Archive for November, 2008

4 keys to improve your songwriting

November 29, 2008

Warmed over Asian slaw & leftover turkey & gravy medley: it’s a hybrid: Thanksgiving dinner leftovers combined into an unlikely concoction. And it tastes great.

The creations that come out of our kitchen are an inspiration to me (all credit goes to my wife). How can she consistently create something delicious out of an odd assortment of ingredients? And even more puzzling is how she does it with whatever happens to be in the fridge, which is dependent on the season and our CSA produce (harvested weekly from a local farm).

Practice, experimentation, intuition and rule breaking

Practice, experimentation, intuition and a willingness to break the rules seems to be the answer. Do I need to point out that practice, experimentation, intuition and breaking the rules apply to songwriting as well? You might say they are the 4 keys to improving your songwriting.

Practice is at the top of the list. I’m not talking about practicing your instrument. With songwriting, there are no scales to practice. Instead, it’s practice by doing. Every song you write is practice for the next one. Every verse, chorus, melody and rhythm you write is practice. Even if it turns out to be a great song, the act of writing it prepares you to do even better the next time. With practice, the ‘rules’ become internalized.

Experimentation. There are so many variables to a song, addressing them all at once can be overwhelming. When I get overwhelmed by all the possibilities, I usually set aside one or two of the main elements and work on what’s left. For example, I might set aside lyrics and melody, while I focus on chords and rhythm. Even within chords and rhythm there are endless possibilities.

The idea of experimentation is to try lots of the possibilities. If the song is working as a slow ballad, great. But just make sure it doesn’t work even better as a fast dance number or shuffle. Experiment with a hybrid approach: combining genres – a disco beat under a ballad for example. Throw together whatever is in the fridge.

Intuition is available to everyone. You may not be using it, that can be learned. In the next few days and weeks I’ll be recommending some resources on learning to develop your songwriting intuition.

Break the rules. A willingness to break the rules implies that you must first know the rules. I often say there are no rules in songwriting, but there are guidelines, especially if you’re writing for commercial radio or other specific uses. The first step is to familiarize yourself with these guidelines and put them into practice. Keep at it until it’s second nature. The next step is to break or bend a rule here and there when it serves the song.

One final thought. If your goal is to write the best song you can, let the song guide you. As you’re writing, ask yourself ‘where is this song leading? What best serves the song?’

14 yr old recommends multiple streams of income

November 27, 2008

custom guitar

Happy Thanksgiving.

Ariel Hyatt alerted me to this New York Times article via a Twitter feed on Plaxo.


I don’t even use Twitter (I barely know what it is) and I’m a neophyte on Plaxo, but somehow, I’m getting a feed from Ariel H on it. I’m glad I did, because it’s a cool article about how artists are using multiple streams of income approaches to make a living with their art. One of the examples is a 14 year old guitar player who builds custom guitars as a side business.

Try this at home – summarize your lyrics

November 26, 2008

I just discovered an eye-opening way to get clarity about my own lyrics and improve my writing. I learned that when I try to summarize a song of mine in a sentence or two, I am able to nail the meaning much more clearly, which then gives me the option to repair or refine the lyrics. Of course, it would be even more helpful had I done this at the beginning of the lyric writing process.

Here’s how it happened. I signed up for an account with one of the online music communities, where I posted mp3s of my songs. For every song I posted, I was prompted to answer questions about the song. I suppose they do this so their search engine can categorize it and make it easier to find.

Here are some of the questions they ask. For each song you post, they want to know the genre, the tempo, the mood, the subject matter and names of two similar artists. Then they ask for a short description of the song, a long description and finally they give you the opportunity to tell the “story behind the song.”

I posted seven songs and each time, the exercise of writing a one sentence description and then a longer description had me looking at my lyrics from a whole new perspective. I somehow found a succinct nugget that not only summarized the meaning I intended, but sometimes said it better than my lyrics.

It also became clear that in some songs, the meaning I originally intended was not the same as the meaning the final lyrics portray. I also noticed for the first time that several of my songs say basically the same thing using different words (nothing wrong with that).

Try this with some of your songs and let us know how it works out.

write something, anything

November 24, 2008

Frequently writers will ask us how to get unstuck. Here’s a suggestion I gave to one individual.

It sounds to me like part of what is shutting you down is self-criticism. Early in the creative process, criticism is a real killer. To get around that, you could start by writing almost anything that comes into your head, without pausing to figure out if it’s any good.

Think of it as a rough first draft, and think of it as something that, with appropriate editing, could become a great song. That’s much more conducive to the creative process.

In other words, find what’s good about your first draft and build on that. You can always cut a weak verse or improve it. Sometimes in the process of cutting, editing and adding new verses, your end result will bear little resemblance to the first draft. That’s OK, you gotta kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.

I often write in a wordy style at first (not on purpose), so a lot of my editing work consists of removing words and entire verses, shortening phrases, tightening up and so on.

Some of the best songwriters go through many, many drafts before arriving at the one we hear on the radio. Of course, no one ever hears the early versions except the songwriters and perhaps the band, producer, spouse, etc.

The other part to that tip is, don’t rush your songs. If it takes 19 drafts to get the lyrics right, that’s what it takes. Don’t let your band, yourself or anyone else rush your process. Sometimes they come out fast, other times they need to brew awhile.

Trying to force it to happen faster than it wants to happen is usually a disaster. Inspiration comes on its own schedule. My advice is, when the inspiration does come, hop on it, even if it means staying up all night or canceling previous plans.

It sounds to me like you are committed to and passionate about music. This is good, because if you aren’t, it will show in your songs.

One more tip to beat writer’s block: every writing coach, will tell you to ‘write what you know.’ Another way to say it is write about a subject you are passionate about. It could be a person, animal, thing (TV show, sports team) or an idea (freedom, peace, etc.)

And remember passion can be love or lust. You can also hate passionately. Anything that incites deep feelings in you, positive or negative, is a good subject for a song.

Usually, when you’re passionate about something or someone, you can’t shut up about it. Use that in your writing.

Eat well on the road

November 22, 2008


Here’s a resource for the traveling musician. The Eat Well Guide provides a web-based method of finding local, sustainable, and organic food wherever you go.

For those of us who eat local, organic and sustainably at home, finding the same food options on the road has always been a challenge. Seeking out health food restaurants, vegetarian restaurants or even just affordable non-greasy restaurants is a huge hassle when time is limited in an unfamiliar city.

When out of town, Soulpajamas eat at Whole Foods Markets salad bar whenever possible. It’s fast, organic and inexpensive compared to most organic restaurants. The ambiance may not get four stars, but compared to fast food places and eating while driving, it’s downright homey.

Now the Eat Well Guide’s Plan a Trip feature is another option.

Producing demos

November 21, 2008


Alot of folks have been asking us questions like “How do I produce a demo of my song?” and “How do I choose a demo production company?” Fortunately, STJ Forum member Jeff Severson has offered this timely advice. The following piece jam packed with good stuff for the independent songwriter.

The Sex Pistols sweat the rhymes & the importance of being properly demoed.

In the movie the Filth and the Fury, members of the Sex Pistols are quoted as saying they felt uncomfortable getting on stage and singing “I am the Antichrist, I am an anarchist…” as the rhyme scheme was awkward. How quaint that these punk revolutionaries, between all their drunken brawling, heroin shooting, equipment smashing, party wrecking, self-mutilating and general world upheaving, were worried about proper rhymes.

On another subject, Garth Fundis, platinum producer for Trisha Yearwood, Alabama and other Nashville royalty, confesses that when it comes time to making records, they “chase” the demos. In other words, they learn the guitar parts and otherwise rob the arrangements and production from the demos as they don’t have the time to really come up with something new in the average two week span it takes to cut a Nashville CD.

So do we all, as rhymin’ Simons, burdened not only by having to come up with the perfect, never before heard rhymes, have to make our demos sound like finished 48 track world class productions? In a word, “yep.” Or, we can leave it to the pros…

Who amongst us has the technical proficiency to arrange, record and mix a song so that it sounds like it came off the radio? We’ve got enough to handle just making sure the melody and lyrics are better than the average song publisher staff writer or we don’t stand a hoot of a chance of getting heard by THOSE WHO MATTER. So we are left to gamble on an outside song production company which is a lot like throwing yourself on the mercy of a car mechanic who happens to live in another city.

How do you choose a song production company you can trust to give you a marketable product? Well, certainly there are fly by night production companies to avoid; all those that say they are going to put your song on a CD and circulate it to every important radio station in the country, for one example.


Another take on how to write a song

November 20, 2008

Note to beginners: write with the mind, not the hands.

Where do your songs come from? Do they begin with a piano or guitar part you start singing along with? Are they written in your head before you even sit down with an instrument? Are they inspired by an event in your life? Do they come to you in a dream?

If you asked these questions to the great songwriters of our time, they would probably answer “all of the above.” One of the writers of the great Holland Dozier Holland team said all his melodies came from noodling on the piano. This works fine except for when you get stuck, when you paint yourself into a corner, where do you go? A solution may be to stop playing and let the melody come to you. Find the notes on the instrument and build the chords around it.

It works the same with lyrics. Sometimes you get headed in a direction where you can’t get the lines or the rhyme to work no matter what you do. Try walking away from it, take a drive, let it fester, and often the line will come to you.

If it doesn’t, try back tracking. Rework the third act so that the butler takes the bullet. Above all, think of what you want to say and then try to make it rhyme, rather than thinking of a rhyme and force fitting in to your story line.


Martha Graham

November 19, 2008


There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open.

It is not for you to determine how good it is, or how valuable, or how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly.

— Martha Graham, dancer and choreographer (1894-1991)

Was Martha talking about dance and choreography or any creative impulse? To my thinking, her words apply to songwriters as well as anyone.

Too many choices, self-imposed limits

November 18, 2008


I noticed something about my songs – the vast majority of my early songs are either slow or medium. That’s probably because the slower it is, the easier it is for me to play the guitar part and that fact subconsciously affects my writing. At least that’s my theory.

So I set out to write some faster songs, for balance if nothing else. I wanted to find out if I could write a good fast song or if I’m destined to be a ballad writer, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

One more reason I wanted to write some fast songs is that nothing brings down an audience more than a set of slow songs without an occasional uptempo number to change the pace. And, as you singer/songwriters know, when you perform in a drinking establishment, they sell more drinks when the music is loud and rowdy or at least bouncy.

I find it’s a good exercise to push myself to write songs that don’t come naturally. Which leads me to one of my favorite exercises: self-imposed limitations.

Back in the day, when somebody like Mozart wrote music, it was always for a specific event or purpose. When Mozart’s patron, the Archbishop of Salzburg, would ask for a piece for the celebration of a family member’s birthday or the anniversary of the king’s coronation or some such thing, Mozart had to comply. He did not have the luxury of choosing his topics, he had to write what his ’employer’ told him to write.


How do you get started writing songs?

November 17, 2008

Over the last 6 years that my friend Dan and I have been putting out The Songwriter’s Tip Jar ezine, the STJ Forum, and now this daily blog, our most frequently asked question has been, “How do I get started writing songs?”

It made us stop to think…how DO you write songs? We could draw on our own experiences and ask a few others, but it came down to this: There’s no wrong way. So we would suggest the following as an answer to that oft-received question:

1. Start here. Read back through our daily tips.

2. Read the many tips, suggestions and exercises we have printed in our ezine (available 24/7 in the archives);

3. Listen VERY CLOSELY to your favorite songs, and hear beyond pleasing tones and lyrics, to the very foundation of the song. Why does it work? What do you love about it? How is it put together? How do they get that guitar sound, keyboard sound, vocal effect, etc., that makes it stand out? Where do the lyrics take you — are they pleasing or clever prose, clear and cutting, or do they paint a blurry, yet compelling picture?

In other words, pick a song apart to instruct yourself on how to reassemble it, and then how to assemble your own tunes in a similar (or even dissimilar) fashion;

4. Practice at your craft often — daily, even. The idea being that as little as 15 minutes each day working on writing songs is better than 2 hours once a week;

5. There is no right or wrong way to write songs — just be patient with yourself and don’t judge yourself too harshly — and KEEP AT IT!