Archive for May, 2008

Chord Exercise

May 30, 2008

Here’s an exercise. Take a simple melody (like a nursery rhyme) and reharmonize the it. What I mean is, replace the usual harmony (chords) with different chords that hopefully express a whole new feeling from the same melody. Then try to find yet another new set of chords that work with the same melody.

In classical music there’s a form called theme and variations, where they do just that. They’ll take a melody, like a well known folk song and create a new piece. The new piece starts with the song arranged in a simple, familiar way, followed by the same melody with a different accompaniment, such as different chords, feel, rhythms, tempo, or a combination. That’s followed by yet another version (or variation) and so on. They sometimes start sounding further and further from the original. Check out some by Brahms.

Put Down Your Weapon

May 30, 2008

Put down your instrument and unleash your creativity. By staying away from your instrument when you are writing melody, you can actually free yourself from some old restraints. If you usually write with your instrument, this will open up new possibilities for you.

Write a melody first, in your head or out loud, without any chordal instruments nearby. You can be in the shower, in bed, hiking, commuting, at your day job, etc. If it helps, record it into an inexpensive handheld voice recorder. If you don’t have one, you can phone yourself and leave yourself a musical voicemail.

Once you are happy with the melody, only then should you go to your instrument to start finding chords/accompaniment. You’ll be surprised how well this works. You might find yourself writing more interesting (or at least different) chord progressions than usual, as well as more daring melodies, new voicings, even new rhythms. Try it and let me know what happens.

Why does this work? This is only a theory. We are creatures of habit. After learning certain patterns, we tend to repeat the patterns. Maybe that’s the way the brain works, I don’t know the science of it. For myself, I learned certain picking patterns on the guitar and I practiced them over and over. Now my fingers seem to go there by default. If I write a song while holding the guitar, I tend play a familiar pattern. Maybe it’s muscle memory.

Finish Your First Draft in One Sitting

May 29, 2008

Here’s a question we hear frequently. “Why is it that I can write a verse or chorus that seems really good and often, when I hear it back 24 hours later, it seems awful.”

I’ll bet every songwriter has had (and maybe still has) this same experience.

One short answer is, if it loses its appeal to you, that’s a sign. Move on to a different idea. Of course, this may not be a foolproof way to weed out good ideas from bad.

Another valid answer is that your idea IS good and just needs further development. At first your song idea is all potential. At first you can only imagine how a good song could be created, starting with this idea. And if you stop there, then when you come back a day later, you may have forgotten all the imagined parts and are left with only the ‘seed’ idea.

So try to spend enough time in the first go-round, developing the song (or finishing it) as much as possible. Then when you let it sit for a day or so and come back to it, you’ll have more to work with and a better chance that your judgment (is this a good song?) will be correct.

The more you write, the easier it will be to finish a first draft in one sitting. It used to take me months to write a song. I’d write some, then put it on the back burner for weeks or months and then finally get back to it (to improve it some, then relegate it to the back burner again), and so on. Now I come close to finishing a song in one or two sessions and then polish it to perfection over several more sessions. The polished (editing/rewriting) can still take quite some time, for me.

Songwriter Blog in the New York Times

May 28, 2008

Rosanne Cash Elvis Costello Kris Kristofferson John LeventhalWith music now available with a single, offhand click, it’s easy to forget that songs are not born whole, polished and ready to play. They are created by artists who draw on some combination of craft, skill and inspiration. In the coming weeks, the contributors to this blog — all accomplished songwriters — will pull back the curtain on the creative process as they write about their work.

With contributions by Suzanne Vega, Rosanne Cash, Andrew Bird and Darrell Brown, Measure for Measure offers fascinating insight into the creative processes of professional writers. Thanks Corinne, for the heads up.

When is the Best Time to Write?

May 27, 2008

antique pocket watch faceWhen is the best time to write? My stock answer is right now. Don’t procrastinate or make excuses or justify any reason not to write right now.

Of course, I’m not suggesting you neglect your family and work obligations. I am suggesting you look at your priorities. Because it’s all too easy to fall into habits that go counter to our priorities.

I’ll give an example from my own experience. Songwriting is my greatest challenge and greatest joy. Nothing is more satisfying to me than writing a new song. Still, when I come home from my day job, after dinner, I often have an evening or part of an evening free. You’d think I’d go right to my desk or pull out my guitar and work on my latest song. But often I’ll sit down and watch a show on the tube.


How do you write a melody?

May 23, 2008

We get this question all the time: what is the easiest way to come up with interesting melodies?

I find writing lyrics most difficult of all, harder than melody, rhythms and chords. But I co-write with someone who says writing lyrics is easy and the rest is hard. It’s different for everyone.


The Musician’s Guide to Making & Selling Your Own CDs and Cassettes

May 21, 2008

Yes, you read that right, it says cassettes. So in that way, this book is more than a little dated. But other than referring to cassettes, the information is still hot.

This invaluable book by Jana Stanfield was my “bible” as an aspiring musician, songwriter and recording artist. It’s a primer for independent musicians. If you are on the fence about making your first recording, this could be just the kick in the pants you need.

Not only is it a nuts and bolts look at how to set yourself up in a career as a singer/songwriter, it is also a compelling and inspiring exploration of how you can reframe success in music so that it works for you.

But don’t take my word for it. Check the customer reviews at
Amazon, where you can get this book for as little as $3.50

My Favorite Ax is a Pencil

May 21, 2008

a pencilGuitarists have their Fender Strats, sax players have their favorite horns and so on. But a songwriter’s ax is his pencil.

There’s some comfort in knowing that as songwriters, we don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to find the perfect instrument, the killer amp, the right microphone, etc.

I’m not a purist. I do use the technology, including Band-in-a-Box, Lyricist, Sonar, eVirtualStudio, MasterWriter, Garageband, Audacity (free) and others. I don’t use these things exclusively, but many times the technology is helpful.

Other times it’s great to write a song the way they did back in Shakespeare’s time. OK, maybe they had quill pens instead of pencils. But they didn’t need a laptop, they didn’t need electricity. All they needed was a candle for light, a piece of parchment, pen and ink and their own wits.

It gives us the freedom to write anytime, anywhere, like while waiting in line at the motor vehicles bureau or walking the dog. You can write on a bus, in a boring class or meeting, in church, lying under a shade tree, while jogging on a treadmill, vacuuming, showering, commuting, etc.

How Do They Write Those Chord Progressions?

May 20, 2008

Sometimes I hear a song and think, how do these songwriters come up with such perfect chord changes and why are the chords in my songs so plain and boring?

One day I was playing one of my favorite obscure James Taylor songs, The Secret O’ Life, which has a great chord progression. I got to thinking, what if I steal/use some of his chords (not in the same order) and write a song of my own. I know this group of chords sounds good together, at least they do in The Secret O’ Life, so I took it on as a challenge. My goal was that my song shouldn’t sound anything like his.


Can’t Get Started?

May 19, 2008

Do you find it easier to finish a song than to start one? This happens to me all the time. Songwriters often get stuck before writing even one note.

From the questions we get at our forum, it seems most people can finish a song once they get started. It’s the ‘getting started’ that poses a problem.

We procrastinate. We can’t find the time. There are a million reasons why we don’t write, but somehow, once we get started, it gets easier. The momentum created by writing one verse or even one line can have the power to inspire or at least generate the rest of the song