best key, even if it means having to relearn the chords. You won't always happen to compose in the perfect key, so just plan on potentially transposing after the melody is finished.
  • Musical instruments have their idiosyncrasies that can make one key sound different from another. For example, a guitarist can use a lot of open-string chords in D major, but can't use any at all in E♭ major. The different key might result in a different sound quality for the guitar.
  • You don't want to play too many songs in a row in the same key. Even if listeners aren't consciously aware of it, they get fatigued from hearing the same notes and chords over and over. Arbitrarily switching to a different key can help keep things sounding fresh.
  • If you're writing a song about someone named Carla, use the key of C, because Carla starts with C. That's what I would do, anyway! And I'm sure J.S. Bach would agree. He loved to work that kind of hidden musical message into his compositions.
Footnote: There are 12 major keys plus 12 minor keys. There is a big difference between major and minor! That's a subject for another day.

Tuesday is Beastly Fundamentals Day.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sobering Truth: It's not a good song until it's sung well

If the singer can't deliver a good performance of your song, it's not a good song. No one in the audience will say, "It's a good song, but shame about that bad singer." They'll say "Bleh! Let's get out of here."

This means that the path to songwriting success starts with a rather humbling strategy: Make songwriting subordinate to singing.

First of all, you should be willing to transpose a song so that it's in a favorable key for the singer.

If you're lucky enough to have a good, strong singer in the band, one who can take anything you give them and make it sound good, then count it as a blessing. Do what you have to do to keep that singer in the band.

If you're a solo singer-songwriter, working on your singing might be a better use of your time than working on your songwriting. On top of that, you should be willing to ruthlessly rewrite your songs to suit your own vocal strengths and avoid your weaknesses.

If you're writing for another singer, you should know your singer's range (notes they can sing) and tessitura (notes they sing best, usually the middle half of the range). Learn your singer's strengths and weaknesses, and write for them.

If you're writing for an unknown singer, write pessimistically. Assume you'll have an average, barely-competent singer. Stick with a limited melodic range, allow rests between lines for catching a breath, and don't write anything dazzling or acrobatic. Or if you do write anything that requires special vocal skills, don't make the song depend on it. Plan an alternate version that an average singer can perform.

Footnote: Don't be thrown off by what I call "the karaoke effect." You might hear a bad singer torture a classic hit song and still recognize it as a good song. But that works only because the song is already established through repeated listening to its well-performed version. As you listen to the song getting ruined in karaoke, the good version is overlaid on the badly sung version in your mind. But unknown original songs don't have that advantage.

Footnote 2: You'll notice that this blog has a bias towards songs with vocals. Let me just say that I have nothing against instrumental music, or music where the vocals play a less-central role. There are plenty of fine examples in my favorite genre, progressive rock. But in the interests of keeping things simple, I'm going to focus on songs with lyrics and vocals.

Monday is Sobering Truth day at Unruly Beast.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Online resource: Music theory podcast

Here's a free course at iTunes U that beginners might find helpful. Some fundamental music theory concepts demonstrated on the piano, courtesy of University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and iTunes Music Store.

You'll need to install iTunes software first; then you can retrieve the lessons at the following links.

Music Theory Fundamentals
Music Theory 2
Music Theory 3
Music Theory 4

Friday, September 11, 2009

Knowing it all and still not knowing anything

I'm a know-it-all by style, and I know it. I know it's sometimes irritating when I talk too long and don't give other knowledgeable people a chance to speak up. It's sometimes embarrassing when I get the facts wrong, when someone points out my mistake, and I have to apologize and admit that I was just plain wrong. And it's sometimes even dangerous when I overconfidently set out to do something without first double-checking the safety instructions.

On this blog, what's the risk? This is all "try it and see if it helps" advice, so at worst I may give some advice that isn't helpful. I simply don't have the time to double-check everything, so I'm just charging blindly ahead in know-it-all style.

But I know that I don't actually know everything about songwriting. And the reason I know that is that I'm constantly stumbling across new things that I didn't know before.

And as much as I think I have the tools and techniques of songwriting under control, I find myself constantly awed by what other songwriters come up with. "How did they do that? Where did that come from? How do they come up with this stuff? Why didn't I think of that??"

There are some songwriting feats that can't be imitated. All you can do is stare in awe. Like, for example, "Bob" by "Weird Al" Yankovic. On the surface, it's an effective imitation of Bob Dylan's songwriting, singing, and production, which is impressive enough. But then the song has three more layers of clever. Here's the YouTube video.

On Fridays, I write about my own songwriting efforts and personal opinions.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tip: Write more, use less

Here's a secret known by every professional photographer. If you want to have consistently good results, don't take just one shot. In a magazine cover shoot, after everything is perfectly set up and in place, they still might take 100 photos, knowing perfectly well that they only need one and will end up throwing the other 99 away.

This strategy of excess applies to songwriting, too, even though it may be somehow more painful to write a song and then throw it away. A song is almost a living thing; how can you create it and then abandon it? But you'll want to get over those feelings and consider what a huge advantage you gain by a little bit of excess. You can love everything you write, but don't become attached to anything.

If you're recording an album, you never know which song might inexplicably fall apart in the studio. You could try again and again to record it a slightly different ways, and keep tinkering with it until you go over budget, tear your hair out, and lose your confidence in yourself as a musician — or you could just pull your next song out of the folder and say, "Maybe we'll have better luck with this one."

Better yet, for a 12-song album, plan ahead of time to write 30 songs, demo 24 of them, record 16, and release the 12 that come out the best. It's just easier to write more and abandon the ones that fail than it is to rescue the song that goes off track. And if music fans are going to devote money, time, and energy listening to your album, they shouldn't have to suffer through a dud. You shouldn't deliver a song that you feel iffy about.

Write more than you need, and use less than you write.

This applies within a song too. I often write four verses and end up cutting it back to about two-and-a-half verses. When writing funny songs I think of several clever jokes and puns about the song's subject matter, but I never use all of them. The wittiest bit of wordplay might fall the wayside because I just can't get it to fit the rhyme scheme.

While writing music, I often come up with three or four different ways to shape a melody. I eventually settle on the best one and throw the others away.

Fundamentally, it's faster and easier to create more and then prune than it is to create just enough and have to revise and reshape it. Make sure you can create new ideas and material easily and comfortably, and let it be just as easy to cut things out and chop away the parts that don't fit.

Thursday is Tip Day for the Unruly Beast.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

10♣ Songwriting contest

10♣ Ten of Clubs in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

Enter a songwriting contest! Or, better yet, save yourself the expense of entry fees and just pretend/imagine that your next song will be entered in a contest. How will your song stack up against the hundreds of other entries? Who are the judges and what are they looking for? Do you meet the criteria for the contest? What can you do you help your song stick out from the crowd and have an "unfair advantage" against the others?

The Ten of Clubs method appeals to your competitive instincts. You want to do better than average — in fact, you really want to end up with the top prize, at #1. Your determination to win, your competitive drive will help you look critically at your work and perhaps admit that your first line doesn't grab people as well as it should; or your hook sounds too ordinary and needs to be punched up in some way; or that the song might go on too long and you really need to find some way to do without the third verse.

Just remember that it's not always best to be intense and self-critical. If you do it all the time, it makes the writing process too stressful. With a critic sitting on your shoulder, the fun drains away, and before long you find yourself making excuses to stay out of the writing studio entirely.

What's more, too much attention and self-critiquing can lead you astray. I've seen writers chip away at a perfectly good song until it self-destructs into a pile of broken shards.

But sometimes a bit of competitive determination is exactly what you need. It makes you try a little harder to find that one extra touch that puts your song over the top, the one last change that transforms it from ordinary to extraordinary.

So check out the song competitions that are open for entry. Or just make up your own imaginary competition. If you go the imaginary route, make it as real for yourself as you can. Decide on a deadline, then record your best possible demo, fill out an entry form, and go through the steps of sending in your entry.

Good luck!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Three Major Awesome Chords

Three chords to rule them all!
Three chords in your song!
Use these three chords to rock and roll —
You almost can't go wrong!

Yes! The legend is true.
If you crack open the nut at the heart of rock and roll,
three major chords will pop out.

These chords are called major not because of how incredibly important they are, but because they have big (major) thirds, unlike some other chords which have small (minor) thirds.

All chords are named after their root note, the root being the note that inspires the whole chord into existence. The roots of these chords are the first, fourth, and fifth notes of the major scale, and so these three chords are named one, four, and five.

The one chord is historically called the tonic chord. A tonic is something that cures just about anything that ails you, and the tonic chord has more goodness than any other chord.

If we were going to give one a new name today, we would probably call it the home chord.

The five chord also has a historical name that reflects its dominant role in musical narrative. The five chord is called the dominant chord.

The four chord is one step below the dominant, hence it's the subdominant chord. You can tell that the people who made up these names didn't think much of the four chord! Indeed, the music of 200 years ago was all about the fight between one and five, while four barely made an appearance. Not so in today's rock music, which is as much about hanging out as it is about fighting. Four is totally cool with hanging out, but is handy in a fight as well, and in the rock era four has finally assumed its rightful place on the fretboard.

Now, if you flip through a rock songbook, you could see hundreds of chords. In light of that vast universe of chords, you might think we're going overboard by spending all this much time on just three chords. But in fact almost all of those other chords unfold from these three. So it's not a waste of time if you spend a few weeks getting to know these chords intimately.

Of course, to actually play one, four, and five, you have to decide first what key you are playing in. In the key of C, one is C, four is F, and five is G.

In the key of D, one, four, and five are D, G, and A.

In A: A, D, and E.
In G: G, C, and D.
In E: E, A, and B.
In F: F, B♭, and C.

Note: It's okay if you have to look up these chord names while you're learning, but you should aim to know the one, four, and five chords in every key without even stopping to think. Like you know the names of your best friends, your favorite beers, and the street you live on.

Tuesday is Beastly Fundamentals Day.

Monday, September 7, 2009

How to create something unexpected

A few weeks ago, I issued a bold call for you to Create Something Unexpected. Since I posted that piece, I gradually realized that I might have left some of you scratching your heads, saying "That sounds good! I want to do that -- but how? Where do you find this kind of profound inspiration? Is this one of those mysteries that every artist must find on their own? Or is there a method to it?"

The answer is yes. You have to find this on your own. And yes, there is a method, a map to the terrain. It's the kind of thing, where, as your native guide, I eventually have to say, "I can take you this far, but no farther." But even then, you'll be guided by these seven landmarks:
  1. Develop your personal clarity. Very briefly, this means when something happens, you see what happens instead of seeing what you always see.
  2. Develop your personal discipline. Discipline means you can follow through with an action despite momentary distractions.
  3. Build a relationship with your muse. In other words, when inspiration calls, you better have your phone turned on.
  4. Create some room in your life. If your schedule is perpetually full, opportunity will pass right by you and knock on the next door instead.
  5. Learn a body of creative techniques and skills. For example, learn rock songwriting on this blog.
  6. Apprentice yourself to a particular style. For example, practice writing songs in your own personal style until you can do it comfortably and consistently.
  7. Take the call. After all that preparation, you still have to hear the inspiration, do the work, and create something specific and tangible.
Each of these points deserves a much fuller explanation. I could write a whole book, and there would still be more to say!

I want to make sure you notice that only steps 5 and 6 say anything about rock songwriting. The rest of the steps are the same no matter what art form or creative endeavor you undertake. This means that being a songwriter is surprisingly like being a novelist, a sculptor, or a dancer. You face most of the same challenges as a cartoonist, a filmmaker, or an inventor. Any artist is your kindred spirit, and you can learn valuable and relevant lessons from any creative field.

I'll soon have more to say about this roadmap. But I also need to cover chords, melodies, scales, phrases, rhythms, rhymes, hooks, mood, metaphor, voice, and narrative. All in good time.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Recommended resource: The Artist's Way

The Artist's Way is a book by Julia Cameron. It's not just a book, it's a 12-week do-it-yourself course to empower yourself as an artist. And by artist, we mean someone working in any creative endeavor, which includes songwriters and recording artists.

If your creative flow feels stuck, if your creative life doesn't seem to have any power or momentum, or if you notice a pattern of being unsuccessful in your efforts, then I highly recommend this book.

The only reason it's not for everybody is that it takes a lot of effort and courage to work through the Artist's Way program. You should plan to devote 1-2 hours a day for the 12-week period.

If you decide to go ahead with The Artist's Way, see if you can talk a few friends into doing it with you. It's great fun to do it together, and there may be times along the way when you will greatly appreciate the emotional support and camaraderie.

In the bookstore, don't be led astray by the many spinoffs and sequel books. Get the original book, The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.

The Artist's Way is on my short list of books that actually changed my life. What books about songwriting or creativity have helped you? Please post a comment and let us know.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

If you're a complete beginner

If you're really just getting started on this rock songwriting thing, you might not quite be ready for the stuff I'm writing about in the Unruly Beast blog. Don't worry! The blog posts will still be here for years to come. In the meantime, here's what you'll need to learn to do, in a nutshell: learn to interact with music in every possible way.
  • Listen to songs. Listening is a musician's most important skill. Learn to listen carefully to all different dimensions of music. Listen to a wide variety of music, and especially listen to music that you love. Listen with your whole being, not just your ears. Listen to recorded music, get out to live concerts, and watch music videos and recorded concerts as well. Go dancing so you can listen to music via your arms, legs, and hips.
  • Play songs. Learn to play keyboard or guitar or another chord instrument, and play and sing through songs that you like.
  • Learn to read music. You should learn to to read and play at least a melody line, and also chords written in standard chord notation.
  • Learn to write music. If you can play a melody line, you should be able to write it down on music paper.
  • Perform. Even if you only do it informally for friends and family members, you'll need to have the experience of playing a song for an audience.
The single best place to start is to take lessons on a musical instrument. Ideally, find a teacher who will teach you how to play the style of music you want to play, but any instrument and any kind of music is enough to get you started. Basic music skills and expressions are surprisingly similar across all different kinds of music, just like the genetic code is surprisingly similar across animals of all different shapes and sizes. So working on any instrument, in any style of music, will help prepare you for writing rock songs (or whatever style of songs you want to write).

I'll post some links here as I find helpful basic music instruction online. And of course, you'll find books in every library on the basics of music.

Because music is so multidimensional and tangled up in itself, there is almost no way to start learning it from scratch without a teacher. It's almost like trying to solve a crossword puzzle in a foreign language. That's why my first recommendation for a beginner is to pick an instrument and find a teacher.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Step 1: I admit I have a problem

Hello. My name is Paul, and I'm a songwriter. Let me tell you how I came to be here.

As a youngster in the 1970s, I fell under the influence of a powerful addictive drug. On the street, we called it black vinyl, "33 1/3," or simply records. These mind-altering spinning disks came from enchanted faraway places: from New York, from California — and most of the best ones, it seemed, came from England.

So profoundly moved was I by these experiences that I spent all of my money feeding my habit, and then I spent a lifetime chasing that elusive dragon.

For some reason — who can fathom the irrational decisions of a teenager? — I wasn't satisfied consuming the fruits of the tree. I wanted to find the source, the very wellspring of creative magic. It was a quixotic ambition, and I was an unlikely quester, not a rock star by any standards, not even much of a musician.

Perhaps the most charitable way of looking at my obsession is that I felt a need to return the favor — or at least pay it forward — of the artists whose music had inspired me so deeply. I wanted to create music that was in some way a worthy response to their efforts.

Now, 30 years later, I feel as though maybe I'm almost there. That feeling is probably just more of the irrational optimism that keeps me going. But I take heart in the scientific studies that show that irrationally optimistic people are happier and accomplish more in their lives than other people who have more balanced and realistic expectations.

Along the course of my quest, I have learned way too much about songwriting. Way more than anyone needs to know. And, though it may just be to fend off the feeling that all that effort of mine was wasted, I am determined to spill everything I know about songwriting, to the best of my ability, so that anyone who ends up on a similar quest in the future might have an easier path.

Unfortunately, my hardest-won lesson is that songwriting isn't enough. A song isn't beautiful by itself; it needs to be packaged with good singing, precise musicianship, skilled production, and a passionate performance. For the past decade, my focus has been on developing those skills. If it takes two hours to write a song and twenty hours to record it, I can't afford to spend much of my creative life on songwriting.

My most recent publicly available songs are the pair of songs that my Christmas band Bah & the Humbugs released last December, "Santa Hat" (my lyrics, with music by Vance Lehmkuhl) and "Mincemeat." You can hear them both at Bah & the Humbugs' website.

On Fridays, I write about my own songwriting efforts and personal opinions. Will I ever catch up with that dragon? Follow the drama right here!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Tip: Write lightly

The creative process doesn't flow if you clutch it with a death grip. In your creative space, practice being lightweight and easy.

Try out this slogan: "This creative process is important. But today's output, what I actually create today, doesn't matter."

The fastest way to get bogged down by writer's block is to worry about how your work will come out. Will people like it? Will it be good enough? Are you really a songwriter, or are you just kidding yourself? These and similar worries are likely to come up while you're writing, but these worries have nothing to contribute to the creative process. They just get in the way. So set them aside and get back to writing.

If it helps, you can take a sheet of paper, and write at the top, Things I Will Worry About Tomorrow. Then each time a new worry comes up, actually write it down on the list. If that same worry pops up again, just tell it, "It's okay; you're on the tomorrow list. Today is the day for creating."

If you do this, be true to your word. Take fifteen minutes the next day, go through your list of worries, and decide if you need to take action on any of them.

In the heart of your creative process, you should aim to be almost weightless. Then you can interact with the most subtle flows and delicate breezes from the world of inspiration. If you're free from pressures and worries, you can tune into these tiny, invisible forces and translate them into something solid and tangible for the rest of the world to see.

So pack lightly!

Thursday is Tip Day for the Unruly Beast.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Joker: Write a song parody

This is the Joker card in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

I shuffled the deck a dozen times, then cut it, and the first card I dealt was the Joker. That might be a hint of how this deck is going to go. We're breaking the rules before we even get started!

Each card in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck represents a different approach to songwriting, a different way to write a song. The Joker, always a troublemaker, invites you to write a song parody. That is, take an existing song and write parody lyrics.

It's easy to write new lyrics to an existing song. For most people, this is easier than writing brand-new lyrics for a new song. What makes it easy? The song that serves as your starting point also serves as a reference point, as proof that the whole structure works as a song. So you never lose faith or get lost along the way, as you might when writing an all-new song.

Though it's easy to make up new lyrics, it's harder than it looks to write an effective, entertaining parody. You might think anyone could do what Weird Al Yankovic does -- until you try to do it yourself.

Here are some tips for writing a good parody:

  • Pick a ridiculous topic for your song -- something that doesn't often get sung about

  • Don't focus on the song you're parodying. Instead, focus on the message that you're conveying. Think of it as a new song that happens to use the same music and structure.

  • Find clever ways to use recognizable elements of the original song to convey your new message.

  • Work out a lyrical hook for your new song that sounds almost like the hook from the original song.

  • Don't worry about being funny. If you do your song well, it will automatically be funny.

Song parodies are fun for the listener, because they separate out the sound of the original song from its message. Your parody provides a new and different message, but it sounds almost the same as the original song. It's confusing, in an interesting way, because you reveal that the appeal of the original song is mostly separate from the literal meaning that it conveyed.

Writing a song parody is a great exercise to help you learn songwriting. It forces you to pay close attention to the structure of a song that you already know and figure out what makes the lyrics work.

The downside of writing a parody is that, in the end, you'll have a song that you don't own. You probably won't want to record it on an album, because you'd have to get special permission from the owner of the song you parodied and (typically) give them all of the royalties. But you might have great fun playing it for your friends or singing it at karaoke night.

People won't be too impressed that you wrote a song parody. As I mentioned earlier, everyone mistakenly thinks it's easy to write a parody. But you will gain valuable songwriting practice.

The Rock Songwriter's Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

Later today I will introduce The Rock Songwriter's Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song. Watch for one new songwriting method each week for an entire year.

If you thought there was only way to write a song, get ready to open your eyes and expand your thinking. There are many different ways to approach the task of songwriting, and if you've tried only a few of them, you might be needlessly limiting your creativity.

To present these songwriting methods in a truly random order, I shuffled a real live deck of cards. Oh, and this deck of cards happened to have two jokers in it, so along the way you'll get two bonus methods for a total of 54.

If you have time to devote to songwriting practice, I invite you to try out each new method each week. It's likely that some of these methods will work out better than others for you, but in any case you'll end up with a pile of new songs and plenty of fresh insight into your songwriting process.