Five Deadly Songwriter Sins

No matter how many times the same points are brought up when it comes to common problems that arise for newer songwriters, they bear repeating as a kind of checklist to go through once you feel you’ve finished a song and you want to send it out there.  Of course, a song can never really feel “finished” if you’re the type who likes to tweak a lot, but what I’m going to list here are more obvious problems that come up again and again when I’m listening to newer songwriters.

The bronze statue that graces Owen Bradley Par...
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1. INTRO TOO LONG –  I’ve seen this brought up by many songwriting instructors or critiques again and again, but somehow it doesn’t seem to sink in for many writers.  If you are pitching your songs to publishers or artists, you are going to lose them so quickly if your intro is long and self-indulgent.  They want to get to the meat of it, so don’t serve so much salad!  Keep your intro as short as you can, and you can even try no intro at all!  Now of course, you’re going to find lots of examples of pro recordings out there with long intros, but these are often by artists or bands who have long since established some kind of following and they can get away with it.  You can’t.

2. FILLER LYRICS – Even if you have one really good hook in your song, don’t ignore the rest of it!  The sound of boring old phrases  will put even the most enthusiastic of your listeners right to sleep.  Your job is to take every one of those old, boring lines and make them remarkable.  There is not one syllable’s worth of room for boring!  Don’t get lazy or impatient, keep going over every line and make it better.

3.  UNREMARKABLE MELODIES – in some cases the problem can be one of two things:  either the melody is too repetitive, or it’s not repetitive enough!  Work on your melodic phrasing, listen to popular songs or songs you like and notice how often the same melody is repeated within a verse and then within a chorus.  The human brain can remember a sequence of up to 7 digits easily, then it starts to lose track.  This is not to say you should only put 7 notes in your melodic phrasing, but just keep in mind that people who are listening to your songs fresh can only remember and retain so much.  On the flip side if you keep throwing the same melody at them over and over, they’ll drift off to sleep.  Too much or lack of repetition is probably the most common problem I hear in songwriter’s melodies.

4. POOR PERFORMANCE – if you’re not a singer, don’t sing on your own demos.  For the purpose of getting a demo made, of course you’ll probably need to give them a rough version of the melody.  The same goes for your accompaniment.  If you can’t play very well, get somebody else to do it.  A poor performance of even a great song will often be a distraction for those who are listening with a critical ear.  Your mom will love it, your publisher won’t :-).

5. LACK OF A THEME AND CONTINUITY – what is your song about?  If you can’t tell me in one phrase, then you haven’t got the chorus down yet.  And don’t tell me it’s a love song, that’s going to lose me too!  There are a gazillion love songs out there, what makes yours different?  Then look at the continuity of your lyrics, is the first verse tied to the next one?  Can you describe the “story” as it unfolds in each verse and does it make sense as a whole?  A common problem is disjointed lyrics where one part of a song doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the next part and it’s difficult to really know what the song is about.  It’s like walking into an extremely cluttered living room, where your eyes don’t know what to look at first.  In a song with no continuity, your ears can’t figure out what to listen to either.  Get rid of all the furniture and pictures, pare it down and start again!

The above problems are not insurmountable, and yet they will stand out immediately to someone who is used to listening to a lot of songs, like a publisher.  You don’t want to give anyone the excuse to hit stop too soon!  Take your time to fix them and it will pay off, I promise :-).

Happy 2011!


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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...
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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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