126 Shortcuts to take your songs from good to great!

Archive for the ‘ROBIN’S’ Category

WRITING SONGS FOR YOURSELF AND YOUR LISTENERS

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

by Robin Frederick (author of “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting”)

What makes you write a song?
– the desire to put your feelings into words?
– wanting to reach out to others to express a thought or message?
– the hope that eventually it will earn royalties?

The truth is, a song can do all this if you keep all three goals in mind as you write.

Write to express your own emotions. Stay connected with your initial reason for writing the song. What is it you want to say? What emotion do you want to convey? Even if your goal is to write a hit song, you MUST stay connected to your original emotional inspiration!

Write a summary of your song in a sentence or two and keep it to refer to. When you get into the actual writing of your song, it’s easy to get lose sight of your initial idea. If a strong lyric line suddenly occurs to you, ask yourself if it really belongs in the song you’re working on. Maybe it’s an idea for a different song. Don’t bend your theme out of shape to accommodate that one line. Write down or record your idea, then put it aside temporarily until you figure out where it belongs. Stay with your original inspiration and you’ll end up with a song that expresses your feelings and thoughts.

A good song is any song that expresses your emotions in a way that’s satisfying for you. But… if you want to reach out and express those feelings to listeners, you may need to blend more song craft into your writing. Song craft is a body of knowledge that has been developed by songwriters over decades, even hundreds of years. It’s based on how listeners react: What draws them in? What turns them off? For instance, listeners like a song that has a repeated chorus section. But if that chorus is just repeated over and over, they get bored. If there’s a verse that gives them more information in between the choruses, listeners remain interested and involved. That’s an example of song craft.

Craft doesn’t limit creativity!
If you want to write a song in the hope of getting it published, recorded by a well known artist, or used in film or TV (a major outlet for today’s songs), then you’ll want to do both of the things I’ve just described: Stay connected to your emotional theme and use song craft to communicate with listeners. Melody and lyric writing techniques can be adapted and built on in endless ways, so don’t think of craft as limiting your creativity! Approach it with a playful, experimental attitude.

Once you reach out to listeners with a strong emotional message, well-developed, evocative lyrics, and a memorable, fresh melody, you’ve got the kind of song the music industry needs. So, if your goal is to write a song that will earn royalties, aim for a blend of emotion and craft. Remember…

– If you write a song with emotion but no craft, listeners may not understand you.

– If you write a song with craft but no emotion, listeners may not care!

Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” by Robin Frederick. Available at Amazon.com. Copyright 2009 Robin Frederick. All rights reserved.

CREATE A DEVELOPMENT PATH FOR YOUR LYRICS

Monday, April 6th, 2009

by Robin Frederick (author of “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting”)

It can be tough to find the balance between giving listeners too much information too quickly and not giving them enough or repeating information they’ve already heard.

As you write your verses and bridge, keep the path through your song clear. Make sure things are moving forward, not going in circles or repeating the same thing over and over.

Here are some development paths your song might take. Notice that each path leads the listener into and through a situation, keeping the momentum rolling forward and giving new information as it goes along.

The chorus is integrated into the song as a natural extension of the verses and bridge. (The vast majority of hit songs are written from the point of view of the singer—the first person “I”—so I’ll use that approach in these examples.)

Path #1 – Deal with a problem.

Verse 1: This is the problem.
Chorus: Here’s how I feel about it.
Verse 2: This is what I tried to do about it.
Chorus: Here’s how I feel about it.
Bridge: This is how I hope to find a way through this.
Chorus: Here’s how I feel about it.

Path #2 – Give us a history.

Verse 1: I remember the great beginning of our love.
Chorus: This is what it felt like.
Verse 2: Things changed. Everything is different now.
Chorus: This is what it felt like.
Bridge: Can we get back to the way things were?
Chorus: This is what it felt like.

Path #3 – Build it up.

Verse 1: I took a chance.
Chorus: Now my life has changed.
Verse 2: I risked everything for happiness.
Chorus: Now my life has changed.
Bridge: It was worth it.
Chorus: Now my life has changed.

You can find more development paths by listening to well-written hit songs. You’ll notice that some songs share similar paths. It’s how the path is personalized by the songwriter that makes it unique and gives it strength. A path is just the outline of a song. How you flesh it out is up to you. Make each path your own with the details and emotions of your specific situation and characters.

Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” by Robin Frederick. Available at Amazon.com. Copyright 2009 Robin Frederick. All rights reserved.

PLAYING WITH MELODY

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

by Robin Frederick (author of “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting”)

Question: If I listen to a particular song I like, I feel inspired to write a song but when I sit down and try, I end up writing the melody I have just listened to. Do you have any tips?

Answer: Melodies can easily get stuck in our brains. A hit Pop/Rock or Country song melody is very catchy; that’s a large part of the reason it’s a hit. But you’re right; this can be a problem for songwriters. Try this exercise to send your melody in a completely new direction:

1) Start by changing the pitches of the notes in the hit song melody. Just sing or play a note that is higher or lower than the original. Your melody will start to sound slightly different from the original. Play with a lot of different pitch choices. If the hit song melody has an ascending melody line, try one that moves downward. If the hit song melody skips over a few notes you can try staying on the same note without moving at all. Doing this part of the exercise will help you start thinking about note pitch as a separate element you can play with.

2) Now, try changing the lengths of the lines (or “phrases”). A “phrase” is a melodic thought with a natural beginning and end. (Lyric lines often begin and end at the same time as a melodic phrase.) Chop a phrase into two shorter phrases by adding a pause in the middle. Don’t worry about interrupting the flow of the lyric; a pause can often ADD interest to a lyric phrase. You can also add a couple of notes and words to the end of a phrase to extend it.

3) After you play with pitch and phrase length, start exploring the timing of the notes: hold a short note longer, then speed up the notes that follow, or divide a long note into several short ones.

By now, your melody should sound VERY different from the original. Remember, this is just an exercise. You are using the hit song to start training your brain to think about melody in a new way, by identifying the three main elements of a song melody–pitch, phrase length, and rhythm. When you start playing with these, you can shape your melody into anything you want! Practice this exercise to get into the habit of thinking about the different components of melody. It will help you move past those melodic ideas that “just occur to you” but may sound dated or familiar.

Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” by Robin Frederick. Available at Amazon.com. Copyright 2009 Robin Frederick. All rights reserved.

Speaking of Genres…

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Robin Frederick (author, “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting”)

I recently read an article about Gracenote, the company that delivers info to your iPod and computer music player that tells you what song you’re listening to by which artist. The article offers an insight into something I wrote in a recent post about the importance of music genres. Here’s an excerpt from the Gracenote article…

“Gracenote’s genre classification system enables listeners to get the most out of their music collections by enabling them to automatically select the type of music they want to listen to, whether it’s “Jazz,” “Rock” or “Dance.” Created using an analysis of user preferences combined with the expertise of Gracenote’s music editorial team, Gracenote genre classifications enable developers to provide a tried-and-true list of music categories that simplify and enhance the user listening experience. Gracenote genre classifications also make it easy for users to organize and sort music, create customized playlists and discover new music, helping them enjoy the overwhelming amount of digital music now readily available.” (Market WIre)

 

So Gracenote is going to decide what genre your song is in. I notice this is based on a combination of “analysis of user preferences” — read ‘software program’ — and “Gracenote’s music editorial team” — read ‘REAL PEOPLE’!!! Yes, real people are going to listen to your music and classify it! It will then be organized for listeners, even delivered to new listeners, who like that genre.

 

But what if it’s not clear what genre your song is in? What if a member of Gracenote’s “music editorial team” puts you in Easy Listening when you really want to be in Rock?  What if you are in a 1980s-sort-of-funky-folk-thing genre and the music editorial team doesn’t know where to put you?

 

Try deciding ahead of time what genre you think is the best fit for you. Be honest. Listen to your music like an audience member. If you can’t do that, try asking a few acquaintances or even strangers who they think you sound like. (Don’t ask close friends and family. They’ll just tell you what you want to hear!) 

 

Truth is, each of the mainstream genres is flexible. A Pop/Rock song may fit into the Rock genre or the Pop genre. But there is a core sound that defines many of the hits in each style. Spend some quality time listening to and studying the hit songs at the top of the charts in the genre you want to be in. Do your songs sound similar in some ways? In many ways? In no ways? Maybe you could add a few more of these elements to your song before you record it, and then aim your production in the same direction to add even more strength. 

 

Think like a listener. Put together a playlist of hit songs in a given genre and drop your song into the middle. Play your playlist in the car. When your song comes on, does the flow of music continue or is it interrupted in an uncomfortable way? Genres are about the listener, making the experience of listening to music an enjoyable one. To help Gracenote, as well as radio programmers and listeners, create that flow, blend the elements of a given genre into your song and sound. 

Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” by Robin Frederick

Copyright 2008 Robin Frederick. All rights reserved.

Build Your Song the Hard Hat Way

Monday, January 12th, 2009

Robin Frederick (author, Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting)

 

Let’s say that you’ve decided to build a house. You’ve gathered a big pile of lumber and you’ve got  a hammer and some nails. Good, that’s a start! But if that’s ALL you have, your house is probably going to end up looking very strange. Without a saw, a screwdriver, a level, and the rest of the homebuilder’s toolbox, your house will look very odd indeed. If you try to sell this house, most buyers won’t be interested. For some reason, they seem to like solid construction, square windows, and a door that works. 

 

It’s the same with songs. Your ideas, creativity, and imagination are the raw material, the lumber, from which you’ll build your song. But if you don’t have all the tools you need, your song is likely to end up sounding odd or uninteresting or so strange that listeners can’t find their way in. Songwriting tools can help you create a song that works for listeners, helping them feel the emotion, understand the situation, and identify with the singer. At the same time, the raw material you start with will ensure that the song is YOUR song, expresses what YOU feel.  

 

So put on your hard hat and assemble your songwriting tools. Here are just a few:

 

USE A SONG STRUCTURE: You wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint, so don’t build a song without a clear plan for the structure. The vast majority of today’s hit songs feature a verse and chorus structure that looks something like this: Verse / Chorus / Verse / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus. Listeners like this structure; it has enough variety to keep them interested and enough repetition to make them feel comfortable. Using this structure won’t make you sound like everyone else because you’re going to fill it in with YOUR thoughts and YOUR inspiration. 

 

USE IMAGES AND DETAILS TO COMMUNICATE THE SITUATION: Instead of saying “I remember that night,” try to show your listeners that night! They weren’t there. They don’t know anything about it. Let your listeners be inside the scene by telling them what the surroundings looked like, who was there, what they did, what they looked like. Choose those details that sum up the essence of what happened and the feelings that were going on.  

 

UNDERSCORE YOUR LYRIC WITH YOUR MELODY: Think of your melody like the music underneath a scene in a movie. Watch a few films with big scores, like Titanic, Notice how the music rises when the emotion intensifies. Now try something similar in your song. When you get to your chorus, which is where the big emotions in a song are often focused, try a melody line that slowly rises or suddenly leaps tgo a high note or changes pace.

 

These are just three tools you can use; there are dozens more (126 in my book “Shortcuts to HIt Songwriting”). But this isn’t about memorizing or parroting some rules! Pick a couple of these ideas and and go write a song using them. Just as a builder uses some tools every day and others only occasionally, there are some songwriting tools you will use more than others. 

 

When we listen to songs, they seem somehow magical and effortless.  It’s easy to forget that in addition to inspiration and emotion, it takes knowledge and hard work to build an effective song — the kind listeners will want to “move into.” So put on your hard hat, assemble your tools, look at your ideas as raw material, and get started!

 

Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” by Robin Frederick 

Copyright 2008 Robin Frederick. All rights reserved.

Write Your Songs in a Genre

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Robin Frederick (author, Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting)

 

Most of the time, when you start a song, you’re thinking solely about what you want to say, and that’s the best way to approach your songwriting. However, by keeping a little corner of your brain focused on the genre you want to write in, you can add strength to your song, the kind of strength that could help your song find its audience.

 

Like ice cream, songs come in different flavors: strawberry, chocolate, peach, and rocky road. And, like ice cream flavors, there are very real differences between the four mainstream music genres — Country, Pop, Rock, and R&B/Soul — and each one appeals to a different audience. 

 

So, why is this important to you as a songwriter?

 

When listeners tune into a radio station that plays Country music, they expect to hear a range of songs that share a certain sound. Jazz stations play something that sounds different from the Country music station. Listeners who tune in to a Jazz station are expecting to hear the kinds of chords, melodies, and lyrics that are characteristic of today’s Jazz genre. If they get a Country song instead, they won’t be happy! Radio stations need to keep listeners satisfied if they want them to stick around. If listeners are expecting to hear songs with a Country sound, that’s what the station needs to play, if they’re expecting Jazz, then Jazz is what the radio station gives them. 

 

If you write a song that straddles Country and Jazz — let’s say you throw a few cool jazz chords into your Country song — you may have trouble finding a publisher for it or an artist who will record it. Why? Because publishers, record labels and artists all know that radio airplay is essential if they want to reach their audience and sell records. 

 

If you are an independent artist, recording your own songs, you can take plenty of chances with your album cuts but you’ll still need a couple of songs that can get on the radio if you want to reach a wider audience. In at least two songs, try to aim for a general sound that characterizes your genre. 

 

 

CHOOSE A GENRE AND GET FAMILIAR WITH IT

Spend some time listening to current hits in the genre you want to write in. If you like Country music, listen to the top 20 current Country hits and study the chords, melodies, and lyrics to see what they have in common. What is it that Country audiences are excited about right now? Whether you want to write Rock, Pop, R&B/Soul or Hip-Hop, check out the current radio airplay charts to see which songs are getting the most play. These are the ones that listeners are eating up! 

 

“But,” I hear you say, “these songs being pushed hard by mega-record labels. That’s the only reason they’re hits!” Sure there’s plenty of money behind all of these songs — the big record labels can afford to buy plenty of ads and lots of promotion –but ultimately money can’t push a song to the top of the charts, only listeners can do that! 

 

You can find up-to-date Radio Airplay Charts at RadioAndRecords.com. Click on “Charts” and check out the ones you’re interested in. (If you don’t know which charts you’re interested in, check out a few. This is essential research for songwriters!) 

 

Make a list of the songs and artists in the top 15 or 20, then go over to iTunes or any legal download site and listen to the excerpts. Pay a couple of bucks to download the ones you like best. Don’t pick the DUDS you don’t like! Choose songs you wish YOU’D written.

 

Once you’ve found a genre you like and a couple of songs, listen to them carefully and study your genre. Look for the general, broad characteristics of your genre by asking the following questions as you listen.

 

LYRICS:

What themes are featured?

What kind of language is used: direct, slangy, poetic?

What sorts of characters turn up in these songs, including the singer? 

How does the lyric tell the listener what’s happening?

 

MELODY:

How much contrast is being used between sections?

How does the melody let you know when you’re in the verse and when you’re in the chorus?

How much repetition is used, how much variation in the melody line?

 

CHORDS:

Do you hear basic three-note chords primarily?

What other kinds of chords are being played? 

How frequently are the chords changing?

 

These are just a few of the questions that will help you study your genre. No one wants to sound exactly like everyone else but you DO want your song to incorporate enough of a genre’s characteristic sound so that it will fit into a radio format. Blend it with your own style to make sure YOU still sound like YOU but give it an extra push toward radio. 

 

Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” by Robin Frederick

Copyright 2008 Robin Frederick. All rights reserved.

From Inspiration to Finished Song

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Robin Frederick (author, Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting)

 

Another great question from a songwriter…

 

Q: “I find that I have an easy time finding a first verse and chorus (or rather, it finds me) but I’ll have trouble coming up with two more verses or a verse and bridge. The lyrics tend to sound forced and I feel trapped. Is that just how it goes when you’re trying to stick to a form?”

 

A: For a lot of songwriters, this is how a song gets started. The first verse or chorus of a song may come to you full-blown, music and lyrics together. But what happens next? That rush of inspiration has exhausted itself and now you have to write more verse lyrics and, harder still, they have to fit your existing melody. 

 

Songs have a limited amount of lyric “real estate.” In fact, you’ve only got a handful of lines in which to communicate a lot of information to your listeners. If you find you’re having trouble figuring out what to write, it’s probably because you’re not sure what you’re writing about

 

Take a look at the inspired lines that launched your song. Write them out and across from them, in a couple of sentences, explain what these lines mean. This can be harder than it sounds! Once you have a clear explanation, make sure all the lines in your lyric work together to convey the meaning you intend. If you’ve got a line that sounds wonderful but doesn’t contribute to the message, try saving it for another song. Replace it with a line that supports your theme. 

 

As you develop your lyric, keep your listeners in mind. Remember, they don’t have any idea what you’re talking about! They only know what you tell them in your lyric. What information do you have about the situation or relationship that you haven’t told your listeners yet? Here are a few questions that can lead you to a lyric that grows organically from your first verse: 

– What has happened in the past that brought the singer to this point? 

– What is likely to happen next? 

– If the song is about a relationship, what has the other person said or done to make the singer feel this way? 

– How have the singer’s feelings changed because of the situation? 

 

Write down your answers to some of these questions. Then make a list of words, ideas, short phrases and images that are related to your answers. Don’t think about rhyming or polishing these lines – they’re just ideas, the raw material for the rest of your song. 

 

If you keep these lines short, just a few words per phrase,  you should be able to fit them into your verse melody then fill in around them. Play with the order of your phrases, drop them into the melody in different places. When you find something you like, lock it in and move onto other lines. 

 

Once you have a rough idea for your second verse, repeat your chorus, then move on to the bridge. The bridge lyric frequently offers a peak emotional moment in a song. Use this spot to reveal the singer’s deepest desires, give us a fresh insight into the theme, or share the singer’s hopes for the future. The bridge melody can provide contrast that grabs the listener’s attention. For example, if your verse and chorus cover a wide note range and have a lot of melodic motion, try limiting the range of the notes in your bridge, use a lot of repetition and focus on the rhythm of the notes.  

 

After the bridge, repeat your chorus. Now, you have a rough version of a song that grew organically from your inspired first verse and chorus. Record a rough version and give it a rest! Come back later with fresh ears and polish some of the melodic and lyric lines. Repeat this process until you feel the song effectively communicates the emotions and ideas that originally  inspired it!

Whose melody is it?

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

Robin Frederick (author, Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting)

From my email bag…

Q: “After I write a song, how do I make sure I’m not copying someone else’s melody? Is there some kind of software where you input your music and it compares it to a database of music to make sure you are not replaying a song you heard from somewhere else?”

 

A: That’s a good question!  There is no software that I’m aware of. If the melody sounds familiar to you and it’s a nagging feeling that won’t go away, try playing it for friends to see if anyone recognizes it. This is what Paul McCartney did with the melody of “Yesterday.” Since it came to him easily, he was suspicious that he might have been re-creating a melody he had heard before. He hadn’t written the lyric yet so he used the nonsense phrase “scrambled eggs” where he would later sing the word “yesterday.” No one recognized the melody, so he went ahead a wrote the final lyric. 

 

If a melody “just comes to you,” if it seems to arrive full-blown, be cautious. It’s possibly one you’ve heard before and stored away in the back of your mind. Sing it for friends to see if they’ve heard it. Back when I was writing three to four songs a week for the Disney Channel, I used to ask the musicians at every recording session if they recognized any of the melodies! I was writing so quickly, I was always nervous that I had inadvertently used an existing melody. If they thought the melody sounded familiar, I changed it on the spot.

 

The good news is that melodies are easy to change.  If you are still unsure after playing your melody for several people, try changing it.  Vary the pitches of a few notes, especially in the song’s chorus. Go up instead of down, down instead of up. Skip over a few notes instead of using a series of rising or descending pitches. You can also play with the rhythm of the notes. Hold a note out longer or divide a long note into a series of short ones. Replace a pause with a couple of notes. Keep on varying the melody until you feel comfortable that it is all yours!

 

(Note: The information in this blog is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice. Consult an attorney if you have questions concerning copyright infringement.)

Holiday songs -it’s a gift!

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

Robin Frederick (author, Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting)

We’re heading into the holidays which is the cue for all of us songwriters to begin scribbling like mad. Holidays are a time of festivities and nothing brings out the festive spirit like songs and music! Beloved holiday songs are part of our holidays year after year after year. After a while, though, wouldn’t it be nice to hear a new “standard” or expand the old tradition to include something a bit more up to date? That’s where you come in!

Get in the holiday spirit to write your song: Be on the lookout for the details and emotions that evoke the spirit of the holiday. By using what you see and experience, you imbue your song with those touches that bring it to life. Begin jotting down ideas for your lyric. Look for fresh twists on holiday themes. For instance, when you’re shopping for presents or going to a holiday party, notice what the people around you are doing, what they are saying. How are the children reacting? What behaviors are different? What are you feeling?  

Write a Christmas song at Christmastime:  There’s nothing harder than writing a Christmas song in July! But that’s just when publishers and music libraries are looking for material for upcoming TV specials and films. So be ready ahead of time with what they’ll be looking for.

Write a song about a holiday that doesn’t have a lot of songs already: How about a Thanksgiving song? A halloween song? A hanukah song? These holidays each have their own special magic and yet the catalogue of songs is fairly slim (compared to Christmas, anyway).

Write a song just for your family and friends: A song is a wonderful gift to family and friends. Include their names and the details of your own holiday traditions. Play it each year to add to your special celebration of the holiday.

Making Myths

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

Robin Frederick (author, Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting)

I heard a great line a while ago. I was watching “Breakfast With The Arts” on A&E and Sean Ono Lennon was being interviewed. He was asked the inevitable question that every songwriter is asked: Are your songs autobiographical? His answer was the best one I have ever heard. He said… “Songs are myths about things that have happened to you.”

I can’t think of a better way to put it. We all write about our lives, our feelings, the things that happen to us. But the idea of myth making is what’s important here.

Sometimes, when we play our autobiographical songs for others, they don’t respond as strongly as we think they should. The problem is that real life events are often messy, unfocused, and confusing. It’s impossible to communicate in a single song lyric all the details, the personalities, the specific history that came together to create the Big Thing that happened – the broken heart, the missing friend, the misunderstanding, the great discovery. This is where myth comes into it. 

A myth is a story that seeks to explain a larger truth about life. A myth may start with real life events but it shapes them to create a deeper understanding. In other words, the factual reality of events becomes secondary and the expression of an idea or emotion takes over. As a songwriter, you have the right to play with reality! Go beyond the facts of what happened and get to the heart of what happened. 

 

One of my songwriting clients brought in a song about a friend and mentor, someone she loved and admired but was now separated from. The friend was living half a world away, truly unreachable. In the song, my client described specific events that were somewhat confusing for me as a listener. After she finished singing,  I asked her what the song was about and she proceeded to give me an account of her friendship with this person, where they used to meet, what the person said. If she had included ALL of that, it would have been a VERY long song and I would probably still have been in the dark. After she finished explaining, I asked again: What is the song about? She thought for a moment and said, “It’s a song about losing someone wonderful.” Right. So I suggested she rewrite the song and select only those details, images, and examples that expressed that kind of loss. If it meant “opening out” the facts to more effectively express the feelings, then that is what she should do. Let go of physical reality and reach for emotional reality, then your listeners will understand a larger truth about life – your life and their own.