Things every songwriter should know…from the pros who’ve done it.
By: Barry DeVorzon
Learning how to write songs is not unlike learning how to play an instrument. The difference is, you have a teacher when you’re learning to play an instrument and you don’t have one when you’re learning to write songs. Almost anyone can learn to play an instrument, but not everyone can learn to write a song. The reason being, the ability to write songs is a God-given talent, you either have it or you don’t. That being said, everyone who learns to play an instrument will not always have the talent that is required to become an extraordinary musician and in fairness, the same can be said for songwriting.
The songwriter has to accept that he is both the student and the teacher. Which brings to mind “what came first, the chicken or the egg”. How does the songwriter teach himself? A good place to start is to listen carefully to the songs that are currently popular. When I say carefully I mean the melodies, the rhythms, the syncopations, the chords, the lyrics, the choice of words, and the rhymes and inner rhymes. You might also listen carefully to the songs and songwriters you most admire from the past. One of the ways you learn to teach yourself is by learning from others.
The other and perhaps most important way to learn how to write songs is to write songs. Here once again, it is similar to learning to play an instrument, “practice makes perfect” and practice for the songwriter, is writing songs. Those early songs may be far from perfect but you took the time to write them and that’s how you learn. Once you realize you can do it, you have to try and do it better. This is a very competitive world that only rewards the exceptional. Good is rarely good enough so your goal if you want to be a successful songwriter is to write great songs. That’s not easy to do and even with a lot of effort, most songs turn out to be another lesson in songwriting, but if you refuse to settle for good, the great ones will come along.
It also helps to write with other songwriters who will bring a different energy and approach to the song. Great things can happen when two talented songwriters are on the same page with the same goal, and the finished song will be different than one written on your own. I’m not necessarily saying it will be better, but it will be different. The rewarding thing about this experience is that it’s more fun to have someone to suffer with and you learn from each other in the process.
If your aspiration is to write exceptional songs that will touch others, you must use every song, every writer you work with, and every related experience to improve and grow your songwriting skills. Follow these rules, resist settling for good, and be willing to do whatever it takes, and you will become a professional songwriter. Taking this serious approach to the art of songwriting will serve you well and ultimately, will be the path to success.
By: Barry DeVorzon
Some people think melody rules and others think it’s the lyrics and there are strong arguments that support both beliefs. I’ve been a songwriter all of my life and I am privileged to have been able to do what I love most and to be successful at it. I would have to say that melody came easier to me than lyrics and as a result, melody has served me well and is probably responsible for most of my hits. However in the songwriting process over the years, my lyrics continued to improve as I came to realize just how important they are if your goal is to write great songs. Songs that will touch the emotions in a way that can never be accomplished with just melody or with just lyrics.
On the other hand, if you put the art and the craft aside and just look at the odds, I would have to say the odds of getting a hit are in your favor when you have a great melody. One of the reasons is that melody grabs you immediately and is the path of least resistance to your emotions. Lyrics take time and repetition to sink in, but when they do, they go much deeper and create a more meaningful emotional reaction than just melody. That’s what hits are all about, a song that affects people emotionally is the definition of a hit. It doesn’t matter how well crafted a song is, if it doesn’t touch the emotions, there is no chance that it will be a hit song.
How we create a melody or a lyric that touches the emotions is the great mystery of being a songwriter, no one really knows. We don’t know where the inspiration comes from that give us that song but we do know it’s not available 24/7. It comes to us when it wants to and when it does, it’s that combination of inspiration and craft that are the necessary ingredients for a hit song. A lot of magic has to happen which is why hit songs are so elusive and hard to come by.
So back to our original question of what’s more important, the melody or the lyric? I suppose I’d have to say, melody has the edge, but if you want to write great songs that will be remembered, and when they’re remembered they just keep giving, you need both and they both have to be exceptional.
The old adage states that first impressions count, and nowhere is that as true as in your songwriting. While lyrics and chords all create emotion in your song, there is one tool that can add mood instantly. That is the interval.
The interval is a true musical hero, able to impart meaning into sound with just one movement from a note to the next. But how can you actually use this when writing a song?
What Is an Interval?
An interval is a gap between two notes in a scale. These gaps can each produce a certain meaning or feeling in the listener. Different intervals each have different emotions that they can impart.
It sounds complicated, but it isn’t. Listen to the first two notes from the melody of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Pay attention to the notes when the syllables ‘Some’ and ‘Where’ are sung.
They use the large leap of an octave, a C to the higher C on piano. It gives the listener a sense of a journey, of traveling far away, but also of wholeness and happiness.
Now listen to the first two notes of the guitar riff in Iron Man by Black Sabbath. This uses the interval of a minor third. Even without distorted guitar and heavy drums, you could still tell the somber mood of the song.
The riff for this song is not a happy, joyful tune like Somewhere Over the Rainbow. This is because of the gaps between the notes (intervals) it has chosen.
How Do I Write Using This?
First of all, play a major or minor scale. If you need help with major and minor scales click here. Once you can play the scale, experiment with jumping from the first note directly to some of the other notes.
Think about which leaps (intervals) fit with the theme of your song. Once you have a few you like, try linking them together into a tune. You may decide to use some interesting notes or runs to link them together.
How Do I Know Which Intervals to Use?
If you are using a major scale, the intervals from the first note to the other notes should all give a happy, uplifting feeling. Try to avoid the seventh note as it is the only one that has a clashing, dissonant sound (unless that is what you want).
When playing a minor scale, moving from the first note to a third, sixth, and seventh will give a mean and moody sound. This can add a touch of anger or melancholy to your song.
How Can I Emphasize the Interval?
Emphasizing the interval can really hammer home a point. This is usually done by holding the notes longer than the others in the melody. You can also pick out keywords in your lyrics to combine it with, enhancing the impact.
As a case study, listen to the Main Theme to Star Wars. After the short three-note brass burst, the interval of a fifth is played and emphasized. This is because the interval of the first note to the fifth note in a scale is the strongest relationship.
This interval is emphasized as it denotes heroism and power. You will find it in most Hollywood action movie themes. Indiana Jones? The Avengers? Superman? All use this interval as a tactic.
Rounding It Off
Once you have a melody that utilizes intervals combinations, start to add your chords and lyrics. You can find a handy guide on how to find lyrical inspiration here, so you will have written that perfect tune in no time!
By: Barry DeVorzon
1 – Schedule time – Whether you are a full-time or part-time songwriter it is important to create a schedule where you set aside time each week to write. It has to be a place that allows you to focus on your songwriting with no distractions. Distraction is the enemy of creativity. During these sessions, if you come up with nothing don’t worry about it, we are all at the mercy of our Muse and all you can do is try again.
2 – Pay attention to current trends in music, it’s okay to be influenced by what is current, just don’t try to copy or chase it. Do your own thing but try to be as unique as possible in how you present what you are trying to communicate. Be willing to do the work and don’t settle for anything less than exceptional.
3 – A great melody is essential but what you say and how you say it can be the difference between a good song and a great song. Be willing to wait for that exceptional melody and don’t write lyrics that are obvious, take a different slant or use imagery that relates to what you are trying to get across.
4 – Have the professional objectivity to know the difference between good and great. Good is everywhere, great is the exception. The world with very few exceptions only rewards that which is great.
5 – If the song you’re writing doesn’t hit you hard and touch you emotionally, it probably won’t touch others. Consider it an exercise in songwriting, which is a good thing, because that’s how you learn to write better songs. On the other hand, If you write a song that greatly affects you emotionally, you have a shot but don’t let that rush of emotion hide the fact that if you want to create something great, your job has just begun. You have to be willing to spend whatever time it takes to make every part of that song exceptional and don’t settle or give up until you honestly feel you have done that.
6 – It helps to get away from the song periodically for a day or even a week, so that you don’t lose your objectivity and enthusiasm. If you don’t do this, you can OD on a song and lose your way.
7 – When it’s time to demo the song, spend time on a good track but try and keep it simple, don’t over produce, it’s a demo whose only purpose is to sell the song. If you are not the singer on the demo make sure you find a singer who gets the song and can interpret and convey the emotional content that touched you when you first wrote it.
8 – Even when you follow this work ethic and accept nothing less than great there are no guarantees, but at least you’re up at bat. When you settle for less, you’re not even in the game.
Not every song you write will be chart-topping material. That’s the business. Get used to the fact that every song you write won’t contain the emotional values needed to qualify it as a great song. A good song can be well done, well written, and musically well constructed, but that does not always mean that it’s great. Following the suggestions listed below will help you pick the winners.
1. Accept the fact that a song rarely starts out perfect.
When the heat of inspiration cools and you take your first look at a newly finished song, you have to accept the fact that the muse rarely leaves us with perfect. With that in mind, be forgiving and try and react to the essence of the song.
If the melody or the words, or the combination of the two touch you emotionally, then you have to assume that it will also touch others, and that’s what you’re looking for. Don’t let the sense of accomplishment that comes when you’ve created a new song get in the way of honestly reacting to it emotionally. This is a mistake that most amateurs make.
2. Great songs make people feel something.
Great songs have a quality that touches the emotions. There is no formula to accomplish this, it’s either there or it isn’t. If it isn’t there, it can never be a great song. A song can evoke any number of emotional responses -what’s important is that the listener feels something. If it makes you want to get up and dance or think of a lost love, or makes you feel anything, these are the responses you’re looking for.
3. How do those around you react to your song?
The first test of course is does it make you feel something? Next, test it with those close to you. Start with your wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, or friends. I favor the wife or husband’s reaction over the others. It’s been my experience that they are usually the only ones who will really tell you the truth and the truth is what you’re looking for.
4. Be willing to do whatever it takes to make it better.
Once you’ve established that the song has the necessary ingredients to be great, it’s time to take it to the next level. If that means finding a more eloquent way of expressing yourself, finding a better chord, or adapting or modifying the melody, then do it. It can be painful and frustrating at times, but well worth it. Polish that beauty until it shines and you’re in the race.
There are no guarantees in this business.
Songwriting is like art–its beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The job of the songwriter is to be objective enough to make the song as perfect as possible, but in the end, how people emotionally respond to the song is all that matters. Everyone has an opinion about what makes a song great, but I believe it comes down to something that simple.
Simple…but not always easy to do.
Without inspiration, a great song is not possible. The muse is an elusive source of inspiration and she is not always accessible. The truth is, she talks to us when she wants to talk to us. All we can do is put ourselves in the best position possible to tap into that inspiration when the opportunity presents itself. Here are 5 simple ways that will help you get connected.
1. Find an ideal place to create.
You need a place that is yours and yours only, one that is totally free of distractions. This can be a room at home or a writing room at your publisher’s. Any place is good as long as it’s a place where you will not be disturbed. Remember, when things aren’t going well, a telephone call, your kid, or anything for that matter can be a welcome distraction.
You have to learn to tough it out even if that day of writing doesn’t give you anything. Some days will deliver everything you could ask for and others will just turn out to be practice. Have the discipline to stick it out regardless of the outcome.
2. Clear the deck of any tasks, errands or responsibilities.
Do whatever has to be done of an immediate nature and let everything else wait. Now it’s time to close the door, turn off the phones, and make sure nothing will disturb you. This means no wives, no husbands, no kids, no calls. You know what distracts you, so be honest with yourself and don’t let it get in the way. Give your mind the focused time it needs to let creativity flow.
3. Do things that trigger your creative side.
Sit down and think of what you want to write. If nothing comes to mind and you play an instrument, now is the time to sit at the piano or pick up the guitar. You can play songs you’ve written, other people’s songs, or just go through a sequence of chords. While you’re doing this, open yourself to any melodies or lyrical ideas that might come to you. Sometimes working with another writer will also trigger inspiration. Whatever it takes to get you going, do it.
4. Inspiration comes when it wants to come – You have to be patient.
It’s very possible you may sit there for hours without getting anything of note. Other times, it can come quickly. Inspiration is a gift, and that is why it is not something you can turn on or off at will. The best way to access this gift is to stay open, relax, don’t let yourself be distracted, and whatever you do, don’t try too hard. It’s very possible that you may waste a day and come up empty-handed; don’t let that scare you.
5. Once you’ve tapped into inspiration, go with the flow.
Acknowledge the fact that words, chords, and melodies may be temporary, and may change during the creative process. Go with the flow, this is not the time to be a perfectionist, don’t try to arrive at the best word, chord, or melody. As you live with the song, it will change on its own. It’s important that you not allow yourself to get stuck on a rhyme, a way to express yourself, or a chord that is not quite what you want. There will be time for that later when craft and dedication to your art come into play. If you spend too much time trying to get something perfect, you may lose your connection.
Consistent Writing Habits Lead to Great Songs
If a songwriter maintains this discipline in his/her writing habits, they will write inspired songs, which are the only ones that count. When inspiration fades, it’s time to take an objective look at the song you’ve created and decide whether it’s just good or truly great. This brings up a new set of rules that we look forward to covering in the weeks to come. Don’t miss it because this phase is just as important as the inspirational phase of songwriting.