INDIESONGWRITER.NET

Ideas and Advice for Real Songwriters (formerly songwright.co.uk)

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A YEAR AS AN INDIE SONGWRITER

2010 was an interesting year for me. I’ve written some songs I’m proud of, helped with some great collaborative projects, and learned a lot about how to write better songs.

Highlights included:

1. Spinning the Compass.

In January I released my first solo album, Spinning the Compass. 9 Songs (more if you download it and join the mailing list) that reflect where my songwriting was by the beginning of 2010.

The album has gained some positive reviews, been downloaded several hundred times (not thousands yet, breaking the 1000 mark for my tomslatter.co.uk mailing list is my next big goal) and I’m really pleased with it.

My songwriting aim is to reach a balance between catchiness and interesting musicality -I’m both a sucker for a catchy chorus and a music theory nerd – and I think I manage that with Spinning the Compass

2. 10 Tips for Songwriters.

Early in the year I edited a book of tips by lots of other songwriters which you can download free. – Later this year I’ll start work on an expanded second edition. Click here for the PDF

3. The Big Calm.

This was a collaborative composition project I took part in with Cafe Noodle. Each participant composed a piece of music to the given title, at the same bpm and in the same key. I then combined them into one 40 minute composition.

4. The Name Change

Songwright.co.uk became Indiesongwriter.net. I did this for two reasons.

First, I found songwright a bit difficult when speaking to people. If you have to keep on stopping to spell out the name of your website, it’s probably not as effective as it could be.

Secondly, the kind of songwriting I’m writing for is better reflected by the term ‘indie’. The current state of the music industry means that large companies are dying and indie musicians are on the rise.

It’s that kind of songwriter I’m writing for – the songwriter who can think of their music as art, who can write for a niche, who doesn’t need to worry about the constraints of writing music for the mass market. That’s who this site has always been for, and hopefully indiesongwriter.net reflects that.

5. Songwriting Strategies Podcast.

My latest project, which I hope to turn into a collaborative effort, is the Songwriting Strategies Podcast.

The idea is simple – every week you hear a different songwriting sharing a different songwriting idea. Something short that anyone can apply to their own songwriting.

So far, two other songwriters have made contributions and I’ve recorded a total of 5 episodes. This project has stalled somewhat because I’ve just moved house and haven’t had a broadband connection installed yet (not back to full speed until late January. Yes, that’s the best UK companies can do).

It shall rise again! I’ve some ideas of my own for future episodes, but if anyone else wants to contribute, drop me an email at tomslattermusic AT gmail.com

2010 has been a good year for me, but I’m looking forward to 2011 even more.

What does the future hold?

More of the same of course, but also new and exciting things, including the first product from indiesongwriter.net that will be available for purchase rather than free.

(A product? Yes, there will be a commerical aspect to the site in 2011, but don’t worry the character of the site isn’t going to change at all – the blog, podcast and free ebooks won’t go anywhere.)

See you next year!

A Music Video and an Article

Been wondering where I’ve been in recent weeks? Moving house and unusual weather here in London mean I don’t have a regular internet connection and wont have for a couple of weeks yet.

However, you can still read about songwriting:- I’ve a new article over at www.ravenousraven.com.

I’ve also a new music video:

What I learned from Electroacoustic music

Can you make music out of the sound of a pen squeaking against a whiteboard? What about from the sounds of stones banging together, metal trays being smashed together, or the loud click of someone’s knuckle joints?

You absolutely can -and by trying it you might learn some new ways to think of your own sognwriting.

Electroacoustic/Acousmatic

When I was a student I studied a few different methods of composition – one of which was electroacoustic (sometimes called acousmatic) music or Musique Concrete. This kind of music has a history as long as recording technology, but the French composer Pierre Scheaffer is often credited with starting it in the early 20th Century with his Five Studies of Noise.

Musique Concrete literally means ‘real music’ – music created from real sounds that might otherwise not be considered music. It involves taking source recordings, the chugging of a steam train perhaps, or the sound of birds singing, and manipulating the recordings in various ways to create music.

My tutor in electroacoustic music was a composer named Alan Stones – Here’s a piece by him:-

That’s not songwriting!

No, depending on your definition of songwriting, the pieces above aren’t songs. But by studying this music, and creating some of my own, I learnt some very important lessons about how to shape music.

Finding ideas – Branching variations

Alan taught us one approach to creating music that I found very useful.

1st you would take a sound source, and original recording, something from an effects library – anything interesting.
Then you would use an audio manipulator to make variations. You could reverse it, time stretch or transpose, cut and paste, apply processes or effects. Each time you came up with a new sound, you’d save it, and then move on.

This would give you a bank of new sounds, based on the one original sound source.

You’d then take those new sounds and repeat the process, creating tens, or perhaps hundreds of variations on those variations, branching out until you had a whole tree of different possible sounds, related to each other but still different and interesting.

These sounds would then form the material with which you would create your piece.

Can that be applied to songwriting?

Absolutely it can. The same process can be applied to any musical or lyrical idea. After all, once you have an idea, it’s relatively simple to create variations. With enough experimentation you should be able to find variations that work. For example, if you have a riff or ostinato repeating – does it have to repeat? Why not have different versions?

More importantly, creating lots of small (or large) variations forces you to really explore your material. You’ve voiced the chords one way – but is that the best way? You’ve put the words in that order – but is being literal and clear the right approach?

Gesture and Texture

We’re used to to thinking of music in terms of harmony, melody, accompaniment. Much electroacoustic material simply can’t be though of in those terms – there might be tones, but they aren’t necessarily going to be tuned notes. There might be foreground and background, but accompaniment and melody aren’t the right terms. Instead we can think of gesture and texture.

Gesture is almost analogious to melody – it’s those sounds that are focused, moving, perhaps in the foreground – almost a solo voice that moves through time.

Texture is more likely to be in the background, perhaps more static – a feeling that stays for a time rather than a moving foreground sound.

Can these ideas be applied to songwriting?

Absolutely. Particularly the idea of texture. Rather than thinking of chords, harmony, rhythm, why not create textures and backdrops to your melodies. Think less about notes and more about timbre and feeling. Make liberal use of effects and studio techniques.

Music as sculpture

The biggest lesson I took from having a go at this kind of music was in putting all those seperate sound together into one piece. With harmony, melody, rhythm and all the ‘normal’ musical ideas out of the window, I found that my main concerns were things like pace and shape. It seemed sensible to leave long pauses of silence, or to worry about whether the gestural material joins together properly. Tiny details seemed incredibly important, and much use was made of the volume and panning automation in Logic.

Thinking of gestural or melodic material as having shape is a very useful metaphor – it makes you think of the highs and lows your music goes through and the overall feeling of the piece.

In Conclusion

Learning about electroacoustic music took me out of my comfort zone. It made me really explore some of the things that can be done with technology, and made music seem more than notes and chords – it’s also about timbre and shape and feeling and texture.

Trying out new things is almost a good thing, and I’d urge any songwriter to explore new kinds of music. Making music from squeaky pens, clanking chains and rustling leaves is great fun and can teach you a lot about how music works.

Here’s something I composed and recorded as a student:

Beats and Crazies by Tom Slatter

A Day in the Life of a London Music Teacher

6.00 – Wake up, mutter about the October chill, stumble from bedroom attempting not to wake other half who gets to wake up at a reasonable time every day.

6.10 – Over thick, treacle-like black coffee, check work email. Realise you have 100 things to do today, quite apart from the five lessons you have to teach.

6.45 – leave house, muttering once again about October chill, and hoping trains will be on time.

7.45 – Train does not arrive. Headache begins.

8.20
– Arrive at school half an hour later than expected. There are ten minutes remaining before first lesson. In this time I must photocopy worksheets for 3 classes, move amplifiers and practice PA into classroom and attend a staff meeting that began 5 minutes ago.

8.30
First lesson. Double period. Small year 11 class is learning learning a gospel influenced pop song as a group (class contains two keys players, one drummer, one bass player, two singers. Good mix.).

A few seconds listening – it’s one chord progression all the way through, mostly moving in fifths:

Ab Eb Bb F/A Cm

I think ‘I should steal that, it’s a good progression’. Lyrics are saccharine and unpleasant, but I quite like the wordy melody.

The drummer is playing too loud, one of the keyboard players insists on staying two beats behind everyone else and the singers are too shy to make enough noise to be audible despite being very good at what they do in private.

The class realise (With a little coaxing) that the original version of the song doesn’t have enough contrast in it, and we’ll have to do our own arrangement. We start changing things up, but keyboard player is more interested in blasting out piano riff from ‘Still Dre’, singer who originally chose the song is moaning about having to sing it and drummer has to show us how his heavy metal blast beats are progressing.

Headache is a subtle drone at the back of my skull.

10.30 Break Time. 5 minutes spent getting year 11 kids out of room (Teenagers walk incredibly slowly, and [if male] in a lopsided manner).

I realise that I need to use this time to do paperwork for next Thursday’s Black History Month concert.

[I’m not sure how much I agree with importing a very worthy, but very American concept into an English school. Sure we’re multicultural – 3 quarters non white, roughly 30 different languages spoken, pupils’ backgrounds include African (particularly Ghana and Nigeria), Caribbean, Polish, Lithuanian, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri-Lankan, Somalian, Afghani, Iranian. Black History Month is a very different thing to the traditional American concept and I’m not sure whether we’ve got it right yet. I’d rather every month recognised non-European history, but I understand the point of special awareness raising months to counter historical imbalances.]

Nevertheless, letter to parents written and passed on to admin staff to send out, posters printed, tickets printed, email sent out to staff involved – this is all a week later than it should have been as government inspectors were in during previous week.

Headache moves to rear of left eye.

10.55 – Form time. I haven’t prepared anything. Most pupils happy to sit and chat, some do homework in class computers, others play keyboard happily. Pupil A is more interested in placing Pupil B in a headlock, which I don’t notice immediately as Pupil C (not a member of my form) has decided to come into room unannounced to express his teenage love for Pupil D by pushing her, attempting to steal her bag, then running out of the room.

Pupil D races out in hot pursuit, by which time Pupil B’s cries have got my attention. The threat of detention splits them apart but ensuing bad language forces me to explain yet again why using ‘gay’ as a derogatory term is unnacceptable. As several pupils are members of odious African churches, this argument is resisted fiercely. I am not allowed to suggest that the best thing to do with the advice of religious figures is to assume the opposite is true.

Headache behind both eyes and at base of neck.

11.25 – First of three back to back year 7 classes – I teach the lower ability half of the 11-12 year olds in our school.

The lesson involves taking the names of famous musicians, turning them into a rhythm, then adding notes to create a short ostinato.

Class 1 manage to stand behind chairs, ready to start lesson after only 7 minutes of noise and foolishness. They love the idea of turning ‘Alicia Keys’ into an ostinato, but do not have the skills to work with a partner creating their own version. (Except pupil E and F, who are wonderful.)

Class 2 manage to stand behind chairs ready to start lesson after 10 minutes of noise and foolishness. I make them line-up outside classroom and re-enter room twice. They two love the idea of turning ‘Alicia Keys’ into an ostinato, and as a whole group are more than capable of singing this and me ‘Steve Vai’ ostinato in two parts. I try asking them to go to the keyboards to create their own ostinatos. Some great successes, some abysmal failures. Several pupils have discovered the sound effects kit on the keyboard. My pleas that cow and gunshot sound effects are un-pitched fall on deaf ears.

I realise I will need to go back to basics with these pupils – lack of group co-operation skills is hampering musical progress.

13.25 – Lunch break. I chase up emails for BHM concert, help some pupils with keyboard practice, attempt to unpack some boxes of office equipment and try to get some of our newly refurbished practice rooms into some sort of order. I also answer some email correspondence, and drink some water.

Headache eases somewhat.

14.00 – Class 3 – we try pair work – pupils run straight to keyboards despite clear instructions not to do so – we are trying a vocal exercise. Bring pupils back, repeat instructions. They run straight to keyboards again.

Time to improvise

Bring pupils back for third time, go through some simple pair work games designed to increase team skills in a fun way. They engage and enjoy them. We then try the musical activity again. Half attempt it, half run straight to keyboards.

We attempt keyboard composition activity. It works with half of class.

Back to the drawing board with year 7 for next week. They’re lovely kids, but clearly aren’t getting it at the moment.

15.00 wolf down half of lunch I didn’t have time to eat at lunch break.

15.15 meeting on teaching and learning. Yawn. Headache reaches crescendo.

16.30 eat other half of lunch, which is stale and unpleasant. Finish more correspondence re: BHM concert.

17.00 Leave for home. Headache beats out counterpoint to rhythm of train.

18.30 answer some more work emails, begin preparing lessons for next day.

22.00 To bed, only half prepared for next day.

Believe it or not, I love this job.

Songwriting Strategies episode 5 – What to do with your half finished songs

What do you do when you get stuck with only half a song? Sometimes my songwriting gets me to the end of a fantastic verse, sometimes I have just a good chorus, just a good middle 8, or a good break, but nothing to join them too. If I look back through my files, my audio recordings and demos, I’ve got hundreds of musical snippets and half finished songs. I know other songwriters get themselves into the same predicament – hundreds of ideas that never go anywhere, that don’t relate to each other or any other idea you’ve had. half songs.

Well the solution that often works for me is simple. Paste them together. Take your unrelated musical and lyrical ideas, no matter how different and seemingly incompatible they are, and stitch them together.

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Songwriting Strategies is a collaborative podcast. If you’d like to contribute, why not send me an email : tomslattermusic AT gmail.com

Songwriting Rules and How to Break Them – Write for the Market (Part 1)

There is one songwriting rule that forms the basis of countless books, blogs and magazine articles, a rule that is so central to some songwriters’ methods that it often goes unspoken:- You should write songs for the market.

The assumption that songwriters should compose songs to be sold and earn money is hardly a new one, and for many decades it has been a viable goal. Indeed, the idea of the performer as songwriter has only been around in popular music since the 60s when the Beatles made it the norm, and countless artists before and since made their living by singing someone elses songs.

Songwriting ‘factories’ from Tin Pan Alley to Motown records and Stock, Aitken and Waterman have all manufactured songs for artists to perform and had great successes, sometimes artistically, most often commerically. There’s certainly nothing wrong with writing a song to be sold, if that’s what you want to do, and no-one would deny that wonderful songwriting was done in Tin Pan Alley and under the Motown label (whether anything worthwhile was produced by SAW is perhaps harder to argue).

In his book ‘Future Hit DNA’, (which argues that songwriters should allow the market and technology to dictate how they compose) Jay Frank suggests that motivations and ideas such as music coming from the soul, being lead by the artist are fine only if ‘music is nothing more than a hobby’, not worthy of consideration by a professional musician who needs to earn a living. Berklee offers a course that promises to teach you the ‘structures and techniques that work best’ in creating hit songs, and there are countless other songwriting blogs and websites that work from the same basis. The goal of writing a top 40 hit is held up as important. Other motiviations are ignored or implicitly (or in Frank’s case explicitly) denigrated.

Ralph Murphy, composer of insipid country hits such as ‘Talking in your Sleep,’ boasts of analysing only number 1 songs, implying that commercial success is what makes a song worth writing. Of course, from his point of view it is. He advises songwriters to think of audience first, to stick to proven formulas, to write for ‘women listening at 10am’ because they are the people that buy records. His website is full of such advice, (and almost never mentions music at all, except in the vaguest terms such as counting the number of verses in a song) all of it designed to help songwriters turn out songs as bland and pointless as the ones he has written.

In business it is quite normal to tailor a product to the customer, to start with market research and from there design a product with the intention of it selling. Similarly, it is possible to treat the songwriting process like the design of a product, and for some it is succesful. The question I’m interested in, is whether it is right to think of the market as you compose. I believe it is not.

If you really want to, there is nothing wrong with writing songs with the intention of having another artist sing their way into a chart somewhere. I would argue however, that it’s a bad idea for two reasons. One, the very idea of a homogenous market of hit singles is out of date, and two (which we’ll take a look at in part two of this article), there are better reasons for writing songs. Some of those reasons are even likely to make you money, if that’s what you’re after.

Do you mean we should ignore the listener?

There’s a vast difference between the market and the listener. The listener is a human being, with tastes, with needs, with emotions. Writing for the listener means making musical decisions that will move, suprise and delight. Writing for a market means making musical decisions that won’t offend, that don’t suprise, that says the same things, in the same way, as a thousand songs you’ve heard before.

The two are diametrically opposed. You can write for a listener, or write for a market.

There are no more hits

Commercial songwriting depends on the existence of a mass market. It needs the world of number 1 records, best selling albums, omnipresent hit artists of the Michael Jackson, Madonna type. Unfortunately, that version of the record business is all but dead. Physical sales have collapsed, single sales likewise. The peak year was 1999, and since then everything has been in decline. Teenagers are listening to streams or downloading without paying; the market is fragmenting. Never again will we have a world of ubiquitous hit singles.

A financial times article on Radiohead’s manager Brian Message puts it succinctly –

“Record labels know how to drive hits,” Message says. But in an age when revenues from recorded music are on the slide, the hit-based approach is growing obsolete. UK industry revenues rose 4.7 per cent to £3.9bn last year, boosted by the popularity of live music. But album sales were 3.5 per cent down on the previous year. It’s worse in the US, where album sales in the first half of 2010 were 11 per cent down on the same period last year. Japan, the world’s second biggest market, is registering similar falls. With recorded music revenue falling and other forms of income such as concerts getting more lucrative, the balance of power between talent and labels has shifted.

Is the death of the mass music market a bad thing? No. Mass markets require blandness. As Andrew Dubber on the New Music Strategies blog says, the music industry in 1999 was ‘A world of a few stars selling millions of copies of safe and frequently dull music’. It was a lifeless place, as mass markets always are. Interesting, exciting, expressive art is not found in the mass market, it is found at the edges, outside the mainstream. Every now and then something exceptional breaks through, something innovative and new, but those unusual hits like Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, occur in spite of the market, not because of it.

As the market fragments all that will be left are those edges – smaller markets, each with their own songwriting idiosyncracies. All the lessons that the mass market songwriter has learnt – the standard chord changes, the three minute limit, the stock structures – are useless in this world. At the edges, innovation is needed. Listeners need something new, not the same old rubbish they’ve always been given. If the way to get noticed, the measure of success is no longer blandness and the ability to not offend any listener, the songwriter has no choice but to look outside the mainstream.

The mass music market was unusual anyway, founded on a monopoly of musical discovery channels that came into existence during the twentieth century, only to be destroyed by the internet.

The idea of a mass market hit will soon be a thing of the past and anyone telling you to write for it is out of date. If this means songwriters will stop thinking of the market before they write, it can only be a good thing.

Part two will look at some better motivatins for writing songs

Ask me a Question!

Fanbridge.com, the website who run my mailing list (You have subscribed haven’t you? there’s a box on the top right of your screen and clicking here will tell you about the ebooks you’ll recieve) have started a new question service where you can ask me a question. To do so, apparently you just have to click this button:

Ask a Fan Question Now - FanBridge

So if you’ve any songwriting related questions, feel free to ask them.

Here’s one that’s already been asked, and my initial reponse. If you have any more answers, please chip in in the comments:

Q: Hi!! I’m a songwriter from Peru. Quick question: when do you use an aug chord and when do you use a diminished chord to spice a chord progression? all the best.

A: Quick answer – When they sound good! :)

That’s a little facetious though, so here’ a longer answer:-

Diminished chords are useful as a substitute for Don7 chords. So instead of playing a G7 I might play Dbdiminished. This potentially lets me change key easily because there are lots of keys that could be related to this chord.

Augmented chords again can sound good in lots of contexts, but one way of using them is in a minor key as a substitute for the dom7. Eg: in A minor, instead of playing E7 Am you might play Eaug Am, or even Eaug/G# Am.

There are other possibilities – my song ‘Measure of a Man’ ha sa 2 chord verse that goes Eb major – B Augmented.

I’d say try things out and see what you get.

I hope that helps!

Ask me a question!

Fanbridge.com, the website who run my mailing list (You have subscribed haven’t you? there’s a box on the top right of your screen and clicking here will tell you about the ebooks you’ll recieve) have started a new question service where you can ask me a question. To do so, apparently you just have to click this button: So if you’ve any songwriting related questions, feel free to ask them. Here’s one that’s already been asked, and my initial reponse. If you have any more answers, please chip in in the comments: Q: Hi!! I’m a songwriter from Peru. Quick question: when …

Creativity, Divergent thinking and Hunting Sky-kraken

Here’s a little story of how I wrote a song about hunting Sky-kraken

Sitting down with my acoustic guitar, I just started playing. I didn’t know what I was going to play except that I wanted to write something new.

Lately my fingers have been finding E lydian rather too easily, so I started with an E major 7 chord and a few twiddlings with the scale – not enough to be called a melody, just a bit of noodling.

I carried on playing, entirely aimlessly…

Alun Vaughun a fantastic solo bass player had recently turned me onto the music of Mike Kineally. His songs use lots of complicated chords, I decided I wanted something harmonically lush – so some 9th chords worked their way into my guitar part. Nothing like Kineally really, but that memory triggered the chords.

A few more moments noodling…

The last big gig I went to was Opeth at the Royal Albert hall – some Opeth-like chords appeared under my fingers – but I remembered Kineally and for some reason that meant I had to play a little melodic run that didn’t sound like Opeth at all.

I had been reading PZ Myers over at science blogs – he likes Cephalopods. This combined with my recent obsession with Steampunk and suddenly the song was about hunting Sky-kraken in an Airship.

Steampunk led to memories of Radiohead’s video for There There, which led to a chorus ripping that off – and now the Kraken was winning because the chorus melody was about the bewitching power of it’s ink and tentacles.

All of this occurred at a far less conscious level than I’m making it appear, and it resulted in this song (which isn’t finished yet, but you get the idea):

The Beast of the Air

Divergent Thinking

Divergent, unrelated solutions to the problem of how to write a song making their way in from the outskirts of my mind, unleashed by the practice of jamming without any structure.

I’ve been writing, reading and thinking about creativity a lot recently. Divergent thinking, the ability to find lots of of unrelated possibilities from different disciplines is very important to creativity. What I was doing when I sat down with no idea other than to play and see what happened was the musical equivalent of the free writing a novelist might do to get the brain working – it’s also similar to brainstorming or mind mapping – letting the brain run and sifting through what turns up.

Divergent thinking has been shown to be a skill that musicians are particularly good at, but I’m aware that I don’t make as much effort at it as I could. Too often I try to structure my composition, rather than making time for exploring possibilities and creating the circumstances in which the mind can find these possibilities.

What can you do to encourage divergent thinking?

  • Mind-map – sit down with pen and paper, write down a central idea then surround it with related ideas…
  • Free write – Just start writing prose and see what turns up.
  • List possiblities – what are all the possible ways of startign a song? What are all the possible chord sequences, or lyrical subjects that you could write about?
  • Just play – sit down with your instrument and start playing with no aim except to see what happens. You never know, you might end up with a song about hunting Sky-Kraken too.

How to Harmonize – A New Free Ebook

here’s a new, free ebook available from www.songwright.co.uk. To download it, you just have to sign up to the free, no-spam mailing list using the form at the bottom of the post.

How to Harmonize

How to Harmonize is a collection of 5 primer lessons aimed at Songwriters who are just starting out and want to know more about how to harmonize their songs – how chords and harmonies work.

Lesson 1: What Does’Harmonize’ Mean?
Aim:    To explain how the two meanings of ‘harmonize’ are really one.

Lesson 2:
Some Questions About Intervals
Aim:    To explain which intervals are found in the major scale

Lesson 3: Some Questions About Chords
Aim:    To explain what a chord is and show you which chords are found in each of the major keys

Lesson 4: How to Harmonize a Melody Using Primary Chords
Aim:     To explain how the 1st, 4th and 5th chords of a key can be used to harmonize a melody

Lesson 5: Harmonizing a Melody – Beyond the Primary Chords
Aim: To explain how chords other than the 1st 4th and 5th can be used

Why do I have to give my email address?

Members of the mailing list recieve the ebooks and a monthly newsletter telling you what’s been going on on songwright.co.uk. During the next year I’ll also be releasing a paid-for ebook which I’ll email you about nearer the time.

You can opt out of the mailing list at any point, no questions asked.