Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A♦ Borrow a folk melody

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

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

Casual listening and critical listening (Songwriting tips)

Listening is a musician's most valuable skill. But how you listen is just as important as how well you listen.

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

2♥ Write lyrics for this

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

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

Managing the pace (Songwriting tips)

Pace your song. Keep things moving smoothly by using repetition, variation, and interruption.

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

Q♦ One night only

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

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

Write more, use less (Songwriting tips)

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

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

K♦ This song is your song

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

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

Pentatonic power (Songwriting tips)

For a powerful, universal feel, and to spur people to sing along, limit your melody to the 5-note pentatonic scale.

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

9♦ Playlist

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

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

The heart of a song (Songwriting tips)

The heart of a song should be a simple idea, a single experience, or a universal emotion. It's a song; don't try to make it a novel.

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.