SIX STEPS TO WRITING A GREAT SONG: 45 TIPS FROM 45 FAMOUS SONGWRITERS (and from one not-so-famous)

“I really wish I knew what I was doing because I’d be writing hit songs every minute.” – Bruno Mars

This ongoing music blog has carried the overarching moniker of IT ALL STARTS WITH THE MUSIC for some time now. It’s a lofty notion, touched with just the right amount of vagueness to seem proverbial.

Recently, however, I’ve had to take that notion off the shelf and boil it down to its granular form. The result? It actually all starts with the song. Music is a wonderful thing, granted, but what really brings the emotional reaction home to us all is THE SONG. Music is way too general a term and it’s incredibly subjective; but a great song is a great song. There are thousands of talented musicians and composers in Santa Monica alone making great (OK, maybe just good) music, but only a handful of great songwriters.

As an aside, from what I’ve read and been told by publishing experts, the only things that are considered to comprise a SONG and are 100% COPYRIGHTABLE are MELODY and LYRICS. Period. Attempts to copyright guitar lines, keyboard parts and beats (let alone chord progressions) are a gray area at best and should be considered questionable when confronted by those who claim otherwise. I’ve always sided with the practice that anything other than melody and lyrics belongs in the arrangement and/or in the master or sound recording copyright. Now let’s go back to classic songwriting – melody and lyrics.

So how do they do it, these incredibly creative alchemists who toil over keyboards and guitars, ProTools and sheet music software, humming and whistling, day in and day out, looking for that special “something” that turns a magic combination of twelve notes and maybe two hundred words into gold? In order to look into the thought processes behind all of that, I referred to my own daily Twitter feed of a variety of pithy quotes from highly regarded musicians, artists and songwriters from the last fifty years (@larryfromohio).

Most of the 365 quotes appear to be stream-of-unconsciousness threads of thought on the subject of popular music and performing, wholly taken out of context, but sure to interest those who generally are interested in such things. For the rest of us, however, I’ve arranged the pertinent songwriting quotes below into general chronological categories for easy and somewhat amusing consumption. I’ve given the list a ponderous designation:

THE SIX STEPS TO WRITING A GREAT SONG

  • PREPARATION
  • INSPIRATION
  • CREATIVE DRAMA
  • WORDS FIRST OR MUSIC FIRST?
  • WRITERS ROOM
  • AFTERMATH

Continue reading…

THE SIGHT VS. SOUND PERFORMANCE THEORY – WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT NECESSARILY WHAT YOU GET

“Believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear.” – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong

In the course of the last 40 years or so, I’ve attended perhaps 5,000 musical performances of every genre and circumstance imaginable; from audiences of six to those of 60,000; from solo performers to large orchestras. In almost every one of them, I’ve been somewhat appalled by the reactions and impressions taken away by many of the audience members as to the relative value of the performances. Far too many times, I’ve found, the general public has little to no idea as to the quality of the songs or musicianship, but are way more impressed by their visual acumen. I’m not talking about staging or lights or smoke machines, but rather how the confidence exuded by the performers, their appearance and stage presence, trumped even the most obvious less-than-stellar renditions of the artists’ material.

My consternation led me to formulate my Sight/Sound Performance Ratio to which I’ve assigned a somewhat arbitrary 90%/10% (if only for the shock value of the statement), which means I believe that an audience rates a performance based on 90% of what they see vs. 10% of what they hear, whether they realize it or not. This is not meant as an assault on the intelligence of the concert-going public. It is a well-documented natural tendency of humans to evaluate (and believe) what they see long before surmising what they hear, as evidenced by the Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong lyric above.

Until recently, I have not seriously avowed my audio/visual theory, as I’ve had no real backup for my statistic; it’s based on nothing but my own experience. But then I came upon two published studies which supported it, if only obliquely. The first is from Malcolm Gladwell’s widely read 2005 book Blink, and the second from a Harvard doctoral thesis on classical piano competitions, neither of which is nearly as boring as it sounds. Read on; you’ll be glad you did. Continue reading…