126 Shortcuts to take your songs from good to great!

Posts Tagged ‘songwriting’

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.)

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.