Category Archives: songwriting
1. Get it done. Don’t make everything perfect.
Write all the time, and stop striving to reinvent the wheel. You’ll never write “In My Life” or “Fix You”. Neither will I. They’ve already been written. Just write. A lot. Daily. Slow and fast songs. Silly stupid songs. Serious ones. Get it done, and stop giving a damn what people think.
2. Get opinions from those you care about.
You made a 5-song digital EP? Awesome. Check in with friends. Send mp3s via email. “What do you think of the EP? Which song is your favorite? Am I onto something, here?”
Low-sung verses. Higher-sung choruses. Slow guitar strums with a fast beat. Or the opposite. Piano songs. Acoustic songs. Mix it up. Maybe a song entirely with bass guitar, sax, and drums (the band Morphine made a career of a similar sound).
4. Forget what you know.
Know a lot about music theory? Who cares? Forget about it, when you write. Detune your guitar into some weird altered tuning so you are forced to try new shapes with your fingers. Go into a sound in your keyboard that makes little sense. Don’t always run to the grand piano preset. Throw an effect pedal in between your keyboard and computer, and see what comes about. Experiment with a loop pedal. Take chances!
5. “I’m not as good as…”
Never compare yourself to others. Friends of mine are insanely talented. INSANELY. Their keyboard skills make me want to quit playing keys. Their singing voices are insanely trained. So what? I am not a trained singer, but I can sing, and harmonize. I can play basic piano stuff, but I cannot play difficult passages or songs. I can’t shred a blues solo, and my fingerpicking is capable, but nothing spectacular. Doesn’t matter. I focus on my strengths. Do the same for yourself.
6. Focus on the end result, the goal, the reason you do this.
Stop dissecting every step along the way when you’re writing and recording. “Too much string noise when my finger scraped the strings, there”… or “my voice cracked a little, in that part”…. “my harmony sounds a little weird, but ok…” Who cares?! Roll with it. Then listen to the song when it’s done, then make new decisions and choices. I wrote a song years ago. Recorded it in late 2014. It was cool, but I decided I hated it when listening to it again, last week. I changed the keyboard parts, and sped up the song while retaining the same key (thank you, computers). Now I love the song, and it’s infinitely better. Took two years to tweak it. Needed to give it a rest… listen, and then all the “here’s how I need to change it” brainstorming came out, within one listen of the song. I’ll release it soon… hopefully. End goal, right?
7. Be YOU.
Be yourself. Always. Stop singing like John Mayer or Ben Howard. Sing like YOU. I taught myself to sing listening to Green Day, Third Eye Blind, Ben Lee and Jimmy Eat World a lot in the late 90s. My voice is similar to theirs, and I love that. My songwriting style is similar, in some ways, too. It’s simple. It sounds like me. I can’t do Sigur Ros, and I can’t do Jason Mraz. I can’t do Bon Iver unless I’m playing with my vocal harmonizer pedal and lots of reverb. I fuck around, and roll with whatever sounds good to me. I love so many singers (and TONS of female singers, too) but I can’t do them. I can only do me.
8. Minimalist. Simplicity.
I saw an acoustic singer-songwriter a month ago. Too many fancy chords, rhythms, fancy-pants nonsense. His shit was forgettable. Then a few days later, I saw another dude. Lots of G and Cadd9 chords with a capo. His lyrics, delivery, and vibe of the song spoke to me way more intensely than the first guy.
Matthew Sweet wrote “Sick Of Myself” in 10 minutes. He thought it was a stupid song. Turned out to be one of his biggest hits, and he never regretted putting it on his 1995 album, “100% Fun.”
Jason Mraz… most of his really easy shit… A Beautiful Mess, I Won’t Give Up… SIMPLE AS HELL. And perfect. John Mayer’s “Gravity”? NO ONE CAN ARGUE HOW FUCKIN’ GREAT THAT SONG IS. Simple, and perfect. People like shit that they can just vibe to. They don’t need masturbatory musicianship. They want something that speaks to their souls. Make music like that, and change the world.
I can do shit solo. And often do. But I also come up with some great shit, working with people. Don’t be afraid to. It’s important.
10. Rest. Think. Watch TV. Read. Kill it, but chill, too.
Rest. Rest. Rest. REST. Stop working so hard. Hell, just yesterday, I killed it with my friend Mike. We tracked three new hip-hop songs to beats we threw together in a few hours. We shot a video session for YouTube. We shot video as he tracked vocals, so we can have material for YouTube. We ate food and talked about nutrition and working out. We took a break and hung out. But in 8 hours, we did a LOT, and killed it. Today, I plan on doing the same. But first, I needed four hours to chill, blog, and help all of YOU. Then I’m going to hit the studio hard and work on shit. It’s 5pm. I have til about midnight. I’ll get it all done, and I’ll take a break in between. Don’t forget to fucking REST. Seriously. Ok? Cool. Get to work. Or chill.
Have a tip to share? COMMENT!!! 🙂
Something that always bothers me about music in general is it seems to be divided up the middle: cool, and uncool music. Even in pop.
Cool (yesterday and today): Joy Division, Chvrches, Hozier, Dance Gavin Dance, Wilco, Alex G, Turnover, Wet
Uncool: John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Alex Goot (not Alex G), Ida, Twenty One Pilots, Billy Joel
In local scenes… you have the acoustic/folk singer-songwriter people, and the hipster/punk/DIY bands. I’m friends with people from both scenes, and always have been. Both are making listenable, cool music. But god forbid you’re on the opposing team, and you find yourself at one or the other shows. What would everyone think?!
I see this on social media all the time, too. It bugs me. A lot.
There’s a level of songcraft that artists who truly don’t give a damn and are really all about the music (and put in their 10,000 hours), always seem to strive for. And then there’s an (admittedly) lower level of songcraft, from artists who exist mostly to please their popular friends, in a scene. They might also enjoy music and the art of making it, but for these artists, it’s more about the immediacy and the lyrics carrying the music, and less about the total package.
Take for instance, local hero (at least to those of us in Philly), Alex G. Alex G is an artist whose music I don’t entirely enjoy, though I also don’t entirely dislike. By and large, it’s not that musically interesting or listenable. But it’s got that certain something and anyone who’s a huge fan of his can understand the appeal. He’s insanely popular. Insanely popular. He’s got 77,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. Seventy-seven thousand! It’s only going to grow.
On the flipside, let’s take Ida. A band I worship (and always will). The level of songcraft is much, much higher with this band. They released their first record in 1994. Their best record is 2000’s Will You Find Me (Tiger Style Records). Carefully-thought-out harmonies, interesting guitars and arrangements, and an avant-garde sensibility, shared with Alex G, who also has a huge avant-garde sensibility in his pop writing.
But… why does Ida only have 2,800-ish monthly listeners on Spotify, whereas Alex G has 77,000? Part of the reason is that Ida never has promoted themselves, nor has toured much. And they haven’t released any new music since 2008. But… the craft. My god, the craft.
Alex G records all of his music from his college dorm (or friends’ houses). And it’s lo-fi as FUCK. Ida records in professional studios, or sometimes at home, but again…. it’s a higher level of craft all around. Again, let’s compare.
Why is one cooler than the other? Why does one have thousands and thousands more listeners?
More importantly…. what do YOU do when you feel you’re making the best music you possibly can (and when you listen to it, you realize… “This is damn good!”) and like, no one… NO ONE CARES. You see all these mediocre bands from your town or city get all the press and all the shows… and not just press, but multiple press, weeks or months down the road…. and you read about bands you feel your music is better than… everywhere you look. What do you do? Do you refine your craft? Do you change your sound to become more lo-fi? Do you throw a little bit of “phony” in your genuine sound? Do you let the lyrics be 85% more important than the music, itself?
I feel this is an important discussion, and something so many artists are afraid to publicly discuss, or honestly admit to other artists, or themselves!
Stumbled upon this info, by Cliff Goldmacher…. thought you might be interested:
“Which do you write first, the music or the words?” This is the classic question that all songwriters get asked. In my experience, there’s no easy – or correct – answer to this one. Sometimes it’s the music, sometimes it’s the lyrics, and, often, it’s some mystical, organic combination of the two. More importantly, there is no one way to write a song. Some of the best – and worst – songs ever written were created using the same techniques. To that end, I’m going to cover four different ways to approach writing a song and some of the “dos” and “don’ts” you’ll want to keep in mind as you go through each one.
1. Writing based on a title idea/lyrical hook
Coming up with a really catchy title or lyrical hook is an art in and of itself. If you’ve got one, congratulations. Now that you’ve got it, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Do remember to make sure that everything in your lyric points to and supports your lyrical hook. Having a catchy hook only works if you build a foundation around it so that when the hook arrives, there’s a sense of drama and release.
Don’t forget to give the song real emotional content. It’s possible to be so focused on the hook and setting it up that you forget to be sincere. While the average listener might not be able to tell you why, the song won’t move them in the way that a song with genuine emotional content would.
2. Writing based on a general idea/lyrical concept
Sometimes you’ve been through an experience or have an idea for a song that feels important enough to write about. That’s as good a place as any to start.
Do capture the feeling and emotion of your concept. You obviously felt strongly enough to want to write about this idea, so immerse yourself in it and really tell the story.
Don’t be too vague. Because you haven’t started with an actual lyrical hook, you’ll need to remember to bring your overall concept to a very sharp point by summarizing it with a phrase or hook line. This hook is something you’ll hopefully come to as you’re developing your lyric around your idea. A story without a summarizing point or hook risks being too unfocused to keep your listeners’ attention.
3. Writing from a melodic idea
If you’re a melodic writer, then you’ve got a different set of challenges. Beautiful, catchy melodies are a rare commodity and should be treated with the appropriate respect.
Do honor your melody and build your song around it. Remember, people will learn your melody long before they learn your lyric, so having a good one is not to be taken lightly.
Don’t let the melody box you into awkward words or watered-down phrases. While a beautiful melody is one part of a song, it’s not the only part. Cramming in words or compromising on your lyrical integrity isn’t an acceptable approach when writing from a melody. Remember, it’s the give and take of a catchy melody and a natural, conversational lyric that makes for a great song.
4. Writing from a chord progression/groove
When you pick up your guitar or sit down at the piano, often it’s a chord progression or groove that comes first. Great!
Do dig in and develop the groove and feel. This can really set the mood of a song and inspire all kinds of interesting melodic and lyrical ideas. Also, a good groove is the very first thing the average listener will notice when they hear your song.
Don’t rely on a chord progression or groove at the expense of your melody and lyric. This is no time to get lazy. A chord progression and groove in and of itself is only – in most genres – an arrangement idea, which doesn’t really constitute a song. Without a strong melody and lyric, it’s entirely possible to have a great sounding track, and, unfortunately, a mediocre song.
As I stated at the top of this article, there isn’t one “right” way to write a song. I’d highly recommend trying every possible songwriting approach you can. Often, as songwriters, we find ourselves in a rut where we go back to the same approach over and over. While this may be comforting and even result in increased productivity, in the long run, it might not provide you with the most inspired or unique songs you’re capable of writing. Why not leave your comfort zone and try a couple of different ways of writing? You never know what you’ll get.
Good luck! – Cliff Goldmacher
Something that everyone who plays piano should work on improving is their left hand, especially when it comes to songwriting and pop accompaniment.
This page has a handful of great exercises to help people with pattern improvisation. Well worth a look, whether you read sheet music or not… if you don’t, just listen to the audio examples…. but it’s really helpful if you read music, though.
I’ve been so busy, so I apologize for not updating this blog as much as I used to… more good stuff coming soon…
From Soundfly…. I recently discovered this course while researching some material for my 9th annual songwriting/recording summercamp at the school I teach at in the Philly ‘burbs, and I think this course is really, really helpful for recording a demo at home and on the cheap…… ALL instruments, too. The entire course is two and a half hours, and well worth your time.
Do check it out, and check out more of what Soundfly.com has to offer… all of their courses are long and useful, not just this one. Really dope site.
Seriously. We are all bombarded by new/current/hot music. In the indie world, people are all about Half Moon Run, Daughter, Grimes, and First Aid Kit. They’re all great. But you know what you need to listen to more of?
Beach Boys / Brian Wilson
any 50s balladry (Gene Vincent, Flamingos, anything doo-wop)
Ya know? Man, is that music good. I’ve been listening to a lot of it this past weekend. At the end of February, it’s 61 outside in the Philly suburbs. Holy shit, man. This music’s perfect for it.
Listen to this absolute mastery… vocal harmonies… the writing…
And listen to a modern girl (Lauren O’Connell, half of My Terrible Friend, with Nataly Dawn of Pomplamoose)… and her perfect spin on it:
So much to learn from all of this classic music. Man….. ya know? And I LOVE new shit… believe me… I’m always on the up and up when it comes to discovering new bands and introducing people to new, great shit… but please do not forget about where all the great songwriting started (in the 50s and 60s).
Listen to THIS, with headphones…. and FEEL this:
And feel THIS, too:
Recently, I purchased the $30 (one-time fee) for Speedsongwriting.com, by Graham English. His site promises an easy, fast way to write good songs. I know how to write songs (and occasionally good ones), but I wanted to sign up for this, to try and get better habits… and songs written faster… I mean, this is what his “course” promises.
I enjoy some parts of it, but I think a lot of is upselling scam crap. His most recent email to me is asking me to join his “Songwriting Bootcamp”, at about $200. “With this, you’ll get… blah blah blah ($197 value).. blah blah blah ($197 value)… blah blah blah”….
I didn’t sign up for that. Mainly because I’m not entirely impressed with the “value” of the stuff I’ve watched/listened to, and read, since signing up.
I’m seeing a lot of repeating things in every new thing he adds, weekly… a lot of repeated powerpoint presentations (made into streaming videos), just a lot of repeating.
I’m wondering if, at the end of this course, that I will be more pleased with my purchase.
He offers a full refund, no questions asked… if you’re not fully satisfied. I won’t do that, but…. I think a post like this might be more helpful, in not losing your money. I’m more interested in trying to help people in a legit way, than offering some “too good to be true” thing.
I’m not a stupid person….. I didn’t “fall” for his course… I decided “ya know… I’ll give it a try. I might learn something new.” But I don’t know… lots of blah blah blah, and lots of repeated stuff…. and upselling. Nothing I hate more than someone trying to upsell me, when they haven’t offered much substance, with their main thing.
I’m sure eventually Graham will find this entry. If he does, cool! Maybe it will inspire him to make a better, more helpful offering, songwriting-wise. Again, as of this moment (two weeks into the course), I’m not very impressed.
Just a heads-up, peeps…
Can’t remember if I wrote about this or not, but this is one of the most simple ways to extend the life of a progression, and help you finish a song faster. It’s called “telescoping.”
All it means is this— if you have a chord progression that’s one chord per bar for your verse, you can use this same chord progression for the chorus, but play each chord every two bars. Or four.
Am / / / – F / / / – C / / / – G / / / for the verse
Am / / / – / / / / – F / / / – / / / / – C / / / – / / / / – G / / / – / / / /
It’s easy, and it works. As long as the chorus vocals are entirely different from the verse, most people won’t know you recycled the same progression. It’s been done a million times, from top 40 music to the most obscure, lo-fi indie. How do I know? I study songs all the time, and I can learn chord progressions in seconds (oftentimes without even picking up an instrument).
The term “telescoping” comes from Rikky Rooksby, author of a handful of great songwriting books (I’ve mentioned them in this blog before).
Keep writing, and STAY CREATIVE AS ALWAYS.
I had a lesson with one of my students Zoe, who is exceptionally talented, intelligent, and cool. She’s been writing songs as long as she can remember, and asked me how to vary her latest song, as she wanted to get out of the rut she was in. So I wrote down a few things for her and demonstrated each thing… and then I photocopied the page, because I knew what I wrote down was pretty helpful.
Here it is:
1. Chord Substitution with complimentary chords
if you have a progression with Am, try FM7 instead, on the second pass (all of the notes from Am, plus F)
2. Chord substitution with out-of-key chords
If you have a progression with Am, try A or even B7, instead
3. “Walk-ups” or “walk-downs”
C, to G/B, to Am (think Landslide by Fleetwood Mac) or G, D/F#, Em
4. Chords higher up on the neck
Think triads, or open chords beyond fret 12
5. Repeated motif over the chord progression
You’ll need recording software for this… or a 2nd person. Have the 2nd person/track just arpeggiate a complimentary triad over your chord sequence. Easiest way to add texture to a song, and give it an extra boost of cool.
6. Changing the chords more frequently
This was Elliott Smith’s go-to thing, especially if it’s “much more frequently.” Almost all of his songs have a chord change every two beats, and sometimes even every beat, or every other word. Difficult to develop, but can really add sophistication to a song.
7. Adding a well-placed “gross” chord
Such as diminished, augmented, m7b5, or something completely unrelated (or hell, even just a simple dominant 7, if you avoid them in 99% of your songs).
8. Stay on a chord longer, but keep the same progression
Say your progression is Am / F / C / G. And each chord plays for a bar. Try staying on the Am for three bars, and then change to F / C / G on each beat of the 4th bar, and staying on G for an extra bar or something). This is a great technique.
9. Play the progression as triads, instead of open chords
Simple, but could be exactly what the song needs.
10. On the third line of your chorus, make an entirely different progression
Again, say your chorus is Am / F / C / G…. maybe on the 3rd line, use this progression instead: FM7 / FM7 / Cadd9 / Em7
Go write! And something I don’t say enough (or practice enough) that was coined by my good friend Mike “Wolf” Benson– “STAY CREATIVE AS ALWAYS!”
an experimental hip-hop album Mike and I released in 2013 (I did all the music/production… Mike is the vocalist/lyricist):
Had a brief conversation with my friend the other day…
me: “I can’t finish anything. I’m really concerned about what people think… even though I say I don’t. I’m afraid they’ll be like ‘man, I hate these lyrics’…. ‘his voice is just mediocre’….. ‘this song is just lame’….. ‘he’s trying too hard’……”
him: “You have to say ‘fuck it’. It doesn’t matter. It’ll hold you back forever if you don’t just put it out. You want that shit sitting on your hard drive, forever? What the hell’s the point of writing it, in the first place? Get it out. Life’s short.”
He’s right. It’s hard, though. But don’t be me, man. Don’t have 800+ unfinished ideas (yes, there have been about 300 added, since I last wrote about unfinished songs… I think the number I mentioned was 500 last time). That’s how lazy I can be about this, and “protective” of it. So stupid. Such a waste…..
If I can’t finish all this stuff this year (and I’m certainly trying), then I am the biggest loser…. but if I can finish at least most of it, then I did right.
Don’t be like so many other people out there… over-protective, scared of what people think, too afraid to announce you released something on bandcamp. Just get it done, and stop making excuses.
Another thing that made me think about this– Ted Demme, director of Blow and Beautiful Girls, died at age 37 of a heart attack, in early 2002. Imagine what else he could have accomplished, had he been in better shape, and had he not wasted a lot of time. Two of the most amazing movies of the 90s and 00s… he helped put Natalie Portman on the map (in addition to her role in the Professional, of course)… but yeah. Two movies. That’s all he’ll really be remembered for. Do you want to go out like that?
I’m a year older than Ted Demme, as I write this. I survived him by one year, and I haven’t done jack shit, in the grand scheme of things.
Don’t go out like that, friends.