Wednesday, November 25, 2009

3♣ Use up some ink and paper

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

When writing a song -- or creating anything -- we naturally want the results to be great. Why set out to create something average? But the pressure to produce great stuff is a burden on the creative process. It's hard to be inventive when you need guaranteed results. At worst, you might find that you can't write anything at all, for the fear that you might create something that isn't good enough.

The Three of Clubs gives us an antidote to perfectionism and writer's block. Start with several blank sheets of paper, and keep writing until you have filled them up! Your new goal isn't to create goodness, it's to end up with a page full of stuff -- new stuff that you just wrote.

At worst, you'll create something bad, and you can throw it out. But if you persist, you will eventually, without even trying, come up with a brilliantly fresh idea. Those ideas are hanging around, waiting to come out -- but they can only emerge if you're actually writing, and only while you're not paying full attention to what you're doing.

Paradoxically, it can be easier to write ten songs than it is to write one song. When you're writing one song, that song alone carries the weight of all your hopes and ambitions, and your writing gets bogged down. But if you're going to write ten songs, there's less pressure on each of them, and you can speed through the process.

Take on the Three of Clubs' challenge. Empty out your pen, and fill up the page with new songs. Are they good songs? It doesn't even matter! You can decide that later -- right now you're busy writing.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

J♠ Your brand, your song

J♠ Jack of Spades in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song
The Jack of Spades pulls us into the realm of marketing and image-making. Though it might seem strange to think of a rock recording artist as a brand, that is exactly what successful music marketing people do. A recording artist is a product line with a brand and image just as much as pizzas or televisions are.

If you've never done a branding exercise, here's the short version: What are some of the qualities values, and images that you (ideally) want people to think of in connection with you as a famous rock star?

Bruce Springsteen has (among other things) New Jersey and working class; ZZ Top has beards and classic cars.

What are your things? Make a short list, and then write a song about one of them.

If it seems cynical and wrong to let marketing considerations guide your songwriting, let me suggest that you think about it in exactly the opposite way. Let your artistry expand beyond songwriting and performing to encompass image-making and marketing. Use your inspiration and your creative process to create yourself as an artist and public persona. Your songs should fit that persona, because they come from the same creative wellspring.

So take up the Jack of Spades' challenge: write a song this week that's perfectly matched to your branding.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Chord phrases in 11 other popular keys

Not every song is in C major or C minor. If you need help transposing all of this week's useful chord phrases into other keys, use the Chord Transposition Tool. It works online and on paper.

Friday, November 13, 2009

120 useful chord phrases in C minor

Yesterday we gave you 200 chord progressions — or chord phrases — in C major. Today it's C minor's turn. And the minor key always gets the short stick. There are only 120 chord phrases in this list. But don't worry — with a little ingenuity you can invent plenty more.
  1. Cm - - -
  2. Cm - E♭ -
  3. Cm - Fm Cm
  4. Cm A♭ Fm Cm
  5. Cm E♭ Fm Cm
  6. Cm Gm Fm Cm
  7. Cm B♭ Fm Cm
  8. Cm Gm A♭ Cm
  9. Cm B♭ A♭ Cm
  10. Cm B♭ A♭ E♭
  11. E♭ - - -
  12. E♭ - Fm Cm
  13. E♭ - A♭ Cm
  14. E♭ B♭ Fm Cm
  15. E♭ B♭ A♭ Cm
  16. Cm - Gm Cm
  17. Cm - G7 Cm
  18. Cm - B♭ Cm
  19. Cm - B♭ E♭
  20. E♭ - G Cm
  21. E♭ - B♭ Cm
  22. Cm - Fm -
  23. Cm A♭ Fm -
  24. Cm E♭ Fm -
  25. Cm - A♭ -
  26. Cm E♭ A♭ -
  27. Cm Gm Cm Fm
  28. Cm B♭ Cm Fm
  29. E♭ B♭ Cm Fm
  30. Cm Gm Fm -
  31. Cm B♭ Fm -
  32. Cm Gm A♭ -
  33. Cm B♭ A♭ -
  34. Cm E♭ B♭ A♭
  35. Cm E♭ Gm Fm
  36. Cm - Gm -
  37. Cm - G -
  38. Cm - B♭ -
  39. Cm Fm Cm Gm
  40. Cm A♭ E♭ Gm
  41. Cm B♭ Cm Gm
  42. E♭ B♭ Fm Gm
  43. Cm Fm Gm -
  44. Cm Fm B♭ -
  45. Cm A♭ Gm -
  46. Cm A♭ B♭ -
  47. Cm E♭ Fm Gm
  48. Cm E♭ Fm B♭
  49. Cm E♭ A♭ Gm
  50. Cm E♭ A♭ B♭
  51. E♭ Fm Gm -
  52. E♭ Fm A♭ Gm
  53. Fm - - -
  54. A♭ - - -
  55. A♭ - Fm -
  56. Fm Cm Fm -
  57. A♭ E♭/G Fm -
  58. Fm E♭ Em -
  59. Fm Gm Cm Fm
  60. Fm B♭ Cm Fm
  61. A♭ A♭ Cm Fm
  62. A♭ Gm Cm Fm
  63. Fm Gm Fm -
  64. Fm B♭ Fm -
  65. Fm B♭ A♭ -
  66. A♭ B♭ Fm -
  67. A♭ B♭ A♭ Fm
  68. Fm - Cm -
  69. Fm A♭ Cm -
  70. A♭ - Cm -
  71. A♭ Fm Cm -
  72. Fm - E♭ -
  73. A♭ - E♭ -
  74. A♭ E♭ Fm Cm
  75. Fm E♭ Dm7-5 Cm
  76. Fm Gm Fm Cm
  77. Fm B♭ Fm Cm
  78. A♭ B♭ Fm Cm
  79. Fm Gm Cm -
  80. Fm B♭ Cm -
  81. A♭ B♭ Cm -
  82. Fm B♭ Gm Cm
  83. Fm - Gm -
  84. Fm - B♭ -
  85. A♭ - G -
  86. A♭ - B♭ -
  87. Fm Cm Fm Gm
  88. Fm E♭/G A♭ B♭
  89. Fm E♭ A♭ G
  90. A♭ Cm A♭ B♭
  91. Gm - - -
  92. G - - -
  93. Gm - G7 -
  94. B♭ - - -
  95. Gm - Cm Gm
  96. B♭ Cm Gm -
  97. Gm Fm Cm Gm
  98. B♭ A♭ Cm Gm
  99. Gm - Fm Gm
  100. G - A♭ G
  101. Gm A♭ Fm Gm
  102. Gm - Fm -
  103. Gm - A♭ -
  104. B♭ - Fm -
  105. B♭ - A♭ -
  106. Gm Cm Gm Fm
  107. B♭ Cm Gm Fm
  108. B♭ Cm B♭ Fm
  109. Gm Cm Fm -
  110. B♭ Cm Fm -
  111. B♭ Cm A♭ -
  112. B♭ E♭ Fm -
  113. Gm - Cm -
  114. G - Cm -
  115. B♭ - Cm -
  116. Gm Fm Gm Cm
  117. G A♭ B♭ Cm
  118. Gm A♭ G7 Cm
  119. Gm Fm B♭ Cm
  120. B♭ Fm B♭ Cm

Copyright note: These are commonly used chord phrases, so there are no copyright issues to keep you from using them to create an original song. But please don't copy the entire list and post it somewhere else online. Link back to this blog post instead. Thanks!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

200 useful chord phrases in C major

We've spent two full months of this blog exploring the basics of chord writing in rock music so you can create your own chord progressions (or chord phrases, as I like to call them). Personally, I love this stuff! There are so many hidden symmetries to discover, so many subtle relationships between notes that you can play with.

But... I know not everyone wants to master the intricacies of chords. Or even if you want to learn it all, you might have to write a song by tomorrow, with no time to learn even the basics.

All right, then. Here is your cheat sheet: 200 ready-to-rock chord phrases in C major. They'll work perfectly well in any other major key if you transpose them accordingly (or just use the transpose button on your electronic keyboard!).

Wherever you need a phrase of music, just drop in one of these chord phrases. (One key tip: Use repetition; that is, use some of the chord phrases more than once. It helps your song hang together.)

By the way, these chord phrases are not random; they're in a sort of functional order. So don't just pick from the beginning of the list. Use dice or something to choose at random from the entire list.
  1. C - - -
  2. C Csus4 C Csus4
  3. C - Am -
  4. C Am C Am
  5. Am - - -
  6. C - F C
  7. C Am F C
  8. C E♭ F C
  9. C Dm F C
  10. C D7 Fm C
  11. C Em F C
  12. C G F C
  13. C B♭ F C
  14. C F Dm C
  15. C Em Dm C
  16. C G Dm C
  17. C G F Am
  18. Am - F C
  19. Am Dm F C
  20. Am - Dm C
  21. Am - F Am
  22. Am F C Am
  23. Am G F C
  24. Am Em F C
  25. Am G F Am
  26. C - G C
  27. C/G G C -
  28. C Am G C
  29. C G G7 C
  30. C - B♭ C
  31. Am - G C
  32. Am - G Am
  33. C F G C
  34. C Dm G C
  35. C E♭ B♭ C
  36. C F B♭ C
  37. C F G Am
  38. C F E7 Am
  39. C Dm G Am
  40. Am F G C
  41. Am Dm G C
  42. Am F G Am
  43. Am F E Am
  44. C - F -
  45. C Am F -
  46. C Am C F
  47. C - Dm -
  48. C - Dm F
  49. C E♭ F A♭
  50. C A♭ F -
  51. C Am F Dm
  52. C G C F
  53. C G Am F
  54. C Em/B Am F
  55. Am - F -
  56. C G F -
  57. C G Dm F
  58. C Em F -
  59. C Am E F
  60. C Am G F
  61. C B♭ F -
  62. C E♭ B♭ F
  63. C F G F
  64. C F G A♭
  65. C F B♭ F
  66. C F B♭ A♭
  67. C Dm G F
  68. C Dm Em F
  69. C F Em Dm
  70. Am G F -
  71. Am - Em F
  72. Am C G F
  73. C - G -
  74. C Am G -
  75. C - B♭ -
  76. Am - G -
  77. C F C G
  78. C F Am G
  79. C Dm Am G
  80. C Em/B Am G
  81. Am F C G
  82. C F G -
  83. C C/E F G
  84. C Am F G
  85. C E♭ F G
  86. C F Dm G
  87. C Dm F G
  88. C D F G
  89. C - F B♭
  90. Am F G -
  91. Am C F G
  92. C G F G
  93. C G/B F/A G
  94. C B♭ F G
  95. C B♭ F B♭
  96. C B♭ A♭ B♭
  97. C Em F G
  98. Am Em F G
  99. F - - -
  100. F - Dm -
  101. Dm - F -
  102. F C F -
  103. Dm C/E F -
  104. F Am F -
  105. Dm Am F -
  106. F Am C F
  107. F Dm C F
  108. F C Dm -
  109. F G C F
  110. F G Am F
  111. F - G F
  112. F C G F
  113. F Am G F
  114. Dm C G F
  115. F C B♭ F
  116. F - C -
  117. F Dm C -
  118. F - Am -
  119. F Am F C
  120. F C F C
  121. F C/E Dm7 C
  122. F G F C
  123. F Em F C
  124. F B♭ F C
  125. Dm - C -
  126. F G C -
  127. Dm G C -
  128. F Dm G C
  129. F G Am -
  130. F B♭ C -
  131. A♭ B♭ C -
  132. F C G C
  133. F C/G G C
  134. F Am G C
  135. F C G Am
  136. F - G -
  137. F Dm G -
  138. F - B♭ -
  139. Dm - G -
  140. Dm7 - G7sus4 G7
  141. F C F G
  142. F Am F G
  143. F Am Dm G
  144. F Em F G
  145. F Em Dm G
  146. F C/E Dm G
  147. Dm C/E F G
  148. Dm Em F G
  149. G - - -
  150. G - G7 -
  151. G - G7sus4 -
  152. Gsus4 - G -
  153. B♭ - - -
  154. G - C G
  155. G - Am G
  156. G C Am G
  157. G Am C/G G
  158. Em Am C G
  159. B♭ C B♭ -
  160. G F C G
  161. G Dm C G
  162. G F Am G
  163. G Dm Am G
  164. G - F G
  165. Em F G -
  166. G F Dm G
  167. G C F G
  168. G Am F G
  169. G - F -
  170. Em - F -
  171. B♭ - F -
  172. G C G F
  173. G Am G F
  174. B♭ C G F
  175. G C F -
  176. G Am C F
  177. G C Am F
  178. G F C F
  179. G C C7 F
  180. B♭ C F -
  181. B♭ F C F
  182. G - C -
  183. G - G7 C
  184. B♭ - C -
  185. G - Am -
  186. G F G C
  187. G F B♭ C
  188. G A♭ G C
  189. G A♭ B♭ C
  190. G F G Am
  191. G Dm G C
  192. G Dm G Am
  193. G C G C
  194. G C G Am
  195. G Am G C
  196. E7 Am G C
  197. B♭ F B♭ C
  198. B♭ F G C
  199. Em F G Am
  200. Em F G C
Copyright note: These are commonly used chord phrases, so there are no copyright issues to keep you from using them to create an original song. But please don't copy the entire list and post it somewhere else online. Link back to this blog post instead. Thanks!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

4♠ Start with a loop

4♠ Four of Spades in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song
The Four of Spades gives us a time-honored way to write a song. Start with a loop. A loop is a segment of audio that repeats over and over. You build your song over the repeats of the loop. The repetition gives you an automatic catchy element, while it also enforces a constraint on where your song can go.

In olden times, before music was recorded on computers, people still worked with loops and build songs from them. They cut out a section of magnetic recording tape, spliced the two ends together to make a physical loop of tape, and arranged the tape recorder so that it would keep playing that section of tape over and over.

Today, it's almost too easy: you can grab any audio clip and tell your recording program to loop it. (Copyright warning: It's a good idea to use audio material that you're legally entitled to use. If you sample another artist's song, you might create legal troubles that cost more than your new song is worth.)

If looping digital audio doesn't suit your style, you can also do loops the acoustic way: play a repeating riff or chord phrase over and over without variation, and use that repeating material as a framework on which to build a new song.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Any questions?

I've been talking about chords for a while, and I think we're almost done covering the basics of that subject. Do you have any questions about chords? Or about any aspect of songwriting or creativity? Please add your questions as comments on this post. I'll post quick answers here or address them in upcoming blog posts.

As I may have mentioned at the outset, I started this blog without a plan. After wrapping up chords, what songwriting subjects should I dig into next? Eventually, I need to cover melody writing, song structure, the many aspects of lyrics writing, and the creative process. And ultimately, after getting through all the basics, I want to explain the advanced and systematic approach that I call songcrafting.

If you have an opinion on what I should cover next, post it here. Most enthusiastic faction rules!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Sobering Truth wrap-up

Here's another sobering (but paradoxical) truth for you to chew on: Many of the world's best creative artists have only a tenuous relationship with reality.

There's a point to the weekly Sobering Truths feature: We want you to avoid widespread misconceptions so you don't waste a lot of effort going in the wrong direction.

But if we keep going down this reality-based road, we will soon pass into a neighborhood that is simply depressing and not helpful in any way. Burned-out wrecks of former nightclubs and recording studios will lurk oppressively and taunt us with revelations such as these:

Music will inevitably be free. Basic economics: Cost of production is zero. Cost of distribution is zero. Talent is plentiful, and competition is fierce. Media companies' ability to control the public conversation is rapidly slipping away. Trying to hold the line on music prices is like trying to stop rising floodwaters with sandbags -- except we're running out of sand, and these waters will never subside. And the question that musicians have been asking for ten years still has no answer: How will we make money? (Well, there is an answer, but we don't like it: Day job.)

People won't hear the words you write. In ordinary listening situations, you can't count on people hearing even half of the words. Sometimes people mis-hear the main hook of a song, even though you repeat it over and over. It's good to care about every word you write, but, face it, the words won't all be heard. Even if the singer enunciates like a fiend and you mix the vocal way out front, there are still background noises and distractions in the listener's environment. So stick to a simple main message, repeat and reinforce all your key points, and make sure the song will make a coherent impression even if many of the words get lost.

You aren't breaking through on radio. But people will have a chance to hear your songs online, on your CDs, or in concert. Decades of songwriting habits and expert advice have been based on making songs stick out on the radio. It's time to shed those habits and concentrate on how to make a good impression on the person who visits your MySpace page and clicks the Play button, or who takes a tip from a friend and launches your YouTube video. It's a new world with different challenges. (Note: if you are getting on the radio, then, by all means, follow that old advice and make sure you have three radio-friendly songs ready to go.)

Hit songs are made by record companies and radio promotion people, not by songwriters. There's an art to making a hit song. It involves skills such as advertising, promoting, schmoozing, and paying the right people at the right time. You can write a catchy song, but it's not a hit song until it gets into the hands of people with hit-making skills.

To run for president you must first be nominated. It seems unfair, but careers pass through stages, and you have to successfully handle each one in order to get to the next one—even if you feel you're ready for the next stage already.

When music industry people are friendly and helpful, it's because they smell money. It's a good thing if you smell like money! But take it for what it is. Don't be one of those naive shark victims who complains, "I thought I had lots of friends, but then they betrayed me and ate me."

There! I think that takes care of the Sobering Truth backlog. Can you see that S.T. was starting to head down a cynical and depressing path? Now it's time to give this feature a rest for a while. Artists need to be spiritual acrobats: sober and reality-based today, inebriated and lost in fantasy tomorrow.

Paradoxically, artists who are unrealistically optimistic are more likely to be productive, and artists who produce more are more likely to be successful. This means that being unrealistic might be a rational success strategy. To put it more bluntly, being too realistic will sabotage your chances of success as an artist.

It's still wise to stop by Reality Street now and then to check in and see what's going on, but, as an artist, you don't want to live here every day.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Online resources: Songwriting challenge

The Songwriting Scene blog has issued a seasonal songwriting challenge. Write a seasonal or holiday song, and compare your results with other songwriters who took up the challenge. See the details at Songwriting Scene.

It would be ironic for me to enter this challenge personally—I've written so many holiday songs, it might as well be my day job. But this is a good kind of exercise, because you always learn something by seeing how other songwriters responded to the same assignment.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

sus4, add9 and other leftover chords

The suspended-fourth chord type, abbreviated sus4, contains a fourth instead of a third. That is, where a major or minor triad contains a P1 (root), m3 or M3, and P5, the sus4 chord contains a P1, P4, and P5.

This chord is thought to create suspense, in the sense that the fourth is expected to give way to a third. The movement from 4 to 3 "resolves" the suspense.

Csus4 C

But you can feel free to use this chord with or without "resolving" the suspension. You can think of sus as meaning substitute. The four note is the substitute for the three.

There is also the less common sus2 chord, which works in the same way. In this case a second takes the place of the third.

You can have a 7sus4 chord. But there's no 7sus2 chord—that's just called a 9 chord. (It's okay if a seventh or ninth chord lacks a third.)

You'll occasionally see a sixth chord, abbreviated 6. It's a major chord with an added major sixth. It functions the same as a major chord, but the extra note makes it "thicker." Note that C6 is essentially the same as Am7/C.

The minor sixth chord is abbreviated m6. It's a minor chord with an added major sixth. (Despite the chord's name, the added sixth is major, not minor.) Cm6 has the same notes as Am7-5/C.

Another note that can be added for thickening is the second, which is also called the ninth. The added-ninth chord, abbreviated add9 (or sometimes add2) is a a major chord with a second added for thickening.

You can add a ninth to a minor chord as well. It's abbreviated m(add9). The half-step interval between the major second (the ninth) and minor third gives this chord an interesting bite.

For maximum thickness, you can add both the sixth and the ninth. The six-nine chord is abbreviated 6/9. This is the one case in rock chord notation where a slash is not followed by the bass note. Note that this chord contains all five notes of the pentatonic scale.

If you add a major ninth to a seventh chord, it's simply called a ninth chord, abbreviated 9. The maj9 chord is a maj7 chord with a major ninth added. The m9 chord is a m7 chord with a major ninth added.

Finally, what if you have a 7 chord and you want to leave out the fifth and play a major sixth instead? This delightfully dissonant dominant chord is usually written as a 13 chord. In theory, the 13 chord should contain all seven notes of the scale, but typically some of the notes are left out.

There are still other possible chord types, and if we were writing jazz you'd want to know every single one of them. But rock is not usually very inventive with chords—many rock songwriters go through an entire career without using any of the chords in this post. So don't sweat over learning all the different chords. Learn them when you need to, when they're useful, and when you're feeling adventurous.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Your own personal [four] and [five]

Remember that [one], [four], and [five] are the three chords at the heart of rock music.

I sometimes say that the [one] and [five] are rivals, perpetually battling each other for control of the musical space. And [one] and [four] are buddies, comfortable hanging out together.

Now, remember that every minor or major chord can be a [one] chord if we happen to be in the key based on the root of that chord. For example, the Dm chord is the [one]m chord in the key of D minor.

So think about this: every chord you use has its own rival (its own personal [five] chord) and its own buddy (its own [four] chord) close at hand. It's as if they're on speed dial on the chord's cell phone, ready to weigh in with their own opinion on any given subject at a moment's notice.

Let's look at this example using "personal [four] chords."

C - F/C C | - F/C C - | D - G/D D | - G/D D - |
F - B♭/F F | - B♭/F F - | G - C/G G | - C/G G -

What's going on in this simple-sounding but complicated-looking chord phrase? At heart, it's this simple four-chord phrase:

C | D | F | G |

...but each of the chords makes a few side trips to its own personal [four] chord.

Now let's look at an example using personal [five] chords. In traditional music theory, these chords are called secondary dominants. They're dominant chords, but not of the main key that we're in.

C E7/B Am C7/G | F - C - |

In this example, E7 is the dominant chord from the key of A minor, and C7 is the dominant chord of F major.

Here's another example:

C7/E - F - | D7/F♯ - G - | E7/G♯ - Am - | D7/F♯ - C/G G | C

Notice how the bass moves upwards by half-steps. That kind of chromatic movement is easy to do with a combination of secondary dominant chords and chords borrowed from the parallel major or minor key, and it has a fun, ear-tickling effect. Unfortunately, this kind of chord writing is rare in most styles in rock music; you're most likely to find it from songwriters influenced by classical or jazz music.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A more emphatic five

The [five] chord plays such a dominant role in music that it's called the dominant chord. And one of the common uses of alternate bass notes is to build up the dominant chord, to make it more emphatic, and to heighten the sense of expectation that it carries.

Of course, the simplest way to make a [five] chord more emphatic is to add the seventh, making it a [five]7. This chord type, a major chord with a minor seventh, is called dominant seventh.

Here are some other chords and sequences of chords that are commonly used to take the place of the dominant chord:

[one]/[five] [five]
In C major: C/G G



[five]sus4 [five]
Gsus4 G

[five] [five]sus4 [five] [four]/[five]
G Gsus4 G F/G


[five] [five]7sus4
G G7sus4

[five] [one]/[five] [five]7
G C/G G7

You can invent other possibilities. The key to all of these is that the bass stays insistently on the dominant (5) note until a cadence is finally concluded with a move to [one]... or sometimes to [six]m.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

9♥ Let’s get together and write a song

9♥ Nine of Hearts in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

The Nine of Hearts says that songwriting can be part of your social life. Sure, on the geek scale, getting together to write songs is way up there with going to the art museum or collecting rocks and minerals. But what the heck! You're not a conformist; you're a songwriter!

Try one of these:
  • Have a songwriting "date," an appointment with a collaborator to get together and write.
  • Start or join a songwriting support group that meets weekly or monthly. For each meeting, prepare a new or revised song to share.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A melody is not a bunch of notes

It would be perfectly understandable if you thought that a melody was a series of musical notes. But you would be wrong.

And if you imagined that learning to write melodies involved getting to know all the notes and how they interact with each other, that too would be an understandable mistake.

When you have to perform a melody, notes are the first thing you think about. First you learn to sing or play the notes correctly. Let's call that phase 1 of learning a song. In phase 2, you start to grasp and internalize what the melody is expressing. And finally, if you're successful at learning the song, in phase 3 you recreate the melody in a performance that could easily feature some notes that are different from the ones written in the sheet music.

When it's time to compose a melody, notes should be the last thing you think about. And I mean that in the most literal sense. If we break up melody writing into three phases, you don't pick specific notes until phase 3.

First, in phase 1, you think about what you want to express (often looking at a set of lyrics that have already been written). In phase 2 you try out musical gestures, which take the form of shapes and rhythms, until you find gestures that achieve the musical effect that you're looking for. Finally in phase 3, you work out specific notes for each of the gestures, perhaps making accommodations to fit the notes into a set of chords that have already been written.

In reality, songwriters often find that melodies pop into their head, fully formed and ready to go. They jumped directly to phase 3. That's fine! But you can't rely on inspiration to always be there when you need it, and you can always get strong results if you work out your melodies systematically, step by step.

If you still believes melodies are series of notes, try this exercise. Take an extremely famous melody, and recast its notes in a completely different rhythm. Turn short notes into long notes, and turn long notes into short notes. Take out the original rests, but insert other rests in different places. Finally, ruin the shapes of the phrases by taking the highest notes and putting them one octave lower, and putting some of the lowest notes an octave higher.

If you make all those changes, you will have a new melody that shares the exact series of notes with the melody you started with, but no one will ever be able to guess the original melody when you play them the transformed melody. Even if you tell them "This melody has exactly the same notes as [name of famous melody]," they will insist that you are mistaken. It couldn't be the same, because it sounds completely different.

As a followup exercise, you could try taking another famous melody. Keep its exact rhythms, and keep the shape of every phrase and figure, but change every note so it's a different pitch from the original note. If you play this transformed melody for someone, there's a chance they will recognize the song you started with. Then they might add, "but it sounds weird -- you're not playing it right."

Notes do matter. You can't get all of them wrong without ruffling some feathers. But the identity of a melody comes from its shapes and rhythms. And if you want to write good melodies, you'll spend a lot more time on shapes and rhythms than you will on notes.

Tuesday is Beastly Fundamentals Day.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sobering Truth: A song is a souvenir

First, a parable about sweatshirts.

Once upon a time I went to the Scottish and Irish Music Festival. It was great! Not just the music, the whole event was fun. It was a colorful location filled with lively people, and vendors offered all sorts of interesting Celtic things to look at and buy.

One of the things I bought was a sweatshirt emblazoned with the logo of the festival and a list of all the bands that performed. I bought it not because I needed another sweatshirt, but because I wanted to take home something to remind me of the positive experience that I had at the festival. I bought it as a souvenir.

Now it's ten years later. Though my memories of the festival have faded and blurred together with several other similar events, I still wear the sweatshirt, and I still like it.

Now, let's think about the challenges facing an entrepreneur who makes sweatshirts and hopes to gain me as a customer. The sweatshirt designer could show me shirts that are better in every way than the sweatshirts I already own, and at absurdly low prices, but I still wouldn't buy any of them. I have plenty of sweatshirts already, and I don't need any more.

But someday I will buy another sweatshirt, even if I don't need one. It might be for another music festival, or a friend's rock band, or some social cause that I feel strongly about. Whatever it is, it will certainly be another souvenir, another token that helps me feel connected to something I feel good about.

Now -- as songwriter, you're the sweatshirt designer. People already have too many songs in their music collections. And, today, everyone can get an endless amount of music for free if they're willing to look around a little. And if they're not willing to dig for free downloads, then hey, 99 cents a song is not a lot of money.

Can you compete by writing better songs? It can't hurt if you write great songs, but you still have a formidable challenge if that's your strategy, because you have to go up against the favorite songs from the entire world, from every period of recorded history.

You might be able to twist some arms and get people to listen to your songs once, and they might admit that you've written some fine songs — but that doesn't mean that they'll add those songs to their collection and put them on their playlists.

No, if you want to win a place in the musical soundtrack of people's lives, your song better be more than just a song. It should offer people a chance to feel connected to something that feels meaningful and important to them. You song should tie the listeners to something that they already feel good about.

So how do you do that? There's no short answer, and I guess we'll have to explore this further in a later post. But for now, start paying attention to what musical artists (and their record companies) do to help you feel that their music is connected to something meaningful and important.

And think about how happened to collect your own listening library. Out of millions of songs available, what led you to these particular few thousand songs?

Every Monday is Sobering Truth day for the Unruly Beast.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Resources: Tips for writing lyrics

Robin Frederick's Keep the Listener by Your Side is a terrific list of non-technical tips for how to approach writing song lyrics. It's short, so I suggest you read it, then browse through your own lyrics, then read it again.