126 Shortcuts to take your songs from good to great!

Posts Tagged ‘song craft’

WHAT’S THE HARDEST PART OF SONGWRITING?

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

by Robin Frederick

I share so many of my own songwriting gripes and difficulties in my articles and books, by now everyone pretty much knows what I wrestle with. But I often wonder what OTHER songwriters find difficult about songwriting. So, I decided to take a poll on my Facebook site. I’ve had over 180 responses so far. (In just a moment, I’ll give you a link to the poll so you see the results and weigh in, if you haven’t already.)

The question was “What do you think is the hardest part of songwriting?” I started out with just 4 categories – Lyrics, Melody, Chords, Song Structure – the usual suspects. I asked people to vote for the ones that were hardest for them and I invited them to add their own categories – which they promptly did! They added challenges like “Getting started,” “Making an old idea more contemporary,” “Getting song ideas down,” “Communicating with listeners,” and more. They’ll get no argument from me! These are all difficult aspects of songwriting and I’m always looking for ways to make them easier.

TO SEE THE POLL & VOTE: CLICK HERE

YOU ARE NOT ALONE
The most important insight I took away from the poll is that EVERYONE has trouble with at least one aspect of songwriting – often the same areas I have trouble with! Even successful songwriters know what it’s like to hit a wall! But pro songwriters have one advantage: they can work their way through the problem by relying on their command of song craft.

Songwriting is part inspiration and part hard, slogging work. The inspiration part is always fun. We all love that moment when a great line just pops out or the idea for a song is born in a flash of energy. But relying on inspiration alone to carry you through is not enough, especially if you’d like to market your songs to the music or film & TV industries. When you decide to make a living (or even a little extra income) from songwriting, you need to be able to bust through those trouble spots. Song craft can help you do it. So, here are 5 short song craft tips in the areas that poll takers say are the hardest:


#1. LYRICS I’ve been posting so many lyric tips lately, it’s hard to pick just one but try this… Listeners love to feel they’re witnessing an intimate, personal moment. Drop the listener right into the middle of a situation by using dialogue lines. “Go ahead. Keep talking!” or “Don’t turn away just when I need you” or “Let’s get out of here. Run away with me!” Mix these with emotional images, sensations, and details. Examples: “You’ve slammed the door a thousand times.” or “Your skin is warm and soft beneath my touch.” Pump up your action words: Instead of “You left…” try “You slithered off…” or “You skipped away…” phrases that convey more emotional energy. Rewrite a lyric using these ideas to create a lyric with more impact!

#2. MELODY When writing melody & chords at the same time, we tend to fall into patterns, like starting lines when the chord changes. Try recording or sequencing a chord progression first. Then write a melody to it. Experiment with starting on different beats, singing a phrase through a chord change, or adding syncopation by emphasizing upbeats.

Change the notes and rhythm patterns of your melody until you’re happy with it. Record it then take a break. Come back later with fresh ears and listen to it. If the melody feels too predictable, try lengthening a line, starting on a different beat, or adding a pause in an unexpected place. If the melody feels unfocused or hard to remember, try repeating a line more often. Finding the right mix of repetition and variation of melody lines is the key to writing catchy, memorable songs.


#3. FINDING A UNIQUE IDEA There aren’t a lot of new, never-before-heard song ideas. To give listeners something they haven’t heard before, try a unique approach to your theme or a new angle. Try a different attitude towards a situation (“You left me & I’m so glad!”) or an unusual Point of View. Remember The Beatles’ “She Loves You”? THAT was a fresh point of view – It wasn’t about “me,” it was about “she” and “you” – the singer was present as a friend. Pick a question or concern we don’t often put into words: Blake Shelton’s “Who Are You When I’m not Looking?” is a great example. Look at your honest reactions to situations and people and you’re likely to find new ways of saying things. You can also get ideas from TV shows, books, and tabloid newspapers. Don’t write the obvious. Look for something surprising!

#4. GETTING EMOTIONS INTO YOUR SONGS Instead of telling a story, go deep into a single moment when the emotions reached a peak. Put yourself into that moment and imagine it as vividly as you can. How does it feel? What do you say or do to express the feeling? Describe it in physical terms. (Like walking thru fire. Riding a wave. Flying. Falling.) The more you use physical images and senses to describe an emotion, the more the listener is able to experience it and share it with you. This type of emotionally focused lyric works very well for both radio and film & TV.

To find physical ways to describe emotions, play a simple “association game.” Choose an emotion and associate it with a color, a season, an object, a physical sensation. Then make a list of all the things that association reminds you of. Keep building wider levels of associations until you have three of four levels. Then write lyric lines using these associated images and sensations to express the emotion. (If you have my book “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV,” you can find out more in Shortcut #53.

#5. DEVELOPING / FINISHING THAT GREAT IDEA Just like an artist sketches the idea for a painting in pencil before applying the final paint, try roughing out a sketch of your song. Get an idea of the flow, the path of the WHOLE song before trying to write those perfect lines for your first verse.

Create the outline of your song based on a song structure. The most popular structure is: Verse / Chorus / Verse / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus.  Write a line or phrase in each section giving a rough idea of the content. For instance, the chorus will include your title, so write it there. Add another line to support it emotionally. Then write a line for each verse and the bridge, a line that indicates what you’re going to say in that section. Try answering a question suggested by the title in each song section. What do listeners need to know in order to understand the title, what it means, how it feels. If you sketch out your song, you won’t end up repeating the same thing over and over and you won’t run out of things to say!

Copyright 2011 Robin Frederick.

Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” and “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV” available at Amazon.com.

by Robin Frederick

You’ll find more songwriting tips on my website:

http://www.robinfrederick.com

KEEP YOUR LISTENER BY YOUR SIDE

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

by Robin Frederick, author of “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting”

When I’m coaching songwriters, they often give me a lyric to read while I listen. This is useful because I like to make notes as the song goes along but I have to be careful to remember that the average listener won’t have that lyric page in front of them. Sometimes I grasp the meaning of a song only because I’m reading the lyric or because the songwriter has told me something about the song before playing it. But when that song is played on the radio, the writer won’t be there to say, “Here’s why I wrote this song…” or “Let me just explain what happened….”

Here are some ideas that will help your listeners understand what you’re saying and stay involved in your song.

BE CONSISTENT: Sometimes a songwriter knows what he or she meant to say but fails to make it clear because some of the lines are giving conflicting messages. For example, if the verse lyric says: “I’m leaving. I can’t live with your lies,” then the chorus states: “I’ll stay no matter what you do,” listeners will have to stop and figure out how both of those things can be true. While they’re thinking, your song has moved on and you’ve lost them.

MIX POETIC PHRASES WITH DIRECT STATEMENTS: If your lyric style leans toward evocative, poetic lines that suggest rather than tell, try adding a clear, direct statement every few lines. Rob Thomas does this very effectively in his huge hit, “Ever the Same.” (Lyrics are available on the Internet.) Notice how his opening four lines are filled with vivid, poetic images, which are then followed by the statement: “And I couldn’t tell you but I’m telling you now / Just let me hold you while you’re falling apart.” Suddenly, it’s crystal clear what this song is about and listeners aren’t left to figure it out.

LISTENERS NEED TIME: Give listeners time to register what your lyric is saying. It usually takes them a minimum of two lines to absorb an image or idea. So if you write a line that describes your love as being like a prison, try to follow that with another line that describes the prison or tells listeners what it feels like to be imprisoned by love. That will give them time to register the image, the feeling of a prison, and link it with the idea of love.

To test your lyric, play it for friends (and strangers) without giving them a lyric sheet. Don’t give them any explanation or introduction to the song. Afterwards, ask them to tell you their impression of the song. See if they picked up on the general situation and emotional message. It’s alright if they didn’t pick up on specific details or exact ideas, just so long as they felt the emotions and got involved in what was happening.

It’s easy to forget, when you’re focused intensely on a lyric, writing and reworking it, that listeners have to process a lot of information in a very short time. If you give them too much information or give it in a way that’s too hard to understand, they may lose interest. Try to keep them in mind while you’re writing. Anticipate their questions. See if you can hear them saying, “Hey, wait for me. I didn’t quite catch that!”

(c) 2009. Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell” by Robin Frederick. Available at Amazon.com.

GIVE YOUR SONG A MEMORABLE TITLE

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

by Robin Frederick, author of “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting”

The title of a song is almost always a featured line in the song itself, often the first line or last line of the chorus, making it the line that listeners remember long after the song is over.

A good title is intriguing, evocative, and memorable. The best titles sum up the heart and soul of a song, recalling the whole experience for listeners, making them want to go back and listen again.

Keep it brief. Long titles can work but may be difficult for listeners to remember. These longer titles may be familiar phrases (“I Just Called to Say I Love You” “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”) which are easy to recall. To be safe, stick to five words or less.

Make a statement. One way to be memorable and catch listeners attention is to write a title that makes a strong statement. Nickelback’s “Gotta Be Somebody” is a good example. There’s a sense of urgency built into this phrase, giving the singer something to dig into emotionally.

Use an Intriguing phrase. Beyonce’s recent hit “If I Were a Boy” does exactly that. Don’t you want to know what Beyonce would do if she were a boy? Sure, you do! So the title makes you want to hear the song. Shinedown’s “The Sound of Madness” also has an intriguing title. What does it mean? What does madness sound like? What is this song going to be about?

Try an evocative image. A song title like “Mud On the Tires” works because it’s loaded with associations. The title of this Brad Paisley Country hit features an image that suggests off-roading fun, maybe a wild ride through the fields, or drive to a hidden fishing hole, all of which evoke fond memories and desires in this audience. If you choose a title like this, be aware of your listeners’ expectations and keep them in mind when writing.

Action words add drama and energy. If your title feels like it’s just sitting there, try phrasing it in a more active way. Instead of “I Love You,” try something like “Throw My Arms Around You.” Not only does it replace a familiar statement with an fresher one, it adds the energy of the word “throw.” It also suggests questions that your lyric can answer: What’s the situation? Why does the singer want to do this? How will it feel? How will the other person react?

As most songwriters know, there are many songs with the same (or very similar) titles. Make yours stand out from the crowd by using one of these techniques!

For songwriter tips, games, and hit song analysis, check out my web site: http://www.robinfrederick.com

(c) 2009. Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell” by Robin Frederick. Available at Amazon.com.

STUDY HIT SONGS TO LEARN YOUR CRAFT

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

by Robin Frederick, author of “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting”

Most hit songs demonstrate at least three or four techniques you can use to broaden the emotional impact and commercial appeal of your own songs. That’s why it’s a great idea for aspiring songwriters (and even successful pro’s) to study recent hits!

It’s important to study songs you admire, not the ones you can’t stand! Look for those hit songs that move you, the ones that appeal most to you, and then ask yourself what that song is doing that draws you in. Of course there are times when I go through the Top 20 songs on the music charts and don’t hear anything that particularly attracts me. In that case, I’ll go back to songs from the previous year or so to look for ideas.

Keep a list of hit songs you like in the genre you’re interested in. Country songs are different from R&B and Rock and Pop. You’re going to hear different approaches to lyrics and melody in every genre. If you’re not sure which genre you want to write in, spend some time exploring each of the four mainstream styles. You can find current music charts and stream the Top 20 songs for free at Billboard.com. Just click on “Charts” at the top of the page, then select the style you want.

In the Hot AC genre, I like Nickelback’s “Gotta Be Somebody,” a big hit in early 2009. Chad Kroeger really knows his craft and this song proves it. Lyrically, he states the theme in the opening lines of the first verse and every lyric line after that leads the listener toward a chorus that sums up the emotional message at the heart of this song. (You can find the lyrics for this song online.)

Melodically, this song is also very strong. Notice in the pre-chorus how Kroeger uses four short phrases that echo each other rhythmically, building tension to the final phrase which he extends by a few extra syllables (“forever with”). This is a great way to build anticipation leading up to your chorus. Then check out how he creates forward momentum in the chorus melody by allowing only very short pauses, just long enough to grab a breath before roaring right into the next line.

In the Country genre, I like Montgomery Gentry’s “One In Every Crowd,” also a hit earlier this year. This is great example of a lyric with plenty of visual detail, a fresh take on the theme, and a powerful melody that builds dynamically through the verse and pre-chorus to a big emotional release. (Lyrics are available online.) The “Hey y’all” secondary hook adds plenty of fun but don’t mistake that for the chorus; it’s just icing on the cake. It doesn’t payoff the verses well enough to work as a stand-alone chorus. If you’re interested in the Country genre, this is an excellent song to study.

For more ideas and analysis, check out my web site at RobinFrederick.com. Just click on “Study the Hits”; you’ll find a detailed look at many of today’s most successful songs.

(c) 2009. Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell” by Robin Frederick. Available at Amazon.com.

START YOUR SONG WITH A UNIVERSAL THEME

Monday, September 14th, 2009

by Robin Frederick, author of “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting”

Some songwriters spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting for inspiration. Waiting for an idea. Just waiting. Well, I don’t want you to wait. I want you to start doing, writing, creating. Now.

One of the things songwriters most often seem to wait for is an idea that will launch them into the deep emotional waters of a song. Not only is it unnecessary to hang around hoping an idea will magically appear, it can lead to repetition and stagnation of your creative muscle. It’s funny how, once an idea has worked, it tends to reappear over and over again.

So, here’s an idea…

You might have noticed that songs use many of the same themes that drive other types of dramatic entertainment. Just check out the list of top ten romantic films of all time or today’s favorite contemporary TV dramas. While hit songs tend to focus on relationships and emotions rather than car chases and shoot-outs, they share many of the same dramatic elements: Who is involved? What will happen next? You can use popular movies and TV shows to lead you to themes that pack a big emotional punch both for you and your listeners.

Yes, I’m telling you to watch TV and go to the movies. Remember, it’s important for you to be present emotionally in your song so start by looking for a scene that draws your emotional attention. When did you find yourself getting involved with a character? When did you identify with the character? What was the peak emotional moment for you in this character’s story? Any of these points in a storyline can provide a theme for a song. For example, here’s a scene: The lead character sits alone in a dark room after seeing an ex-lover who is now involved with someone else. If you were watching this scene and you felt moved by it, consider creating a song based on it. Use your imagination to create dialogue, images, background, and specific examples, whatever you need for your song. And you don’t have to limit yourself to romantic themes; you can write social commentary or character songs based on drama and action scenes.

(c) 2009. Based on “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell” by Robin Frederick. Available at Amazon.com.

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.