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

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Latest Posts

Gary Ewer on Tension and Release

Gary Ewer has a great post on tension and release in songwriting:

What keeps a listener listening? If you can’t answer that you’ll be relegated to the dust-heap of music history, along with all the other songs that listeners got bored with. The answer to the question? It’s tension, then release, that keep listeners listening.

It’s a great post and well worth reading. If I was going to add to it I would say, as I often do, that the whole V to I tension has been done to death and is best avoided, particularly in the major scale. My preference would be to try something modal fo example the tension between F and E minor in E phyrgian.

How to write a song in only half an hour

I’ve discovered a sure-fire method that will allow you to write great songs in 30 minues or less.

Here’s what you do (NB I haven’t got all of these absolutely sorted for myself yet. I’m still learning):

1. Start learning music from a young age. It helps to have musical parents, to go to a school where singing is mandatory and to live in a country where free instrumental lessons are available (NB you may need to emigrate before your fifth birthday if you country does not provide such facilities and services. You may also have to change your parents). Time taken:-15 years

2. Spend a decade or two playing other people’s songs. This is a must. Immersing yourself in other people’s music is vital if you’re to get a grip on what makes a song work. After only three or four years playing other people’s songs, your own music will have gone from awful to just about acceptable. Time Taken:- 15 years

3. Learn your instrument – If you’re performing then you’ll need lessons from a pro. This includes singers. Anyone who tells you that lessons will destroy your natural ability or uniqueness is a fool and should not be listened to. Time Taken:- 5 years at least.

4. Study composition and music theory – If you’re lucky/determined enough you can do this at college. Find a course with a good songwriting or composition tutor, the sort of tutor who lets you be yourself, but gives you all the tools to be yourself fully. if college isn’t an option, find more experienced composers and learn from them. Time Taken:- a college course could last two or three years.

5. Write. Compose constantly, always seeking to improve. Keep records of your songs, good bad and indifferent. Demo as much as you can. Seek always to be better, and seek always to entertain yourself as well as others. Time taken:- if you want to do it properly, maybe 5 years.

6. Perform. Get in front of an audience and learn the rhythm, groove and feel that makes a song work. Time taken:- a few years of performances under your belt wouldn’t hurt.

7. Learn all the rules about songwriting, then learn how to break them. Time taken:- decades.

Follow those simple rules, and you’ll be able to turn out decent songs in half an hour, no trouble at all.

Basics – Alexander Rybak and how to work out a song.

The most popular post on songwright.co.uk is one about Alexander Rybak’s song ‘Fairytale’ which won the Eurovision song contest this year.

The majority of comments on it are from people asking whether I have the sheet music. I find this troubling because there is nothing complicated in the song that would warrant the need to look at a sheet of music:- your ears should be enough.

At least, I think they should. I spent the majority of my musically formative years learning chord progressions, riffs and songs by ear. We had an internet connection since I was about 10 years old, but if there was much guitar tablature up at that time I never noticed.

These days however, people invariably stick to what they can read on the internet. There seems to be a lack of interest in learning by ear, which is troubling because I’ve yet to come across an internet chord progression or guitar tab that wasn’t at least partially innaccurate.

So, in my small way, I want to help. And also, if anyone reading the original post has clicked through to this page then please please please, develop this skill rather than paying money to read a score for such a simple piece of music.

How do I work out a song?

Here is a simple set of principles that should help you work out any song you hear.

1. Listen – really listen to the song. Don’t sing along, don’t even tap your foot. Just listen to the groove, to when the chords change, to what the bass chords and melody are doing.

2. Work out the bass line. Pick up your instrument and find the opening bass note. This might be easy to find or it might take endless repetitions of the first few seconds of the song. With Fairytale you can clearly hear open strings in the opening violin – so the notes of the open strings on a violin are a good place to start (G D A E). What you’ll find with a lot of songs is that there is a simple bass sequence that repeats.

3. Repeat until you get it right. You might not work things out the first time, or even the tenth. Don’t worry, you will get there if you repeat the trak enough times.

4. It helps to know your chords. – Once I knew the first chord in Fairytale was D minor, I could already here that the rest were Gm Bb and A. How did I know? Do I have some magic special ability? No, I’ve just had plenty of practice playing different chord sequences and hearing how they work.

5. Get the chord sequence first, then learn the rest. Even if you don’t play the chord sequence, even if you are a drummer or singer, I’d say you still need to know the building blocks of the song.

6. Practice. This is a skill, a very important one. Start with relatively simple music (I’d recommend some rock’n’roll or pop punk for nice simple major key chord progressions).

7. Play along with the recording – that’s the only way to know if you’re right.

Hopefully this post will become as popular as the original post about Rybak, as this skill is one of the most important a songwriter can have.

Basics – Alexander Rybak and how to work out a song.

The most popular post on songwright.co.uk is one about Alexander Rybak’s song ‘Fairytale’ which won the Eurovision song contest this year.

The majority of comments on it are from people asking whether I have the sheet music. I find this troubling because there is nothing complicated in the song that would warrant the need to look at a sheet of music:- your ears should be enough.

At least, I think they should. I spent the majority of my musically formative years learning chord progressions, riffs and songs by ear. We had an internet connection since I was about 10 years old, but if there was much guitar tablature up at that time I never noticed.

These days however, people invariably stick to what they can read on the internet. There seems to be a lack of interest in learning by ear, which is troubling because I’ve yet to come across an internet chord progression or guitar tab that wasn’t at least partially innaccurate.

So, in my small way, I want to help. And also, if anyone reading the original post has clicked through to this page then please please please, develop this skill rather than paying money to read a score for such a simple piece of music.

How do I work out a song?

Here is a simple set of principles that should help you work out any song you hear.

1. Listen – really listen to the song. Don’t sing along, don’t even tap your foot. Just listen to the groove, to when the chords change, to what the bass chords and melody are doing.

2. Work out the bass line. Pick up your instrument and find the opening bass note. This might be easy to find or it might take endless repetitions of the first few seconds of the song. With Fairytale you can clearly hear open strings in the opening violin – so the notes of the open strings on a violin are a good place to start (G D A E). What you’ll find with a lot of songs is that there is a simple bass sequence that repeats.

3. Repeat until you get it right. You might not work things out the first time, or even the tenth. Don’t worry, you will get there if you repeat the trak enough times.

4. It helps to know your chords. – Once I knew the first chord in Fairytale was D minor, I could already here that the rest were Gm Bb and A. How did I know? Do I have some magic special ability? No, I’ve just had plenty of practice playing different chord sequences and hearing how they work.

5. Get the chord sequence first, then learn the rest. Even if you don’t play the chord sequence, even if you are a drummer or singer, I’d say you still need to know the building blocks of the song.

6. Practice. This is a skill, a very important one. Start with relatively simple music (I’d recommend some rock’n’roll or pop punk for nice simple major key chord progressions).

7. Play along with the recording – that’s the only way to know if you’re right.

Hopefully this post will become as popular as the original post about Rybak, as this skill is one of the most important a songwriter can have.

Why any good Songwriter needs to be able to Improvise

What skills do I need to compose my own music?

I would argue that any good songwriter has to be able to improvise. Improvising music, coming up with new ideas as you play, is one of the most important skills for any songwriter.

Steve Lawson, solo bass player extraordinaire, wrote a blog post where he describes improvisation:

  • “Improv resolutely is not ‘playing things you’ve never played before’, any more than a conversation is about ‘making up new words as you go along’.”
  • “Improv is playing ‘good things’ that you choose to play in the moment, based on the compendium of ideas, phrases, sounds, techniques and other musical devices that you have at your disposal. (with that in mind, knowing when to stop playing – or not start in the first place – is a great improvisational skill).”

Now I found this fascinating, because it helped to clarify the differences and similarities between improvising as a soloist and improvising as a songwriter.

Musically, I’ve always been a jack of all trades, composer, singer, guitar played, teacher, whatever. But I’ve done a little improvising as a soloist and Steve’s right, it’s all about playing what is best for the situation, based on your store of musical devices.

It also, obviously, happens in real time with no possibility of refinement, so it’s got to be good from the outset.

That’s not quite the same as improvising in order to compose.

Similarities do exist, for example that pre-existing ‘compendium of ideas, phrases and sounds’. You’re a songwriter, so you’re [hopefully] also a music lover and performer. That means you’ll already have a library of ideas that other people have used, chord progressions, melodic fragments, structural ideas, key changes, grooves and rhythms.

If you’ve been songwriting for any length of time you’ll also have endless snippets of ideas that you haven’t yet worked up into finished songs. All of them will be sitting at the back of your mind, waiting to be called on, or more likely, waiting for the moment to shove to the front and demand you pay attention to them.

Improvising as a songwriter will involve calling all of these up at various times, recombining them, changing and juxtaposing them.

The big difference is that it is not to create a finished solo, but to explore possibilities. It’s more like a practice session perhaps, without a need to entertain an audience there and then.

The big plus with this is that you can repeat things as many times as you want, you can stop and go back. You also don’t need to worry if you’re slightly out of tune, as you’re about to hear…

So, how does improvisation as a songwriter work?

Here are two improv demos I recorded this evening:

—— ALERT ALERT very rough recordings with bad singing follow ALERT ALERT——–

Ingenious Devices draft 1

This improv began as a little vamp on an Aminor chord and the title ‘Ingenious Devices’. As you can hear, it’s very very rough. All I’m doing is playing around with the chords, trying out A minor, C minor, F major, getting a feel for the mood of the song. I’m also using la and ooh sounds, and nonsense half words to try and find melodic ideas.
Ingenious Devices draft 2

This, the end of my little improv jam is a little more refined – I’ve got a verse riff and a descending melody, the F chord, A minor vamp and title have worked themselves into a potential chorus.

It still needs a lot of work, but I’m starting to get the feel of a song.

What happened between the two recordings? Well, as Steve Lawson says about improvising for performance, I’ve used my ‘compendium’ of ideas. Specifically:

My knowledge of time signatures to create some interest in the ‘chorus’ – I’ve added a beat in a few bars, turning 4/4 into 9/8.

My harmonic knowledge – I’ve used what I know about harmony to create a Aminor based riff with a couple of chromatic notes.

A ‘feel’ for melody – I hope you can hear the beginnings of a workable melody there. I’ve a descending melodic line in my verses, over a static a minor riff. I’ve also the ‘Ingenious Devices’ line that uses the major and minor thirds of the F chord to create some interest – and the last line of the chorus which I hope is nicely dissonant and unresolved.

My knowledge of pop song structure – I’m already gravitating towards verse and chorus – although I’m tempted with this to do something a little different as the song develops.

Obviously it isn’t a performance – I stop and start, I sing badly, it maybe doesn’t sound very nice. But the point is, I’m still using the skills that a performer uses to improvise.

And if you’re going to write songs, those are skills you’re going to need to use.

PS. Do you want to recieve the Songwright blog in e-newsletter form? Do you want a free copy of my ebook? Then sign up to the mailing list with box to the top right of the page.

Why any good Songwriter needs to be able to Improvise

What skills do I need to compose my own music?

I would argue that any good songwriter has to be able to improvise. Improvising music, coming up with new ideas as you play, is one of the most important skills for any songwriter.

Steve Lawson, solo bass player extraordinaire, wrote a blog post where he describes improvisation:

  • “Improv resolutely is not ‘playing things you’ve never played before’, any more than a conversation is about ‘making up new words as you go along’.”
  • “Improv is playing ‘good things’ that you choose to play in the moment, based on the compendium of ideas, phrases, sounds, techniques and other musical devices that you have at your disposal. (with that in mind, knowing when to stop playing – or not start in the first place – is a great improvisational skill).”

Now I found this fascinating, because it helped to clarify the differences and similarities between improvising as a soloist and improvising as a songwriter.

Musically, I’ve always been a jack of all trades, composer, singer, guitar played, teacher, whatever. But I’ve done a little improvising as a soloist and Steve’s right, it’s all about playing what is best for the situation, based on your store of musical devices.

It also, obviously, happens in real time with no possibility of refinement, so it’s got to be good from the outset.

That’s not quite the same as improvising in order to compose.

Similarities do exist, for example that pre-existing ‘compendium of ideas, phrases and sounds’. You’re a songwriter, so you’re [hopefully] also a music lover and performer. That means you’ll already have a library of ideas that other people have used, chord progressions, melodic fragments, structural ideas, key changes, grooves and rhythms.

If you’ve been songwriting for any length of time you’ll also have endless snippets of ideas that you haven’t yet worked up into finished songs. All of them will be sitting at the back of your mind, waiting to be called on, or more likely, waiting for the moment to shove to the front and demand you pay attention to them.

Improvising as a songwriter will involve calling all of these up at various times, recombining them, changing and juxtaposing them.

The big difference is that it is not to create a finished solo, but to explore possibilities. It’s more like a practice session perhaps, without a need to entertain an audience there and then.

The big plus with this is that you can repeat things as many times as you want, you can stop and go back. You also don’t need to worry if you’re slightly out of tune, as you’re about to hear…

So, how does improvisation as a songwriter work?

Here are two improv demos I recorded this evening:

—— ALERT ALERT very rough recordings with bad singing follow ALERT ALERT——–

Ingenious Devices draft 1

This improv began as a little vamp on an Aminor chord and the title ‘Ingenious Devices’. As you can hear, it’s very very rough. All I’m doing is playing around with the chords, trying out A minor, C minor, F major, getting a feel for the mood of the song. I’m also using la and ooh sounds, and nonsense half words to try and find melodic ideas.
Ingenious Devices draft 2

This, the end of my little improv jam is a little more refined – I’ve got a verse riff and a descending melody, the F chord, A minor vamp and title have worked themselves into a potential chorus.

It still needs a lot of work, but I’m starting to get the feel of a song.

What happened between the two recordings? Well, as Steve Lawson says about improvising for performance, I’ve used my ‘compendium’ of ideas. Specifically:

My knowledge of time signatures to create some interest in the ‘chorus’ – I’ve added a beat in a few bars, turning 4/4 into 9/8.

My harmonic knowledge – I’ve used what I know about harmony to create a Aminor based riff with a couple of chromatic notes.

A ‘feel’ for melody – I hope you can hear the beginnings of a workable melody there. I’ve a descending melodic line in my verses, over a static a minor riff. I’ve also the ‘Ingenious Devices’ line that uses the major and minor thirds of the F chord to create some interest – and the last line of the chorus which I hope is nicely dissonant and unresolved.

My knowledge of pop song structure – I’m already gravitating towards verse and chorus – although I’m tempted with this to do something a little different as the song develops.

Obviously it isn’t a performance – I stop and start, I sing badly, it maybe doesn’t sound very nice. But the point is, I’m still using the skills that a performer uses to improvise.

And if you’re going to write songs, those are skills you’re going to need to use.

PS. Do you want to recieve the Songwright blog in e-newsletter form? Do you want a free copy of my ebook? Then sign up to the mailing list with box to the top right of the page.

Ultimate Songwriting Lessons – Songwriting Hooks and Songwriting Meat

I just stumbled across this video, via this post.

It’s from this website.

First off, let me make clear that I have a very low opinion of sales pages like this one. I know they’ve been shown to work, that they’re ‘good marketing,’ but I really don’t like them.

However, don’t take that us an opinion of the book, as I haven’t read it, I’ve just seen the video.

A few thoughts occured as I watched, and I made some rough notes:

  • The narrator equates artistic worth with ‘lyrical depth’. Personally I would argue that lyrics are not the main conveyor of meaning in popular song – meaning comes from other parts of the song as well.
  • Suggesting that ‘Satisfaction’ by the Stones has lyrical depth is probably pushing things.
  • The Cardigans hook is great, but I want more meat in this analysis. For example, the hook is not just the guitar part, it’s the combination of a relatively static two pitch guitar riff over a moving chord progression. The rhythm of the guitar riff – emphasising beats 2 and 4 like the snare drum, probably has something to do with it, as does the A A A B structure of the riff.

Hooks are generally good because they emphasise or play with our expectations.

Take that fantastic Satisfaction guitar riff – yes it has only three pitches and a really unique timbre, but we can say more than that.

For a start, the chords underneath are E and A. The riff follows the chords starting on a B note in the E chord before moving through a Csharp to a D. When we come to the A chord the guitar is playing a D, creating an A sus4 chord that then resolves to the Csharp and a straight A chord.

So it’s taken a suspended chord we’re very used to from choral music (and lots of other styles) and transposed it to a rhythm and blues setting.

The Kylie Minogue hook is worth mentioning because the meat of it is so wonderfully simple – all those off beat notes, plus a melody that traces a simple line between two chords that are a fifth apart – just like in Satisfaction.

I’ve only watched the one video from this website, and they definitely look worthwhile. Whether the ugly sales page is a good move is up to you.

How to write a song with only one chord progression.

Here’s a link to the song, which won’t let me embed for reasons I don’t really understand…

Justin Timberlake’s Cry me a River might be guilty of stealing the title of a much better song, and having truly dreadful lyrics but I happen to think it’s an okay little ditty that does some interesting things.

Specifically, it only uses one chord progression. Most pop songs use chord changes to create interest, but here the songwriters have decided to stick with the same 4 chords and create interest in other ways.

Now, it’s a good set of chords – song starts with keybord arpeggios of G# min, D#7, E, D#7/C# which don’t stop until near the very end of the song.

There’s also the countermelody that starts at 13 secs, and is also used as the bridge melody. The rest of the song is all about different melodies and layers – the verse starts with a drum beat, bass line and staccato string pad chords emphasising the chord changes. The strings go legato for the chorus and Timberlake layers up the falsetto vox in his best Michael Jackson tribute mode.

The second verse adds some more interest by putting in a couple of short breaks from the drum beat and adding some extra vocal layers. I particularly like the staccato vocal melodies, eg at 3.28, which are a great example of one of my favourite features of modern rnb.

The whole point of the song is to create interest through the layering of different melodies and loops though, and there are certain points where the lack of harmonic changes starts to drag – essentially every time the song reaches ‘Cry me a river, cry me a river…’  where it sounds like an outro and therefore loses energy. And the ‘jammy jay’s done…’ rap sections are just laughable.

While it’s not a perfect song, and certainly needs some improvement in the lyrical department,  there are some great ideas that I’d steal if I was thinking of writing in this style:

1. Staccato vocal melodies (usually in the natural minor mode) – very RnB but rarely heard in other genres.
2. Complicated chords – that is a good chord progression, I like the D#7/C#. It’s essentially a clever play on the common harmonic minor i IV V7 progression (eg. Am, F E7)
3. Tiny percussion breaks – a second verse always needs something new – why not have the rhythm section drop out for just one bar?

Talking of RnB style vocals, here’s a much better songwriter who does some great vocal stuff: Trouble Over Tokyo

Songwriting isn’t lyric writing, even for Bowie

This morning on the today program I heard an interview with Nick Troop, a songwriter who claimed to be doing a psychological study of songwriting to investigate psychological health or… something.

A brief investigation took me to Nick’s websites, and the first thing to point out, as Nick does, is that his analysis is not supposed to be scientific, and not supposed to be taken to seriously. It’s a bit of fun, although I’m sure it would be interesting to genuinely investigate the interaction between psychological health and songwriting.

His website ‘The Gospel According to David Bowie‘ analyses Bowie’s songs from a number of different angles. Unfortunately where I think he misses a trick is that he’s only analysing the lyrics. He even talks about the difficulty of analysing Low because it has so few words.

When I was still studying I wrote a dissertation on genre in heavy metal, which brought me into contact with a lot of pop music analysis. Almost all of it is useless, for the simple reason that it refuses to engage with the actual music. Sociology related to pop music seemed to have similarities (though I read far less of that), and I can’t comment about psychological work related to pop music, except to point out that lyrics are a small part of popular music, and most certainly not the primary conveyors of meaning.

I’m a little dissapointed that Nick hasn’t teamed up with a musicologist to properly analyse Bowie’s music.

Bowie, as far as I am aware, has written only one song that is directly about his personal life (the excellent Jump, They Say). His lyrics have always been distant, and he has rarely worn his heart on his sleeve. The whole point of Bowie’s music has been to explore the interplay of character, theatre, artifice. He has also often written for other people, with all the implications that might have for self expression, and made use of various word randomising techniques which suggest a minimal regard at times for the literal meaning of the words. He has also referred to his deliberately commercial 80s albums as his ‘pension plan’ and written accordingly. I’m not sure how one could ever tell which of Bowie’s lyrics literally reflect his emotional state, and which are pastiche or parody, or simply far less to do with his own psychology.

And more importantly, lyric writing is not songwriting. If you want to analyse Bowie’s music, and you’re not going to talk about the gospel chord changes in Word on a Wing or Space Oddity, the use of improvisation and the use of the studio as a tool, his showcasing of excellent soloists, the riffs of Carlos Alomar, the tension between Bowie’s and Eno’s approach to arrangement… then really you’ve missed so much I wonder what the point is.

I know, I know, Nick Troop is only having fun and I’m not saying his articles aren’t interesting. I just think Bowie’s songwriting has always been about much more than his lyrics.

PS. Nick Troop is also a pretty good songwriter in his own right. Have a listen to the tracks on nicktroop.com