I Like Songs

Well, I do. I like all kinds of songs, old ones, new ones that I discover through my students…all kinds of ’em. Which is why I started a blog just about the songs I like. You can find it here.

Songwriters Circle
Songwriters Circle (Photo credit: AndyRobertsPhotos)

As a songwriter, I quite often find myself listening to a song with a “critical ear”, which isn’t always a good thing! If the song really appeals to me, however, I notice that this critical ear shuts off. Why is that? It’s because the mind has shut off and the emotions have taken over. I don’t care if there is anything wrong with the song from a critical viewpoint, I just love the song.

When you think about all of the songs you’ve fallen in love with over the years (and yes, it’s like falling in love), you notice that any time you hear them again it almost brings back that initial “rush”, just like seeing an old flame. If you stopped for just a second and listened to it as a songwriter and not just a regular listener, you’d probably notice some flaws in it. There are flaws in just about every song, but when you’re crazy about the song, you push all of that aside, just as you look past the flaws of a person you’re in love with.

So I decided that I’d take a look and listen to all of the songs that I’ve really loved (and the ones I’m learning to love) not so much from a critical viewpoint, although there is some of that, but from a music lover’s perspective. I actually started to write those articles for this blog but realized that I didn’t just want to critique, I wanted to listen and enjoy! And that’s how ILikeSongs was born.

I don’t want to spend all of my time listening to songs with a critical ear any more.  I, like the rest of you, fell in love with a whole bunch of songs before I even knew what songwriting was.    So if you’re interested, join me on my other blog, won’t you? 🙂

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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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Help! I’ve Never Written A Song Before…

…what do I do?? I see this question often on message boards and blogs all over the web.  If you’re one of those out there asking this question, then let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start ;-)).

First of all, you might want to begin with an instrument like a piano or guitar.  The majority of songs are written on either of these two instruments, so if you know a few chords, you’re already ahead of the game! Sit down and play around with a few progressions (a series of chords) and see what you can come up with.  Don’t worry about writing a WHOLE song, just see if you can find a nice chord progression that pleases your ear, and then try humming something on top of it.  Again, don’t worry about where it’s going to go or what it means or if it’s any good!  The most important thing is to start the process.  The “finessing” comes later.  I’ll get back to the music part in a minute.

Some songwriters like to begin by writing down some lyrics.   If you decide to start this way and then find yourself sitting there for an hour in front of a blank page, then don’t push it.  It’s more handy to keep a pad of paper and a pen with you wherever you go, and/or a digital voice recorder (even smart phones come equipped with audio recording capabilities these days!).  That way, when a line or phrase comes to you, you can write it down or record it for use later.  However, you might find yourself writing lyrics at your first sitting.  It’s REALLY important not to judge what you’re writing too much at the start, so if there is something there, let it flow out of you without editing yourself.  The editing comes later!

Another question that comes up all the time is “what should I write about?”.  The truth is you have a whole lifetime of experiences to write from, so that’s a good place to get some ideas.  I’ve written two articles that relate to songwriting topics, one called the Songwriting Topics Poll and another called Nothing To Write About?, which is a little exercise to help you come up with some ideas.

Ideas are everywhere if you’re looking for them.  You might hear a bit of conversation from someone, or read a line in a book that just jumps out at you.   You might have had a particularly interesting experience, or just want to express your own view of something. Once you start getting some ideas out, you might start thinking about different parts, like putting in a chorus or a bridge. I’ve got an article called Song Forms And Terms that is a quick study on what these are and what their purpose is.  In more in depth articles, I tell you more about the chorus in Don’t Bore Us, Get To The Chorus and the verse in The Verse’s Purpose, and even about The Bridge.  Understanding the different parts of a song will help you to shape it and make it work.

If you are trying to create a melody for your song and struggling somewhat, I have an article on The Magic of Melody and  another article on Putting Music to Lyrics which might help you if you’ve written lyrics, but don’t know where to do from there. The fact is that there are many, many articles on this site, but just start with the ones I have given you, and later on you might find the need to read some others!

A lot of people find it easy to start a song but not so easy to finish it.  This is going to happen from time to time, so don’t worry if you lose steam part way through.  Put it away and look at it again later.  That is not to say that you can’t “finish” a song in one sitting, that happens too.  Maybe you’re just chomping at the bit to write something and it all comes spilling out in one session.  It’s exhilarating when this happens, so bask in the glow of your new found creative self!  Then walk away from it for awhile and come back to it again. That’s why I put quotations around the word “finish” because there is no such thing as a song coming out perfect the first time.  Unless you are Beethoven or some other musical genius (I know, I know…SURE you are :-)), the real work is going to come when you sit down and revisit and revise it.

Why would you bother?  Because this, my new songwriting friend, is the mark of a good songwriter!  A great painter doesn’t just slop some paint on a canvas and consider it done.  There are always little spots that need re-doing, little touch ups that have do be tended to.  So once you have complete song, teach yourself early to look for and fix the “bits” that don’t work.    And that is for another blog!

Good luck with your new songwriting venture 🙂 IJ

Mailbag Nov.8/01

I will occasionally respond to emails I receive by posting them here for you to read.  Here is one I received today:

“I’m an 18 year old college student who makes music as a rapper. I hear alot of music, but I connect to songs that actually have meaning in it. I’ve been writing for about 2 years consistently but I want my songs and verses to have meaning and impact the listener in a positive way.

Kick School of Creative Writing
Image by ginja_ninja via Flickr

Any tips on things to read or songs to listen to or writing tips would be appreciated..thank you in advance.”

Writing songs that are meaningful, not only to the writer but also to the listener is what we are all aiming for, isn’t it?  How do I get deeper, how do I say more and still keep the listener totally engaged in what I’m saying?  And if you’re writing rap songs, lyrics are the focal point so learning to write great lyrics is a must.  Reading a lot is certainly one way of stimulating your creative writing skills.  There are a gazillion wonderful novels out there.  Fortunately, they’re not all “War and Peace” length (meaning hundreds of pages long!), but you would benefit greatly from taking the time to read good novels from cover to cover. A well-written novel can open up the top of your head and give you all kinds of ideas about how to approach your own songwriting.

Song lyrics don’t have the luxury of pages and pages of words to get their meaning across, however, in which case, EVERY word is critical.  What I see more often than not in song lyrics that are sent to me are what I call “throw away” lines or words, as if they were put there just to fill the space.  But instead of revisiting them and rewriting them, the songwriter just leaves them there.  The other thing I see in lyrics is tired old phrases, just the same old, same old way of describing something.  The bore factor.  If this is a problem you suffer from as a lyric writer,   I highly recommend reading anything by Pat Pattison.  He even gives a few free lyric writing tips from one of his books on his web page, just so you can get an idea of how he teaches.

So powerful lyrics are critical, but here is another mistake that songwriter’s often make:  they write songs that are TOO PERSONAL.  Now, of course, the most powerful songs are those that are “true” on some level because listeners can always spot something real, but that’s not the kind of personal that I’m talking about.  When you insert details that only have significance to you, you’re going to lose your listeners…they don’t really care if you had a dog named Spike when you were ten.  I imagine it like watching home movies…who wants to visit someone and just sit there and watch home movies of them when they were kids?  It might be funny for a minute, but then it gets boring!  Don’t write your songs like home movies.

On the other hand, we all have universal experiences, meaning experiences that are common to most people, and when you can find a way to write about your own experiences in a way that everyone can relate to, you’ll find success.

The last thing that I want to emphasize is the “show me, don’t tell me” part. Here’s a quick, off-the-top-of-my-head example:

It’s been a long time since I loved someone
And then you came around
You gave me just one kiss
And now I’m found

Boring!! Here’s something that says the same thing, but in a more interesting way:

My love is an engine
It ain’t run in years
Just took one kiss from you
To loosen up the gears

I grabbed that as an example that was given on Pat Pattison‘s website, the song is written by Kurt Thompson. Now these aren’t the most profound lyrics in the universe, and it certainly isn’t rap, but you can “see” the second set of lyrics, can’t you? The first set of lyrics puts you right to sleep. This is an example of “show me, don’t tell me.”

The last thing I’d like to emphasize is write, write, write.  Write a journal, don’t just write lyrics.  Make yourself write things you don’t normally do, so you can avoid getting into writing ruts.

Hopefully there will be some ideas here to keep you on the right track!

Good luck 🙂

Hit Songwriting Secrets (not!)

I spend a lot of time perusing the internet for other songwriting news, tips, ideas, etc., in part for my own curiosity, and also because of the articles I write for Muse’s Muse and those I post here.

American country musician Taylor Swift perform...
American country musician Taylor Swift performing live. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One phrase that always makes me laugh is “songwriting secrets”…whether they are pitching a book or some kind of one-on-one session with you as a songwriter, or maybe they’re just trying to get you to sign up to their website so that they have your email address so they can spam with you with stuff later on;  the idea that there are secrets to songwriting that no one else knows is FALSE!

Why?  Because the songs that are successful are not secrets at all!  They are out there on the radio, on iTunes, on videos and CDs for you to listen to, analyze, reverse engineer and learn from.  If your ambition is to write a hit song, you have literally hundreds of thousands of hit songs out there at your disposal to teach you, they are not secret at all.

So how do you learn from them?  This is the the real “secret”.  What is it about a song that makes it successful?  Studying different hit songs, what they are comprised of and how every part works together, you will get a better sense of what makes it successful.

So let’s get to the songwriting first.  Some will tell you that there’s a secret “formula” to hit songwriting…for instance, always have a particular number of verses, always keep the intro short, always write in the first person, come up with a title first…etc., etc.  Don’t “always” do anything;  each song has its own personality and if you’ve already written a few of them, you know what I mean.  Do you use the same chords every time?  The same form or subject matter?  Of course not.  The only formula you need is to make it good, and “good” is a very subjective thing.  If you listen to the top ten pop hits right now on Billboard, (or country, or any other chart for that matter) you’ll discover a few things.

They don’t necessarily conform to any one key or song form (although as far as subject matter, when I checked Billboard for the most recent top 10 pop hits they were pretty much all about love/lust or breakups/relationships!), but they do use certain techniques to keep the listener hanging on.  Sometimes those elements are simply the recording and production itself, sometimes they are the way the verses and chorus (and/or pre-chorus) relate to each other, sometimes the lyrics and/or music are really catchy.  And often it’s simply the artist or band that has such a huge following, almost anything they do will become a hit.  If your ambition is to write a hit song, then your job is to study what’s out there and come up with something better!   Easier said than done, I know.

But lets back off the actually writing for a bit and consider what else makes a song a hit.  First of all, many songs that you hear are not necessarily “great”, but they make it to the charts because of the artist or band, as I mentioned earlier.  If these artists and bands don’t write their own material, who does?  A lot of them get their songs from their record label, who may have their own writers or have a publishing branch.  Quite often, the same circle of songwriters write a lot of the songs you hear…particularly in country and pop.   You can find out yourself by checking out the BMI or ASCAP records (or whichever performing rights organization exists in your country).  These P.R.O.’s have search able records online, so there’s no secret there either.

So, okay, a lot of it is who you know, in which case, part of your job as a potential hit songwriter, after you’ve come up with some great songs, is getting to know people.   Go to music centres like Nashville or Los Angeles or New York, research publishers who might be interested in your style of writing.  Join organizations that can help you like N.S.A.I. or songwriting associations that give workshops in all areas of the craft and business.  Be prepared to keep learning, learning, learning.  Hang on to your day job and save money for these ventures.  When you meet people who can help you, be polite, don’t shove your CD in their pocket, ASK first.

You also need to be patient.  I met a guy once who wrote his first ten songs and immediately went to Nashville to pitch them.  He was so sure that’s all he had to do…but when he got there he learned pretty quickly that he had spent nowhere near enough time on the writing part before he did the pitching part.  It was a huge reality check. That’s a true story. So remember to use your head and do everything in the right order!

The recent stories about Taylor Swift’s success are interesting because on her earlier releases she co-wrote a lot of material,  but on her most recent release “Speak Now” she wrote every single song herself.  She’s young and she’s smart, getting the experience she needed under her belt first by co-writing.  Co-writing is a “given” in the pro songwriting community…a lot of the songs you hear are written by more than one person, so you should consider doing that yourself too.  Chances are that if you get anywhere near working for a record label, you’ll be thrown into situations where you’ll have to write with someone you don’t know.  And if you’re a singer/songwriter and hoping to make it as an artist, you might take a cue from Taylor.  Don’t assume you know everything…you don’t!

There are no secrets to hit songwriting any more than there are secrets to any kind of success.  It comes down to the same things, whether you want to be a great chef, a successful financier or a best-selling author:  hard work, determination, patience, some talent and a little luck.  Shhhh…don’t tell anybody! 🙂


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