Amateurs write, professionals rewrite.
That’s an old saying but it’s mostly true. Great songs sometimes pour out in a fit of inspiration and need little or no tweaking afterward. Willie Nelson says he he sees songs floating in the air and just picks them out.
I don’t know, maybe I need glasses, I’ve never seen songs floating around for the taking but most songwriters do have a few works they claim wrote themselves.
In most cases though, that initial inspiration results in a rough draft that needs work. How do you know? If it’s not the best it can be, it needs a rewrite. Some songs are rewritten repeatedly over a period of years before they are deemed “there.”
Look for overused, tired phrases and replace them with something unique. Say the same thing but in a way no one has ever heard it put before.
If you used any “big words” to impress listeners with your brilliance, unless their use is necessary to the song and adds value, drop those words in favor of more common, conversational words. As with simple conversation you’ll impress a lot more people with fresh ideas and cleverness than with multiple syllable words that leave them thinking “He’s (or she’s) trying to sound smart,” instead of leaving them with no doubt you are.
Tighten up. Make your point in each line concisely, nothing wasted.
Don’t report, make people feel something. What feeling are you trying to evoke? Do you want the listener to feel something positive like empathy or love? Or something negative like anger? Is your lyric doing that? Make it happen.
Be open to outside input. I’ll be glad to do a free lyric review on any song you order a demo on, make suggestions and hold off scheduling it until it’s ready to go. Unless it’s a pretty extensive amount of input where I’m actually writing the lines or music instead of just making suggestions, I don’t ask for songwriting credit.
But too many times songwriters say they want constructive criticism then fight most of the suggestions that would bring the lyric up to the quality it needs to be to get a publisher interested- b.e.
Songwriters who aren’t trained in music theory often hear a song using a bass line movement descending from the major root chord to the relative minor, then imitate that movement in their own songs this way: (key of C) C, B minor, A minor. In the Nashville Numbers System that would be 1, 7-, 6-.
What they are actually trying to imitate is this: C, G/B, Am or in Nashville Numbers speak: 1, 5/7, 6-. The G/B means a G chord played with a B bass note. If you play guitar or piano and you’re solo you can make the movement happen by voicing the deepest pitched B note as your root for the G chord. But if you’re working with a bass player it’s fine to simply play the full G chord and let the bass player take the B bass note. Another example just to confirm you understand the concept, this time in the key of G : Instead of G, F#m, Em use G, D/F#, Em- b.e.
When writing most lyrics it’s a good idea to keep them conversational. Ask yourself if the lines and words you write are the way you would say them if you were talking to a friend. Or at least the way someone would. Someone average, not a rocket scientist.
The problems that occur when you don’t do that are numerous. There are exceptions but forced rhyme, writing over people’s head, reversing the natural order of words, and misuse of adjectives by trying too hard to be descriptive, to the point of getting freaky, are bad things most of the time.
If you have a rhyming dictionary or even if you’re offered access to a free rhyming dictionary online I wouldn’t recommend using it much, if at all. In general, if a rhyme word doesn’t come to mind easily, looking for obscure ways to force the rhyme by using unusual rhyming words or phrases is usually a dead end. Forced rhyme (imperfect rhyme words that hopefully are close to truly rhyming) is okay and lots of hits have forced rhymes but force a rhyme too much and it sounds like it. It takes the listener out of the word spell you’ve been weaving successfully to that point as they ponder the oddness of the line.
Using a regular dictionary is fine. You may need to verify what a word means and that’s okay, but don’t start looking for synonyms so you can exchange two syllables for four. You won’t appear “smart” so much as you’ll lose listeners who won’t know what you’re talking about. You didn’t until you looked it up, why would they? For the most part, choose words you’d use in everyday conversation.
Probably the most common mistake I see is reversing the natural order of words. “To the park went we” may rhyme with “bee” but no one says it that way unless they’re trying to get their William Shakespeare on. The average person would say, “We went to the park.”
Reversing the natural order of words in a sentence usually hits the ear funny and breaks the spell instead of pulling listeners further into your story.
It’s weird. It’s not “unusual but in an artistic way” weird; man, it’s just plain weird. Write a different line. If you can’t find one you’ll need to fix the “bee” line first to give yourself a new rhyme choice.
And I guess that’s the bottom line for all these points: Does this word or phrase add to the song or detract? Does it pull the listener in further or momentarily push them out? The amateur considers neither, the pro considers both and lets the answers make the decision for them.
One exception that comes to mind because I’m working on it now is “Beautiful, the mess we are” in Better Than A Hallelujah. Obviously intentional and obviously awesome, it makes the song!
Anyway, for the most part, keep your lyric natural, conversational, and all will be well. Or maybe all well will be…hmmm, let me think about that, lol- b.e.
Song Factory is reporting the signing of 6 songwriters to their roster. They are an indie song publishing company with connections to several labels including Capital and Sony.
It may sound like your dream job (and this is not regarding SF specifically) but depending on the company and who they’re signing, a staff position can pay well or poorly. If you have written or co-written several hit songs, you generally are less risk and get a better paycheck. There are many staff writers who are signed as staff writers but get no pay so they must work a day job and write songs when they can.
Sound familiar?- b.e.
I just mailed out CD copies this morning to Play It Again Demos client James Lefik. Nine years ago, Jim had me produce a very basic demo of his song “Bits of Forever” and later, a much more elaborate full band demo. Back then CDs ruled and he had some copies made. But over time they were given away, lost or misplaced.
I mentioned how meticulously we backup session files on the post regarding the Kerry McFate session
Well 9 years have gone by, yet, when Jim asked if files were available they were! We were able to upload the original session into Pro Tools, execute a mix, and give Jim not only CDs but also a .wav stereo mix copy via Dropbox and an MP3 via e-mail! All for only $150!
Without the backup Jim’s only option would have been to pay for the entire demo all over again.
These days almost all mix files are stored on hard drives. Even if you have external backup, you’re only a lightning strike or multiple hard drive failure away from losing your work- b.e.
The fact we have a pair of matched AT 4040 microphones is yet another reason to choose Play It Again Demos (our over-the-internet demo recording service) or Nashville Trax to do your recording work. They let us give you predictably fantastic drum sounds, and they add one more color to the producer’s palette.
For large diaphragm condensors they’re “cheapies” listing at around $500 each and retailing about $300. But price is irrelevant to application. In other words, a $150 dynamic microphone will sometimes outperform a $3,000 condenser microphone, it depends on what you’re trying to achieve.
The AT is listed as having relatively flat response across the audible spectrum from 20 HZ to about 20K. In actual use I’ve discovered it is a little heavy on the bass end, not muddy, just loud, and crystal clear in the mids. The high end is clear too but if that’s what the application requires, you have to roll off the bass to reveal it.
We use a pair of AT’s for drum overheads so normally I keep the 80 Hz, 12 dB/octave switch set to minimize the bass response. Once EQ’d properly, they shine as overheads.
I feel blessed here at the studio in two ways. We have a good selection of mics to choose from that cover every recording situation, plus we have a drum kit set up permanently.
So many studios let the drummer furnish the drums and that means setting up and tearing down the whole kit for most sessions. Then the mics have to be set up and re-calibrated each time. It can be done but I have zero time for redundant, skull numbing mindlessness and there’s no way you’ll achieve the consistently great sound inherent in a permanent drum setup unless you have one. So we do.
Comments from seasoned studio musicians on the drum sounds are typically, “I wish my kick drum sounded like THAT!” and, “The drums sound PERFECT, don’t change a thing!”
The drums alone have 9 microphones: bass drum, snare, hi-hat, 3 tom mics, the two AT 4040’s, and a room mic. I can fire up the gear, the drummer can simply sit down and start pounding away and with minimal tweaking, we’re ready to record.
All that being said I must admit that I sometimes pull an AT off the drum kit, usually out of desperation because a far more expensive mic isn’t getting it done. And usually the AT excels. I’ve used them on background vocals, fiddle, even horns.
On one session I used an AT for lead vocal instead of a $1,000 mic that pre-session I figured would almost certainly work because it had for that same singer many times prior. Both the singer and I agreed: The AT simply sounded better for his voice that day- B. E. Watson
On November 30, 1864 the Southern General John Hood held a position on the hill where the park is now located. He decided to attack the Northern troops located toward Franklin. His line was the largest single array of troops in the entire war, some 19,000 men moving shoulder-to-shoulder across the fields at the foot of the hill.
The plaque pictured above tells it best:
At 4 p.m. here on Winstead Hill, launched the single largest attack made during the American Civil War. The Federal soldiers never forgot the sheer spectacle of the Confederates sweeping across the fields before you with bands playing “Dixie” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” One Union observer later wrote that “we were spellbound with admiration, although they were our hated foes.”
Maybe the musicians should have altered the playlist with a tune less controversial than “Dixie.” The Union troops listened for a bit then opened fire. When the smoke cleared at day’s end there were over 6,000 Southern casualties. The action was a disaster for the South.
If I were the general I’d have suggested playing “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”
In just the first few minutes of battle, five Southern generals lost their lives in the field just to the right of the hill. Altogether 15 Southern Generals were killed in the fierce fight. Hood’s forces were rendered incapable of effectively engaging in battle for the remainder of the war.
If memory serves correctly Hood was Robert E. Lee’s right hand man in The Battle of Gettysburg, afterwards going to GA to harass Northern General Sherman near Atlanta as Sherman “Drove Old Dixe Down.”
Imagine walking from Gettysburg to Atlanta and on to Nashville as these troops must have done, including the musicians. Tough gig, tougher crowd– b.e.
If you play the notes that comprise a D major chord: D, F# and A (the root, the third and fifth respectively) and raise the F# one half step to G, you have created a suspended fourth. It’s a pretty sounding chord and one you’ll surely want to use in at least a few of your songs. Note that all F#s voiced in the major chord would need to be raised to the G note.
The raised third note sounds like it wants to resolve back to the third so the easiest and most common way to employ it is by playing the suspended chord followed by the major (Dsus4 to D) or vice versa (D to Dsus4). You could do this movement once or several times.
So the formula is: root, 4th, 5th of the major scale. Example: To create an A suspended 4th use the A major scale as the basis which is A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A octave. The root is A, the 4th note is D and the 5th is E so A, D, E are the notes of an Asus4.
There are other uses that will be covered in future posts.
Knowing a few chords on guitar or piano is a good thing but some roughs I’ve reviewed here reveal that some newbie songwriters aren’t sure how to use them together. Sometimes chords are used that don’t support the melody or several chords are used that inadvertently introduce a new key in a spot where that shouldn’t happen.
Hopefully this post will reduce that confusion slightly, but in the larger sense, it’s aimed at introducing the abecedarian songwriter to the concept that there is a right way and wrong way to use chords, thus fueling the desire for further exploration of the principles.
Huh, abecedarian… pretty good word, eh? It means neophyte or beginner. Use it to replace a cuss word: “Listen, you abecedarian…” : )
As in most endeavors, there are rules. Rules can be broken but songwriters who don’t know the rules in the first place tend to break them in a bad way, in a way that detracts rather than enhances.
So here is a rule of sorts: Inject a sense of order in the writing process by employing a chord progression, which is several chords played in sequence that sound good together and firmly establish a key. There are many chord progressions that are accepted in music theory as “standards” and are used over and over, the simplest being the three chord group.
Many hit songs are written using only a three chord group, some with as few as two of the three chords in a group.
The easiest three chord groups to play on guitar are:
1. E, A, B7th
2. G, C, D7th
3. A, D, E 7th
4. C, F, G7th
5. D, G, A 7th
All of those can be played on guitar using open chords (chords that contain unfretted notes). The first chord in the three chord sequence is the tonic chord a.k.a. root chord. The second is the dominant chord, the third is the sub dominant or sub dominant seventh.
A three chord group is based on the major scale. Choose the 1st, 4th and 5th notes of a major scale and those notes name the three chord group for that scale with that 1st (the root note) naming the key. Also add a dominant 7th (7th) to the final chord (although the 7th is sometimes omitted).
For example, the notes in a C Major scale are:
C, D, E, F, G, A, B, (and back to C, up one octave in pitch from the original C).
The 1st, 4th and 5th notes of the C Major Scale, counting from C are C, F, G. So in the key of C, (C because the first note, the root note, is C) the 3 chord group is C, F, G. In the Nashville number system they’d be referred to as 1-4-5.
Click here to read the rest of this post, including how to use a three chord group to write a song and how to employ the principal of chord substitution.
Or you can skip the free stuff and go straight to the books this post is drawn from, we’re barely scratching the surface here. If you want to learn very basic open chord progressions and simple rhythms get my book Guitar Shop. If you want to learn more complicated chords, extended chords, how non-root bass notes work and learn all the chord substitution rules, get Ted’s book– bill watson