126 Shortcuts to take your songs from good to great!

Archive for November, 2008

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.