On Sunday 18th July, I was guest speaker at the London Songwriters Meetup. I spoke about 10 Tips for songwriters, and shared some of my favourite tips with the lovely songwriters in attendance. I also heard some fantastic songs and had a really good time.
Here are the notes I wrote before speaking:
1. ( A tip from Edwin Songsville) Write bad songs
It’s more important to write lots of songs that it is to spend ages trying to make one perfect one.
You look at all the good songwriters and you realise they’ve written hundreds of songs. That’s how you get good at it. As Diane Warren,possibly the world’s most successful songwriter says: “My secret? I show up. That’s it.” Six days a week, she writes songs, and has been doing so for 30 years. Her very earliest songs? “They all sucked”. So write often, a song a week is a good start.
“Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius, Robert Weisberg discusses statistical research into the proportion of masterpieces to minor works among great and not-so-great composers.
The researchers concluded that the rate of hits to misses was pretty constant between major and minor composers. The truly great composers produce more masterpieces than the others, mainly because they produced more work overall.”
This is a tip made by a lot of songwriters in 10 Tips for Songwriters, in different guises and the basic point is an obvious one.
If you’re going to be a songwriter, you need to write songs. We’re very good at distracting ourselves from that but actually one of the most important things to do is write songs. Lots of them.
2. ( From Gary Jugert) Know the difference between bourbon and whiskey – A songwriter needs the proper tools.
3. (From Helen Robertson) Freedom is Slavery
Constraints are your friend. If the tempo, or the key, or the genre, or the subject matter, or anything else are already decided before you start to write, you have much less messing about to do once you get started. It’s like the difference between trying to find a needle in a haystack and trying to find a needle in a field.
I think there’s a lot to be said for this – creativity thrives with limitations, it’s easier to be imaginitive when some choices have already been made. I’m in favour of limiting yourself in some way.
Now usually I write lyrics at the same time, or after I’ve written the music. So as a challenge to myself last week I wrote a set of lyrics before I had any inkling what the music was going to be and then had the challenge of composing the music to them.
The Beast of the Air
Things to take away from this song – the structure of the song isn’t verse chorus verse chorus, I saw no point in coming back to the verse material later.
The chorus is a blatant steal from the Radiohead song ‘There there’
4. (From Gary Jugert again) Practice your offended face
Sooner or later somebody is going to call you a songwriter, and you’ll need to say, “I’m a composer,” with your offended face.
5. Constantly expand you pallette
Music theory is your friend. If you only use the same three chords then you are limiting yourself. As a guitar player, if you only use standard chord voicings, well to be frank stop it put some effort in. You should know at the very lest all the chords available to you in the major key – which if you include sevenths, sixths and their inversions is roughly 70 different chords.
I remember very distinctly however, a guitar lessons from my old guitar teacher where he showed us how to harmonise the major scale to see which seventh chords you get in that. And that was interesting, but nothing very new. But then he did the same with the harmonic minor scale – and this was the first time I’d ever considered that you could have a minor chord with a major seventh, and the first time I’d ever heard of an augmented chord.
This opened my eyes to all sorts of new harmonic ideas that I’d never used before. I’d heard them in music before but never realised what they were. Since then I’ve always tried to expand my pallette and learn new things, and I sincerely think you’re doing yourself an injustice as a songwriter if you don’t continously learn new things musically.
Here’s a song that uses some of those ideas:
Things to take away :- there’s a couple of different time signatures used rather than just one, and I use some of those harmonic minor scale chords as well.
6. (From Gary Jugert again) One word: Guitar – The other instruments are for losers.
7. Songwriting is not lyric writing
Lyrics are important but they are only one element of a song. Sometimes when I say this, people reply ‘of course, there’s music too’ but there’s more to it than that. A song is not a 50/50 spilt between words and music. Your melody, your use of rhythm, groove and tempo, your choice of chord and scale, the instruments and timbre you use, each of these elements has equal importance to you lyrics.
There are writers out there who claim to write about songwriting, but only talk about lyric. There are songwriters who could talk at length about poetic meter but couldn’t tell you what the dominant chord in D major is.
One of the main reasons I started www.songwright.co.uk was my frustration at the lack of songwriting blogs that addressed songwriting, rather than just lyric writing. Melodies matter, interesting music matters. In fact interesting music is far more important. Lyrics are very often hard to make out at first listen, and even when they can be made out they don’t do much to express the meaning of a song.
Yes, your lyrics are not even the primary conveyors of meaning in your song. Just as tone of voice can dictate whether speech is sarcastic or genuine, you choice of musical ideas will colour what your lyrics mean.
Which brings us to tip 8
8. Consider the meaning of your chord progressions
And while you’re at it, the meaning of the scale you’re using, the meaning of the structure you’ve chosen.
For me every chord you play is layered with meaning depending on context and relationship to what’s around it.
I could go on at length about the meaning of the various modes, but I won’t bore you with that. Instead I’ll make the simple point that this chord progression – V to I – which has been the basis of Western music for a couple of centuries now is hard to justify. Using it makes you sound corny as far as I’m concerned.
You might disagree with that example but the basis of that point is simply this:- everything you use, melody chords, everything means something, and they the listener uses your music also means something and if your song is to be successful you need to consider what those meanings are because they say more to the listener than your words do.
The Lydian mode for me has connotations of dreaminess, happiness but with an edge of strangeness. I made use of it in ‘Something’s Bound to Happen’
9. Steal Ideas
There’s a quote : ‘Good artists borrow, great artists steal’. I’ve heard that attributed to aristotle, D H Lawrence, John Lennon and Igor Stravinsky. And it’s true. I don’t mean plagiarise, I don’t mean steal music, I mean steal ideas. This way of phrasing a melody, that way of changing key, these chords, that rhythm.
I do this all the time, as I mentioned with the Radiohead song I’ve stolen from.
My last example, to illustrate my stealing an idea is from a song Called ‘Where Once They Had Hearts’. The idea I stole is from two sources – one snippet I’d read about Coltrane’s Giant Steps and two the middle eight chord progression from a song by heavy metal band symphony x – the idea of using chords a major third apart in a cycle.
The other idea I stole was from David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ – the idea of composing a tongue in cheek musical style ballad.
Where Once They Had Hearts
10. (From Gary Jugert again) There are only nine tips for songwriting.