Ideas and Advice for Real Songwriters (formerly http://healthsavy.com


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.

– 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.

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 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