Songwriting And Beyond
I. HOW TO BE A SONGWRITER
Every once in a while, I hear a musician boast the following: "I went home over the weekend and wrote a really great song."
Whenever I come within earshot of such statements, I always mutter to myself, "That's impossible." They may have the beginnings of a good composition, but greatness never occurs in so short a time. There is always fine tuning to be done, if not in the music, then certainly in the selection of words. Let's examine this process entirely from the perspective of pop songwriting to see why it is more difficult than it looks.
To begin with, in order to write songs, you need to be able to play a musical instrument used for accompaniment. In popular music, guitars and keyboards have always been the composing instruments of choice, mainly because--unlike, say, a trumpet--you can form chords, allowing for all the aural necessities of major and minor embellishments (major chords sound happy and minor chords sound sad). With a trumpet, you can easily compose a vocalist's melody line, but not so clearly the musical foundation beneath. So when it comes to campfire singalongs, trumpet players need not apply.
Now, the beauty of this is that you don't have to be a virtuoso to play a musical instrument behind the crafting of your songs. You just need to know how to get from one chord to the next, allowing for a smooth and pleasant vocal layering above. Let's call this a chord pattern. String some chords together, play the same pattern over and over, then sing a gibberish melody line over that chord pattern, and you have the makings of a verse. Write another set of not too dissimilar chords to be used for the repeating chorus vocal line, maybe even add a distinctive third section, and bingo--you have just written a song (minus the lyrics). Your next question should be: Is this any good?
The Beatles' John Lennon was once purported to have said that he never listened to the radio so as not to receive any undue influences on his songwriting. I'll take this a step further by boldly stating that all the good songs have already been written. Any knowledgeable listener, e.g., music critic, can with some research and thought, put together a list of their 1,000 favorite tunes of all time. As a songwriter, your arduous task is to break onto this list. Seems unlikely doesn't it? The key words often used are derivative or retro, which simply mean that your song sounds like something the music critic has already heard a hundred times in the past. Not to worry though. We are not bailing out; we simply understand the ground rules.
This leads us to the underlying principle that different is better. Let's fly through this again from the beginning.
One evening while watching TV, I'm fiddling around on the guitar strumming all sorts of individual chords and chord patterns, not really paying much attention. All of a sudden I hear something I'm playing that sounds appealing. Now I take notice and hum along to see if I can get a vocal melody line to fit. Pretty soon I've written a whole section. If it's really catchy, then I turn it into a chorus that listeners will subconsciously memorize with ease. If it's good, but I know I could do better, then I make this section the verse and try to write another sympathetic section that will latch onto the listener's ear. I ask myself if this sounds like anything else I've heard. If not, then I move onto the vocal line to drive home the point of the song. I decide to write some lyrics about my ex-girlfriend, who recently dumped me! Still not sounding like anybody else? Good. Things are starting to cook now. I'm playing my new song over and over and when the goosebumps literally appear on my arms, I know I have a hit on my hands. Nice job, boy, you've done it again!
Over the next few weeks, as the initial creative thrill subsides, I continue to tinker with the song, trying to make improvements in the musical foundation, the vocal melody line, and the lyrics. Can I make this song sound any better and does it still not remind me of something else? Some time later after I've tortured myself, as well as the song, nearly to death while striving for perfection; I come to the conclusion that the song is now ready for the listener.
So who is the listener? This is where things really get complicated. If you write only for yourself and your own enjoyment, then you have successfully completed your task when you've gotten to this point. Chalk this one up for posterity and move on to the next song in the body of your life's work.
If your listening audience is comprised of your high school classmates who just began listening to the radio a few years ago, then you may find their accolades to be ambiguous at best within their narrow frame of reference. On the other hand, if your songs sound similar to what your chums already like, then you may be headed straight for commercial success in a lucrative market, never to have your originality questioned.
As your college-aged audience gains awareness, a wider range of appeal becomes available to you. Eclecticism creeps into your audience, cutting across social strata and enabling a sizable crowd of like-minded individuals to identify with and respond enthusiastically to your songs. And as everybody knows, beer makes your songs sound even better, so they'd better go well with beer.
By the time your audience enters the full-time workforce, their music appreciation is fueled by some twenty years of serious musical knowledge. They have lived through it. There's no fooling them. Some become music critics who make a living comparing your song to dozens similar you never even knew existed. You may be hopelessly labeled as someone with nothing new to offer.
Convinced that your song won't crack the top 1,000? Buck up--the performance will carry your tune over the top!
II. BRINGING THE SONG TO LIFE
Yes, some songs are timeless classics right out of the box, making little difference who records them or when. The rest of us songwriters rely on the performance to reel in the audience. Therefore, the songwriter's best friend is always the delivery vehicle, and in my case, my band, The Hope Orchestra. Take it from me: I have no movie star looks, I can't sing all that well, and I'm not the greatest guitar player to come down the pike. However, I know I am a very good songwriter, and combined with that confidence and a lot of perseverance, I have assembled a group of very talented musicians who make up for my shortcomings. And the best part is that we all enjoy the music we create, the bulk (but not all) of which I have penned. Asta, our talented female vocalist, is the star of the band. She brings my songs to life. Although my bandmates are all equal members in this endeavor, I am, it seems in comparison, just along for the ride, but without the songs, there is no Hope Orchestra.
After I compose a new song, I present it to the band at a rehearsal. I can demonstrate the song on my guitar and sing it to my bandmates or I can make a tape recording of the song and give each musician a copy of the tape and the sheet music. After the musicians have learned the preliminary structure of the song, we make an attempt to play the song together.
The very first thing I notice after listening to my bandmates wing it is that the song sounded much better in my head! After a few more tries, any glaring musical errors are quickly corrected. The vocalist is also trying to learn the melody line and at the same time comprehend the emotion that will be needed to deliver the lyrics with conviction. We come to an impasse. The vocalist finds that the song as written is not in a very comfortable vocal key (pitch), and therefore it will have to be transposed to another one. Simple enough, except that not all keys are created equal, especially on the guitar, where chord strumming does not transpose well between all keys. Nevertheless, we make adjustments because our primary concern is always the vocal delivery--the focus of the song.
Once the musicians have learned their parts, they now gleefully head off into uncharted territory by utilizing their skills to graft their individual musical tastes onto the song. As a result of this imprinting, a ballad designed for Barbra Streisand is soon turned into a reggae dance number more suitable for Bob Marley. The songwriter must gain control over this musical experimentation and ultimately decide the best direction for the song. Sometimes egos are bruised and feelings are hurt, but successful performance is a team effort requiring businesslike leadership qualities to produce the best product.
The song may sound different from what I had originally envisioned, but with any luck, a bit of helpful prodding and healthy doses of positive reinforcement, in the end, the song is better. We practice it for several weeks and when we think we have it down, we practice it some more. Eventually, it is ready to be performed before an audience.
At the gig, which in this incarnation takes place before a large, tightly packed dancehall crowd of twenty- and thirty-year-olds, we proceed through our usual set of tested and proven original hits. We grab and hold their attention from the moment we take the stage. After thoroughly warming up the crowd, we launch into our new song and observe the response.
During these three to four short minutes (the average pop song length), I notice that some in the audience are content to sit and listen intently to the music and lyrics while others immediately head for the dance floor. All are tapping their feet to the beat of the music. Many are smiling. Most have stopped their conversations with friends to pay closer attention. My bandmates are performing energetically and flawlessly. The end of the song is met with a thunderous ovation. I am quite pleased. The next day I return to the drawing board to start work on another song.
Black and White Photos: #1-Vickie Reis; #2-Bill Lancaster; #3-Glenn Bering