Songwriting: Tips On Writing Contemporary Christian Rock Songs

Just a few quick tips gleaned from working with the church band the last few weeks that will help you when writing Contemporary Christian rock songs. There are several elements that are common to them you might keep in mind as you write:

1. They tend to follow the intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus format.

2. They frequently present a twist on that format: A chorus upfront. Or perhaps an instrumental interlude appears very early in the song and again just prior to the bridge or final chorus. Or a chorus or a bridge repeats many times more than you might in a secular tune aimed at getting radio airplay, this is usually in a worship song at a medium or slow tempo.

3. There are Christian songs and there are worship songs. The lyric in a worship song focuses on worship God in a personal way, i.e., “You are The King, the savior, you are the glorified one.”

4. The chords tend toward simple four chord progressions but an amazing number use the tonic, a.k.a. the 1 chord, followed by the 5 chord with the bass playing the third of that chord instead of the root, then on to the relative minor (E, B/D#, C#m) or (G, D/F#/ Em) to give two examples. In the Nashville Number System it’s the 1, 5/7, 6- progression.

The “Glorify You Alone” video above utilizes that very progression as well as several other tips presented in this post.

5. The lyrics tend to be simple, there aren’t many CC rock tunes that feature wordy lyrics or complex concepts. One exception to that is the lyrical masterpiece “He Loves Us” (Jesus Culture, David Crowder Band and others) with it’s lines like this in the Jesus Culture version: “And Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss and my heart turns violently inside of my chest.”

6. The bass line and drum chart often create the dynamics of the arrangement, which typically builds as the song progresses. In some songs, the build reaches an apex then quiets up at the end, some songs plow right on through at full tilt, apex to end.

7. The bass guitar lays out a lot. It might stay out until the chorus appears or even until the second chorus. Sometimes, even in a chorus or verse where you’d normally expect it to continue, the bass and drums drop out, then drums play alone, then the bass comes in to provide power, maybe thumping quarter notes then going to eighths and the bass/drums really drive the song hard at that point.

7. Thumping out eighth notes on bass is very common, especially at tempos around 80 beats per minute, but it can occur at any tempo anywhere the lyric gets intense and emotional. Sometimes it’s “pound out 8ths” beginning to end with just a few runs tossed in here and there.

“Glorious” by B.J. Putnam is 145 BPM and most of the choruses are driven by 8ths while verse 1 is whole notes and V2 does a cool little delayed scale walk starting on the “&” of beat 2.

Although you can write your song on acoustic guitar and let the musicians on the demo provide some of the elements discussed here, as well as decide where they should happen, I believe envisioning, or “hearing” how it will sound in regards to dynamics- where does the supporting music stay quiet and where does it get huge- can positively affect the lyric writing process- B.E. Watson


Songwriting Software

The best songwriting software is clearly Master Writer 2.0:

That’s not to say it’s the best songwriting tool, the best songwriting tool is your brain. But Master Writer 2.0 is a close second.

I’m not a fan of rhyming dictionaries. But when I needed a rhyme and wasn’t happy with the 300 rhyme words Master Writer displayed and it popped up nearly 400 more near rhymes? Well, I realized this was an important advance that could change the songwriting game.

It also helps you organize your songs, avoid penning illiterate phrases unless that’s your bag, all sorts of things that are useful.

I’d advise at least clicking the pic above and taking a look at it. It’s pricey but many big time songwriters swear by it and if you want to play with the big boys, it’s wise to use the toys they prefer- b.e.


Songwriting

Three chords is all you need sometimes!

A great song? Three chords is all you need sometimes!

Songwriting is a process that ultimately has no rules. On one level, if you write a song, think it’s good and like it, then it’s “good” and in theory, who can argue?

On the other hand, people often argue about the quality of a specific song. This one is “great”, this one is “not very good” …who appointed them Judge of All Things Musical?

What’s certain is that generating large numbers of CD sales or paid downloads requires a lot of people agreeing a song is good enough for them to spend time and money on.

It’s weird really, any song can have avid supporters or avid detractors, yet there’s a collective mindset that determines which songs experience huge commercial success. And success is difficult to argue with.

So that’s about where commercial songwriting begins to branch off from pure art. “Rules” happen. You begin to run into gatekeepers who believe they know what “everyone likes” in a certain genre. And you better not rhyme heart with start because that’s overused cliche, that song’s going nowhere, buddy.

Unless it becomes a huge hit anyway, then for a lot of reasons that make it the exception to the rule, including the fact it was written in June and there was a moon in June, it’s okay.

Is anyone seriously going to take issue with the thought that a group of co-writers assembling at an appointed time specifically for songwriting purposes where they’ll brainstorm clever song titles and write lyrics about fictitious situations, aiming for a Billboard hit, is pure art?

And this link certainly offers food for thought:

Songwriting

How do you get your mind around that concept? Where does all THAT play out in your life?

The point is if you write songs you can take any of three positions:

1. I write purely for the sake of the art/fun/relaxation aspects. I don’t avoid “songwriting rules” but I don’t embrace them either.

2. I do songwriting for the art and if I accidentally write a hit, great, but no worries one way or the other. “Songwriting Rules” who cares?

3. I want a hit song! Because I want to write a hit, I “follow the rules” as much as they can be determined.

Maybe the Internet has opened things up a bit but it seems “the system” many musicians and songwriters complain about exists for a reason. Most people like a certain category of music or maybe 2-3 categories.

So if 5 million people are looking to listen to country music/purchase country music downloads, radio stations make that group a narrowly focused target. They do that because they must have money from advertisers to survive and advertisers need a targeted demographic to make spending $ pay off.

If you want to write a country hit, you must get your song in heavy rotation on the most powerful of those stations. As you endeavor to do so, the gatekeepers will be making sure you comply with rules.

Hey, life is tough no matter what you do.

That’s songwriting now and for at least the next many years to come.


Verse Chorus Form

Acoustic Guitar Sound Hole and Strings

Acoustic Guitar Sound Hole and Strings

The Verse Chorus Form has been part of songwriting since the 1800’s and it’s more popular now than ever.

A good example of this form at work in today’s music is Holy Spirit by Jesus Culture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBifjXFA-W4

As you see the verses usually have the same number of lines, the lines are of the same length, while the words are dissimilar to each other. Each verse moves the song forward with new information.

But the chorus that appears after each verse or two typically is an exact repeat of the original chorus. In this case at 1:21 the first chorus begins with “Holy Spirit You Are Welcome Here…” and continues on for a total of four lines. After a brief musical Interlude the verse comes in at 2:00 with “I’ve tasted and seen…”

So the form of a simple verse chorus song is:

Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus

To make it more interesting you can double up some sections: Verse, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Chorus

The chorus is the high point both musically and lyrically. It sums up the point and calls attention to itself. It should be distinct from the verse and that can be achieved by altering the note length.

A Bridge section that’s dissimilar to both chorus and verse can also be used.

Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Verse, Chorus


Songwriter’s Market 2014

 Is Songwriter's Market still serving the songwriting community? Is it long in the tooth?

Is Songwriter’s Market 2014 still serving the songwriting community?

Is Songwriter’s Market 2014 showing the long tooth?

At one time Songwriter’s Market was a useful tool for pitching songs to publishers and record companies. But things have changed in the songwriting world. Times have changed.

Many songwriters complained about Songwriter’s Market 2012. According to most, it was badly in need of updating. One buyer revealed that most of her 2012 submissions came back unopened and undeliverable. Most comments on various retail sites are negative.

Songwriter’s Market 2013 had little updating from 2012 so if anything, it was even less useful.

What has changed since the early days of publication?

Songs are more in demand, not less. At one time there were three major TV networks, major motion pictures, PBS and radio. If your songs weren’t played in those places you weren’t making much money. Now there are far more outlets. Look at television alone: Hundreds of channels, most of which use music.

Internet websites, radio and Internet advertising use vast amounts of music already and use is increasing as the Internet changes from older users with large desktop systems who prefer reading words, to a younger demographic using smaller devices that prefers music and pictures. Music helps sell.

There are newer, universally accessible and arguably better ways to get exposure for an act than there were when Songwriter’s Market began publishing. YouTube, Facebook, etc. weren’t available fifteen years ago.

It’s possible the editors have become lazy in updating Songwriter’s Market listings. But regardless of the reason for the decline, it’s still a very useful book for researching music publishers and other music related companies. You can get names, e-mail addresses and more to help you start establishing contact.

But purely as a mechanism for marketing songs it has been coming up short for years now.

Does anyone care to comment on the usefulness of Songwriter’s Market 2014? -b.e.


Christian Song Demo Service and Christian Recording Studio

A Christian Demo Service guitarist kneels at the foot of the cross

A Christian Demo Service guitarist kneels at the foot of the cross

Need a Christian Song Demo Service? A Christian Recording Studio?

Try:

Play It Again Demos’ Christian Demo Service

If you believe in God, make the Lord Jesus Christ the center of your life and write music that would best fit on Christian Radio Stations like:

K-Love
King of Kings
The Fish
The Way

…then Play It Again Demos is the Christian Demo Service for you!

The producer, Bill Watson who produces for both Play It Again Demos and Nashville Trax Recording Studio is a Christian and listens to Christian music of all types. The musicians and sraff who work for both the demo service and the recording studio are Christians.

Most, like Bill (who plays bass guitar) serve on worship teams at local churches on Sundays. Most of those teams play contemporary Christian music so the musicians keep up with the latest trends in the genre.

Having quality demos made of your best songs is an important step that will position you as a serious Christian songwriter whether you are writing sinply to glorify The Lord or you’re pitching them directly to a popular Christian artist in the hope they’ll record them.

If you already have a solo act or a band a Christian Recording Studio like Nashville Trax will be needed to start recording songs professionally and offer them for sale on CD, download or at live performances.


Why Are Songwriter Demos So Expensive?

Digital-Converters-Apple-Computer

This question was asked on a songwriting forum recently and I decided to answer it here. Many demo services and recording studios base prices on what other services charge and try to either beat the other guy’s price a little or up the other guy’s price. That approach reveals convoluted logic, bad business practice and is terrible for clients.

Pricing downward based on competitor’s prices forces a downward spiral in the race to be the “chief bottom feeder.” How can a studio owner be sure the prices they’re using as a guide haven’t already been through the same process?

A good businessman determines prices based on his own costs and need for profit, period. To do otherwise invariably leads to overcharging or not quite charging enough which means cutting corners to ensure a profit is made and it’s the client who always comes out on the short end of that stick.

Equipment necessary to make professional sounding music is not cheap. In the pic above taken at Play It Again Demo’s studio the two digital converters cost over $2,000 each and the high power computer, large enough to run commercial recording software, costs about $5,000. The software it runs (in our studio and most studios in Nashville area, that’s the commercial version of Pro Tools, PT HD ) is about $8,000. The software that runs in it (the plug ins such as reverb, delay, mastering tools, pitch correction, etc.) cost about $100,000. There’s also an expensive control room speaker monitor system as well as computer visual monitors, an earphone monitor system to each tracking musician station, so you’re looking at over $120,000 and that’s just for starters on the computer recording system alone. But oh it does sound good!

The building and utilities also must be paid for. Heating or cooling a building for a day isn’t cheap and electric to run all that gear isn’t free.

So studio rates are typically $50 to $150 per hour, depending on the studio, which may or may not include the engineer/producer. A professional session singer hired for a demo generally costs $80 to $175 per song but some are even higher. And musicians capable of playing at session quality, a rare commodity, are about $50 to $75 per song. The time required to take one average three minute song from rough through pre-production (writing charts), recording rhythm tracks, doing overdubs, adding vocals and doing a demo quality mix is about a one full day per song. The producer and engineer will be present throughout with each musician and singer contributing about an hour to an hour and a half.

Add it up and you can get to a relatively large number fast. That’s just reality.

But reality is also that doing a pro demo is simply the bargaining chip that gets you taken seriously. That’s because you’re not competing with Joe Smith’s home recorded demo made in Iowa, you’re playing poker with pro songwriters with previous hits who can afford to set the demo quality bar extremely high. It’s not that a demo made on a Fostex home quality 4 track recorder can’t get signed, it’s that very few amateur songwriters know how to make that Fostex generate a pro sounding recording. And perhaps not in all, but in most cases, a poor sounding recording equals “amateur” in a publisher’s mind so they can’t drop that demo in the nearest waste can fast enough.

“Expensive” is relative. Is it better to scrimp and save a few hundred dollars on a song demo only to and have a song publisher use it to play trash can Frisbee or is it more intelligent to spend what’s necessary to really get in the game, bowl the publisher over with a compelling piece of music, get signed and possibly get a hit that will return hundreds, maybe thousands of times what you spent?

Which is the better investment? Do you believe in your song or not? If you don’t, who will?


Songwriting Tip: Separate That Chorus!

Nashville Trax Music Studio
One mistake some songwriters consistently make is failure to create a chorus section that’s distinctly different from the verse. You want that chorus to just about shout to the listener: “Okay now: here’s where I’m summing up what this song is about!”

How? A few good techniques to achieve separation are:

  • Alter the line length
  • Change the rhythm
  • Alter the note length

    You can use any one of those or combine as necessary. A lyric that has relatively lengthy verse lines but the chorus lines are short and powerful may provide sufficient contrast. A subtle change of rhythm can work and some recent hits take that to extreme such as Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road.”

    We need look no further than the Florida Georgia Line hit, Cruise, for a good example of altering note length. If you sing it and tap your fingers with each syllable you’ll notice the tapping is a lot faster when you reach the chorus “Baby you a song, you make me wanna roll my windows down and Cruise …” part.

    A producer has a good number of tools available to create chorus separation via the arrangement but if you can provide it in the structure of the song itself, it makes the song that much stronger and the final product that much more likely to be signed. More songwriting tips are available at the link in the menu to the right- Bill Watson