Are You A Good Listener?

We’re going to listen with a critical ear to the production and instruments in a recorded song.  Even if you are not a musician, or not familiar with various instruments used in music production, being a good listener and recognizing the role each instrument plays in a song will ALWAYS give you an advantage when you are recording your songs or performing them with other people.

Let’s start with the basics of listening to a recorded song by picking a song by a band or artist that you like.  Try to find a song that has a full band;  quite often the instruments and the players are listed on each cut of a CD.  The more instruments, the better!

One of the most obvious, up front elements of a recorded song is the drum part or percussion.  If the song you’re listening to has drums, it’s important to note that they are what drives the song.  That may seem obvious, but did you know that the drum part is often recorded first?  The reason for this is that the rest of the instruments need to follow the drums, and not the other way around.  So the drums are played at the agreed to tempo and every instrument recorded after has to maintain that same tempo as accurately as possible.

A standard drum set: Ride cymbal Floor tom Tom...
Image via Wikipedia

So let’s discuss the parts of a drum kit first.  The kick or bass drum (4) is the deep, heavy beat;  the big drum that the drummer hits with a foot pedal.  It is often hit less frequently than the other parts.  The snare (5) has a higher pitch and is hit with a drum stick, as are the rest of the drum parts when they are played.  The toms (3) are sonically somewhere between the snare sound and the kick or bass drum.  They are usually played as part of a “fill”, when the drummer comes away from the snare to roll on the toms at the end of phrases or song parts.  Then there are the cymbals.  Crash cymbals (1) are also used for emphasis, sometimes at the beginning or end of a phrase, or emphasizing the chorus.  They often referred to as the “ride” when they keep time during a chorus, for instance, and the hi-hats (6) are similarly used.

When you’re listening to the song you’ve chosen, try to focus only on the drums for the entire track.  Listen to what they do and when they do it.  Do they start at the beginning, or come in a little later in the intro?  What’s the difference in the way they are played in the verses and then the chorus?  If there is a bridge in the song, do they do something different?  Pay attention to when they come in and when they pause and all of the flourishes throughout the song.  When do you hear the toms, if at all?  When do you hear the cymbals?  Listen through a couple of times and make sure you are listening to ONLY the drums.

Now let’s focus on the bass.  The bass guitar is closely associated with the drums and often recorded at the same time or just after the drums are.  The drummer and bassist have a very close relationship and you’ll notice if you’ve ever seen a band play live, the bass player is often looking for signals or exchanging glances with the drummer as they move through the chord changes and fills.  The bass is often the hardest instrument to hear because of its low pitch.  Sometimes it plays very simple lines with long notes, and other times it might be almost rhythmic.  Listen to the song you’ve chosen again, but only to the bass this time.   Sometimes when I’m teaching my guitar students how to play by ear, I put on a song and get them to listen for the bass part, because that often determines what chord is being played by the guitar.  So I know how difficult it is to identify.  Occasionally you might confuse the sound of the bass with the low string of a guitar, but when you can zero in on the bass, listen through the whole song and pay attention to what it does.  It will certainly change notes as the chords change, but does it change patterns at different times?  Can you hear how it matches up sometimes with the rhythm of the kick on the drum kit?  Listen through enough times that you are completely focused in on only the bass.

The recording you are listening to might have piano, or “keys’ as they are often referred to.  They tend to stand out from the stringed instruments, even though they also have “strings”, but quite often they are electric pianos or keyboards with different sounds.  The keyboard might be playing chords, or it might also have little melody parts or fills throughout the song.  Listen to what the keyboard is doing and how it interacts with the rest of the instruments.

Guitars can be a challenge to listen to as well.  There may be acoustic guitar and/or electric, and often there are both and maybe even more than one of each!  Being able to distinguish how many guitars you hear is important and probably the greatest challenge.  Often if there are two or more guitars, they are doing different things, but because they sound similar, it is hard for the ear to separate them at first.  The electric guitar often does a solo or lead part somewhere in the song.  This gives it some distinction because it’s playing notes and melodies, and not chords.

So focus in now on what the guitars (if there are any) are doing in the song.  Is there just one guitar playing chords?  Can you hear the difference between the electric guitar and the acoustic, assuming there are both?  How do they interact with each other?  Note that it is very rare, even if there are two acoustic guitars, for them to be playing the same thing.  If you are a guitar player and you are jamming with others, quite often you’ll all be playing the same chords and progressions, but that rarely happens in recorded music because what would be the point of doing the same thing twice?  So what the guitar players might choose to do is to play in one key on one guitar, and use a capo or barre chords to play somewhere else on the neck with the second guitar.  Paul Simon used to have one guitar tuned normally, and another with the strings tuned an octave higher, so he had a very full acoustic guitar sound in his recordings.

There may be other instruments in the song you’re listening to.  What are they?  Extra percussion?  Strings, like violins, or maybe there are electronic drums or beats, or sounds that you can’t identify right away.  Quite often, recordings will have layers and layers of sounds, and others might be considered quite “sparse” in their instrumentation.

Learning to listen to other instruments and how they work together will be an important tool for you when you are thinking about what you might include in a recording of your own song.  Sometimes when you’re thinking about your song, you might “hear” something that you’d like and being able to identify and articulate what that is will be a big help when you finally get in the studio.

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Songwriting Without An Instrument

Recently someone commented on one of my blogs that they would like to know how to write a song without an instrument.  You would think that because there is music involved, it would be next to impossible to write a song without any musical “ability”. If you are overwhelmed with the idea of learning an instrument, the fact is that many of us assume that we are supposed to become some kind of virtuoso on it which, as a guitar teacher, I can tell you is not true! Most guitar teachers can tell you that.

The Cmaj chord in guitar, with bass in G
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Even if we are not singers, we can all hum.  And if you’ve been around music all of your life, as most of us have, you’ve probably found yourself humming along or singing along with your favourite songs.  If you already have some lyrics written, free yourself from your musical inhibitions by “singing” them in some sort of way that gives you a feel for the meter (rhythm) of them.  Don’t worry whether or not it is GOOD, just do it!  See if you can’t find some kind of melody that matches the meter and then just keep experimenting.  You might find that you “hear” certain melodies with certain lines and not with others.  That could mean that you just haven’t found it yet, or it could mean that the lines with no melodies just aren’t working.  So keep working at it, change the lines or mess around with another melody…just keep trying.  The more you liberate yourself from feeling like you CAN’T do it, the less inhibited you will become.

If you are overwhelmed with the idea of learning an instrument, the fact is that many of us assume that we are supposed to become some kind of virtuoso on it which, as a guitar teacher, I can tell you is not true!  Most people learn an adequate number of chords within a few weeks or months, for instance, to be able to play a good selection of songs that they like.  The fact is that many songs are rather simple in their chord progressions (a chord progression is a series of chords), and so they can be learned fairly easily.  So you can probably learn enough chords in a couple of months to start trying to match them to your lyrics.


As a songwriter, you don’t have to be a master of an instrument to adequately come up with some chords to your song.  So what I am advocating first is that you could pick up a guitar or sit at a piano and fool around with it by ear so that you can familiarize yourself with finding little melodies on it.  It doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking, just a simple way of getting to know the instrument so that you can feel comfortable with it.  Then if you feel ready, you can find some resources to show you how to play some simple chords, and then take it from there.

Your other option is to find someone who CAN play, and who can help you find chords and melodies.  This might take some doing, but then again, there could be someone in your own backyard or circle of friends who already plays and might be willing to experiment with your lyrics.  You can either give the lyrics entirely up to them, or you can sit with them and try to come up with some ideas together.

A third option would be to invest in some kind of software like Band-In-A-Box which is a clever computer software program that you can create backing tracks (music) to your melodies or lyrics with little effort.  You can play with chords without knowing which chords go together, and you can pick styles and instruments, again, without knowing much about them, and still come up with a decent sounding “band” to sing your songs along with.

I was at a songwriting retreat once where one of the participants in my little group didn’t play an instrument at all.  Somehow she had found someone to come up with chords to her melodies, so when it was her turn to perform one of her songs, she just gave the chords to someone who could play guitar and she sang along with him.  I admired her for her dedication to songwriting even though she had never learned an instrument.  And you don’t have to be limited either!

Now I know that some of you out there reading this blog might have suggestions of your own, so if you do, please add them below!  Comments and replies always welcome :-).


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Success – What’s Standing In Your Way?

A digital sound recorder
Image via Wikipedia

© I.Woloshen

“Success” is a relative word, and your idea of it can change as you inevitably do. For instance, in my teens and 20’s (ugh!) I measured success by my position, my income and the number of friends I had. Well, the part about friends hasn’t changed much 🙂 But everything else has!

These days I define my success much more simply…I ask myself, am I doing what I want and love to do? Most of the time, I’m happy to say, the answer is yes! But it took me a long time to get here…

I believe that the largest hurdles we have in front of us are the ones we put there ourselves. Never mind what the “others” say, what are the things you tell yourself? Have you ever listened to your own thoughts? I know, that sounds weird and new agey, but have you? What kinds of things do you tell yourself? Do you encourage yourself and keep a positive attitude, or do you tell yourself over and over “I’m a terrible writer, I can’t do this, I’m not going to make it”? Creative people, on the whole, tend to be extremely sensitive…it is that sensitive part of ourselves that gives us the insight to our own creative juices, but it can also be a burden. The downside to sensitivity is the old chip-on-the-shoulder syndrome when things aren’t going the way we’d like.

But knowing all of that, what can we do to get a little closer to our idea of success? Being songwriters, sometimes we lose our ability to come down to earth and establish some structure in our lives! But structure, organization, plans and work are all necessary ingredients! Here are a few steps you can take:

1. Identify – write out what your idea of success is! Sometimes we meander around the subject without really clearly identifying anything about it. What is success to you? You can give yourself a time line, if you like. “In five years I’d like to be…” Work your way backwards, all the way to what you can do today!

2. The Steps – what steps can you take to achieve your goals? Make two lists…one will be the more major steps (ie…I want to get a publishing deal, I want to record a CD…etc.), the other will be the little steps! I can tell you right now that the little steps will be the most important!! For instance, if you want a publishing deal, there are several things you need to do to make that happen. You need to identify the publishers who might be interested in your songs, you have to have a decent recording of your songs, you need to collect addresses, make a list of who you’ve sent to, etc., etc.

Perhaps your primary goal is to become a better writer. Well, that goal is never off my list! Again, you would benefit by sitting down and determining what it is that YOU NEED in order to begin achieving that. Do you need to improve your lyric skills? Do you need to be around other writers? A few visits to some open mics? Are a couple of piano lessons in order?

3. Be Prepared To Change – For heaven’s sake, if something isn’t working, let it go! It’s okay to move onto something else! Stubbornness and determination are admirable qualities, until they are just plain stupid!

4. Opportunity Meeting Preparedness – I’m sure you’ve heard that expression before. People who have achieved success weren’t just sitting around waiting for it to fall into their laps. Well, most of them anyway! They were able to recognize an opportunity when it hit them square in the face. You may think that is obvious…but you can never be sure exactly when it’s going to hit, or how. A little story, if I might: When I’m almost finished recording a song, I tend to make a DAT copy of it (digital audio tape) just so I can have it there to listen to for myself, and for whatever else I might need it for. A couple of months ago, my husband and I had a business meeting with an old friend in our home, not related to songwriting in anyway, just an investment opportunity. This friend brought his business partner with him, and we spent an hour or so discussing this new business. At the end of the talk, we started chit chatting about other things, and it so happened that this friend mentioned to his partner that I was a songwriter and had a studio downstairs. Lucky for me, I’d cleaned it that morning 🙂 So I invited them down to see the studio. I happened to have my DAT machine hooked up with the tape in it, and my friend wanted to hear the latest version of Catnip (a song he’d participated in recording). It JUST SO HAPPENED that his business partner was ALSO a songwriter and NOT ONLY THAT, but he had a line on a guy who was looking for material for an up and coming group, so I played him some of the songs…was that a coincidence? No, it was opportunity meeting preparedness 🙂 What comes of it doesn’t matter, but I was ready!

5. Critical Line – ever heard of this expression? It refers to the steps that have to be taken in order to achieve goals. Even at their jobs, most people spend a great deal of time doing the peripheral things that aren’t getting them any closer to getting the job done. Like sharpening pencils and tidying the desk, or getting distracted by something entirely un-job-related. Try to spend 1/2 an hour each day completely devoted to your critical line…doing something you need to do, even if it’s just a boring “little step”. Time is everything! So is discipline!

6. Discipline – is not one of my strong points. I consider myself a naturally lazy person, and have had to battle with myself most of my life to do what I need to do. This can be applied to just about anything in your life…but in order to succeed, you need discipline! Instead of throwing too much on yourself too quickly, take those “little steps”…see how important they are? But taking just one of those will make you feel better! And when you feel better, you’re likely to do more! It’s magic 🙂

7. More Irons in the Fire! – I know you’ve heard quite the opposite…that you can’t have too much on the go, but I’m here to tell you that when it comes to writing songs, the more your songs are “out there” the better it is for you! I don’t mean that you should be careless about it, BUT, if you’ve ever listened to some of the stories of how songwriters got their music heard, most of them had quite a long trail of opportunities. Someone just happened to hear a recording in the other room that someone’s cousin was playing that just happened to be sitting on the top of a pile…you know what I’m saying? Great songs aren’t just AUTOMATICALLY HEARD BY ALL THE “RIGHT” PEOPLE! It can take years for a great song to get the attention it deserves! So multiply your opportunities…let other people perform your song, play them at every chance, let people hear ’em!

8. Diversify – You’ve heard the saying “putting all of your eggs in one basket”. Having any kind of career in music means you have to diversify. The statistics are that less than 1% of songwriters make more than $5000 a year from their writing. That means that more than 99% of us have to have some other kind of income. I teach guitar, write music for television, write and perform…when some areas are not as profitable or emotionally satisfying, others are! As long as it is music-related, I’m happy. If it comes down to employment (and it inevitably does!), try to find work that is related somehow to your music, or at the very least, find work that allows you to BE a songwriter, go to open mics, or run off to the bathroom and record an idea when you have one 🙂 Then again, a job that is completely non-music related is sometimes perfectly satisfying! I’ve met writers who LOVE songwriting, but also love their jobs. Wouldn’t that be nice? 🙂

Okay, well there you have it…some ideas as to how you can achieve your idea of success. You know, half the time I write these articles as much for myself as I do for you 🙂

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