126 Shortcuts to take your songs from good to great!

Archive for May, 2009


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.


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.