Archive for August, 2008

One Element at a Time

August 29, 2008

To write a song means to create a melody with its own rhythmic pattern and (often) words to go with it, AND to put it to a sequence of chords that support and enhance the melody and lyrics. When you look at it that way, it sounds so complex.

What we do can be extremely complex or it can also be as simple as a nursery rhyme and anything in between. Take Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, for example. It has all the elements of a song: melody, lyrics, rhythm and chords (also known as harmony), and they all fit together in a coherent manner. What small child hasn’t invented his own simple song using a familiar melody as a starting point?

One saving grace in songwriting is that you don’t have to create all the elements at the same time. You don’t even have to create them in the same year. I had a chord sequence on the back burner for over two years (I recorded myself playing the chords on guitar). There was no melody or lyrics, just a set of chords played in a reggae style.

When I finally wrote some lyrics to those chords, I noticed the reggae beat was not quite right for the lyrics. So I found a variation on a hip hop rhythm that worked better. The point is, I didn’t have to envision it all at once. I could piece it together at my own pace (which is sometimes very slow). Songwriting can be done at any pace. Don’t rush yourself unnecessarily.

Quick recording for songwriters

August 27, 2008

tip submitted by Chuck Durfor

Pick up a Minidisc recorder for about $200 US. It’s money well spent. I use a Sony RZ-37, although there are probably new and better machines to be found. (If I were to buy a new one I’d look for a digital output, see below). (Also consider the Zoom H2, H4 and other handy handheld digital recorders. – Ed.)

Anyway, at each performance, connect the minidisc to the tape (or line out) of your PA amplifier. Then turn the machine on before a set and off after a set concludes. (Minidiscs cost about $2.00 a piece, are re-recordable like tapes, and in mono can hold 140 minutes of music).

The result is a digital recording of your performance. The value of the recording is many fold. It’s a convenient way to review new (or old) material under the calmer light of day, for example, after a night where one is convinced that a career at McDonald’s would be more appropriate.

It can also provide ‘live’ material at near CD quality for promo and press kits. Clearly, the savings in studio time alone pay for the recorder.

Your digital recordings also might provide material for a ‘live’ album. A friend who runs sound for The Common Ground Festival tells me that their last few compilation CDs were all originally recorded on minidisc. Hence, if a commercial ‘live’ release is your ultimate goal, a minidisc recorder with a digital output is an excellent choice!



August 26, 2008

Remember Jerry Seinfeld? In a recent New York Times article Jerry talks about his new method of creating comedy bits.

At a recent stand-up comedy performance, as Jerry was starting one of his routines, a heckler yelled out “Heard it!” Despite his experience at dealing with hecklers, the comment really stung and from that moment on, Jerry swore he would never re-use old material again.

Can you imagine not being able to sing the same song twice? Did you ever hear of a musician or comedian who only performed new material? Could a singer/songwriter ever make such a claim?

I know writing songs and writing comedy bits are two very different endeavors. But work with me here, they both require your creative faculties and both can be subject to writer’s block. If someone discovers a method that works for comedy, wouldn’t you be interested in hearing it and judging for yourself whether it can be applied to music?

Here’s what Jerry does. For three hours he wanders around his Upper West Side neighborhood, watching people, stopping in shops and generally observing life in that part of New York City, looking for something that might spark a comedy routine.


Obama or McCain?

August 25, 2008

Are you following the elections? Are you committed to one or the other? If you are passionate about either one (or Hillary Clinton or John Edwards or any of the issues facing the USA), then you have the perfect subject for a song. The same thing applies if you are an avid follower of the Olympic games.

In fact, it applies to anything you are particularly interested in, whether it’s sports, politics, American Idol, TV/movies, Wii, poker, bingo, polka, Starbucks or ABBA. If you’re into it, you’re in a great position to write about it.

When you are passionate about a subject, it is much easier to write about. It is much easier to stick with it, follow through and finish the song. When you are passionate about the subject, you probably already know a great deal about it, in addition to your own opinions. All this is fodder for your song.

Combine two of your favorite things: songwriting and your #1 passion.

Know any songwriters who could benefit from our blog? Please forward this post to them. Your recommendation is the best way to spread the word.

Prompting the muse

August 22, 2008

A blog called Pumping Your Muse Prompts features a daily writing exercise. Each day, you are presented with a photo or an idea or a series of questions. From that you are directed to write a scene.

Running out of ideas

August 21, 2008

At Songwriter’s Tip Jar forums, we often get questions about how to find new ideas when the well has run dry. There are lots of ways to do this and I like to use as many different ways as I can, to keep it fresh. Here are a couple of ways.

Start with a drum loop. If you use a loop as a creative jump start, you don’t necessary need to keep the loop for the recording. Once you’ve got a melody and some chords and lyrics, you can choose to drop the loop or replace it.

Whenever I get stuck, I try to go back to basics. For one thing, I lower my expectations. So instead of trying to write a #1 hit, I set my sites on something simpler, even as simple as a lullaby or nursery rhyme.

I do this because it takes the pressure off and frees my mind. Then, as I’m working on it, inevitably a simple song leads me to a more interesting song as I embellish here and there and hear a syncopated chorus to contrast with the straight verses (or vice versa).

Intentionally starting simple works well to get me unstuck.

For lyrics, I find it best to stick with something I know well, which is often my own feelings or episodes from my own life. It can also be something I’m passionate about and have studied, researched and/or been immersed in or grew up with. If you write about something you are passionate about, it will show in your writing and it will come through in your singing and playing, if you perform.


Songwriting exercise

August 20, 2008

Here’s an off the wall exercise. Assign yourself the task of writing a song, using a metaphor as the starting point.

Rather than starting with a brilliant insight and then finding a suitable metaphor to fit, let’s say you haven’t divined any insights today. So take any hackneyed metaphor (see below) or devise an original one and construct a song around it.

Remember it’s just an exercise, so don’t feel pressured to write the next platinum single.

To get you started, I’ll list a few images.

– cards, games of chance, gambling and luck
– moving, travel, trains, journey, quest
– water, ocean
– silence, stillness, quiet
– hunger, thirst, yearning
– baseball, soccer (football)
– light and dark
– falling
– aiming, shooting
– fireworks
– dancing, skating
– standing in line, waiting in traffic
– snowfall, blizzard
– mining for coal, gold

Let us know if you find this exercise helpful, and if you have any that work for you — we’d love to hear about them! Even if you feel this was a useless exercise, we want to hear it. So click the Comments » link below.

Saving your brilliant ideas; Organizing quotations

August 19, 2008

Most songwriters carry a notebook of some kind to jot down ideas for songs and song titles. Others like to carry a small tape recorder to save melodic ideas, riffs and rhythms. Perhaps the high tech among us do it on a PDA, a personal digital assistant, I don’t know. Do whatever works for you. However you do it, finding a method for saving your brilliant song ideas is critical.

I recently discovered another source of ideas: quotations. And there’s a very easy way to get them. I subscribe to a free daily inspirational email quote service from the Mary Manin Morrissey organization.

There are many such free services, this is just my personal favorite. For examle, there’s one called Quote World. If you know of any that are particularly good for songwriting ideas, let us know by clicking on the comment link below (where it says No Comments »).

Frequently I’ll read a quote that I think would make a good seed idea for a song. I could get out a pen and write the quote in my notebook to keep it with the rest of my ideas. But instead I created a folder in my email software. I called the folder Song Ideas. Now it’s fast and easy to organize these gems.

For me, it’s convenient to have a quick place to save these emails. I don’t even have to cut and paste, I just drag the email to the Song Ideas folder.

Another place to save short items like quotations and title ideas is in a Word (or any word processor) file. Just copy and paste (or type them) and you’ll soon have a boatload of material, all easily accessible on one or more pages, and of course searchable, using the word processor’s search function.

Ruthless Rewriting

August 18, 2008

I attended a songwriting workshop taught by Kathy Hussey, called Ruthless Rewriting. I was prepared for the worst, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. Instead of taking a heartless intellectual approach, she looks at editing/rewriting as fun and positive, kind of like cleaning clutter from your house, getting rid of unneeded items. After all, the end result will be a better song, so what’s not to like?

She taught us to joyfully remove extraneous words and replace weak phrases and cliches. I learned not to resist criticism, but to look at it objectively and decide for myself which ideas to persue and which to discard, asking myself ‘does it help make my song better, does it make sense?’ and ‘Am I blindly defending the status quo or am I really open to examining the weaker points of my song?’

Know any songwriters who could benefit from our blog? Please forward this post to them. Your recommendation is the best way to spread the word.

Your local support group

August 15, 2008

Are you a member of your local songwriter association? These groups are an excellent way to meet songwriters. They often organize open mikes, song swaps, songwriting seminars and contests.

I belong to SAW (Songwriters of Washington), a very active organization, where I’ve been able to get feedback on my songs and general support and friendship from my peers.

If you think your local songwriter association is lame, make it better. Volunteer and make it into what you would like it to be. Odds are if you think it’s lame, so do others. Volunteer, attend some board meetings and start building it into something that serves you.

If there is no local group where you live, try frequenting all the open mike nights you can find. You can try out your newest tunes in front of a friendly audience and meet other songwriters.

Another well-respected group is NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International).