126 Shortcuts to take your songs from good to great!

Posts Tagged ‘song’

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

INCREASE POTENTIAL FILM & TV USE FOR YOUR SONGS

Monday, January 17th, 2011

by Robin Frederick

For every song that’s placed in a film, TV show, or commercial, many are auditioned – often hundreds – but only one is chosen. The song that will get the job is the one that most effectively heightens the impact and memorability of the scene for viewers.

Is a character discovering real love for the first time? A song can be used to underscore and enhance that feeling for the audience. Is the film set in a small town in the 1950s? A song can vividly recall the era. Always remember: the song serves the needs of the scene.

With that in mind, it may seem a little strange that a majority of the songs that are placed in film and TV are written and recorded first, then pitched to these projects. Often, the songs are part of an artist’s or band’s CD. While the song is being written and recorded, there’s no way to know if, or how, it will eventually be used in a film or TV show. BUT you can craft your songs to increase your chances of a placement in this market.

WHAT MAKES A SONG WORK FOR FILM & TV?

Lyrics: A good lyric for film and TV is universal enough to allow the song to be used in a variety of scenes while still maintaining integrity, originality, and focus. Of course, no song will work for every scene but some themes and situations occur more frequently in film and TV shows, such as falling in love, overcoming adversity, becoming an individual, plus conflicts of all kinds as well as celebrations. If you choose one of these as a general theme for your song  and you focus on the emotions that come up, you’ll be more likely to get a placement. Watch a few TV episodes and look for common themes. Chances are you’re already using some of them in your songs.

Imagery, emotional detail, and a fresh approach to your theme will add muscle to a universal lyric, making it more appealing to film and TV. On the other hand, too many details, like place names, proper names, dates, or a story that’s too specific to your own circumstances, will limit the uses.

Music: Filmmakers have always used instrumental music to communicate mood, energy, and atmosphere to the audience, from soaring love themes to the high anxiety of a fast-paced action cue. As songs have grown in popularity with viewers, they’re being used to replace some of that instrumental music. A song that works well for film and TV is one that, like an instrumental cue, uses melody, chords, tempo, and rhythm to evoke a single mood or energy level.

If you’ve written an uptempo song about a wild party or a slow song about lost love, you’re already using tempo and rhythm to express energy. Songwriters often do this instinctively. You can hone that ability for the film and TV market, by making a conscious effort to make your music even more expressive and usable. Like a film composer,  choose a pace (tempo) and groove that physically express the energy level you want, then back it up with melody and lyrics to support that energy. Got an upbeat, bouncy groove? Add a syncopated melody with plenty of unexpected leaps between notes and a lyric that’s filled with fresh, fun images. If your song’s theme is young love, it could be used in hundreds of scenes in which a couple of teens or twenty-somethings meet and fall in love.

Like an actor, a song in a film, TV episode, or commercial has a role to play. The theme, lyric language, musical arrangement, and singer’s voice must work together to create an emotional moment for the audience.  Watch films and TV shows that use songs. Here are just a few primetime TV dramas that use between two and ten songs per episode: The Vampire Diaries, Grey’s Anatomy, Smallville, Friday Night Lights, One Tree Hill, 90210, Life Unexpected, Gossip Girl, and there are many more. You can find a complete list at TuneFind.com.

As you watch these shows, notice how the songs underscore, reinforce, or deepen the viewer’s experience of the characters or situation. These are often strong songs that can stand alone as songs, expressing the artist’s creativity and message, yet they offer the film and TV industry what it needs. This is the sweet spot where you want to be. You’ve got good songs; now make them good film and television songs!

Start studying the market by listening for songs in TV commercials, TV series, and films. Could you write a song like that? Download a TV episode with a song in it  – iTunes offers episodes of most popular TV series for just $1.99. Watch the scene a few times, then turn the sound off and write a song of your own that enhances the mood, atmosphere, or energy.

For more  songwriting tips, visit RobinFrederick.com

Copyright 2010 Robin Frederick.

Based on “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV” 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.

SONGWRITING AND INSPIRATION

Monday, May 25th, 2009

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

Most songwriters sit down to write when they are going through an emotional time, when feelings are running high. Many great songs — many hit songs — have been written from a songwriter’s private life – the joy, love, grief, and anger of the writer’s own relationships.

So, what happens when a songwriter who has been writing solely from personal experience begins to (or wants to) earn a living from their writing? Let’s say you’re a singer-songwriter with a record deal and you have to write ten new songs for an upcoming album… or you’re a staff writer with a publishing deal who needs to write on demand. Can you rely on your life to provide enough material to keep the songs flowing? Probably not. Even if you could, it might not be the kind of life you’d want to live!

Here are a couple of ideas that can help you get around this problem:

> Use the past.
You already know that as a songwriter you need to write from your heart; you want to express your own thoughts and feelings. If your life isn’t currently filled with drama, try reaching back into the past for an event that still resonates for you, a conversation, person, or situation that has stayed in your memory. If you’ve already written a song or songs about it, consider looking at it from another angle. Try putting yourself in the other person’s place and seeing it from their point of view or use something you’ve learned since that time to add a fresh perspective.

> Imagine a situation.
Shakespeare didn’t have to endure a visit from the ghost of his dead father in order to write Hamlet. By imagining himself in Hamlet’s situation, he was able to create dialogue filled with honest emotions that have moved audiences for hundreds of years. A good writer, whether of plays, songs, or novels, doesn’t have to experience every situation himself in order to write about it truthfully.

The poet John Keats called this ability to project oneself into another’s emotional life “negative capability.” By this he meant a writer’s ability to lose his own ego and become the character he’s writing about. I just call it empathy. A good writer is one who can feel what others are going through and identify with their emotions. As soon as you can do that, you can write about it.

We all experience empathy when we lose ourselves in a good movie, book, or TV program, when we cry over a sad ending or care about what happens to the hero. You can use these empathic feelings as the basis for new songs.

Do It Now!
Choose a situation from your past or watch a dramatic TV show or movie and pick a scene that interests you. Write out the situation in your own words. Try to get inside the emotions of someone in the scene — really BE there. Imagine your surroundings, the past that led up to it and what might happen next. What emotions are you feeling? What you want to say and do in this situation. Make a list of phrases and ideas that describe what you’re feeling. Choose one of these phrases and make it the title of your song. For a variation on this idea, choose your material from a cable news channel and base your song on real people and events.

In my book, “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting,” there are several techniques that will help you develop a complete lyric from your title (Shortcuts #44 – #47), then use the lyric to suggest the raw material for a melody.

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.