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Cheap Advice On Live Sound
48 Tips To Make Your Band Sound Better
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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!

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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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Try Eavesdropping For Lyrics

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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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Tired Of Writing “New” Songs? Go Retro!

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It’s natural to want to write songs that sound like the current hits or to follow the lead of a favorite band or subgenre that’s in favor at the moment. But if you want to stand out as a songwriter, perhaps you should cast your net a bit wider, so to speak. Older song styles may be outdated or little remembered, but that doesn’t mean they’re invalid!

It’s not too unusual for current songwriters to hark back to the Beatles or other Titans Of the Sixties, but in this article I’m going to suggest going waay back. I’m going to suggest listening to songs that were hits before your mother was born (though she was born a long, long time ago) and then writing your own song in a similar style. If you end up recording your “retro” song, this might well extend to the instrumentation and production as well (or not).

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Write A “Theme Song” For Your Band!

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In the Ancient Days, it was fairly common for pop bands to record a biographical song telling the real or partly imagined story of the band. Like “being on the road,” this just seems to be a topic idea that often occurs to a songwriter who is in a band. I’m not aware of many recent examples (anyone?), but who could forget Creeque Alley by The Mamas and the Papas:

When Cass was a sophomore, planned to go to Swathmore
But she changed her mind one day
Standin’ on the turnpike, thumb out to hitchhike
“Take me to New York right away”
When Denny met Cass he gave her love bumps
Called John and Zal and that was the Mugwumps
McGuinn and McGuire couldn’t get no higher
But that’s what they were aimin’ at
And no one’s gettin’ fat except Mama Cass

(Note the many “in” references to fellow starving musicians who would later become rich and famous.) Even teenybopper titans Paul Revere and the Raiders contributed The Legend Of Paul Revere (is everything on YouTube?), which begins:

In a little town in Idaho
way back in sixty one
A man was frying burgers
gee - it seemed like lots of fun
But to his friend the bun boy
he confessed its misery
I think I’d like to start a group
so come along with me

The rest, of course was history, although the exact identity of Revere’s “bun boy” is left unrecorded.

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Four Ways To Overcome “Songwriter’s Block”

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If you’re someone who enjoys making up their own songs and then recording them, like I am, you’ve probably had the experience of wanting to write a brand new song, but coming up dry when you actually sit down to do it. I know I have! Maybe it’s because everything you come up with to play seems familiar, like you already made up that pattern. Or maybe the chords are OK and you may even have a “la la la” melody part, but nothing is coming to you for the lyrics to actually be about.

Sound familiar? Well, before you get frustrated and start wondering whether you will in fact ever write another original song, here are four tips that might help get your creative juices flowing the way they should.

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Mini-Tip: Get Ideas For Lyrics From A Movie

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Does your lyrical well ever run dry? Do you find yourself casting about for an idea, a notion, an opening line - anything to help you kick off a new set of lyrics? I have that happen a lot. If I just write down “whatever comes to me” without a specific idea or starting point, it tends to come out sounding like the same “talking points” (singing points?) I’ve been writing about for the last 30 years!

One good source for new lyrical ideas is the things people say in movies or on TV (or in movies on TV). Here’s something that I’ve tried that might work for you. Pick a movie, any movie, although for some reason the older ones (40s and 50s) tend to work better for this - maybe people talked different back then or something. Anyway, put in the DVD and watch the movie, with a pencil and pad at the ready. Write down everything anyone says that sounds like it might be a line in a song. There will be lots!

You should have at least 25 or 30 lines once the movie’s over. Check and see whether some of them seem to go together, or even already rhyme. See if there’s one that can be the opening line of the song, setting the tone for what it’s about. (The song need not follow the story of the movie, of course - that’s a different kind of project!)

Give this idea a try sometime - you never know what you’ll come up with!

[An expanded version of this Mini-Tip appears in my eBook Cheap Advice On Songwriting.]

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Writing Lyrics: A Step By Step Example

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Writing good lyrics is hard. Writing great lyrics is very hard. I’ve written hundreds of songs, with hundreds of sets of lyrics, and I can’t think of a single one that I would consider to be truly great. But hey, a good set of lyrics is OK too, and I have written a fair number of those!

Maybe you’re at the stage where you’re not even sure whether you’ve written any good lyrics yet. Maybe you’re not sure that the way you’re going about it is effective, or maybe you don’t really have a way of going about it and as a result haven’t actually gotten started yet. If this is you, what are you planning to do about it?

One possibility is to listen to a lot of music, paying special attention to the lyrics, including their structure and use of repetition, rhyming patterns, etc., then try to imitate what you’ve heard. Or, you can get one of the many books on the basics of songwriting and learn the theoretical underpinnings of successful lyrics. You could also “learn by doing” by just dashing off a bunch of quick songs without worrying about whether they are any good, just for practice. Actually, a combination of these approaches is probably the best way to go.

(Commercial message: My eBook Cheap Advice On Songwriting bags the theoretical approach, presenting 60 specific tips on getting ideas for lyrics, novel song structures, etc.)

Lyrics are typically not made up in order, from the first line in the song to the last. Like a movie whose scenes are shot out of order for technical reasons, the parts of your song may emerge in any sequence. The cool line you thought of first may end up being the third line in the second verse!

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