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Cheap Advice On Live Sound
48 Tips To Make Your Band Sound Better
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Using Wikipedia For Concept Album Ideas

Songwriting No Comments

Despite the emphasis on individual songs and personal playlists these days, I and other old-timers still like the idea of an album, not just one song but a set of songs, put on a record or CD in a certain order and meant to be heard straight through from beginning to end (Shuffle Mode “off”). But let’s face it. This is not the way most people listen to music nowadays!

Even today, though, there is a place for multi-song suites that illuminate different aspects of a songwriter’s personality or different parts of a story that takes an album to tell. Sure, such a work demands more of the listener, but there are listeners out there who want to be challenged a bit. Right?

I have written before about the enjoyment I get from conceiving, writing and recording sets of songs with a specific theme or story, yes, those long-form works known as “concept albums”. (See, for example, my article Mini-Tip: Write and Record A Concept Album!) I have picked up ideas for concept albums from movies, novels I’ve read, and the lives of historical figures. I use plot points in the movie or story or significant events in the life of my human subject as springboards for songwriting. It makes it MUCH easier for me to write a decent song when I start out with something specific (but not too specific) to build on.

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Use Your DAW Software To “Assemble” A Song

Home Recording, Songwriting 1 Comment

In the Ancient Days, the only way to record a song was to get your guitar (or whatever) ready, hit the “Record” button and simply play the entire song straight through. If you wanted additional instruments or vocals, you listened to the existing tracks as you recorded those new parts, playing straight through the whole song each time.

The capability of “punching in” new material to fix weak passages in an otherwise great part began to break this pattern, but you were still basically playing (or singing) the song all the way through every time you put on a new instrument or vocal.

With the current-day DAW software that so many of us use (GarageBand, Logic, Cubase, etc.), you can still record a song this way if you want to. But, the amazing editing capabilities of even the simplest of these software packages allow you to take your creativity down paths that simply never existed before.

As an example, let me lead you through the process I followed to create a song that was never played all the way through by anybody, but rather was “assembled” from selected bits of previously recorded musical parts.

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Use Different Scales To Create Unique Melodies

Songwriting No Comments

The subject of scales and musical modes is complex, and deserves an entire article or book chapter to cover it properly.  (For example, Wikipedia offers this lengthy discussion of musical modes.)  But you don’t have to understand this rather arcane subject in any depth at all to take advantage of it in your songwriting.  Let me walk you through a quick (well, fairly quick) exercise that may just open your eyes.  (For best results, follow along on a piano or keyboard.)

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Mini-Tip: Immerse Yourself, Then Write Your Song

Songwriting No Comments

In language learning, there is a technique called immersion, in which the student spends her time surrounded only by people speaking the new language.  The idea is to force the brain to quickly burn all kinds of new neural pathways as necessity becomes the mother of quick learning. Over time, the new language begins to feel like a natural part of the student’s surroundings, and soon enough she finds herself joining in, effortlessly speaking to others by simply mimicking what she has heard them say.

Interestingly, a similar approach can be applied to expanding your songwriting horizons. Here, the plan is to first identify a musical genre that you would like to write in but know little about. It might be reggae, or show tunes, or 50s rock-n-roll, or….well, pretty much anything!  Then, make a point of listening to that kind of music, lots of it, by lots of artists, over a period of two or three weeks. If possible, listen to nothing but this kind of music! The idea is to immerse yourself in this genre. (You needn’t make any specific effort to notice musical details like what beat the snare is on or anything like that. Just let it wash over you - then rinse and repeat!)

After a few weeks of this, when you go to write a song in that general style, guess what - the tools you need will be right at your fingertips!

[An expanded version of this Mini-Tip (with an example) appears in my eBook, Cheap Advice On Songwriting.]

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Try Writing the Lyrics First

Songwriting No Comments

I’ve written hundreds of songs during my career as an amateur songwriter, some good, some bad, some really good, some really bad, but there is one thing that almost all of these songs have in common: I wrote the chords first, then I came up with lyrics and a melody to go with them. It seems very natural to me to get out the guitar, or sit down at the keyboard, and just sort of “noodle around” until some rhythm or chord change catches my ear. From that starting point, I spin out some more chord changes, repeat a few sections, and voila! I end up with a fully written out chord pattern for a new song, all ready for me to think of something to sing along with it.

Or, more likely, all ready to be put in the “New Songs” folder for later completion (i.e., maybe never). My New Songs folder is filled with chord sheets for would-be songs, usually with working titles like “No Idea” or “Rocker In G”. Why does this happen? My theory is that it happens because lyrics are harder to write than chords. Chord patterns are fun to write; you just play. To write lyrics, you have to think. Since thinking is harder, I tend to put the lyrics off, sometimes indefinitely, and often end up with nothing. Now, I have finally realized that at least some of the time I have to bite the bullet and write the lyrics first.

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Stuck For Lyrics? Use A Poem!

Songwriting No Comments

If you’d really like to record a shiny new song but you just don’t have any decent lyrics on hand, I say don’t let that stop you. Try borrowing ready-made lyrics from a poem, the more obscure the better. You don’t want people recognizing your source - unless of course you do!

I have recorded a setting of Kyrie Eleison, which a few people have heard of, and I have set some of Robert Louis Stevenson’s words to music, and I suppose someone might recognize them. But my favorite experience with setting an obscure poem to music came a few years ago (ahem), when I came across a poem by Ada Smith in a little book of poetry I found on my grandmother’s bookshelf. The poem goes like this.

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Unexpected Chords Add Interest To Your Songs

Songwriting 1 Comment

A lot of popular songs are built on standard chord patterns (see my article Standard Chord Patterns For Basic Song Segments for some examples of such patterns). The reason these patterns work in songs is partly because they are familiar. For music to be interesting to the listener, it must combine elements of the familiar with unexpected twists on those familiar elements. If a song sounds too familiar, we say it is “cliched.” If a song sounds too unfamiliar, we say it is “inaccessible” or even “arty” (gasp). Somewhere between these extremes lies the right combination of old and new.

All of this applies to your songs too! If the verse of your song is four lines of A D E A and the chorus is two lines of D A D A plus an E7 chord, well, that probably sounds OK, but it’s a little bit boring. Everything that happens in the song chords-wise is totally predictable. Patterns repeat; there is no chord outside the three chords in the key of A (no minor chords even!); the chorus is higher by an interval of a fourth compared with the verse. You know what’s coming next the first time you hear the song. Ho hum.

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Try Eavesdropping For Lyrics

Songwriting No Comments

If you write songs, you are always looking for interesting new ideas for lyrics. Chords and melodies you can come up with, but what should the dang thing be about? Sure, you can fall back on the tried and true, but how many songs can you write about your lover leaving you, or refusing to leave, or coming back, or refusing to come back? Or, you can write about the moving non-lover events in your actual life, but if you’re like most of us, there really aren’t that many of those.

It’s time to turn to your fellow man (and woman)! If you have a small notebook, a pencil, and a little imagination, you can come up with an endless series of potential song topics simply by listening in on the conversations of strangers. This eavesdropping is not difficult to do. In fact, it is generally unavoidable in this Age Of the Cell Phone, although actual overheard cell phone conversations tend to be hyper-mundane rather than usable song fodder. I am not talking about monitoring those conversations.

I am talking about discreetly listening to the conversation of the couple at the table behind you at Bob Evans, or sitting in front of you at the movies. Or the guys walking next to you on the sidewalk, or waiting in line at McDonald’s. If you keep your ears open, you’re sure to hear a phrase, a sentence, or a description of a situation that triggers a song idea in your mind. When it happens, be sure to make a note of it. This is the kind of thing that can easily “slip away.”

If you are a bit skeptical of this approach, I would ask you to at least keep it in mind the next time you are forced to listen to strangers converse. What’s the harm? As you pretend to read the paper (or whatever), listen carefully for a situation or a statement that you could expand into a song. Yes, many times you will come up empty, but you may be surprised at what you hear that one time when you get lucky!

P.S. Some visual artists use the same technique.

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