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Writing Songs - ronws - 09-24-2017

How do you write songs? By writing songs. Deceptively simple.

Write anything. Most of it will be crap. Most will be incomplete. But like any particular thing you can do, the action of doing makes some thing easier. For example, you got better at walking by walking, not by thinking about walking. 

In times past, this meant keeping a pen and notepad handy and that is still a good way to go. In addition to that, we have portable devices that we can write in or record sound in. Portable digital recorders like the Zoom H1 and others like it. Any smart phone these days. As well as tablets whether Ipod or Polaroid (android.) USB mics and other versions that will plug into any of these to get even better sound quality than the onboard mic in a phone. Of course, laptops, which can do full recording and mixing if you are willing to put up with the small screen that a lap top has. At the very least, you could record an idea and export to your desktop the next chance you get. There you will have your 24 inch by 14 inch or whatever you have. And DAWs these days can do split screen, where you could have track editing window on one monitor and mixing board on the other monitor.

What comes first, the lyrics or the music? The answer is both and it depends. Sometimes you hear a bit of music and a phrase comes to mind. Go for it. Other times, you think of a neat phrase or run of words. What music goes with that? Well, first, you need to sing it, get a melody going for it. Then find or make music that supports that melody. It's okay to be good at one thing and not everything. One of the most successful teams in songwriting is the duo of Elton John, who writes the music, and his friend, Bernie Taupin, who writes the lyrics.

Do you have to write a lot of music? Successful writers do but that does not mean that you need to do so. What is important in either case is that you write, even if it is incomplete. You may put several bits together and complete one song. If you do not write any of the bits, then you will never write a complete song. You can be a successful singer who never writes songs. There are grammy-winning artists who do not write the songs that get them awards for performer of the year and whatever else awards. Nor is having the award the end-all goal, though for some, it is.

Writing songs is like singing, you do it because that is what you do.

How to write a song. Pay attention to songs and you will see a few basic patterns. Most songs, regardless of genre, follow the pattern known as A B A B C A B or A B A B C B B. A is verses, B is chorus. C is a break or bridge that sometimes includes instrumental solos, usually guitar or keyboards. There is aslo AA all the way through. AB only. You can break these rules. Led Zeppelin broke rules with "Stairway to Heaven." Each phase of the song introduces something new and there is not one motif that runs from start to end. And the intensity, instead of oscillating, keeps increasing to feverish volume, even as the actual beat of the song remains steady throughout. That is, the guitar may sound like double time near the end but the drums have not shifted from the initial groove. I have been playing that song since 1980, which I think gives me some insight and time to reflect upon it.

So, why that first basic pattern I listed? One of the things about audio analysis is how the human ears are tuned to around the 2 kHz region because of how human ears are structured. This region has the strongest harmonics and resonance in the cries of an infant. This allows human parents to hear the baby cry and see to his or her needs and protect the infant from the big and bad world.

Fletcher and Munson constructed a graph that explains the tuning of human hearing and it is why a 2 kHz note at low volume sounds as loud to us as a lower frequency at higher volume.

Notice how human eye sight is good at some things? That is because of the patterns of reception in our eyes.

Same goes for lyrical content and formation of movements in music. Can you write songs in other forms? Well, it will still tend to fall into one of the three patterns I showed. And the most basic pattern is going to reach everyone, including musical "snobs" who would eschew something so "basic." You can fight it to no good end. Or accept that as the most adaptable and successful form of human communication. Don't get me wrong, some things are worth fighting, others not so much. But listen to all kinds of music. Punk is still following  A B. Some of the more successful punk songs followed A B A B C A B, just like every "pop" song you ever heard. What was different, then?

The tone of the instruments and just as often, the appearance of the musician. Look at Black Flag, Whitesnake, Toby Keith. What is different? Fashion and the tone of the instruments. You go from shorts and no shirt to a cowboy hat and pearl snap shirt. You go from guitars screeching through overdriven amps to a clean sound with some lap steel guitar thrown in. The song form is the same. The song form follows the human pattern of thinking.

This is going to help in the refinement of lyrics. In addition, rhythm. What looks good and so "literary" on paper can be nearly impossible to sing in rhythm. So, the active songwriter goes through re-writes. You may choose a different word that means the same thing but is easier to manage in a vocal melody that is moving.

There is a really good book called Song Maps that you could get and I would advise doing so. One of the best insights is to view the song in 3D. That is, a revolving display of the same object.

And that song forms follow a pattern of lyric arcs. Call and response or question and answer, or problem and solution.

Places and times.

And what I like to call list songs.

"Ironic" by Alanys Morrisette is a list song. And it is ironically titled because most of the things in her lists are matters of coincidence, not matters of irony. That is, indeed, ironic.

"Live Like You Were Dying" is a places song. Different perspectives of the same thing, the mortality inherent in our lives. It starts with a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer and shifts to a guy who begins to value the relationships in his life, and then to a guy who re-evaluates his morality and how it relates to his religion, all tied into how we face our own mortality.

"R E S P E C T" is a call and response. To understand me, you must respect me.

"Born in the USA". It is not about patriotism as the title might suggest. It is about the frustrations and the ennui of the blue collar worker who feels put upon by others. It is a list song.

"Red, White, and Blue" is patriotic and it is problem and solution. Others attack us and we retaliate to win.

"Jack and Dianne" - places and times.

Your song, whether you realize it or not, will fall into these patterns, but it helps knowing ahead of time because it will streamline your process and get the song finished faster.

It is like this - you can walk while stepping on your own feet but it will take so long to get somewhere. Or, you can quit stepping on your own feet and just walk there, efficiently.

What if you don't play an instrument for writing songs? Now is a good time to learn. And you do not have to spend a lot of money. In fact, I would advise against spending a big chunk of money on an instrument. Which one should you get? I would suggest guitar or keyboard and you don't need a full 88 key. Rarely does the actual chord progression of a song require using a full sized piano keyboard. How do you play?

Shoot, there are so many free sources. Thousands of hours on youtube. If you are into guitar, I would suggest going to groovy music lessons. That is the site of Scott Groves, a professional musician who spent decades, starting as a high school prodigy, on tour and in studios and still plays to this day, if his health allows, at local gigs were he lives. As of 09-24-2017, he has a deal at his site where you can download all of his easy to follow music lessons which is over 200 hours, for ten dollars USD. Or you can buy other formats. You will think maybe it is too much to get the CD rom but think of the storage media you would have to buy. One word of warning, maybe to parents, Scott uses adult language in some videos. But he is one of the best teachers I have seen and you don't have to have a musical education to start. Just start copying what he does. These lessons will teach you how to play well enough to write a song, and beyond, to where you can become as virtuostic as he is, if you so wish.

I have a thread elsewhere with my hacks and observations on guitar playing. I can play other instruments but I am better on guitar than other instruments. I also talk about setting up the guitar to play well for you. And you don't have to spend a lot of money. Go to pawn shops, ebay. Even Guitar Center has some incredible deals in their used instrument section with the advantage that they don't mind a bit if you plug in and try it out. I think it is best when you can try a guitar before you buy. ebay is okay and if it arrives busted, you can return it. Same with amps.

There is no need to spend thousands. You will often find good amps at pawn shops. One word of advice, some pawnshops will sometimes try to charge the price of a new amp on a used one. In that case, since you are spending the same amount of money, buy new because you get warranty.

Believe it or not, I have seen a Walmart solid state amp hold its own against a Fender tube amp.

Effects boxes. After my years of experience, I agree with Scott Groves, you will not need anymore more than the Digitech RP55 multieffects box, or any of the RP series. Sure, the factory presets are funky but that is okay, the sounds are still good and I have always altered the factory preset of whatever box I have to something that suits me.

You could have all the guitar you need for a few hundred dollars. Something you could write with and also play real gigs with. My Fender 85 combo amp was less than 100 dollars at a pawnshop. 65 amps rms which is more than loud enough for a club or pub, more than adequate for recording. For recording and songwriting, you could even get away with an 8 to 10 watt practice amp. Point being, just pick one and stick with that.

And it doesn't take long to learn enough chords to put a song together.


RE: Writing Songs - ronws - 09-24-2017

So you write a great first verse. Then you go forward to figure out the second verse and hit a wall. Nothing. It has a name in the business. The second verse curse. One of the short cuts around that is make your first verse that was so awesome become the second verse. Now, you can write a new "first" verse that leads up to it.

A song idea may start with just a phrase. And may never progress beyond that. That's okay. Keep it around because you could put it in another song where it could fit. In all the books I have read on songwriting, including books by award-winning writers James Blum and Simon Hawkins, writers will have boxes and folders and envelopes full of lyric bits and a bunch of sound files of tunes they hummed when they thought about it. And that has helped others. The most famous example I can think of came from Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

He had gotten into the habit of having a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder around (this was back in the 60's.) One night, he halfway woke up and hummed a few bars of music into the mic and then fell back asleep, leaving the recorder on. The next morning he listened and he had 15 seconds of a guitar riff and 35 minutes of his snoring. That bit he hummed into a recorder before he fell back asleep? It was the main riff to "Satisfaction," one of the biggest songs ever for the Rolling Stones.

Sometimes, you will write a song that seems so short and you think, shouldn't there be more verses? Not necessarily. Some songs are meant to be simple and the power of the song is the clear and direct message. It is okay to repeat a verse from before. And certainly the chorus repeats, though you can also change chorus, now and then.

And you don't always need a huge build-up to a chorus. Dave Grohl said it best in an interview he was doing with Kyle Gass from Tenacious D. "Don't bore us, get to the chorus." Then he proceeded on the spot to start improving a song called "Life's a Bitch." Do one but no more than two sets of verses then get to the chorus.

The reason for this has to do with the natural human attention span. And too many people want to abhor that but I think it is a survival mechanism. Our attention span, as short as it is, is a benefit in the environment of this planet. There is danger everywhere, from weather to other animals that could be our predators. Shifting focus and attention is what keeps us alive as a species. Most people listening to a new song will give it about 20 seconds. If it does not interest them, the move on to something else. Every single song that becomes a huge hit gets to the chorus in less than sixty seconds, usually getting in around 20 to 40 seconds, not including intros.

Guys who were masters at distilling this process were the Ramones. Seriously, they could play 2 and 3 minute songs, rolling one into another, all killer, no filler. Like a one-two punch from a street fighter.

You can vary from all of this but treat it as the skeleton or framework on which all songs rest.

Other times, you are goofing off on guitar or keyboards and you hum a long and a melody starts to appear out of it. That is okay, too. What does the melody say? It can sometimes inform you but not always. The trick to songwriting and staying out of ruts is, believe it or not, staying out of ruts. Do something different or backwards. Ritchie Blackmore did that. He took the starting motif from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and literally reversed it. When you hear "Smoke on the Water," you are hearing the reversed notes from the Beethoven 5th. That is directly fromn Ritchie's own words.

Another thing I will do is find new chords by using a bit of music theory. If you treat the circle of fifths as a chord chart, you can use that as an inspiration. Take a chord. Go the fifth. And then the fifth from that. See if one of those chords fits better as a major or minor chord.

The only scale you need to learn on the guitar is the major scale and the only mode you need to learn is minor pentatonic and add one note, the 7th to make a blues scale. If you do that, you can play anything on guitar.If you have read my guitar thread and I talk about two frets as the basis, that is the major scale on guitar. Starting at A, every note is two frets apart until you get to the B string and it shifts one fret up. That is because there is 4 steps up from the G string to the B string. I should have included this in the guitar thread. All those cords that say 6, 9, 13, diminished, augmented? Those are simply including 1 more note in the chord of 1, 3, 5, or replacing one of those notes. That is all it is. So, a real blues guitarist when asked will tell the key of the song is G demolished. Kind of an inside joke. That A major scale on guitar? I saw Scott Groves do that, something he has always done that no one ever teaches. He just figured it out because it sounded good and everything came from that.

But don't get bogged down in the numbers. There is an old saying in guitar. You are never more than one fret away from a good note. So, use that to find your way through a song.

Even if you only play one instrument, learn to think in bigger arrangements that include drums, bass, keys, more guitar. For one thing, it will help solidify what the song is meant to be. And these days with DAWs, you can MIDI program instruments that you don't play or own in real life and fill out the song. Especially if you are a songwriter, this is absolutely awesome in putting together songs you hope to sell to someone or, if you have a publishing contract, complete and basic songs you can give to your publisher.

And they don't have to be complicated. Get in the habit of writing down arrangement notes, even if it is your own special short hand, like bass intro 1, bass intro 2 add high hat, snare roll, main beat. Stuff like that. Not just for you when composing, but also notes for whomever may record your song for an album. It tells the studio musicians what to expect. And, in that case, it is really worth your while to read a primer book on the Nashville Number System that is used by everyone, not just the studio geeks in Nashville. It is a simple and quick shorthand that literally everyone will understand.

And write tabs if you play guitar. These days, you can find tablature blanks. When I was younger, no one made those and I would take regular manuscript blanks and add another line. You can also go about learning how to read and write manuscript which will help. But if you at least get used to the Nashville Numbering System, your stuff will work anywhere.

What should you write about? Whatever suits your fancy. Every genre has love songs, so go for it. Plenty of people write "serious" songs. Others write comedic songs. Both are great. Some write party songs, songs about having a good time and no worries. That is okay, too. People need a break from all the serious stuff in life. Every doubt you had about whether your song is good or whether others will accept it has been faced by every single great songwriter you have ever known. These are the stripes you earn in your path to being a prolific songwriter.

The advantage of writing your own songs is that they will fit best in your voice because you are writing them with your own voice. Whatever that voice is. You don't need the "perfect" voice. Some of the most famous songwriters did not have "pretty" voices and often their songs were performed by others with pretty voices who made it a gigantic hit song.


RE: Writing Songs - ronws - 10-08-2017

So, the trick to songwriting is to keep writing. All the big songwriters for whom you think it is so easy? It is not. The difference is that they never stop writing. They have boxes of crap and gems arise out of it. And so you will go through the same mountain of snippets and bits and pieces.