Wednesday, November 10, 2010
The Five of Spades believes you can make a beautiful song out of any set of materials, even garbage. You can take your inspiration from the visual artists who create unique sculptures out of things that they find in the trash.
You don't have to actually go dumpster diving, but find some way to gather a collection of random or happenstance element, just a pile of unrelated bits. (One quick, simple technique is to flip through books, drop your finger on a page, and take whatever phrase or sentence you happen to hit. Another technique is to do Google searches for a group of four or five randomly-chosen words, and use whatever happens to be in the middle of the page on the website that you find through your search.)
Once you've gathered your "pile of junk," start working with the pieces. Play with them, rearrange them, sort them, shuffle them. Eventually you will find them starting to fall into meaningful and interesting patterns. Keep working with your materials until you've molded them into a coherent song.
Believe it or not, this is the final card in The Rock Songwriter's Deck! I hope these exercises have helped you shake up your songwriting process and create some interesting new songs. You can review the entire deck by clicking the link for the "deck" tag on this blog.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
The Eight of Clubs asks you to invent a colorful, interesting character, someone very different from yourself. Give your character a name, a history, habits, goals, values, and a cultural context.
When you've developed a clear and vivid picture of your character, write a song that would be a perfect expression of that character's motivations or personality.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
The Five of Hearts asks you to let your angry emotions inspire you. Write as if your song were a weapon, and your intention is to hurt someone. It helps if you’re actually angry at someone. But if you're not, just pretend. (“It’s called acting!”)
It's likely that many fine songs were written this way, although you'd have to actually ask the songwriters to know for sure. In any case, anger is a powerful energy that can be used for constructive purposes in your creative life. So don't just sit there seething — write a song!
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Eight of Hearts suggests a songwriting game that you can't do by yourself. Gather a group of 3-6 songwriters for this game.
Here's how to play: Get a pad of paper, and sit around a table. Decide who gets to start. That person writes down a single line of lyrics, and passes the pad to the next person, who writes the second line of lyrics. As you continue, each person writes one line of lyrics in turn.
Don't talk, don't make suggestions, and don't coach each other. Each of you might have a different idea of where the song is headed, but none of you is individually able to control the direction the song is taking. Just let the song emerge.
"Slow Dancing Beast," on Left Brain's Raspberry Park album, was written this way. The songwriters used Scrabble Sentence Cubes, a game with words printed on dice, as a random element to create the first line of lyrics.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
The Ten of Diamonds suggests that you try, for at least a week, the practice of writing a new song every day. And don't spend all day on it! The Ten of Diamonds insists that you spend an hour at most, from start to finish.
To fit this writing chore into your daily routine, you might have to scale down your expectations. Your song might be very short, or very simple, or very repetitive. It might express a simple and mundane idea that you wouldn't ordinarily think of as song material. Whatever you come up with, it's okay, as long as it's a new creation.
The next day, write another song. It's okay if the second day's song is just a variation on the first day's song, as long as it contains some new element that you've never used before.
Even if none of the songs from your daily writing practice are good enough to use, this practice will strengthen your songwriting skills in a powerful way. You're learning how to write in an easy, comfortable, everyday way. The next time someone hits you with a real-world songwriting assignment, you'll be able say, "No sweat! I can handle this. I write songs every day!"
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
The Seven of Spades reminds us that creativity is spurred by necessity. Surprisingly creative solutions can emerge when you have to work within extreme constraints.
Can you write a convincing song that uses only two chords? How about a song that runs exactly two minutes and thirty-seven seconds in length?
Can you write an entire lyric using only one-syllable words? Or without using the letter "i"? Or limiting yourself to words that were in Shakespeare's vocabulary?
Decide on your own set of arbitrary constraints, and then see what song you're able to write within those limitations.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
The Four of Hearts asks you to collect a file folder of clippings, quotes, pictures — all things that evoke something for you or inspire you in some way.
Step two: Use the clipping to build a collage. Make the most beautiful and inspiring collage that you can with the materials that you have collected.
Step three: Write a song that expresses what the collage is expressing. Try to capture the emotional tone of the collage in music. Let the quotes and images in the collage suggest ideas for the song's lyrics.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Sometimes you are your own worst enemy. Or your own ball-and-chain. And sometimes the fastest route to a brilliant creative breakthrough is for you to pretend to be someone other than yourself.
The Nine of Spades invites you to invent a colorful, fictional rock band. Come up with an album title and the full list of song titles that would appear on the band's album. Then write at least one of the songs on behalf of your fictional band.
If you prefer, instead of a band you could invent a fictional solo artist or a stage musical.
Eddy & the Falcons is a fictional 1950s rock & roll band portrayed by the 1970s rock band Roy Wood's Wizzard on the album "Introducing Eddy & the Falcons." A more famous example is Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the fictional cabaret band portrayed by the Beatles.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
The Three of Hearts ask you to write a song as if you’re writing a letter to someone. Your song could be a stylized version of an almost-real message that you might write to someone you actually know. Or it could instead be purely fictional, based on an imagined situation where a made-up character needs to send a written message to someone.
Whether the message is based on real life or fiction, the feelings expressed by the song should be authentic and heartfelt.
Many songs have been based on a slight variation of this idea: a message that can never be delivered, for one reason or other. Unexpressed feelings can pile up, and writing a song seems to provide a way to bring those emotions to a conclusion.
If letter writing seems impossibly old-fashioned to you, write a song in the form of a text message or telephone message.
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
The Two of Spades invites you to work out the structure of a song before you introduce any musical or lyrical ideas.
The quick way to do this is to start with a song that you like, and set out to write a new song in the same tempo and with the same musical structure. You might even record a drum track first, in order to have the structure solidly in place.
Then pick some chord progressions and see if any musical ideas or lyrics suggest themselves to fill up the empty space of your song.
This method may require some patience. You can't force ideas to come, but if you sit with the rhythms and chords, things will soon start to fall into place. Don't worry if the song remains incomplete, because you can come back to it again and again over a period of days or weeks. New ideas will inevitably show up and find their places in the framework that you have created.
Before you know it, you'll have a complete song, one that grew naturally and organically in your own musical space. You may find that it's surprisingly fresh!
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
The Three of Diamonds asks you to find a public-domain folk song and update the words and music. But the resulting song doesn't have to be in a folk-rock musical style! You get extra points if listeners can't tell that a folk song was your starting point.
Modernize the rhythms, the vocabulary, and the structure of the song, and dress it up in the garb of your favorite current musical style.
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
There are many different ways to write a song, and trying different approaches is the fastest way to get fresher and more interesting results from your songwriting process. The Deck isn't a catalog; it's a cookbook. Try some of the recipes that we've posted thus far, and you will at least challenge your creative skills and learn something about your unique creative source.
We have eleven cards left to deal out in this weekly series, and it will resume tomorrow with the Three of Diamonds.
Monday, August 30, 2010
If your schedule is perpetually jammed, so that you never have time to follow up on inspiration, you're missing out on the best things in your life. Working hard all the time will not make you successful, but inspiration will. Make room in your life for it. And when it shows up, be ready.
"Inspiration is a now thing. If it grabs you, grab it right back and put it to work." — Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, Rework.
Sunday, August 29, 2010
One thing that's easy to do is to collect things that inspire you, that is, things that help you feel a positive sense of hope and possibility. These might be quotations, pictures, and examples of creative works that you admire and want to imitate.
If you fill your visual environment with things that inspire you, and hide away all the things that don't inspire you, you'll be living in a more inspiring world. This will not just make you feel better about things; you'll also have more brilliant new ideas.
Some of us were taught to be rationalistic and pragmatic about functional things. Take pencils, for example. It doesn't matter what color a pencil is on the outside, as long as it has black graphite on the inside. But style can be just as important as function, in the world of inspiration. If yellow pencils make you feel like you're in some dreary elementary school, and if metallic red pencils make you feel more alive, then you can afford to throw out your yellow pencils and buy some shiny pencils that will inspire you.
Saturday, August 28, 2010
But there are rare cases when a team of people share an inspiration and work together on it. If you are in such a team, don't take it for granted. These teams don't come together very often and usually don't last very long. Working together on an inspiration puts a lot of extra tension on relationships. Even with good people who have the best of intentions, it may take a lot of care and diplomacy to keep the team together and keep the project on track. If your team blows up and the project falls apart, try not to judge your teammates too harshly.
On the other hand, if you have a team that works together smoothly and handles ups and downs over a period of years, you have a powerful advantage in the world. Keep that team together!
Friday, August 27, 2010
But some people manage to gain some control over their inspiration and use it to get intense highs regularly. Used this way, inspiration is a dangerous drug, and it can lead into a self-destructive spiral.
It's sobering to look at "Are you an addict?" questionnaires and see how many addictive behaviors apply to artists in the throes of their work. A big creative project can knock your life out of balance, and it's good to bring those phases to a close as soon as you can and take the time to re-balance your personal life. Don't go straight from one huge project to the next.
If you find yourself saying "I couldn't live without my creative work," but your "work" occurs only during episodes of intense inspiration, then your creative life is in a very unhealthy state.
The best way to keep it clean: Be committed to your art through the highs and lows, not just through the highs. For example, work on your art (at least a little bit) every day, whether you feel inspired or not.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Its intentions are good. Its processes are perfectly reasonable. Requirements are gathered, standards are defined, plans are put in place, and quality is checked and controlled.
There's no rational explanation for why systematic design performs so poorly by comparison to inspiration. You might even say it's an indictment of rationality itself. With such a thoroughly systematic process, it's hard to imagine how failure is even a possibility.
For whatever reason, systematic design, even when bolstered by enormous budgets and other structural advantages, struggles to create anything new of real value. It continues to be embarrassed by the better results of inspired newcomers, outsiders who often don't even seem to know what they are doing, but who come up with something better nonetheless.
Maybe inspiration itself is biased against Goliath and loves a spunky underdog. Maybe the irrational, unpredictable nature of inspiration leaves no place for it in an established, successful, mainstream enterprise.
Whatever the explanation, you should know this: If you're in touch with inspiration, you have a strategic competitive advantage. The most powerful people in the world are afraid of you. Even if you seem to face long odds, don't sell yourself short. Real inspiration is rarer than you think. Make the most of it.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
It's not so much that they like and support your goal. It's really just that people like to see someone who is genuinely inspired about something.
It's similar to the way people like to see that someone is genuinely in love. There is something uplifting about being in the vicinity of someone who is in love or in the throes of inspiration — even if they feel that you are naive and unlikely to succeed. They love to see that you haven't given up on something that's important to you.
If you can make it clear to people what you hope to accomplish, and if they can see that you are sincerely driven by inspiration, and not trying to sell them something or trick them, people will do surprising things to help you accomplish your goal. Even if they don't understand why your goal is important to you, or even if they disagree with it, people will be moved by your sincere efforts and will do what they can to help you succeed.
So if your inspiration seems impossibly big, ask yourself what kind of help might bring it back into the realm of possibility. There is a whole world, jaded by manipulation and fakery, that still wants to believe in magic and love and authentic inspiration.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
In practice, there is no shortage of ideas in the world, and remember this: only you can see the gleaming halo that surrounds your specific idea.
Even if you wanted to give your idea away, it's not a sure thing that anyone else would see the value in it.
It's a good idea to keep your inspirations private anyway, as I explained yesterday. But unless your previous ideas have consistently made hundreds of millions of dollars, it's not likely that spies are hiding in the ductwork trying to nab your new idea.
Monday, August 23, 2010
The fact is, they don't see what you see. Inspiration is a vision of a possibility, and it's rare when you can explain the possibility to others and get them to share your excitement.
Artists are generally advised to keep the details of their exciting inspirations private, at least during the early stages of a project. It's discouraging enough that people won't understand what you find so exciting about an idea. But there are some people who will actively try to undermine your self-confidence and convince you to give up on your idea and abandon your project. These might be people who resent the amount of time that you devote to your creative life, or people who envy the level of vitality and enthusiasm that your artistic pursuits bring you.
In particular, people who once were artists themselves, and who had their personal dreams crushed, will feel an urge to crush your enthusiasms in turn.
Don't give them the chance to pour cold water on your ideas. Keep your inspirations private, or share them only with people that you know you can trust.
When your idea is fully formed, then you can go ahead and show it to other people to get their reaction. Then, people will have a chance to see what you saw — because you can actually show it to them. They still could love it or hate it, but at least they'll be reacting to your creation, not reacting to their preconceptions of you as an artist.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
First, you don't find inspiration. Inspiration finds you.
Second, it's not about what place you're in, or what you're looking at. Inspiration is not an object that you discover. Inspiration is a way of seeing — a way of seeing what's not there but should be there. Inspiration is a state of mind, a willingness to discover something new that doesn't exist yet, but could exist in the future through your own creative actions.
If you have that state of mind, it doesn't matter where you are. You can find inspiration anywhere.
Saturday, August 21, 2010
If you want inspiration to help you out in any particular area, then the thing to do is saturate your mind with information and unanswered questions from that area. Work with it, study it, struggle with it, write about it, dream about it.
There's no guarantee of how long you'll wait for inspiration and what exact form it will take, but it will eventually show up.
Friday, August 20, 2010
When inspiration tells you to create something, there usually is no good logical explanation for the value of what you're creating — or, if there is, it's just that you're a good salesman, and you've made a convincing rationalization for the value of your work-in-progress.
And not all inspired works turn out to be big hits. Not all of them find a place in history books. As the creative artist seized by inspiration, you have no way of knowing if your work will be valuable or not. Inspiration undermined your objective judgment. And there's no one else who can tell you, because no one else fully understands the vision that you see. There simply is no rational way to tell whether you're on a fool's errand or creating a timeless masterpiece.
If people say you're crazy, and that your work is misguided, there's no way to prove them wrong. The best you can do is complete your work, and hope that other people recognize it as something uniquely valuable.
This great level of uncertainty is one of the things that makes the creative life feel stressful and lonely. At times like these, it's good to be connected with a community of artists who understand what it's like to be driven by inspiration, and who can offer encouragement and support.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
This sense of clarity is one of the things that makes inspiration so valuable to creative artists. Creating something new involves stepping into a daunting realm of infinite possibilities. With so many options, how do you decide what to create? Inspiration narrows the field of possibilities. By insisting on some specifics and making those items the centerpiece of the project, inspiration makes the artist's decision-making process more manageable.
I've repeatedly compared inspiration to love, and the comparison holds here as well. When you fall in love, it's with one specific person. Everything about that person is exalted, and there's no point in asking you to consider some other person instead. Perhaps inspiration could be described as "falling in love with something that doesn't even exist yet."
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
With practice you can find a middle ground, appropriately engaged with inspiration. You can stay close without stepping on it.
With a little practice, you'll see that this is not a desperate balancing act, not at all like walking a tightrope. It's more like staying on a road while you're driving. You're not crashing through the guardrail on the right, nor are you tumbling into the ditch on the left. It's really not hard, as long as you just pay a little bit of attention and keep your hands on the steering wheel.
You can learn to roll with inspiration for mile after mile. It's a great way to travel!
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
This advice is somewhat accurate, but it's completely unhelpful! These success authors have gotten things completely backwards! What they're describing is a state of inspiration. People who act from inspiration are more confident and more effective than other people. They have clear goals, they get more done with less effort, and naturally they are more successful in life.
This misguided success formula comes from authors who have carefully studied the most successful people they can find. It's no surprise that the most successful people are all driven by inspiration. But it doesn't help you at all to have a success plan that begins, "Step 1: be inspired." You can't willfully enter a state of inspiration — or if you could, you would already be very busy and successful, and you wouldn't be reading a self-help book!
If you've heard this success formula before and tried unsuccessfully to follow it, don't feel bad. No one can! But there is something you can do: Learn to recognize when inspiration is at hand, and make the most of it every time, for as long as it lasts.
Monday, August 16, 2010
If you find yourself just killing time, waiting for inspiration to join you so you can get started, you might as well give up. Inspiration never shows up when you're specifically looking for it. It's like the watched pot that never boils.
But if you just go ahead and start working on the things you have to do, you might find inspiration quietly joining you. It just sneaks in while you're not looking.
So don't wait for inspiration. For all you know, inspiration might be waiting for you.
Sunday, August 15, 2010
You don't have to set out to do the impossible, and you don't have to reject the inspiration either. Have faith that every inspiration comes to you for a good reason.
You must just have to tell that inspiration to stop playing games with you and take off its disguise. Or you might have to take a hammer and crack open its shell. If you stick with it, you'll find that inside every impossible dream is a worthwhile — and workable — goal.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
One day later, you might be scratching your head, saying, "I remember I had a great idea... but what was it?"
Memory is fickle, and this is especially true when you're dealing with different states of consciousness such as the expanded consciousness that accompanies inspiration. Get your idea written down, sketched, recorded, as soon as possible, in as much detail as you can manage.
It's still possible that you'll look at your notes a day later and say "I don't even remember why I thought this was such a great idea." But if the idea passes the 24-hour test, and still looks worthwhile the next day, you'll be glad you took the trouble to capture those details while they were fresh in your mind.
Friday, August 13, 2010
Usually a project starts strong, and it's tempting to plan that you'll simply keep going with the same amount of momentum. For example, "I wrote 2000 words today! I'll just keep that up every day, and I'll have a first draft of my novel by the end of the summer!" That's an optimistic plan, not a realistic plan.
But don't be hard on yourself if this optimistic-planning pitfall snags you. Blame the nature of inspiration: it distorts our judgment and makes us unrealistically optimistic.
It's better to plan pessimistically, and always allow for the possibility that your progress will drag to a halt along the way.
Plan every week (or every day) as if it could be the end of the project, and always look for things that you can bring to completion. It's better if you have something potentially usable if you decide to pull the plug on the project.
For example, suppose you are struck by an idea for a 24-song album, one song for every major and minor key, linking each of the keys to one of the 24 hours in a day. It's a pretty cool concept, but the fact that it's tied to a specific level of effort should make you cautious from the start. If you decide to go ahead with this ambitious project, you should plan for the likely possibility that you won't finish it.
Don't start your 24-song album by recording 24 drum tracks, because if the project ends at that point, you don't have anything to show for your work. Instead, start by recording all the tracks for "Midnight." Then, if the project ends, you at least have one finished song that could be reused in some other project.
The worst trouble you can get into is to make a commitment with a deadline, a commitment that depends on inspiration helping you out. Unfortunately, some of us can't seem to get anything finished without a deadline. But is anything really worth worth the stress of facing a deadline under that much uncertainty? It's so much simpler if you get the critical inspiration-dependent work done first, and have only routine cleanup left to do before you set a deadline.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
You get an exciting idea for a new song. And by the end of the evening, the idea has somehow gotten bigger. It now encompasses an entire album and a thematically linked concert tour. And a series of T-shirts. And an interactive web site.
This kind of thing can happen with hot new ideas. They grow rapidly as they collect new possibilities. We call this process "getting carried away." It's almost as though the idea has abducted you and taken you away from your life. Now you've forgetten every plan you had yesterday, and your entire future is filled up with bigger and bigger versions of this exciting idea.
It's okay to get excited about your new ideas. There's nothing wrong with thinking through all the different formats that the idea could take, and writing down every potential followup that you can think of. It's always good to gather ideas and become aware of new possibilities. If this song turns out to be a hit, you'll have plenty of ideas to draw on for how to follow it up.
But you have to take this process lightly. Remember that a rapid rise is usually followed by a rapid fall, and the new idea might not look as bright and shiny tomorrow. A rule of thumb is, don't go registering any domain names until the next day. Don't start buying supplies and signing up for training classes while the idea is in its initial flush of excitement.
Capture your ideas, but try to get yourself out of the realm of planning and into the realm of action as quickly as you can. In other words, if you find yourself writing character sketches for the fourth book in the series, put those notes aside and actually start writing chapter 1 of the first book.
Under the influence of inspiration, plans have a way of getting bigger and bigger. But always remember, as we discussed yesterday, that inspiration also has a way of disappearing before its project is finished. So, after you "think big," try hard to "plan small." Keep your plans, projects, and commitments as small as you can manage.
Start with questions like these: What's the smaller and simpler way to follow through on this idea? What is the low-budget version of this project? How can I get this done with less time and effort? If I had limit this initiative to what I can actually get done today, is there anything of value that I could create by the end of the day?
For example, maybe the book you just dreamed up could be boiled down to a single blog post. Maybe instead of hiring an orchestra for your new piece of music, you can use synthesizers. Maybe instead of traveling the country to speak about your new insight, you can post an online video.
It's exciting to have big goals and to attach yourself to big ambitions. It's not so exciting when you're bogged down in an enormous project that seems impossible to finish.
When inspiration is leading a project, see if you can plan your work in layers, starting small but with room to grow. I'll have more on this strategy tomorrow.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
And then one day you sit down to work and find that your inspiration has vanished. Nothing you write seems good anymore. You can't even clearly remember why you thought this project seemed like such a great idea.
Inspiration has run out on you. It was there for a while, helping you get a huge amount of work done, but then it abruptly got bored and left. And now you're expected to finish this big project all by yourself?
Unfortunately, my experience has been that this always happens. Inspiration abandons you, or at least its brightness dims as the weeks go by. Inspiration will never carry you all the way through a big project. So what do you do when you find yourself left holding the bag?
You could just abandon the project. Don't be ashamed of admitting that a creative project failed. But if four big projects in a row fail in exactly the same way, then you really ought to try a different strategy.
You might be able to take some of the pieces you've completed and see what you can salvage for another purpose. Maybe you can turn your unfinished stage musical into a concept album. Maybe a big chunk of your novel can be reshaped into a short story.
You can take the professional approach (as discussed in yesterday's blog post) and just press ahead and finish the job. If you've already sold your project, you have no other choice. You can take heart in knowing that, even if your work isn't as good as you'd hoped, it's probably not as bad as it seems right now. But if you have to do this all the time, pushing things to completion without inspiration, your creative life will be a dreary experience. You might find yourself thinking, "I should have kept that retail job! It was more fun than this, and it paid better too!"
If the work you've done so far is good and you feel particularly stuck, you can hire a seasoned professional to help you get the work done. If there's a lot of money at stake -- if the theater is already rented and rehearsals start in two weeks -- this is the only responsible thing to do. Of course, it's tough on your ego to admit that you needed to bring in someone else to rescue your own creative project.
But the real long-term solution is to avoid getting caught in this situation in the first place. That is, plan your projects strategically, knowing that inspiration could abandon you at any point. I'll discuss this further tomorrow.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Though it might be painful for the band to admit it, you'd actually be better off rehearsing and performing without the drummer. Sadly, that probably means doing a different, less propulsive style of music. In the music world, professional doesn't mean "louder and flashier," it means that you showed up on time and did what you said you were going to do.
In much the same way, if your creative work depends on inspiration showing up, you're in trouble. Inspiration is not a reliable partner. Sure, you've done some amazing things when inspiration showed up, but you should also have some way to work even when inspiration is nowhere to be found.
It's easier to do this if you don't try to compete with your own best work. Just aim to create something simple that convincingly fills its space. As a songwriter, you can always put stock chord progressions together with standard beats and craft some competent rhyming couplets. You can tinker with the results and patch up any weak spots. And if the song still fails, you can throw it out and start over as many times as you need to.
You don't need inspiration to practice your songwriting craft. Sure, your results will be more modest and the work will move more slowly without the help of inspiration. It doesn't mean you've failed as an artist. It means that you're a professional, and you're showing up and doing the gig no matter what.
Monday, August 9, 2010
Inspiration approaches you just like that record company man. It says, "You're a creative artist, and I need something created. Whatever you were planning to do today, just put that aside and create my thing instead."
Inspiration won't pay you in cash, but it has some pretty powerful leverage: a direct line to your brain's pleasure center. It's a deal that few can refuse.
Sunday, August 8, 2010
In other industries, they're trying to reverse-engineer and isolate genuine inspiration so it can be automatically included as a feature of their new products.
Of course, there is no formula for inspiration, just as there is no "real food" flavor essence that comes in a bottle. But that won't stop them from trying. Just watch.
Saturday, August 7, 2010
Is it crazy to put so much energy into an unproven, never-before-seen possibility? Sure, sometimes it is — but the world would be a much poorer place if everyone ignored their inspirations in favor of being fully grounded in reality.
Friday, August 6, 2010
Inspiration will come along and tell you what to do. You can say yes or no — but don't even bother trying to haggle with it.
Suppose you are struck with a terrific idea for a song about rabbits entering a dance competition. You might be tempted to say, "That's great! Thanks for inspiring me! But I'm trying to write songs for my very serious death metal band, so let's just change 'dancing rabbits' to 'marauding werewolves.'"
You've tried this. You know it doesn't work. Inspiration's energy quickly evaporates if you try to redirect it to some other purpose. Inspiration doesn't care about your practical needs. It doesn't understand the importance of advancing your creative career -- even though your career success will actually make you better able to serve the whims of inspiration. Frankly, inspiration is selfish and short-sighted and not a team player!
But there's no point in complaining, and you're not going to be able to change the way inspiration works. So just take the few minutes to write down the idea for the dancing rabbit song, and then set it aside and get back to the very serious songwriting that you need to do.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
There is a well-established technique for remembering more of your dreams. If you pay attention to your dreams, treat them as something important, and write down the dreams you remember, you will soon remember more dreams in more vivid detail. Even people who don't remember their dreams can get this process started by starting a dream journal and writing down any fleeting images or emotional tones that they wake up with, just on the chance that those impressions might be from a dream.
Just by paying attention to your dreams and treating them as important, you can quickly increase the number of dreams you remember.
If you want to have more inspiration in your life, one way to do it is to keep an inspiration journal. Make note of anything that even vaguely smells like inspiration. Write down ideas that tickle your fancy. Record any thoughts that start with "Wouldn't it be cool if..."
It's important to understand that writing down an idea is not a commitment to follow through on it. There will always be too many ideas and too little time. And it's just as important not to send away any inspiration just because it isn't practical.
For example, if after seeing the movie "Up" you think "Wouldn't it be cool if a rock band's tour bus were carried from city to city by helium balloons?" don't dismiss that thought because the engineering is impractical and your band isn't ready to tour anyway. You don't have to invent a new flying machine -- just acknowledge the inspiration in some way, perhaps by drawing a little sketch of the flying bus in your journal.
If you accept and acknowledge every bit of inspiration that comes your way, you will soon be visited by more inspirations, bigger and better ones, and some of them will be practical ideas that help solve your specific problems.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
By giving you a clear and specific goal to focus on, inspiration clears away the thicket of indecision that often bogs down down creative work. It also puts you into a different state of consciousness, a thinking style with a slower pace and broader base. This enables you to take in more information, keep track of more details, and tackle complex, multi-dimensional problems with ease.
How does inspiration do this? Mainly by shoving aside all other worries and concerns that might occupy your thoughts. Inspiration also helps clear your schedule, by reducing the urgency of other activities (like eating and sleeping, for example).
With a singular focus, enhanced self-confidence, extra brainpower, and long hours of uninterrupted work, it's no wonder that you get top-quality results under the influence of inspiration.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
When you try to understand the relatively uncommon, often misunderstood experience of inspiration, your best reference point is the nearly universal, well-explored experience of love.
Since roughly half of all rock songs are about love, our universal jukebox has collected a great deal of wisdom on the subject. When you have a question about inspiration, for example, "Why is it so hard to find inspiration?" just change the word "inspiration" to "love": "Why is it so hard to find love?" Then you're ready to take your question to the jukebox. When an answer emerges, just translate the word "love" back to "inspiration."
This jukebox trick won't necessarily give you a clear answer to your question, but you'll at least get a clearer idea of what the question means.
Perhaps you've been "looking for inspiration/ in all the wrong places." We all know "inspiration takes time/ and it's hard to find." Maybe searching is pointless, and the best you can do is be prepared for when "inspiration comes walking in."
Monday, August 2, 2010
"Writing is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration," my first writing teacher told me.
It's a catchy slogan. It even rhymes! Never mind that writing doesn't require enough physical effort to actually break into a sweat. Never mind the exact numbers; I've heard other people cite the key ratio as 5%/95% and 1%/99%.
There is an important message at the heart of this slogan: creative work is a form of work. If you want to create something, to accomplish something, you have to be willing to do some work. It brings to mind another slogan, one that also happens to rhyme: "No pain, no gain."
Yes, creative work involves work. When we put it that way, it seems obviously true; how could anyone ever imagine it to be otherwise? But people do.
The thing is, "I want to be a writer!" (or songwriter, artist, whatever) is usually prompted by early experiences with inspiration. Somehow, something got created, with scarcely any effort involved. It was a magical and highly meaningful experience. Who wouldn't want a life filled with moments like that?
Writing teachers get impatient with students who haven't done their homework because they are "waiting for inspiration." And students are dismayed to find that they have to learn to write on cue, without any assistance from inspiration.
Alas, a creative career mostly involves hard work, and you don't get carried much of the way by inspiration. Indeed, we could dismiss inspiration entirely, as some kind of freakish psychological phenomenon, if it weren't for these facts:
- Artists do their best work when following inspiration.
- Most of the best things in the world are created by way of inspiration.
- The results of inspired work seem to make life better for everybody.
Sunday, August 1, 2010
Inspiration is a critical part of life for many creative artists, but it's not an easy subject to talk about. We can catalog all the chords you'll ever use in rocks songs, and define the chords' functions and relationships — but when it comes to inspiration, there are no diagrams, no tables, no clear-cut answers. Inspiration is one of those big, fuzzy subjects, like God and Love and the Meaning of Life.
What is inspiration, exactly? It's not even easy to define. Sometimes inspiration takes the form of an idea. It pops into your head, it leaps off the paper while you're writing, or it jumps up and down in front of your face as a sudden answer to a question that you might or might not have been asking.
In whatever way it makes its appearance, inspiration is more than just an idea. It's possible to fill pages with new ideas and not come across any inspiration. If inspiration is an idea, it's an idea that comes attached to a payload. This is an idea that enters with force and momentum and certainty. It imposes itself and demands to be expressed.
Inspiration sometimes appears as a vision. You suddenly see a complete and detailed mental picture of something. It's something that doesn't yet exist, but the vision somehow compels you to bring it into existence.
Following through on an inspiration can be exhilarating. Artists often describe these moments as the most profound and meaningful experiences in their lives. But inspiration can just as easily lead to frustration, heartbreak, and despair. If you catch a vision of a great possibility, but don't have the right skills and techniques to bring it to reality, the failure hurts. Failed artists are suicide risks in just the same way as scorned lovers. This is powerful stuff. If it were a product, the FDA would have to consider pulling it off the market.
Love makes fools of us all, it is said. Falling in love is almost a universal experience, and its foolish results decorate our literature, movies, and newspapers. Inspiration makes fools of just some of us, while most others seem to be immune to its particular indignity. Because it's a less-common experience, an artist grappling with inspiration's irrational nature can sometimes feel very alone. This is why it's good for artist to be in touch with other artists, to have a support network of others who understand the emotions and challenges that come with creative work.
Of course, inspiration comes in many sizes, shapes, and flavors, and it's not always an epic life-shaking experience. You can learn to cultivate inspiration, to make it a bigger presence in your life and your work, and to handle it successfully without getting burned. That's the subject of August of Inspiration here at Unruly Beast.
Saturday, July 31, 2010
I still plan to cover melody, song structure, lyrics, the creative process, and a whole host of techniques for coming up with ideas and systematically building a song. I'm considering doing at least some of that material in audio or video format. Sometimes listening to a musical example is better than reading a thousand words.
For the immediate future, August is going to be the Month of Inspiration. I suspect that some of you will find August's posts powerful and eye-opening. Others might find that it has no connection to the practical musical techniques that you're hoping to learn about. If you're in the latter group, that's fine. You can sit this one out, but please come back in September for a new season of songwriting techniques. But if you're one of those artists whose work revolves around that mysterious, unreliable, aggravating, and uniquely rewarding phenomenon called inspiration, please stay tuned.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
The Queen of Hearts invites you to fall deeply in love and write an honest and authentic love song.
If you're not in love with someone right now, you don't have to fake it. There's another way to play the Queen's game: by taking inventory of the most powerful desires that tug at your heart, and writing a song about one of them.
You must be honest if you want to win at this game. Don't pretend your #1 wish is world peace if what truly moves your heart is the thought of having a #1 hit, or of driving a particular car. The Queen of Hearts is also a lover of luxury. She will sympathize with your most worldly and materialistic desires.
Write earnestly, as though your song will — if you find just the right notes and words — win your beloved’s affection or lead the way to the exact thing you desire. Make sure your song fully embodies your wish.
Who knows? There really is a Queen of Hearts. She is rather fond of songs and songwriters. Maybe she will be so touched by your song that she'll decide to pull some magical strings to make your wish come true.
But even if you don't get your wish exactly the way you imagine it, the Queen of Hearts guarantees that something magical will happen it if you put your full efforts into this song. Count on it — and write from your heart.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Songwriting can heal your heart. The Six of Hearts invites you to stare your most painful memories right in the face — yes, those memories you are most inclined to shrink away from. You can use the creative alchemy of songwriting to transform your most troubling emotions into haunting beauty. This transformation process will free you from the chains of the past.
When you're done with the song, you might or might not want to release the resulting song to the public. If you decide that the song is too raw and personal to share, it's okay to keep it private. The healing is still yours to keep.
But your brutal honesty might strike a resonant chord with your audience, following a long tradition of deeply personal confessions that turned into big hits. Your might even help anonymous strangers heal their own emotional wounds through the musical magic of your own healing process.
To play this game, lay the Six of Hearts on the table, and then start with any emotion, any traumatic memory, anything that troubles you. Use your creative skills to explore that part of your psyche and express your deepest feelings. Your songwriting studio is a safe place. Don't hold back.
Monday, July 19, 2010
If you say no to any idea, you run the risk of offending your muse, and then your flow of ideas will come to a dead stop. It takes only a moment to jot the idea in the margin or add it to your list of ideas.
Sometimes if you "unwrap" a bad idea there's a brilliant idea hiding underneath. If someone else comes by while you're working, they may happen to suggest a tiny change that turns your dumb idea into the perfect thing.
It's happened to me plenty of times, and I've begun to trust that any idea that shows up is there for a reason, even if its value isn't immediately obvious.
Monday, July 12, 2010
These are hints that it's time to stop writing: you feel irritable, indecisive, or lost. If you find yourself looking at the same thing for ten minutes without making progress, then it's probably time to quit and plan to come back another day with a fresh perspective.
Of course, putting your work aside isn't always an option. If you face a deadline and must keep going even when you feel creatively exhausted, it's time to lower your standards and find the simplest possible way to get to the finish line. That's when you should fall back on proven formulas, cheap gimmicks, and familiar cliches. Steal from your own previous work if you have to. Turn in something that's workable and usable. But don't struggle to come up with something fresh, new, and brilliant when that creative spark isn't there.
Monday, July 5, 2010
If your song is destined for a noisy place and a distracted audience, subtleties will go to waste. Be clear and direct.
If your song stands in the way of a crowd of people getting to dinner, you'll win friends by keeping it very short.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
The Eight of Spades has an idea: start your songwriting process with an idea! This idea doesn't have to be a profound "eureka" insight; it could be an observation, a bit of advice, or a fantasy of how things might be different that they are. Whatever it is, create a song that clearly expresses the idea, almost as though the song is a sales pitch to sell the idea, to get everyone to see what you see.
Here's how to do it, step by step.
- Decide on an idea.
- Think of a title for the song, and also a lyrical hook. The title and hook are often the same, but they don't have to be. The hook could be a direct expression of your idea, but it doesn't have to be; it just has to be memorable and to connect to the idea in some rhetorically convincing way.
- Build a chorus that supports the hook. Pick tempo, mood, and chords that provide the best possible backdrop for the idea.
- Then build the rest of the song, usually verses and a bridge, to support the chorus. From beginning to end, everything in the song supports and aligns with the song's central idea.
Looking for the right idea? Maybe one of these questions will help get you started:
What are you secretly hoping for?
What's one bit of parental advice that you will never forget?
What does it take for love to survive?
What happened recently that you keep thinking about, again and again?
What did you dream about last night?
What is the secret of your success?
Monday, June 28, 2010
I'm a songwriter with a long history, and when I listen to my earlier albums, I'm embarrassed at the songwriting flaws that I feel I could easily have avoided.
Of course, you can't afford to bring your creativity to a halt out of the fear that you'll create something that you might dislike later. What I recommend is listening just once with a self-conscious perspective. For example, pretend that your song has become a TV theme song, and it's heard again and again by millions of people.
In that imaginary context, is there one little flaw in your song that stands out, something that you'd like to fix? If there is, fix it now.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
The Six of Diamonds has a new angle on the old technique of imitating a song that you admire. Imitating a song is slightly tricky: you want to somehow appropriate what's good about the song without copying any actual material from the song.
What makes this challenge easier, according to the Six of Diamonds, is to start with three or four songs that you want to imitate. Instead of working with a single song, round up a whole group of them. Then reshuffle the songs into something new, imitating bits and pieces of each of the songs.
You still want to avoid copying any actual material from any of the songs, but when you have more songs to serve as reference points, it's easy to find a place for your new song to stand — somewhere in the middle of the group of songs, without being too close to any one of them.
Monday, June 21, 2010
For the sake of your audience, bring the best energy into your songwriting! If a song is fun to write, it will be fun to listen to. If it's difficult to write, it will be difficult to listen to.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
The King of Spades asks you to demonstrate your mastery of songwriting techniques.
Write a song that stretches your songwriting skills in every way. Use all the most sophisticated musical and poetic techniques you can muster. Throw in everything and the kitchen sink.
This might be a long song that tries the patience of your audience, but go ahead, try their patience! If you want to impress the King, you must take big risks and hold nothing back.
You can't fake your way through this assignment with your usual gimmicks. This one will take real work and careful craftsmanship. But all your studies have prepared you for this challenge. So get into that music studio and show His Majesty what you are made of! Good luck!
Monday, June 14, 2010
You can prove this to yourself by picking a song that you strongly dislike, making note of its essential message, and then finding other songs with the same basic message. You'll probably find that some of them are pretty good. It's not the message that makes a good song; it's the skill and style that the songwriter and artist bring to that message.
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
The Queen of Clubs invites you to take her club and hit people over the head with it. Wham!
In other words, write a song with a powerful, direct, and visceral impact. Don't be subtle in any way. Turn the volume up to eleven. Keep it simple, and make it strong. Spell the key words out if you have to. Sing the title line loudly, then sing it again, and again, and again. The audience should be left with no doubt about your song's message.
If you're afraid you might be overdoing it, that's a sign that you need to dial it up even more — until you're sure you're overdoing it! No doubt some people in your audience will complain that your song is too obvious and too repetitive. But even the complainers will remember your hook and sing it to themselves later, like it or not.
Sometimes you just need to sing loudly and carry a big club.
Monday, June 7, 2010
Put simply, you can start anywhere. If you're stuck trying to think of a first line, then don't start with the first line. If you can't think of a hook, then don't start with the hook. Just skip over any place where you're stuck, and work somewhere else. Trust that everything will fall into place along the way.
Start with whatever you have already. Maybe it's an idea that you want people to think about. Maybe it's a fun little piece of wordplay. Maybe it's a chord progression that you like. Work with whatever inspiration prompted you to write, and build outward from there.
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
The King of Hearts asks you to bare your soul in song. Write a song that expresses, in the most powerful way you know how, the most primal emotions from the depths of your heart.
You might never again write a song this personal and this deeply felt, and no one would blame you. After all, you're not an exhibitionist at heart, and too much honesty can threaten the social order. But, just this once, go stark naked onto the stage (or the tape), protecting nothing, holding nothing back.
Everyone's got one round of earth-shaking, awe-inspiring, achingly beautiful truth inside, and you certainly shouldn't miss your turn.
Monday, May 31, 2010
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
The Jack of Clubs urges you to do the opposite of what people expect. If people think they know who you are as a songwriter and what kind of music you do, it's time to defy their expectations. Rebel against their typecasting. Shatter the mold.
People are getting a little too comfortable with who you are and what kind of songs you write.
Write a song that would surprise, shock, startle, and unsettle them.
(Note: We're not trying to undo years of carefully staged image-building! If your public image is working perfectly for you, you might choose not to release or perform this new song. But even if you don't release it, this can still be a valuable exercise that helps you flex your muscles and stretch your boundaries.)
Monday, May 24, 2010
You don't have to write every song that you think of, but it's good practice to think of ways that a given idea can be turned into a song.
You should never find yourself short of song ideas to work with. Try to collect several new ideas every week.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
The Eight of Diamonds asks you to write a song that's a sequel to another song. Maybe it's your own song that needs a Part II, or you might feel inspired to write a response to someone else's famous song.
Remember that your new song need to stand on its own. You can't count on your audience being familiar with the song that serves as your inspiration.
If I remember my "American Top 40" anecdotes correctly, David Bowie's "Space Oddity" inspired him to write a sequel years later, "Ashes to Ashes," and that song in turn inspired Peter Schilling to write "Major Tom.")
Monday, May 17, 2010
For example, a "wrong note" played once might sound like a mistake. If you do it the same way three times, listeners will realize it's intentional, but it might come across as irritating. But if you do it 12 times, it might be a distinctive hook anchoring a memorable song.
Listeners who don't like a particular groove might complain that a song is "too repetitive," but those same listeners will like other songs that are just as repetitive, but that are in a different style that they feel more comfortable with.
There's no rule to tell you how much repetition is "right." It depends on the specifics of your song and your musical elements, and also on your audience and the context in which the song will appear.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
The Four of Diamonds suggests a roundabout method for creating a new song. First, find a lyric sheet for a song you don't know. (Hint: You can do a Google search for some random combination of words, plus the word "lyrics.")
Write music for those lyrics, trying your best to guess what the original songwriter had in mind. When you're done, listen to the original song if you can. You'll probably be surprised at how different your treatment is from the song's original music. Most likely, you chose a different musical style, a different tempo, a different rhythmic structure, and different kinds of chords. (But if your music somehow ends up similar to the first songwriter's treatment, then you must throw your work out and start over with a different set of lyrics.)
Now you have just one little problem: your new song has lyrics whose copyright is owned by someone else. No sweat! Just write all-new lyrics for your new music.
Monday, May 10, 2010
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
The King of Clubs commands that you write a brilliant hit song, your pop masterpiece that will compel everyone who hears it to dance and sing along.
There's n0 denying that this puts a lot of pressure on you. You don't want to crash and burn in your audience with the king. But this is no time to play it safe; you must go beyond everything you've done before if you hope to satisfy this royal request.
The stake are high, but all the work you've done up to this point has prepared you well for this moment. Go for it! And good luck!
Monday, May 3, 2010
If your song is completely predictable or completely unpredictable, then you have missed your opportunity to give it a shape. Be sure to have some reassuring, familiar patterns and some unexpected elements as well.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
The Seven of Clubs invites you to write a song, drawing your inspiration from the aggressive energy of sarcasm.
Most of the time, most of us are polite enough to keep quiet in the face of stupidity, bad taste, incompetence, and hypocrisy. Our social world works better if we do. But eventually we need to address all the obvious things that remain unspoken.
Standup comics are great at this: "Hey, did you ever notice that elephant in the corner of the room? What's up with that??" But songwriters can get in on this action as well.
For one songwriting session, drop your politeness and let your sense of sarcasm take the wheel. You might be surprised at how much power it brings to your work.
Of course, you'll want to use good judgment in deciding whether to bring the resulting song into the public light. If it's too mean-spirited, don't perform it. But save that sober review for another day. Today, don't hold back. Go for it!
Monday, April 26, 2010
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
The second Joker in our deck has popped up, and he says: Write whatever you want to write. Any way you want to do it. Really. Anything.
No rules, no strategy, no gimmicks. It's all totally up to you this week.
That Joker! He's a wild card.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
What is your starting point when you write a song? The Ace of Hearts suggests that, this week, you start with a specific mood or emotion.
Pick a feeling that is familiar to you, so you'll be sure to find something to say about it.
After you decide what mood or emotion you want to work with, try to bring that mood into your body and into your creative workspace. Start coming up with (and writing down) images, phrases, and musical elements that express that mood.
After you've gathered a fairly large collection of raw material, you can start to shape it into a song. Look for a key image or experience to anchor your song, or pick an evocative phrase that could serve as the title.
As you continue to build the song, make sure every new line and every new element fits with and supports the mood you've chosen.
(And when you're done writing the song, remember to shake off that mood and return to mundane life. As the actors say, "It's called acting." You have to go there in order to create something artful and meaningful, but you don't have to live it.)
Monday, April 12, 2010
If you're writing a song for an artist that's making a demo, do them a favor: start strong, and grab the listener's attention from the first beat.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
As cards go, the Seven of Diamonds is very positional. Whatever anyone says or does, the Seven of Diamonds is adamantly opposed to it.
If you drink your coffee black, the Seven of Diamonds will get his with cream and sugar and call you an anarchist. The next day, if you get cream and sugar, 7♦ will drink it black and complain that you've gone soft.
That's why the Seven of Diamonds' songwriting assignment is to pick a song that makes a clear, strong point — and then write a new song that argues for the exact opposite.
For example, you might take the Beatles' "Back in the USSR" and write a song called "Back in the USA." (I'm just joking — read the back story here.) Or you might start with the cheerful 1970s hit "Love Will Keep Us Together" and write a gloomy song that argues "Love Will Tear Us Apart." (Just joking again.) Or perhaps you could write a rebuttal to Paul Simon's "Tenderness," a song that bemoans a relationship built on relentless honesty without any kindness mixed in. (Yep, that's been done too.)
Well, you'll have to come up with your own ideas for a song to start with. But, whatever song you pick, don't go easy on it. Make a strongly-argued, forceful case for the opposite point of view. Even if you actually feel that the truth is somewhere in between, leave those hesitations aside. If you played the two songs back-to-back, you'd want a listener to walk away persuaded that your song made the stronger case.
Monday, April 5, 2010
Some songs don't rhyme at all, and no one seems to miss it. If you find your song getting bogged down in a struggle to rhyme, try skipping the rhymes. Maybe you're working on a song that doesn't need it.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
The Ace of Diamonds invites you to write new words to the melody of an old folk song.
To avoid copyright troubles, make sure it's really old! Anything created before the year 1899 is sure to be in the public domain. (A few decades later, the era of perpetual copyright began — but don't get me started on the evils of modern copyright law! That's a subject for another day.)
While you're at it, feel free to spruce up the music and make it sound more modern. Sing it syncopated! Add a chorus! Change the chords around! That's the beauty of old folk songs: no one owns them, so you can pretty much do whatever you want with them.
Monday, March 29, 2010
Critical listening means listening for flaws. With highly trained ears, you can hear when a note is slightly flat or sharp, when a player is slightly ahead of the beat or behind it, and when a guitar tone is too dull or too intense. An untrained ear can sort of hear that something is a little off, but your trained musical ear can hear exactly what's wrong, and hopefully you can take steps to fix it.
Critical listening is essential, but if you do it all the time, you will just make yourself unhappy, and probably everyone around you too! It's just as important to be able to do casual listening: experiencing the song the way a typical audience member will listen to it. That means being uncritical, detached, unfocused, and not even paying full attention.
Critical listening will help you get the details right. Casual listening will help you have a successful song. Make sure you know the difference and that you develop both of these skills.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Someone gives you music, and your job is to write the lyrics. The reverse scenario — being supplied lyrics and writing music for them — might feel more familiar and natural to most of us. Trying to fit lyrics into a completed piece of music seems unnecessarily difficult, even perverse.
But what's a band to do if inspiration hands them a beautiful and powerful piece of music? Someone has to write the lyrics, or the song will remain an instrumental.
So how do you come up with lyrics? First off, you might as well try playing the music and see if perfectly formed words spontaneous fly into your head and emerge from your mouth. No luck? To be honest, it never works for me either, but if it did, wow.
Unfortunately, many lyricists get stuck trying this same process over and over, just wishing for a miracle of inspiration. There's no need to stay stuck! There are two systematic methods — diametrically opposed from each other — for coming up with lyrics. One of these methods is sure to work with you.
The first method requires you to be fairly uninhibited. Sing the melody, starting with "la, la, la" but working your way up to babbling nonsense words and syllables. After several rounds of this, you might find a key phrase of lyrics that feels right, even though it might be complete nonsense. That's your first draft. Write it down (or record it), and then keep working with it, nudging the words here and there until you settle into something that uses real words and makes at least a little bit of sense. (When I do this, I'm always impressed with how little has to be changed to turn complete nonsense into a deeply meaningful song lyric.)
The second method is almost the exact opposite of the first. You start with something sensible, and reshape it as much as necessary until it fits the music. This is a good time to pull out your lyrics notebook (you do have a lyrics notebook, don't you?) and look for any half-written song that even approximately fits the mood of the music. You might have to rewrite every line to make it fit the scansion of your new music, but that's often not as hard as it sounds. If you have a solid idea, it can be re-expressed in any shape and rhythm.
What if the lyrics notebook doesn't pan out? Here's the backup plan: you trance out to the music, and let it suggest something to you, even if it's just a single image, a mood, or a theme that you can start with. Once you get that initial idea, start jotting words, phrases, and images on paper, and build a collection of lyrical fragments that fit the rhythm of the song. If you keep at it, the lyrics will start to coalesce and take shape.
Any way you do it, it's painstaking work to fit lyrics to music. But if the music is good enough to justify the extra effort, you can work systematically and come up with the right lyrics.
To complete the Two of Hearts' assignment, you'll need a collaborator to provide you with some music. Or, if no collaborator is at hand, you can write some music yourself; just be sure to finish the music before you give any thought to the lyrics.
Monday, March 22, 2010
Pacing means managing the overall shape of the song. The song is an experience that unfolds over a period of time (a few minutes), and you should make sure that it unfolds in a smooth and graceful way. For the sake of good pacing, sometimes you'll want to move things along quickly, and find ways to speed things up. But there will also be times when you'll want to bring things to a stop or keep things static, in order to punctuate and experience or deepen an element of the song.
You have to be able to experience your own song as a listener. That's the only way you can know when the pacing is right and when you need to make adjustments. This means you can't afford to be stuck in the role of creator. Learn to shift quickly and easily from (proud, willful) creator to (detached, objective) listener, so that you can check your progress and know whether you're keeping the song on track.
You're the tour guide for your audience, and that means it's your job to know the terrain. Never take the listener to the same place twice. If you do, they'll think you've gotten lost, and then they will lose confidence in you. Make sure you earn their confidence, and make sure you reward them for sticking with you.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
The old-school idea is that a song should be everywhere and immortal. It should work for any performer, adapt to fit any style of music, entertain any audience, and last forever.
The Queen of Diamonds scoffs at this old idea. In reality, she points out, most songs are heard only once by most of the people who hear the song. The time and place of the listening is usually random happenstance, but it doesn't have to be.
This week, the Queen decrees that you write a song for a specific occasion, a specific time and place. You'll create the song with that one event in mind, and perform it (or play the recording) just that one time, and possibly never again.
What occasion could be so special and important that you would write a song just for that event? Well, if you think about it, there are many occasions that command effort on a much greater scale than writing and performing a song.
If flowers are painstakingly arranged and put in place for a wedding and thrown away afterwards, then you can write a one-time-only song for the occasion. Don't worry about "throwing away" a song; you can always write another one.
If you're going to make a special trip to a card store and mail a card for a friend's birthday, it's not much more effort to write a short birthday song and play it for your friend's answering machine. If your band gets a gig for a Veterans Day event, you should definitely show up with a song that you can dedicate to the veterans in the audience.
Your assignment this week: find a special occasion, and write a song that adds your energy and support to the occasion. Find an appropriate way to have your song be part of the event.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Don't stop when you have enough verses, or enough lines. Keep writing! Write more, and keep writing until you run out of ideas and inspiration. Sometimes the most surprising ideas slip out after you think you're already done, and after the pressure is off. Your song might take an unexpected change of direction that turns it from good to brilliant.
Later, in another writing session, select the best lines or the best verses, and ruthlessly excise all the others. It can be painful to chop out a verse that's perfectly good, or an exquisite rhyming joke, but remember that there is something more painful: performing for a restless audience who wishes your song was already over.
Write a lot, but use just enough, and no more.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Have you met the King of Diamonds? Let's just say he's pretty comfortable with who he is and with his level of success in life. Of, course, it's easy for him — he's a king! And he's loaded with diamonds!
But even if you don't have that same level of worldly success, you can learn from the King of Diamonds' example. Go ahead and write what's comfortable and natural for you to write.
Write the song that’s easiest and most straightforward for you.
Write in your native style. Write about things you care about personally. Let your real personality come forward.
Don’t be afraid to do “the same things you always do.” This is the time to use all those most familiar tricks.
Monday, March 8, 2010
For example, the C major pentatonic scale includes the notes C, D, E, G, and A. Those same notes comprise the A minor pentatonic scale, with A as the keynote instead of C.
Songwriters often use the pentatonic scale for just part of a song, where they want a primitive and powerful effect. Then they balance it by using the full diatonic (7-note) scale for a more nuanced melody in other parts of the song.
A pentatonic chorus melody is good for a rousing, anthemic singalong. A pentatonic verse is good for an abstract, detached mood.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
The Nine of Diamonds believes in learning from the successes of the past. This is the Playlist Method of songwriting.
Create a playlist of 6-12 songs that are similar to the kind of song that you want to write. They might be songs that all have a similar theme or feel, or perhaps just songs that you admire.
Listen carefully to the songs in the playlist. Take note of anything that they all have in common, and, whatever that common thread is, be sure to do the same thing in the new song that you're going to write.
Now, write your new song, and strive to create a song that will fit in perfectly when you add it to the playlist. You're not trying to copy bit and pieces of the other songs; that would get you into copyright trouble! But try to create something that uses the same musical vocabulary and evokes the same spirit.
When you're done, mix down your song and add it to the playlist. Listen to the songs in shuffle mode. Does your song fit in?
Ideally, a naive listener shouldn't even be able to tell which is your newly-created song and which are the older songs that served as your starting point. (Of course, that might not be realistic if you've picked top hit songs and you're just working with a handheld tape recorder. But give it your best shot.)
If there obvious things that make your song stand out as different, then revise your song and try again. Keep at it until your new song truly captures the essence of your chosen playlist of songs.
Monday, March 1, 2010
If you find that you need the entire song to lay out your message, then you're already lost. You should give up on the song and write an essay, a blog post, or perhaps a poem.
Then, after you've gotten that out of your system, come back to what prompted to you to try to write a song, and see if there's a simple idea hiding inside your tangle of complexity. There usually is, and it's worth taking the time to get it sorted out. After all, that is your job as an artist: to make things simple — to make it possible for your audience to grasp something that might otherwise elude them.
It doesn't take any skill to create complexity and confusion. But it takes everything you have as an artist and songwriter to make things simple and clear.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
The Three of Spades doesn't see the need for clever tricks or inspiration games. If it's time to write a song, sit down with your musical instrument, and flip through your lyrics notebook. Find some lyrics that are at least halfway there, then finish the verses, clean up any weak spots, and start composing the music.
Don't have a lyrics notebook? Then the Three of Spades insists that you go out this week, buy a notebook, and start writing lyrics in it!
It's part of the songwriting lifestyle to carry around a notebook and scribble lyrics and ideas in it whenever life inspires you.
To be the perfect picture of a songwriter at work, you have to sit in a coffeeshop or on a bus or train, intently jotting down possible rhymes while the world carries on around you. But it's also fine to sit quietly at home on the occasional evening, dreaming up new lyrics.
Write in pen in a hard-cover book for boldness, or use pencil and a spiral-bound notebook if you want to keep your options open. Or use your iPhone or BlackBerry if you must; it lacks the poetic mystique of pen and paper, but on the positive side, people will assume you're diligently working on stuff for your Very Important Day Job.
If you work in your lyrics notebook even occasionally, you'll end up with ten times more lyrics than you'll ever use, but that's okay. Whenever you're ready to write a song, you won't have to wonder where to start. You'll just whip out your notebook and start flipping through it.
Monday, February 22, 2010
Look for ways to shorten your first chorus. Will the song still work if you sing only half of the chorus the first time around?
Look for ways to shorten your last verse. If it's a two-part verse, perhaps all you need is part B of the verse, leading up to the chorus. Or you might be able to leave out part B and jump directly from part A of the last verse into the chorus.
Of course, you can sing the final chorus at least twice. Many rock songs repeat the chorus over and over at the end of the song and finally fade out.
An exception is a slow-tempo song with a long chorus. It might be too much, too long to repeat the entire chorus. In that case, you can still look for a way to work in a repeat of the climactic high point of the chorus before bringing the song to an end.
And you might consider making your first verse longer than the other verses, or perhaps singing two whole verses before you get to the first chorus.
Of course, sometimes you'll find that a song needs to break the rules. Always do what's best for the song.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
The Five of Clubs reminds of a tried-and-true songwriting method that dates from the Tin Pan Alley days (or perhaps even earlier).
Write a song based on today's top news headline. Find a way to tie the news story to a universal idea or theme, and turn that into your hook.
If it's a story about interpersonal confict, you might want to fictionalize the story and change the names of the characters or companies so you can make up your own dramatic details without worrying about slandering some real person.
You always want your songs to interest people, and the top headlines are a good reflection of what people are interested in right now.
The Five of Clubs' method might give you hit-and-miss results, but don't worry if you try it today and the song doesn't quite hit the mark. The great thing about the news is that it's constantly changing; there's always something new. Check back tomorrow, and there will be a whole new set of headlines.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Look for ways to shorten the exposition, to move the story quickly forward while keeping the essential elements.
If you drop verse one, can the listener still tell what's going on? Sometimes cutting things off the beginning of the song is all you need to do.
Familiar cliches can come in handy. They tell the audience what you're getting at without requiring you to fill in all the details.
Lyrics can't afford to be as detailed and nuanced as novels and films, but with the aid of musical gestures they can tell stories that are every bit as powerful. Look at classic story songs to find examples of brilliant and concise storytelling.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
The Two of Diamonds' suggestion is the opposite of a shortcut. You might call it a detour, or "taking the long way around." It's a zig, followed by a zag — a two-step process.
Step one: Pick a familiar song, and write all-new lyrics that fit its melody. People sometimes call this process "writing a song parody," but the goal this time is not humor or parody. Instead you're trying to write credible lyrics that fit a proven, successful melody.
Make sure that no traces of the original lyrics remain in your new lyrics. Changing every single word isn't necessarily good enough. (If you show the lyric sheet to someone and they can guess what song you started from, then try again.)
What you have at this point is a song with a melody owned by someone else. If you sing it for anyone, they'll say, "I know that song, but you're singing the wrong words." Whatever you do, don't stop here. Proceed to step two.
Step two: Write completely new music to your new lyrics. Don't just change the notes. Change the rhythm, the tempo, the key, the chords, the groove — everything.
It can be a mental challenge to forgot the melody you started with and think of something entirely different. Here's a way to skip that whole struggle: give the lyrics to a collaborator who has no idea what song you used as your starting point.
When you're done, you have a new and fully original song, and it only took twice as many steps as writing a song from scratch.
In practice, the Two of Diamonds' method most often is used by accident. A songwriter starts singing along with a song, and new words spontaneously suggest themselves. Before you know it, you have a new song in the works.