May 25

Have you ever been in a situation where you’re nowhere near any type of recording device and a great melody pops into your head? I don’t mean just any melody, I mean The One.(<—don’t be afraid, click the link)

You’ve been searching for that melody all your life. The one that will define you. The one that will take your music into a new direction. The one that’s destined to make everyone who hears it sit agape in amazement (or amazed in agapement if you prefer).

Awww, but you’ve got nothing to record it on.

Now, for those fortunate enough to be able to properly read music, all you need is a bit of paper and a pen to jot down the phrases. I imagine the majority of songwriters, especially guitar playing songwriters, aren’t as adept at musical notation as we’d like to be. Personally, I’m horrible at it.

When you haven’t got that in your bag of tricks it’s like getting a flat tire on the highway and you’ve got a tool box full of the world’s greatest hammers and screwdrivers, but you’ve got no tire iron.

Now would be a good time to know a Genie.

But wait a minute, to hell with portable tape recorders, what about digital technology? I’m not talking super high tech either. I’m talking about stuff you use on a daily basis. Many cell phones have recorders in them these days. If you’re like me, though, you’re damned if you can figure out how to use them. Though I cartainly know how to use voicemail. ;-)

Try this. Call yourself on the phone and say something like:

“Hello, Self?

Is that you?

Good, I’m glad I got you when you weren’t home.

You see there’s this melody in my head and I’ve got nothing to record it on, and I was reading this great blog that you really ought to be reading, as a matter of fact, you need to tell all your friends about adventuresinsongwriting.com. Well it was talking about using technology and I figured it sounded like a great idea.

So anyway, this is what I have in my head. It goes something like thi…..”

(IF YOU’RE SATISFIED WITH YOUR MESSAGE AND WANT TO SEND IT, PRESS THE # KEY. IF YOU’D LIKE TO RE-RECORD YOUR MESSAGE, PRESS THE * KEY.)

Ugh, Don’t you just hate when that happens? Yes, unlike this blog post, it’s a good idea to get right to the point. To hell with the entertainment value, you say. You’re the only one who reads this blog in the first place.

Sing or hum your melody into the voicemail. Oh yeah, it might be a good idea to call the number first and leave a message saying to anyone at home that might be checking messages, that you’ll be doing this and to not delete it. That would be frustrating.

Come to think of it, if you’re not sure whether the messages get played as last in-first out or first in- last out, you might want to leave a message before and after you record your little ditty. No doubt your family already knows that doing ridiculous things like this is normal for you. If not, then it’s time they learned the truth. ;-)

Ok, so now that you’ve got that voicemail recording you think you’re out of the woods. Hmmm, you say. Not so sure? Well you can always call a friend and do the same thing on their voicemail, but now we’re talking crazy here. Where would it all end?

You may want to try something else to help you remember the tune. Think about what tunes it reminds you of. Maybe a part of one song and a part of another song. If you have pen and paper around, write down anything that can help you remember that tune.

Try writing things like this to show accents: DAH dah DAH dah, dah dah DAH dah. The sky’s the limit. Remember, you know yourself best, and sometimes we have our own little languages or idiosyncratic codes that not even the CIA can decipher.

Though truth be told, who’s got that kind of time?

Or you could start over and just write about the one that got away. ;-)

-V

May 19

We live in a fast world. Technologies can be obsolete six months after you finally break down and buy a product. We want easy this and easy that. We get annoyed if the microwave seems to go too slowly. “Hey, c’mon, cook! I have things to do, I don’t have all minute!”

Similarly, I’ve known people over the years that love to write, and they are somewhat prolific in that they write a lot. The unfortunate thing is for some writers, they never re-write. Whether it’s lyrics or music, most often, this wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am approach doesn’t work.

I’ve sat down many times and had a rush of ideas flow out. It’s magic when it happens actually. The pouring out of lyrics, twists of phrase, point-counterpoint, double entendre, pun burgers with extra cheese is exhilarating. Many times though, I’ve re-read what I’ve written wondering what it was all about. It sure seemed good and well connected at the time.

How does that happen? Well the brain works faster than your microwave. Lucky for us too, or our ancestors would’ve been eaten and you wouldn’t be reading this.

Short attention span writing. Lyrical ADD. Hey, wait a minute…. you know what? Maybe, it doesn’t happen to most people. Maybe it just happens to me? Hmmm, well….the can’s open so let’s follow this worm.

One thought leads to another, etc. etc. and you’re done. Then you pick up your instrument and either try to find something to fit a melody, or a background so you can try to sing a melody. Now, this approach can work, but rarely does it work in a first go round, at least for me. Even with a nap in between.

I’ve got to go back over the lyric and ask myself what the most important points are. Hopefully I’ll find at least one. Hopefully, I’ll still be interested at this point, again, short attention span writing (SASW) at work here. If I do, then I try to re-work the lyrics around it, whether it’s a verse or chorus, to find a way to support it.

That’s really all you need in a section. One central idea, and supporting lyrics. Seems simple enough. Simpler still is finding one idea to write a song around. The difficulty is finding an idea that’s not been done too many times before.

Here’s an example from a band I love called Dada from their Puzzle Album:

Dada – Puzzle

The song I’m referring to is “Dim” and the first line grabbed my attention when I noticed the original way they handled the “photograph memory” concept. Talking about photos as a way to remember past loves is an idea that’s been done over and over in many ways so hearing an original way to phrase it made my ears perk up.

Incidentally, it’s the line that turned me onto this band in the first place.

Here’s the line:

If you’ve got a picture of your face, could you leave it on your way out the door?
I don’t care if it’s color or black and white. I just need something to remember you by.”

Brilliant, yes? Here’s a link to a clip so you can hear it in context:

Dim

So, SASW be damned, you’ve got to find that main point and say it differently. As an exercise, write a line, then try to say the same thing 5 different ways. It’s not that easy. Well, not that easy if you’re trying to be clever each time.

That’s one of the skills that separates good writers and average writers.

Too many times I’ve heard people say, “it is what it is” (I’d like to slap the first person who came up with that little gem). Often when I hear people say that I wonder if they’re really saying, “I no longer have any interest in improving this song, I’m tired of it now and I want to do something else.”

 Knowing when to stop is difficult whether you’re writing, painting, cooking, you name it.  The questions I always ask myself are, “Did I have a point?” and “Did I make and support it?”

Understandably there’s a lot more that goes into writing a good song. Finding a good hook can be even more important, but that’s too important not to address in it’s own topic.

 Just because you filled up the page, doesn’t mean you’re done. It also doesn’t mean you should save everything. Stay focused on the job at hand. Write, re-write, let someone look at it and critique it, rewrite it again.

 Eventually you’ll reduce it to the right consistency. I know I should’ve said something earlier about “making a sauce” or something culinary and clever to make that statement tie it all in, but I got distracted by something shiny.

 -V

May 12

A great melody rarely pops into my head all by itself. For me, I’ve got to coax it out like trying to get my cat to take his medicine.

When I write, or when I’m faced with finding the right melody for a song written by a friend or someone I’m collaborating with, I doodle on the piano as I’m listening to the chords play over and over. Usually it’s just the verse chords at first, then something for the chorus.

Granted that’s fine if the song is a chord based song, but if it’s a riff based guitar song, or melodic piano number, well then I work it differently. I prefer trying to fine a simple vocal melody to support or complement the guitar riff or piano rather than using a richer or more complex melody.

It’s all about spotlighting. Something has to take center stage. If not, you can run the risk of everything sounding like an orchestra tuning up. Too much can be too much. Now, that’s not to say that one can’t find a rich vocal melody and overlay it onto the guitar or piano melody, but then it all becomes an issue of placement. Don’t upstage your own song.

Some people will tell you that a good rule of thumb is there are no rules, and everything works just try everything. As a matter of fact, I believe I stated that in an earlier blog post. Hmm, maybe it is me I’m talking about. Well, that shouldn’t surprise many of you, it’s always about me. ;-)

Too many things going on at the same time can be a 3 ring circus. I remember when I was a kid and went to one I was surprised that they had so many things going on at the same time. Even then I thought that maybe each act by itself wasn’t really all that good to begin with.

I wrote this line for a song once (ended up becoming one of those fragments):

You can never see so clear until your head’s above the water, only then can you distinguish the surface from the flood.

Maybe it wasn’t a good enough line for me to use in a song, but for me it always rang true.

Consider this: When you look at a drawing, it’s the space between the lines that makes you see the line. I learned a while ago when I started painting that it’s all about the underdrawing. It’s not always about what you draw, either. It’s also what you erase. Negative space is part of the overall composition.

A painter composes a painting so that the viewer’s eye follows a specific path. Take a look at this painting by the Dutch painter Vermeer called “Girl with a Pearl Earring”:

Girl with a Pearl Earring

In this painting, the viewer’s eye naturally falls on the girls face, particularly her eyes, circling around the face to her lips. Then the viewer is drawn to the headscarf, following down the drape of it to the coat and back up to the face (the resolve).As a matter of fact, I had an art teacher tell me that the Dutch Masters used to compete against one another to create paintings that would cause your eyes to circle round and round in the painting. The thought at the time was the longer a persons eyes would stay in the painting, the better the piece was, the more likely the person was to buy it.

What does this have to do with songwriting? The drawing is the song. The painting is the melody.

Become a mental painter.

In my opinion, it’s a good song that get’s stuck in your head and won’t leave (though there are terribly annoying songs that do that in a different way). That’s the same as having someone’s ears staying in the tune. The focal points are here, there and ev… um,…. all around it. :-)

Negative space in a song can be useful, allowing you to spotlight certain parts. It allows you to create focal points.

So, as it is written: go forth and multiply. Remember to create spaces, add your color, pick some focal points (lyrical or melodic) and you might find the song getting stuck in your head.

-V

May 5

If you’re like me there have been times when you sat in front of a blank piece of paper or screen, knowing that you want to write something, but nothing’s coming.

It happens to every writer, whether it’s music, lyrics, articles or a blog posting. ;-)

The dreaded writers’ block.

OK, so what? We all have it you say. You’re probably asking yourself, why would I want to read about writers’ block? Well, the point of this is not to explain how frustrating it is but to show you some ways you may be able to get around it. These have worked well for me in the past. Invariably, if I ever get blocked, it’s because I forgot about these little tricks.

There are many reasons people get blocked. Many aren’t having anything to do with whether or not you’ve got something to say. Often, you can be blocked because it’s not a convenient time to write, or  there are family issues or interruptions, or your tired or sick. Those situations you can’t always help.

Sometimes a block isn’t really a block, it’s just being undecided.

It’s on the tip of your tongue and it’s almost like your mind is flipping through channels trying to settle on something and there’s nothing on the tube.

Let’s face it, there are billions of subjects and settling on one is a daunting task. That being the case, realize it’s not your fault.

You’re not losing your mojo, your muse didn’t leave you for a younger writer with a better pencil and most of all, you’ve not gone blank. Basically you’re just at a crossroads on the verbal interstate and you don’t know which turn to take.

Consider this as I stretch this metaphor to the point of breaking: it doesn’t matter which road to take, you’ll still end up at a worthwhile destination. Even if you take a turn, double back and take another one you’re still traveling.

I’ve heard this before (it helps if you picture a whiny sarcastic voice)” It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”. As cliche as it sounds, it couldn’t be more accurate.

Try this: pick a subject, any subject and write a line.Then stop writing. Flip to a new page and write a line about something different and stop again. Flip to a new page, etc. You will automatically know when to stop doing this.

What’s happening is you’re getting your thoughts moving. Kind of forcefully, true, but they’re moving.

If you’ve ever gotten stuck in a snowbank, you’ll understand this right away. The best way to get out of it is to go forward, then reverse,then forward again. Rocking it back and forth until you gain enough momentum and before you know it, you’re on the road.

OK, so now  you’ve stopped turning pages because you got to a point where you could expand on the first line. Congratulations, you’ve settled on a subject. Realize that’s the biggest hurdle. Now decide what to say about it.

That’s not as difficult, but it can seem that way and if you still think you’re blocked you’ll be back thinking about your missing mojo and your pencil envy. Don’t let that happen.

Understand that everything you write doesn’t have to be wisdom handed down from the sages. Remember the Ramones? Lots of hits with simple songs.

You might say, “Well that’s not what I write. I write meaningful lyrics with well constructed passages, I write blah de blah blah blah.”

Big freaking deal. Take yourself down a peg or two. Your high horse is making you afraid you’ll fall.

Write a crap song and have fun with it. I once wrote a song called (I’ll be forever ashamed) “Sally No One Saves it Anymore”. Yeah, I know, I know…..ugh.

Ever hear the song “Wild Honey Pie” by the Beatles?

Here’s a clip: Wild Honey Pie

According to Wikipedia:

McCartney said of this song: “We were in an experimental mode, and so I said, ‘Can I just make something up?’ I started off with the guitar and did a multitracking experiment in the control room or maybe in the little room next door.

It was very home-made; it wasn’t a big production at all. I just made up this short piece and I multitracked a harmony to that, and a harmony to that, and a harmony to that, and built it up sculpturally with a lot of vibrato on the [guitar] strings, really pulling the strings madly. Hence, ‘Wild Honey Pie’, which was a reference to the other song I had written called ‘Honey Pie’.”[1]

According to McCartney the song might have been excluded from The Beatles album, but Pattie Boyd “liked it very much so we decided to leave it on the album.”[4]

So you see, it doesn’t take much rocking to get things rolling (sorry, that was bound to come out). Experiment with something unusual.

Another thing you may want to try is to listen to music from artists you’re not familiar with. Go to Amazon.com and search for someone you like, then look at the other folks they suggest.

You can also sign up for a free account with Pandora.com and create a radio station for a fave artist. They’ll play music from other bands with similar qualities. Listen for a unique sound or phrase, or structure.

Worst case, you might not get your car out of the snow, but you’ll hear some good music waiting for the tow truck to show up.

-V

May 1

I had to think long and hard about how I wanted to approach this. Ordinarily I’d just write what came to mind and say the hell with outlines but since Mike challenged me to write bullet points in the last one, I liked how that came out and felt it would be even more important to do here.

Instead of writing it from the third person, I felt it might be more fun to write it from the stalker’s point of view. To make it easy, let’s call the stalker “the subject” and the object of the affection clearly “the object”.

I was riffing on the idea and came up with a few points:

  • Show some sort of history. This has been going on for a long time
  • Show some event were there was an actual meeting, where the object doesn’t know the subject, nor that it was an intentional meeting. Sort of like tasting someone else’s cake frosting before it’s served to them. Creepy, yet delicious.
  • An “always meant to be” statement. It will show the subject is not responsible for his actions
  • Some sort of deservedness on the subject’s part, and maybe a “you’ll learn to love me” sort of thing
  • Here are a few sketches:

    I’ve been in love with you for years.
    I know you’d love me too, I was born for you

    I was there at your sweet sixteen, you never knew
    At your very first job, you brought me food

    When your heart was broken, your friends gathered ’round you, it kept me away.

    If you only knew the sacrifice I’ve made for you.
    If you could only see the life I prepared for you.

    I have always been, and will always be the one for you.

    I can tell you how, I just can’t tell you when
    You’ll fall in love with me, the way I fell for you.
    You just haven’t met me yet.

    This is going to be fun :-)

    As soon as I can get rid of this nasty head cold I might get back to working on this tune. My frain is in a bog as it were with all the cold meds, but it’s not unlike a feeling I’ve had before that’s for sure.

    Creatively, I’m in a funk at the moment (shhhh I’m just “between ideas”, remember incubating, that whole thing?) ;-)

    I use Windows Notepad most often as I can never seem to lay my hands on pen and paper when needed. Right now though, I’m at the stage where I’ll look at a blank screen and it perfectly matches what on my mind.

    Nothing.

    Ghost town. Not even a tumbleweed. I do hear wind noises though, but that could be leftover from the last project :-)

    I know what’s wrong though. Two things actually. First off, I’ve got my mind on personal stuff at the moment and getting rid of this cold. Secondly, I know I want to truly put my all into this project because I beleive it’ll give me the momentum I need to continue with more of my own music once this project is completed. Because of that, I know that I don’t want to rush the lyrics. I want to get something down, but not just anything to get words out.

    Mind you, I’m told that’s quite the opposite from what I should be doing. The more I write, crap or not, the closer I’ll be to getting just what I want. You know, now that I mention it, I’ll bet it has to do with multiple senses being involved!

    What the hell am I talking about you ask? This from a person so blocked up with cold meds that his 5 senses are reduced into one: stuffy?

    There have been some studies indicating that the more senses someone uses while writing or reading, the better it’s committed to memory. If you’re reading something, you’re using vision obviously. If you’re reading it out loud, you’re using vision and hearing. That’s the best way to catch typos by the way.

    If you’re writing it out, reading it over and saying it out loud, you’re not just annoying the person next to you, you’re actually involving touch, vision and hearing. You could only add more senses if what you wrote caused you pain and you had to eat the paper (too bad for me. Notepad, remember?).

    So with maximum sensory involvement, you’re working on all cylinders, cooking with gas, playing with a full deck, that sort of thing. Your conscious mind and your subconscious mind are now in sync and it’s got nothing to do with your toilet training, you’re just a creative machine. Toot Toot!!

    So, once I get back to my senses (Ouch! I think I pulled a pun muscle, or maybe it’s just a hyperextended metaphor) I’ll be able to get further along in my writing.

    Ok that’s it for now, I’m off to have another bowl of chicken soup. (Hmmm, I wonder what chickens are told to have when they get sick?) Ugh

    -V