Wednesday, June 30, 2010

8♠ Start with an idea

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

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.
  1. Decide on an idea.
  2. 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.
  3. Build a chorus that supports the hook. Pick tempo, mood, and chords that provide the best possible backdrop for the idea.
  4. 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.
This song-building method is so simple and straightforward that generations of songwriting hacks have used it to churn out truckloads of empty, soul-numbing songs. But don't blame the technique; it's all in how you use it. Your song will be meaningful if it means something to you. Start with an idea that you personally care about, something that touches your life or inspires you in some way.

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

Pass the wince test (Songwriting tips)

After you finish a song, you have to live with it. If something bugs you just a tiny bit now, will it make you cringe years from now, every time you hear the song?

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

6♦ Shuffle and cut

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

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

You're onstage (Songwriting tips)

Remember that writing is a performance, and your listeners can "hear" you, however indirectly, through the song.

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

K♠ Your masterpiece

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

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

Say it with style (Songwriting tips)

It's not what you say, it's how you say it that matters.

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

Q♣ Use the sledgehammer

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

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

Start anywhere (Songwriting tips)

When writing a song, where do you start? Well, you can start with the lyrics, or with the music. You can start at the beginning of the first verse. You can start with the title, the hook, and the chorus. You can start at the end and work backwards.

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

K♥ Naked and bloody in the spotlight

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

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.