Wednesday, February 24, 2010

3♠ The lyrics notebook

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

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

Shaping the song with verse and chorus (Songwriting tips)

The standard rock song stacks more verse near the beginning of the song, and more chorus near the end of the song. It's not an absolute rule, but it's a familiar formula, something that audiences have come to expect.

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

5♣ Headline news

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

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

When a song tells a story (Songwriting tips)

The song format forces you to tell your story without any wasted words, without any superfluous lines. You can't just pile on one one verse after another. No matter how clever a story you're telling, you still have to get to the chorus before people get impatient.

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

2♦ Zigzag

2♦ Two of Diamonds in The Rock Songwriter’s Deck: 52 Ways to Write a Song

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.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

9♣ Song quest

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

The Nine of Clubs suggests that you go on a song quest. That is, make your next song the most important thing in your life — temporarily, the only thing in your life — and eliminate all possibility of distractions and interruptions.

An effort this intense requires planning and preparation, so choose the time and place of your song quest carefully and thoughtfully. Take yourself to an isolated place with the minimum supplies that you need to survive and write. Don't take your phone, your laptop, your calendar, or your watch. Be responsible — let someone know where you're going and what you're doing. Sit quietly and contemplate who you are and where you are, and listen carefully in the stillness for those subtle voices of perfect wisdom, the voices you usually don't take the time to hear.

Stay there as long as it takes, until a new song emerges, a song that demands to be sung. It might take only an hour, or it might take several days and nights. When the song finally arrives, you must sing it! And write it down. It might be simpler than your usual song, and it might seem nonsensical. Whatever it is, don't judge it, censor it, or try to rewrite it. Accept it in whatever form it comes to you. In this case, you don't get to choose your song. The song chooses you.

Usually, songwriting should not be a dramatic ordeal. But some songs just can't be born through our usual songwriting methods. When those occasions arise, you might need to undertake a song quest. And the Nine of Clubs is here to help.