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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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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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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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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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Tired Of Writing “New” Songs? Go Retro!

Songwriting No Comments

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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How Many Chords Does A Song Need, Anyway?

Songwriting 3 Comments

People like to joke about “three-chord songs,” the implication being that a song containing only A, D, and E chords must be too simple-minded to bother thinking about, much less listening to. And what kind of songwriter only knows three chords?

It’s obvious that there are plenty of great songs that have only three chords! But it’s also true that a really sophisticated melody is likely to need a really sophisticated set of chords - and more than three - to go with it. Being kind of simple-minded myself, I sometimes go in the opposite direction: how few chords can I use in a song? For me the answer is always the same: “One.”

I consider it a challenge to craft a song based entirely on a single chord and still have it be interesting and compelling. The objective is to have nobody actually notice that it is only one chord until you point it out. “Oh yeah,” they say. “I guess it is all one chord!”

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Write A “Theme Song” For Your Band!

Songwriting No Comments

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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Go All Avant-Garde: Write and Record a Pastiche!

Home Recording, Songwriting No Comments

Here is a cool, if off-the-wall, project idea that combines songwriting with recording. Do you ever tire of always writing songs that are basically “vocals, with instrumental backing,” as it used to say on the old 45s? Why not branch out and do something avant-garde once in a while? One easy way to create a song that is unusual if not downright strange is to write and record a pastiche.

What is this pastiche of which I speak? The dictionary says that a pastiche is “an incongruous combination of materials, forms, motifs, etc., taken from different sources; a hodgepodge.” In this article, though, a pastiche is “an instrumental backing track with an unrelated audio track dubbed in over it.” Sounds crazy, or possibly stupid, huh? Well, that’s the avant-garde for you. But read on.

Read the rest…

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