The Top 5 Melody Pitfalls—and How to Avoid Them | BMI

An exclusive tutorial from the renowned instructor of the BMI Nashville Songwriters’ Workshop

by Jason Blume

Many of the writers whose songs I listen to at my workshops work long and hard on their lyrics, striving to find unique, fresh ways to tell their stories and express their concepts. But they sometimes forget that we’re not writing poems, but songs—and if we hope to create songs that resonate with listeners, our lyrics need to be delivered on the wings of outstanding, memorable melodies.

It’s often easier to identify weaknesses in lyrics than in melodies. While it might be evident that a line of lyric is cliché and needs to incorporate a fresher, more original approach, it might be more challenging to diagnose the reasons why a melody fails to jump out of the proverbial pile or remain seared in the brain.

Following are some of the melody pitfalls I most often encounter—and their remedies.

1. Crafting Melodies That Sound as if They’ve Been Imposed Upon Predictable Chord Changes

Many of the songs by current pop and urban music hit-makers are crafted by creating a music track first. In these instances, a musical “bed” consisting of the keyboards, bass, drums and guitars is composed and produced prior to the melody that the vocalist will sing. A vocal melody is then crafted to work with the chord changes, beats and grooves that have been established.

While this approach to writing is not typical in country music, there are more instances of songs being created for the Nashville market by using this method. In country, Americana, roots and folk music, although a full musical track is not typically created prior to a vocal melody, chord progressions played on an acoustic guitar often precede the melody.

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to write a great melody, and countless successful songs have begun with a chord progression. The problem arises when the vocal melody sounds as if it has been imposed on those chords as an afterthought.

In my workshops, I, too, often critique songs with melodies that sound as if they were created as the result of writers strumming predictable chord progressions on a guitar—then imposing melody that works perfectly fine with those chords. There’s no “rub”—no dissonance. So, you might ask, “What wrong with that?”

There may be nothing “wrong” with these melodies, but “nothing wrong” is a far cry from melodies that are unforgettable, fresh and original. No one walks down the street humming chord changes, guitar licks, drumbeats, grooves or bass lines. While these are all important components of successful songs, they aren’t enough.

Giving more attention to these components than to the melody that sits atop them is analogous to a builder spending the majority of his or her time and energy on a house’s foundation, then haphazardly slapping together the actual home. The foundation is crucial—but not more important than the house. Chord progressions, drum patterns, guitar licks and bass lines need to be paired with fresh, original, can’t-get-them-out-of-your-head melodies and rhythms for the singer to sing.

It can help to assess your melodies by singing them a capella, to be certain they stand up on their own. They should be memorable, easy to sing and should not sound as if notes are missing—or extra notes have been crammed in—to accommodate lyrics.

Remember your melody is critically important to your song’s success. Regardless of how a song is begun, when it’s finished, it needs a vocal melody that compels an artist, publisher, producer or an A&R executive to say “Yes”—and an audience to invite it into their hearts.

2. Settling for Predictable Rhythms in the Vocal Melodies

With the unprecedented amount of music available to listeners, it’s more important than ever to separate our songs from the competition. Songs with melodies that rely on stock, less-than-exceptional rhythms are unlikely to command a listener’s attention.

One of the best ways to elevate songs from “good” to “WOW” is to write vocal melodies that incorporate fresh, hooky rhythms. Taylor Swift is a master of this tool. A listen to the verse and chorus of her GRAMMY-nominated smash, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” (Taylor Swift/Max Martin/Shellback) reveals the enormous contribution of the rhythms within the vocal melody.

This technique typically includes syncopation—placing the rhythmic accent on a “weak” beat—and it can be heard in countless hits. Some great examples are: Rodney Atkins’ recording of “Take a Back Road,” (Rhett Akins/Luke Laird); Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” (Carly Rae Jepsen/Tavish Crowe); and One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” (Rami; Carl Falk; Savan Kotecha).

Including syncopation and catchy, unique rhythms that push the envelope are among the best tools you can use to help separate your songs from the competition—regardless of your musical genre.

3. Lack of Contrast

A common melodic problem is the failure to clearly differentiate each section of a song (i.e., verse, pre-chorus, chorus or bridge) from other sections. While melodic and rhythmic repetition within a given section can be the proverbial glue that helps melodies stick in the brain, in order to sustain listeners’ attention, ideally, each section should be rhythmically and melodically distinct from the parts of the song that surround it. In simple terms, you don’t want the verses to sound like the chorus, or the bridge to sound like either the verse or chorus.

There should be no doubt when the chorus begins. You can achieve this by choosing from several different tools. One of the most effective ways to announce the arrival of your chorus is to use higher notes. The chorus often includes the highest notes in the song, and in many instances, these notes appear in the first line of the chorus.

Two exceptional examples of choruses that “jump out” are Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” (Adele/Paul Epworth) and Jason Aldean’s “Fly Over States” (Neil Thrasher and Michael Dulaney).

Another way to be sure each part of a song is distinct from the song’s other components is to vary the rhythms in the vocal melodies from one section to the next. For example, if a pre-chorus is choppy and rhythmic, as a result of including a barrage of short notes (such as eighth notes), the subsequent chorus might benefit from longer notes (such as whole notes). Conversely, a verse that relies heavily on long, held-out notes might be best followed by a chorus that incorporates shorter notes for a more “rhythmic” feel.

While many pop, country and adult contemporary songs include choruses that “lift,” urban and urban-influenced pop songs often differentiate their choruses from their verses with a distinctly different rhythm—as opposed to soaring high notes.

To keep your listeners interested, be sure to vary the range and/or rhythms from one section to the next.

4. Introducing Too Many Melodic Motifs

We tend to remember that which we are exposed to over and over again—and this certainly applies to melodies. If you want your melodies to stick in the brain, repetition, repetition and repetition are the top three ways to achieve this. Your listeners can’t latch onto a melody and remember it if it keeps changing.

When I critique work from developing writers, I sometimes hear songs that establish a melody (for example, a 2-bar motif)—then bring in a new melody, and yet another melody—all within an eight-bar section. But when I analyze successful songs in various genres, I typically find that within any given section of a song (verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge) there are rarely more than two distinct melodic concepts.

For an example of a song that incorporates this tool, listen to Norah Jones’ GRAMMY-winning “Don’t Know Why” (Jesse Harris). You’ll notice that the verse is comprised of a 4-bar “call and response” melodic motif. The rhythm established in the first two bars is repeated in the second two bars. This 4-bar melody is heard four times; there is no additional melody introduced in the verse. The bridge also uses this tool by establishing a 4-bar melodic phrase—then repeating it.

Another excellent example of incorporating repetition by limiting the number of melodic ideas within each section can be heard in the chorus of One Direction’s career-breaking song, “What Makes You Beautiful” (Rami; Carl Falk; Savan Kotecha). The chorus is comprised of a 2-bar melodic phrase that is heard three times. It is followed by the 2-bar phrase that accompanies the title. This fourth phrase is a different melody and rhythm—thereby distinguishing the title from the lines surrounding it. This eight-bar melody is then repeated. With the exception of one line, every line of the chorus lyric contains the identical number of syllables, allowing the melody writer to repeat the same rhythm, and almost the same melody.

Listen to your favorite songs and you’ll likely hear the same rhythms and melodies repeated over and over within each section. By incorporating this technique into your work, you can write melodies that listeners can’t forget.

5. Failure to Rewrite Melodies

What’s the chance that the very first melody that pops into your head is such perfection that you couldn’t possibly improve even one note or one chord— even if your entire career were riding on doing so? Our careers are riding on composing songs that include melodies that are not just “good”—but exceptional. Your melodies need to edge out those written by the writers and artists who top the charts— the song crafters who have their fingers on the pulse of the current music scene.

To unearth the very best melodies you’re capable of, challenge yourself to rewrite each verse and chorus at least three times. You might craft alternate melodies by placing emphases on different syllables, words or combinations of words. For example, if your title is “I Know I Can Write a Hit,” you could emphasize the words in boldface (below) by holding them out longer or assigning them higher notes:

KNOW – I Can Write a Hit
I – KNOW – I Can Write a Hit
I Know I CAN – Write a Hit
I Know I Can WRITE a Hit
I Know I Can WRITE a HIT

Explore different note choices—try ascending or descending notes; try different rhythms within the vocal melody—including long, legato notes and choppier rhythms. You might also see how your melody works at different tempos.

Yet another way to craft alternate melodies is to repeat some of your syllables, words or combinations of words. For example:

I Know—I Know – I Can Write a Hit
Know I Can—I Can—I Can Write a Hit

You might also try using nonsense syllables to create an added melodic hook. For example:

Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh – I Know I Can Write a Hit
I Know EYE—EE-EYE-EE—EYE Can Write a Hit

For good examples of this tool being used in various genres, listen to Feist’s “1234” (Feist/Sally Seltmann), Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” (Stewart/Nash/Harrell/Beyoncé) and Jake Owen’s “Barefoot Bluejean Night” (Paslay/Altman/Sawchuk).

You can also try a variety of different chords to accompany your melodies. Sometimes, a new way of harmonizing your melody can be just the ticket it needs to bring it to life.

In some instances, the very first melody that flows from you will indeed capture the magic—but you can’t be certain of that until you’ve tried to make it even stronger. After you’ve explored a variety of melodies you can always go back to your first melody—if that’s the one you prefer.

Remember: If you don’t give the decision-makers and your listeners a reason to choose your songs over the competition—they won’t. Rewrite your melodies until they are distinctive, fresh and instantly memorable. Push the creative envelope while remaining consistent with the genres you’re targeting. Don’t settle for less than your very best. Your career is riding on it.

Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting SuccessThis Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (all publishing by Billboard Books), and he has produced a series of instructional songwriting audio CDs. His songs are on albums that have sold more than 50 million copies, and he is among the few writers to ever have his songs on the pop, R&B, and country charts all at the same time. Jason’s songs have been recorded by diverse artists including Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, and country music stars including the Oak Ridge Boys, John Berry (earning a BMI Million-Air Award for exceeding one million airplays), and Collin Raye (6 cuts). He most recently had two top 10 hits in Europe with Dutch star, BYentl, and his songs have been included in top television shows including “Scrubs,” “Friday Night Lights,” “The Guiding Light,” Disney’s “Kim Possible,” and “the Miss America Pageant.”

In addition to developing and teaching the BMI Nashville Songwriters Workshop, Blume has presented master classes at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (founded by Sir Paul McCartney), and in Ireland, Scandinavia, Australia, Canada, Bermuda, Jamaica, and throughout the U.S., in addition to co-leading the Nashville Songwriters Association’s annual song camps. His latest book, This Business of Songwriting, Revised 2nd Edition has just been released and is available atwww.jasonblume.com, with e-books available at Amazon.com.

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Understanding Preproduction: The Key To Making Meaningful Recordings | Gibson.com

Ted Drozdowski

Preproduction is the ultra-important process of getting everything in place to make the best album possible. It has an indelible impact on the recording process and the quality of the album that results. The sad fact is, it is overlooked entirely or in part by most new artists and by a shocking number of established recording and touring acts. That’s a major reason why so many albums suck. A lack of preparedness always results in mediocrity, whether you’re a garage band or Bob Dylan.
Cerwin-Vega cvm 1224_If you’re planning to record an album and you’re interested in creating something that has artistic value and integrity, consider this article a nudge in that direction. And remember one overall rule: if at all possible, do not rush any of the steps of the preproduction process. And if you need help making decisions along the way, seek it out, whether in the form of a producer or a knowledgeable friend with a broader grasp of the fundamentals of recording, arranging, songwriting and project management.

Another thing to consider is that there are no absolutes in preproduction other than the need to fully understand the artist involved and the nature and goals of the album being recorded. That dictates exactly what needs to be done for each project. Understand also that all of these elements are typically approached concurrently, which helps give a project momentum and establish a clearer overall picture of the final results.

This is complex, so let’s try to break it down into a few areas of discussion:

• The Artist: Every album that’s meaningful says something about who a band or artist is. Green Day’s American Idiot, for example, defines the group as thoughtful, socially committed individuals with an anti-authority attitude who use punk-rock-based music as a mode of expression. Tom Waits’ Bad As Me reveals him as a poetic writer and musical character actor with a wide berth of reference points on the search for new musical narrative forms – but with a strong foundation in established forms — and committed to experimentation. Nevermind defines Nirvana as a punk and classic rock fueled band, interested in examining the human condition and celebrating individuality, but in a way that is clearly accessible to more than a cult audience.

It’s easy to back analyze albums this way, but to really understand one’s own music and how it should crystallize in the studio requires self-examination, which means artists needs to have a sense about where their roots lie, what motivates them to create as they do, and other important factors.

A good producer can help an artist figure this out. And a good producer will spend time seeing live performances and getting to know a band or artist before entering the studio. Sure, there’s always the option to just go in and blast down a bunch of songs and hope for the best, but “the best” is easier to achieve when there is an attuned sensibility guiding the project that’s based on understanding the artist that’s recording. And that sensibility can belong to a producer or to the artist him- or herself.

• The Songs: If you’re doing two or three songs so you’ve got a demo to get regional gigs with or to get played on the local college station, there’s nothing wrong with going in and blasting those songs down. But if your goal is to make a good album that has artistic merit, material should be carefully culled and cultivated.

This process can be as simple as sifting through songs that have been written and demo’d in advance (making demos is important and educational, regardless of one’s experience level) or as complicated as soliciting tunes from outside songwriters, sifting through the recordings of other artists or finding a co-writer with whom to pen the necessary numbers. Only a genius should write songs in the studio, as the clock ticks and costs rise.

If you’re planning to make an album or producing an album for another artist, make sure you have more songs on hand than you need. And if you’re producing, you need to have songwriting chops so you can fix things that don’t work in lyrics and arrangements.

Ideally, start with 18 to 20 songs for a projected 10- to 12-song album, and winnow those down to the best. There’s nothing like playing songs in advance live to learn if they’ll stand the test of an audience or the studio. And if you’re producing, seeing a band live can provide fantastic insights for arrangements, rewriting and more — as can good demos on GarageBand or fully audible live recordings from the board or other sources. If a song doesn’t feel right for any reason, don’t force the issue. File the song away for later, since more performances or musical growth might reveal the improvements it needs to rise above the pack.

• The Experience Level: Not every band or artist is ready to make an album. If you’re not ready for the studio, don’t force it. Bad recordings exist on the Internet, on YouTube and on CDs for a long, long time. And they will be held against you. It’s best to wait until your playing is dependable enough to generate solid results. Try to be dispassionate in judging your or your band’s abilities.

Practice, playing live gigs and working on fundamental weaknesses can be viewed as long-term preproduction strategies, at a basic level. Doing demos on GarageBand or another simple hard-drive based recording system — or even live recordings on a Zoom or other self-contained, easy to use recording device — is a great way to prepare for the studio.

A good producer will level with an inexperienced band or artist, offer them some advice and be available later when they’re really ready to make an album.

• The Cast: A good producer or a self-aware band or artist will also know when to look outside for musicians in order to realize the best recordings possible. Think of the producer or artist spearheading the recording project — and there should always be just one person who is the ultimate creative decision maker — as a casting director. He or she needs to know who to call to play the right role in the recordings.

Always get the best players your connections and your budget afford. Always. And if you’re not sure who you need to play that Hammond B-3 organ part, or who the best local musical saw maestro is, ask friends and other artists for leads. These don’t have to be high-priced session musicians and perhaps shouldn’t be if you’re looking for something outside the box. They can be club players and mavericks, too — just like you.

A good producer should have a contact list that covers just about all requirements, including the phone number for the right engineer for a project, if that producer isn’t also manning the mikes and faders.

Thinking beyond the limitations of one’s own band is an important growth point for an artist. It is a sign that the music the artist makes has taken on a life of its own that extends beyond a comfort zone and regular reference points. It is a sign of creative maturity.

• The Studio: These days it’s possible to make cool albums in a bedroom. Tom Waits once used a metal Quonset hut in the desert as a makeshift studio. But it’s often hard to beat a professional or, at least, well developed home studio for big sounds, due to the design of live recording rooms and the selection of microphones, compressors and other cool gear that good studios should offer.

When looking for a studio, consider your budget for the project — including food, lodging and transportation for musicians; determine whether the cost includes the engineer and other personnel; you might want to investigate credit or payment terms; and if it has any meaning for you, look at the gear list. If you’re not technically informed, read the list of artists who have recorded there. That will be revealing, since each of them also went through the process of choosing a studio. And listen to recordings made in the studio. When the stars align, you’ll know.

Also, don’t go in over your head. These days very, very few indie albums recoup their recording costs. It’s simply the nature of the business and the times.

• The Goals: Know why you’re making an album before you start a recording project. Do you simply want a calling card for your band? Do you want to make an album that will take you to the next level? Do you want to compile recordings that might be ripe for film, TV and other synch licensing? Do you want to make a profound artistic statement?

All of these considerations may require different strategies — strategies that affect what kind of songs you’ll record, how you’ll record them, how many tunes will be part of the project, whether guest “stars” are appropriate, how you’ll mix… the list goes on.

Understanding a project’s goals – the “Big Why” in making an album — is very, very important. And many artists in today’s absurdly difficult music business environment haven’t answered that “Why” or even thought clearly about it.

For example, if you independently released an album 10 months ago that was never promoted to radio or marketed, sold only a couple hundred copies and is mostly sitting in boxes in your basement, why — in practical terms — would you consider making a new album? And yet so many artists and bands do, and slide down a slope of frustration and debt. Understanding why you’re making an album and analyzing the likely outcomes is a way to avoid both of those demons.

10 Foolproof Ways to Critique Your Own Songs | BMI

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How to analyze your lyrics and melody to craft a stronger song.

By Cliff Goldmacher

Early on in my songwriting career, I considered it a minor miracle that I could create a song in the first place. However, once I got a little more used to performing that particular magic trick, it became necessary to start to refine my process a bit further. In other words, it was no longer enough just to have created a song. Now I had to go back and tweak, edit, fix, and otherwise polish my songs until I was confident I’d exhausted every option to improve them. Here, I’ve put together a list of 10 things for you to examine when critiquing your songs in order to make them both lyrically and melodically stronger.

The Lyric

1. Do you have a strong opening line?

The opening line of your song is the first and best chance to engage your listener in the story you’re about to tell. Strong opening lines explain the where, what, and who of your story and will eventually lead to the “why” the story is being told. Make sure your opening line is designed to start your listener down the road to getting involved in the story you’re telling.

2. Are you using concrete imagery?

One of the best ways to put a listener immediately into the middle of your song’s story is to use strong imagery. I’ve also heard this imagery called “furniture.” These images are the details in a lyric that give your listener things to remember and connect with. Generally speaking, imagery is reserved for the verses where the meat of your story is being told. Choruses are designed to state the main point or theme of your song.  Another way to think about imagery is to “show ‘em, not tell ‘em.” What that means is that it’s less effective to say, for example, she was a seductive woman but she was bad news than it is to describe her as “a black heart in a green dress.”

3. Are your lyrics singable?

By the way, it’s not enough to tell a good story with your lyric. It’s equally important to make sure that the words you use are easy to sing and phrase naturally. I’ve also heard this put as making sure your lyric is “conversational.” Lyrics that are awkward or emphasize the wrong syllables pull a listener’s ear in a bad way. There’s a reason the word “baby” is in almost every song ever written … those long “a” and “e” sounds are great and easy to sing. Another way to put this is that you won’t find the word “Nicaragua” popping up in a lot of hit songs.

4. How effective is your hook?

By way of explanation, the main point and identifier of your song can be referred to as the hook. In other words, it is the part of the lyric that reaches out and grabs the listener.  Make sure that along with the story you’re telling, the hook is clear and doing its job.  Often the lyrical hook of the song is also its title. It’s that important.

5. Does your chorus have a strong last line?

There are very few places in a song’s lyric more important than the last line of the chorus. This is the place where everything you’ve been leading up to in your verses and the first lines of your chorus pays off. It’s often the place where the hook is and usually leaves the listener satisfied that they understand your message. One important way to make the last line of your chorus count is to set it up with some kind of rhyme in one of the earlier chorus lines. That way, not only are the words important but they complete a rhyme, which adds extra emphasis.

6. Does the overall idea of your song work?

Often when we’ve worked on a lyric for a long time, it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees. In other words, we get so wrapped up in making things rhyme and using imagery that the overall concept of the song loses some of its focus. Make sure after you’ve finished your lyric that the overall message of the song is developed and supported in every line. While you, as the songwriter, already know your song’s story, you need to make doubly sure that a listener who is hearing your song for the first time will know what you’re talking about.

The Melody

7. Is your verse melody interesting?

Given that the melody of your song is one of the first things people hear and pay attention to (sorry lyricists, but the words come waaaay later), you’ll want to be sure that your verse melody is catchy and unique. This doesn’t mean your melody should be bizarre or uncomfortable but, rather, that it should be distinctive and memorable.

8. Does your chorus melody differ from your verse melody?

So much of what we do as songwriters is about giving the listener clues as to what the most important parts of our songs are. By making sure that your chorus melody is not only strong but differentiates itself from the verse melody, you’ll cue the listener in to the fact that you’ve arrived at the main musical – and lyrical – moment in the song.

9. Does your bridge add to the song?

A bridge is really designed as a moment in the song where you step away from the verses and choruses to make an additional lyrical observation or melodic contribution.  If your bridge melody sounds too much like your verse or chorus, even if the lyric is doing something new, the risk is that you’ll miss an opportunity to add something of value to an already strong song. All this to say, be sure that if you have a bridge, it’s musically apart from what you’ve been doing in your song’s other sections.

10. Does your melody flow naturally throughout the song?

Not only should the melody in each section of your song distinguish itself, but your overall melody should flow naturally from section to section. Be careful not to have a melody that is too repetitive. A little repetition is a good thing as it adds to the “hooky” nature of your song, but too much repetition becomes distracting and a bit unpleasant from the listener’s standpoint.  And be sure that your melody sits comfortably over the chords you’ve chosen. The harmonic – chordal – decisions you make can serve to either accentuate or hinder your melodic work.

Critiquing your own songs is often a time-consuming and somewhat frustrating experience. That said, it’s essential that you hold your songs up to the highest standard if you’re hoping to have a better chance at commercial success. I do want to remind you, however, that your first – and most important – job is to write the song.  Focusing on critiquing your song too early in the process might prevent you from writing something heartfelt and spontaneous. In my experience, it’s always easier to get it all out first and invite your “editor” to the party once you’re done.

Good luck!

Bio

Cliff Goldmacher is a songwriter, producer, session musician, engineer, author, and owner of recording studios in Nashville, TN and Sonoma, CA. Cliff’s site, http://www.EducatedSongwriter.com, is full of resources for the aspiring songwriter including monthly online webinars. Go tohttp://www.educatedsongwriter.com/webinar/ for the latest schedule.

Cliff’s company, http://www.NashvilleStudioLive.com, provides songwriters outside of Nashville with virtual access to Nashville’s best session musicians and singers for their songwriting demos.

You can download a FREE sample of Cliff’s eBook “The Songwriter’s Guide To Recording Professional Demos” by going to http://www.EducatedSongwriter.com/ebook.

Facebook: www.facebook.com/EducatedSongwriter

Twitter: edusongwriter

The Chords of 1300 Popular Songs | Indie-Music.com

For many people, listening to music elicits such an emotional response that the idea of dredging it for statistics and structure can seem odd or even misguided. But knowing these patterns can give one a deeper more fundamental sense for how music works; for me this makes listening to music a lot more interesting. Of course, if you play an instrument or want to write songs, being aware of these things is obviously of great practical importance.

In this article, we’ll look at the statistics gathered from 1300 choruses, verses, etc. of popular songs to discover the answer to a few basic questions. First we’ll look at the relative popularity of different chords based on the frequency that they appear in the chord progressions of popular music. Then we’ll begin to look at the relationship that different chords have with one another. For example, if a chord is found in a song, what can we say about the probability for what the next chord will be that comes after it?

via The Chords of 1300 Popular Songs | Indie-Music.com.

What Did We Know and When Did We Know It? by Bill Pere

 Reprinted with expressed permission from Bill Pere:

  The concepts discussed in this article are a part of the comprehensive analysis of songwriting presented in the complete book “Songcrafters’ Coloring Book: The Essential Guide to Effective and Successful Songwriting”, by Bill Pere.  For additional information or to order a copy, visit http://www.songcrafterscoloringbook.com

 

 

(More on this topic in the complete Songcrafters’ Coloring Book)

” What did he know and when did he know it? ”  This key question from the Watergate era brought down a President.  It can also bring down – or elevate – a song. Remember that the presentation of a song by a writer to a listener is a social interaction – a conversation of sorts.   Like any communication, if the songwriter cares about his/her message, the goal of the interaction is to forge a connection between singer and listener, so that both are on the same wavelength with common understanding.

Communication between people is propelled forward through a flow of information – whether you are telling a story, giving instruction, recounting your trip abroad,  or describing your aches and pains,  the listener stays engaged only as long as information is flowing in.   As soon as this inflow ceases, the listener’s attention goes elsewhere.  Would you continue to read a book or watch a movie if it was not providing you with new information that moved the story along and kept your attention?

The same principle applies in a song.   As long as information is flowing, the listener stays focused and engaged, drinking in that information to stimulate images, feelings, ideas, memories – all the things that songwriters’ want their listeners to experience.

In general, when a listener is hearing a song for the first time, you have about 30-45 seconds to ‘hook’ them and make a connection.   Great songs work because they have a tremendous amount of information flowing to the listener in the first few lines.   By the end of the first verse, we usually know a lot about who/what/where/when/why/how.

Consider each syllable in a lyric as a prime real estate lot,  and your job as the developer is to get as much use out of each lot as possible.  For each line and each phrase of your song, ask   “What does the listener now know?”   This is your key to a successful song .
Songwriting great Gretchen Peters said in an interview  that writing a song is  “almost like haiku, you have to really, really tear things down (to the essentials).

If a line does not introduce new information, it is not moving the song forward, so why is it there?   If it is there just to take up space, or just because you needed a rhyme, you are wasting valuable real estate.  Make each line work for you, to keep a sense of forward motion.   Listeners do not have long attention spans.  You need to do all that you can to earn their attention, and then reward them with a constant flow of interesting information.

There are some key pieces of information that are essential in any song.  Whenever a character is introduced in a lyric, whether by name or by “he/she/you/they”,  the listener quickly needs to know who the person is, what their relationship is to the singer and/or other characters, and why they are saying what they are saying (or why something is being said about them) i.e. what is the current and/or past situation that led to these words being said?     In short, why should the listener care about the character?   Without those pieces of information, any character in a song is a distant stranger with whom we don’t see a reason to connect.

Information about when and where it’s all happening may or may not be essential, but those bits of detail usually provide a sensory anchor for the listener.  Most great songs provide a sense of when and where.

When I discuss this in workshops, this is usually the point where some says “You can’t possibly fit all that information into the first few lines of a song…”    Well, you can if you are a great songwriter.   Let’s look at some examples:

Here are the opening lines of “Harry and Joe” from the pen of multi-Emmy Award winner A.J. Gundell:

 

Harry and Joe went South with their wives enjoying the golden years of their lives

But life doesn’t always pay back what it owes  and suddenly, there was just Harry and Joe

In those few words, there is a tremendous amount of information, which is shown, not told to us.   At each phrase, ask yourself “What do I now know?”

Harry and Joe went South with their wives

(There are 4 people, two married couples, who are traveling or relocating)

 enjoying the golden years of their lives

(They are happy and elderly, most likely moving to Florida)

But life doesn’t always pay back what it owes

(Something unexpected and negative happened)

and suddenly, there was just Harry and Joe

(The two wives passed away)

The current situation and backstory of four strangers is conveyed to you in a burst of information that has sensory and emotional impact.  Now it makes perfect sense to get to the chorus which says:

Harry and Joe, they lean to and fro

They lean on each other wherever they go

Two lonely fighters doing all that they know

To get through each day, Harry and Joe.

How about this gem of opening lines from “Skin”, by Joe Henry and Doug Johnson:

SaraBeth is scared to death to hear what the doctor will say

She hasn’t been well since the day that she fell, and the bruise, it just won’t go away…”

What do we know?   A girl names SaraBeth is at a medical facility awaiting a diagnosis.

You know she is terrified.   You know she had a fall awhile ago and hasn’t been right since.  And you know she probably has cancer (leukemia).

Again, in a few phrases, we know the current situation and the backstory of the character.  We are invited into the song to accompany this person on the journey she is about to take. Getting all this information out in the beginning allows the writer the luxury of using all the rest of the song to develop the tale.

True to the key songwriting principle of show, don’t tell, the song never uses the word ‘cancer’.  In general, a song about something specific like cancer,  or abuse, or divorce, or  pollution, or addiction etc, should never need to actually use the word.   We should know by what we are shown that this is what it’s about.

Just follow the simple rule that any time something new mentioned ( a character, an incident, a memory, an idea) the listener needs to know right away all the relevant information about it .    Don’t delay it, don’t omit it.     Be especially wary of words like “the truth” , or “the past” or “that day” or worst of all, “It”.  Do not “it” unless we clearly know what “it” refers to.

Words like this are often used in a lyric to encompass some major set of circumstances and details that you know about, but be mindful that your listener knows absolutely none of it.   Once you use a word like that you have to explain it right away.  Best to avoid it and just show the listener what you see in your mind’s eye. (show, don’t tell).

Here’s another prime example from Rachel Proctor’s poignant tale of “Me and Emily”

Floor boards filled with baby toys, empty coke bottles and coffee cups 
 Driving through the rain with no radio trying not to wake her up
 Cell phone says low battery god what if I break down 
 Just looking for an exit with a lot of lights and a safe little Interstate town 
 Just a cheep hotel with a single bed and a cable TV is good enough for me and Emily 

Within the first two lines we know the two people are an adult (the singer) and a sleeping baby. They have been driving for some time and it's raining. 
The next lines tell us that it's  night, there is a sense of desperation, they are running from something, they don't have much money, the girl is Emily, and the singer is probably her mom trying to keep her safe from something.    We know all this by what we are shown, not what we are directly told.

Here’s another information-rich opening verse from Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”.

Hot August night, and the trees hanging down and the grass on the ground smellin’ sweet

Move up the road to the outside of town and the sound of that good gospel beat”
Sits a ragged tent where there ain;t no trees
And that Gospel group telling you and me…..(to chorus)

It’s Brother Love’s Traveling Salvati0on Show….

In these lines, (which also contain 6 rhymes, plus assonance and alliteration),  we know When (August, night);   Where (edge of the road leading out of the town);  What is going on (gospel music);  and How the air smells (sweet, grassy);  In the scene change: “Move up the road to the outside of town” , as the visual camera moves, the listener is brought along, and we hear a new sound, i.e. singing from a ragged tent in a clearing.   In this lyric,  the information is focused on setting a scenario, providing detailed sights, sounds and smells, so that  “you and me”  are invited into the same vivid world.

This type of lyric writing is both journalistic and cinematic, like describing the world through movie cameras where the lenses can zoom in and out and scenes can pan and cut between locations and characters, providing all the relevant information.  It is the art of using words to reach the visual centers of the listener’s mind.  And considering how many people go to movies, rent videos, and watch TV and live events, it makes for effective lyric writing.

How about this amazing bit of writing from the first verse James Taylor’s “Millworker”:

My grandfather was a sailor, he blew in off the water

My father was a farmer. and I, his only daughter

I took up with a no good  millworking man from Massachusetts

Who dies from too much whiskey and leaves me these three faces to feed.

In this brief opening to the song, we meet seven people across four generations!  We know their occupations and their relationships to each other.  We know who is singing the song (the daughter), that she is widowed, how her husband died, and her current situation. With all that rich information in the opening lines of the song, the writer not only has the listener’s attention, but now has the luxury of the entire rest of the song to use valuable syllable real-estate for imagery and character development.     This is song crafting at its finest.

Contrast these examples with some of the typical lyrics I get from writers asking me if I think their song will positively impact a listener:

Make yourself be quiet, something has touched you

It wants to know you hear the secret they whisper today

You’re pulled apart by a vision that still haunts you

As you continue your journey along that winding path

What do we know after these four lines?  How many people are we introduced to?

There is the singer, the “you”, and  a “they”.  Three people.   What do we know about any of them?  NOTHING.

What other pieces of information do we have?  There is a ‘secret’, a ‘vision’ and a ‘winding path’.   Do we know anything about these?  NO.   Do we know where we are, when we are, or why any of this is being said ?  NO.

This puts us in a situation where after a complete verse (usually 30-45 seconds) we have zero information and lots of unanswered questions.   Now, this is not yet hopeless – if we immediately get into a chorus that answers all of those questions, we can move on.    But if we do not provide satisfactory information here and now, the listener realizes that the writer has all the relevant details locked in his/her head, and is not sharing them The impact on the listener is one of confusion and being kept on the outside. No connection.

Another example of words with no connection:

I sit in our place thinking of then

Now is now and I know the truth

I should have seen what they tried to say

But it was what it was that day

What do we know?   Nothing.  Lots of references – three people, a place, a time, a situation,  but these references only raise questions without providing answers.  Wasted real estate,  with the blight of “it” in line 4.

There are many great songs which delay the big impact , i.e., the ‘payoff’,   until the end or unfold the tale a bit at a time.  That is a great way to craft a classic song.  However, just because the payoff comes at the end, you still have to get the listener hooked from the beginning and get them to stay with you through the whole song. .   The specifics of the situation that lead to the payoff have to be presented right up front, and each line has to move the song forward, constantly releasing new bits of information.  This how the

eight-to-eleven minute masterpieces of writers like Harry Chapin and Dan Fogelberg keep the listener rapt for that whole time.  Great examples of the payoff-at-the-end technique are Gretchen Peters’ “Independence Day”,    “Concrete Angel”  by Rob Crosby and Stephanie Bentley, or the above-mentioned songs  “Skin” and “Me and Emily”.

At this point in a live workshop, I usually hear someone ask:  “So what about all the popular songs out there that really don’t have a high information content?”

Remember that popularity and good songwriting are two separate parameters (discussed in detail in Songcrafters’ Coloring Book).   There are many reasons other than good songwriting as to why a song can become popular:  (a) popularity of the artist;  (b) major promotion by a record company; (c)  tapping into a current fad, trend, or event;  (d) visual enhancement (a music video,  live performance, or movie placement);  (e) smart internet marketing; (f) music business connections/relationships;  (g) a great production/arrangement.

Average or even mediocre songs become big hits through all of these factors.  Popularity does not make them well-written songs.   Just think, that if a not-so-well-written song is popular and making money, how much more would it make, how much longer life would it have, and how much more respect would it get if it were actually well-written too?

As an independent artist, you are competing with a huge number of other artists who are trying to do exactly what you are doing.   You don’t have an unlimited corporate budget or inside connections to turn average songs into hits, so you have just one means of beating the competition – be a great songwriter.  There are many great musicians, many great performers, many great producers – but a great songwriter is much more rare, and rarity means value.

View your songs as a conversation with someone whose interest you want to hold.

Bring your listeners into your world by putting yourself in their shoes and experiencing your songs from their perspective.  As you look at what you have written, go line by line and ask “What do we know, and when do we know it?”

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Bill Pere was named one of the “Top 50 Innovators, Groundbreakers and Guiding Lights of the Music Industry”  by Music Connection Magazine.  With more than 30 years in the music business, as a recording artist, award winning songwriter, performer, and educator Bill is well known  for his superbly crafted  lyrics, with lasting impact.   Bill has released 16 CD’s , and is President of the Connecticut Songwriters Association.  Bill is an Official Connecticut State Troubadour, and is the Founder and Executive Director of the LUNCH Ensemble. Twice named Connecticut Songwriter of the Year, Bill is a qualified MBTI practitioner, trained by the Association for Psychological Type. He is  a member of CMEA and MENC,  and as Director of the Connecticut Songwriting Academy,  he helps develop young talent in songwriting,  performing, and learning about the music business.  Bill’s song analyses and critiques are among the best in the industry.  Bill has a graduate degree in Molecular Biology, an ARC Science teaching certification, and he has received two awards for Outstanding contribution to Music Education.  The New York Times calls Bill “the link between science and music”.

 

 © Copyright 2012 Bill Pere.  All Rights Reserved.  This article may not be reproduced in any way with out permission of the author.  For workshops, consultation, performances,  or other songwriter services,  contact Bill via his web sites, at http://www.billpere.com, http://www.ctsongwriting.com, and http://www.lunchensemble.com

How and Why to Hire a Producer

Major record labels always hire producers when organizing a recording project for one of their artists. This suggests that there is are very good reasons to have one. Record labels, above all, never waste money! Today, more and more artists find themselves recording on a small label or entirely independently. Can someone like you take a tip from the large labels to help ensure the success of your project? Hiring a producer may just provide the edge you need.

But, what is a producer? You know who the other players in the recording process are. There’s you, the artist, any session players, and the recording engineer. You know what you and the musicians do, and you know that the engineer sets up the mics and does all the knob twiddling to get the sound recorded. So what is left for a producer to do?

Fundamentally, the producer’s job is to help you achieve the recording that you (and your label) set out to make. This may sound like the engineer’s role, but many elements other than purely sonic clarity go into the crafting of your final product. On the music side of things, these may include songwriting and arrangement adjustments, as well as coaching musicians and coaxing peak musical performances. In the control room, there are decisions to be made about sonic treatment and creative mixes, while style and popular idiom must be addressed in anticipation of marketing the disc. In short, the producer must keep an eye on the Big Picture. The engineer is already quite busy with the technical side of things, and isn’t necessarily listening with a view to the ultimate creative goals of the project. Further, recognize that it is extremely hard for any artist to maintain this view while in the thick of recording. This view requires an objectivity which is unfair to expect of yourself while pouring your heart into your performances. In essence, the producer is there to help keep you on track. The producer is the go-between: translating the artists’ needs, the engineers technical point of view, and sometimes the label’s interests.

The Great Producer

The Great Producer

The producer’s role is not limited to the recording studio. Ideally, a producer brings insight to the project’s songs long before recording starts. Many producers are talented arrangers and songwriters who can bolster your songs with their fresh ears. Similarly, producers have often been around the block a few times and have many helpful hints, or even connections, to help you promote your recording. For the indie recording artist, a producer is a good resource for guidance about publishing, mechanical royalties, performance rights, and referrals to the entertainment lawyers you will need.

Of course, there are many styles of producing. However, they can be broken down into three general descriptions which are helpful to think about as you begin looking for a producer. First is many an indie artist’s nightmare, producer as supreme dictator and superstar. Certainly such producers do exist, although they are much less common today as compared with the early days of rock and roll. Nowadays, superstar producers, such as Don Was, take a more collaborative approach. The second type of producer is the invisible or documentary style recordist. This producer aims to record just what has happened during a performance with as little influence or intrusion on the events as possible. This is a rare bird in rock music as well, but is quite a common approach to classical, jazz, and even blues recording where the style of music or the written music helps define the style of listening experience expected by the consumer. The third style which is most common and best suited to rock and roll is producer as creative partner with the artist. This often brings together the talents and experience of an outsider with the creativity and vision of the artist. Let us assume that if you were to hire a producer you would choose “producer as creative partner”. After all, it is unlikely that you want to give up all control of your project, but similarly if you’re going to hire someone you want someone who can add creativity and depth to the recording.

How do I choose a producer who will work well with me? This is a very personal judgment, but certain general principles apply. Think of this process just as you would think about hiring a new musician. Recognize ahead of time what you expect the producer to do for you and think about how someone might best help you with your project. Begin your search with some professional history of each candidate producer. Get a list of credits, listen to past projects, talk to past clients. Remember, however, that these are just starting points and the best basis for your choice will be mutual “fit”.

If you were hiring a new bass player you might consider many factors: can he sing, does she know the style you play, does he have the look, do you all get along, can she both learn the material and contribute to it? Similarly, ask yourself after meeting with a producer: does he like my music, does she get my music? You want someone who is enthusiastic about your material and knows your genre. Does he offer criticism and is it constructive? You don’t want a wimp who won’t tell you honestly what is good and what isn’t. At the same time you need someone who is sensitive to your pride as a group and as a songwriter. Does his perspective seem helpful? After all, his suggestions must seem to you to be an improvement over the way things were.

When you boil it down, a producer is most helpful in assuring that your project arrives where you want it because of her unique position. The producer is a creative partner who will work hard with you to bring out the best you and your material can be. At the same time, he is a relative outsider, not so involved as to be blinded by love of the material. This crucial combination of creativity and objectivity is what hiring a producer is all about. Since time began, runners have needed coaches, orchestras have needed conductors, and likely your next project would benefit from the perspective of a producer.

The joy of producing

There are moments when you really remember why you do this shit. Of course, there’s a lot of BS in this business, probably in any business. But, when it all comes together, it’s something! I mean, it doesn’t even have to be a big thing. In fact, maybe even better when it’s not.

Yesterday, I went to the rehearsal space of one my my bands, The Motion Sick. We’re working on their upcoming EP for Naked Ear Records. Many of their songs I’ve heard them play at shows, but two in particular were new to me, and largely to them as well. They are good songs, but each needed to be solidified. I sat in that tiny room (thank god for ear plugs – and not the foamies either) for at least an hour while they played, saying nothing. Then, with a few suggestions and supportive comments to the drummer and lead guitar player, the songs were transformed.

I rarely dictate. I think it is a sign of insecurity in a producer. It’s the client’s music and they hire you to help them maximize it. I have very definite opinions, and I offer them. But, in the end, it’s best when they try my ideas, and see for themselves that they really bolster what they were already doing (or trying to do).

Yesterday’s rehearsal was like that. Just a few careful remarks, and it all fell into place. They guys knew it too. It just felt right. I was beaming ear to ear! I love this job.