WHAT TO LISTEN FOR
By Harriet Schock
Yes, I teach songwriting. But 28 years ago when USC called and asked me to teach it, I said it couldn’t be taught. The next year, I gave in and started teaching and I’m very glad I did. But there is a way that most successful songwriters learn to write and that’s by studying other songwriters whom they admire.
I still do that. I will hear a lyric or a chord change and I’ll think “OMG! I never thought of doing that! I can do that!” And then my writing just gets better. You might think of doing that.
If it’s a chord change, you just figure out what the composer did and put that chord or that movement of harmony into your musical toolbox. If it’s a melodic approach, you add that as well. Maybe that writer uses a certain rhythmic approach to melody you never thought of or maybe there is an interval you’ve never used. I remember when Bobby Brown used a particular diminished chord in “My Prerogative.” Nearly every other song that year decided to use that diminished chord one way or another. It’s not that the chord had never been used before, but somehow its use that way woke people up to the chord.
Lyrically, I remember when I first heard the Dobie Gray hit, “From Where I Stand,” written by Jennifer Kimball and Tom Schuyler:
“From where I stand you are the break of day
You are a silver thread, a star light in the evening
I could hardly feel my heart before you held it in your hands
And I hope you will you will never fall from where I stand.”
I was enamored of the way they used a known expression and then twisted its meaning to be literal later in the lyric. I then did it quite a few times in songs of mine “For What It’s Worth” and “You Are” and probably others. I did this thinking I had learned it from “From Where I Stand.” In fact, much earlier I had written the title song of my second album “You Don’t Know What You’re In For,” using the very same device, unknowingly.
“You don’t know what you’re in for
Love can be the prison as well as the crime
And you don’t know what you’re in for
But you still have to do your time.”
Because I never realized the device existed, it wasn’t really mine to use. So now I have my students word such devices in order to have them for the future. For example, what is Hugh Prestwood doing in “The Song Remembers When”?
“That’s just a lot of water underneath a bridge I burned,”
Can you put it into words? Think about it for a minute before reading on.
He’s taking two expressions that share a common word and hooking them together into one sentence. Once you’re aware of it, you’re off and running.
I subscribe to TunaDay, which is a wonderful daily song sent out by Rob Meurer, who is not only one of the best lyricists/songwriters out there but who also has a virtual Wikipedia of songs in his head. Recently he reminded me via TunaDay (you can sign up for it for free from his website at www.robmeurer.com) of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” Study that lyric for lots of devices and tips on great songwriting. And while we’re on the subject, check out Christopher Cross’s new CD, “Secret Ladder.” Rob Meurer wrote most of the lyrics. It’s a virtual treasure trove of great lyrics—and of course, Christopher Cross’s melodies, chords and vocals are fabulous also. http://www.amazon.com/Secret-Ladder-Christopher-Cross/dp/B00MD0PVOU/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1415825728&sr=1-1&keywords=secret+ladder
You can learn by listening and then you can deduct all your CDs and equipment as research! When you go to H&R Block, you can quote me.
Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit for Helen Reddy, "Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady." Her songs have been recorded by many other artists and used in TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored three other Jaglom films and starred in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s current film, “The M Word,” features Harriet’s song “Bein’ a Girl,” performed on camera at the end of the film. Harriet wrote the songs for “Last of the Bad Girls,” a musical with book by Diane Ladd. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. Harriet is currently writing lyrics (Misha Segal, music) for “Platypus, the Musical.” In 2007, Los Angeles Women In Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and an online course by private email. For her performance schedule, list of credits and samples of her work or information on her book (Becoming Remarkable, for Songwriters and Those Who Love Songs), her songwriting classes and consultation, go to: www.harrietschock.com
For more information on USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net
5 Tips to Turn Good Songs into Hit Songs
by Jason Blume
Hit songwriter Jason Blume breaks down how a perfect pitch leads to a smash hit
I recently hosted one of my monthly BMI Nashville Songwriter Workshops, where each of the 50 attendees had an opportunity to pitch one song to a successful publisher. Typically, at these workshops, with few exceptions, every song played was perfectly crafted. The writers have mastered the use of current song structures; the lyrics made sense and were well written; rhymes were where my ear expected them to be; and the melodies worked well with the chords—avoiding any dissonance. Yet the publisher took copies of only five songs—10 percent of those that were pitched.
It was a good reminder that “perfectly crafted” is a starting point, but it isn’t enough. In order to rise above the competition, our songs need to go beyond the expected, pushing the creative envelope and differentiating themselves from the hundreds—if not thousands—of other well-written songs that are all vying for a coveted slot on a major label artist’s recording.
A publisher once told me that when he plays songs at meetings with record label executives, he needs his songs to “slap them out of their A&R trance.” The same holds true when pitching songs to record producers and recording artists. The publisher went on to explain that these industry pros are bombarded with songs—mostly written by published songwriters with track records—so all of the songs under consideration are good, but only those songs with that extra something jump out of the pile and demand attention.
Similarly, writers who play their songs for publishers, in the hope of securing a publishing deal, need to take into account that the publisher probably already has an extensive catalog of songs, and possibly staff writers, for which he or she is responsible. There should be compelling reasons for a publisher to choose your song over the competition—elements that instantly announce that your song is unique and exceptional and that it is destined to become a smash hit that will elevate an artist’s career to the next level.
Imagine that every song needs to score a minimum of 100 points to become a hit. Some of those points will typically be earned by the lyric, some will be awarded because of the melody, while others might come from the musical backing track.
So… what elements can you add to your songs to provide those extra points that compel artists, publishers and record label executives to choose your songs over the competition and carry them to the top of the charts? The more components we include, the more points we rack up and the better chance for success. Let’s look at some ways to separate songs from the pack—and transform them from good to wow!
Include Unique Melodic Elements and Unexpected Melodic Intervals
A memorable melody is essential—but only those melodies that feel fresh and original will rise above the competition. There are several ways to ensure your melodies grab attention. The tools described below can take a song to the next level.
Listen to the intervals used in Kris Kristofferson’s classic, “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” The note choices in the first line are anything but predictable. Similarly, listen to Neil’s Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done,” and note the unexpected note and chord choices. A more contemporary example is Pink’s hit “Try” (written by Busbee and Ben West), which incorporates unexpected melodic intervals that allow the artist to soar vocally, matching the intense emotion of the lyric.
Stock melodies won’t contribute to a listener choosing your song over the competition.
Add Instrumental Hooks
By adding instrumental hooks—catchy instrumental melodic phrases—you give your listeners another reason to latch on to and connect with your song. For example, the distinctive tenor saxophone line sampled from Balkan Beat Box’s “Hermetico” provides some of the most memorable moments in Jason Derulo’s smash hit “Talk Dirty.”
It accomplishes this both by incorporating an instantly recognizable lick—and introducing a sound that’s fresh, attention grabbing, and not typically heard in hip-hop. The baritone sax part heard in the verses contributes yet another special element. Similarly, the catchy tenor sax line woven through Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” was one of the most distinctive elements of that number one hit.
I’m not implying that using saxophones is the magic bullet. Hit songs have included instrumental melodic hooks that were played on keyboards, banjos, electric and acoustic guitars, accordions, fiddle, bass guitar, harmonica and countless other instruments. It’s interesting to note that in Phillip Phillips’ “Home,” the added melodic hook that helped propel this song to the top of the charts was performed by a combination of instruments and vocals—without lyrics.
Including unique, memorable instrumental motifs, and instruments and/or sounds that go beyond the expected can take your songs to the next level.
Incorporate Fresh Rhythms
There has been a recent trend of infusing hip-hop rhythms into contemporary country songs. This can be found in hits such as Blake Shelton’s “Boys Round Here” (featuring Pistol Annies), Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” and Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kinda Night.”
Regardless of musical genre, one of the most effective ways to separate your songs from the pack is to craft melodies that give the vocalists interesting rhythms to sing. This is often accomplished by incorporating syncopation.
There are countless examples of hits that use this technique. Some exceptional ones to study include Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” Eli Young Band’s “Drunk Last Night” and Lorde’s “Royals.”
Melodies that go beyond stock, predictable rhythms differentiate themselves from the competition.
A Fresh Lyric Concept and Title
It’s obvious that building your song on the foundation of a strong lyric concept—an idea that millions of listeners can relate to—is important. But to elevate your song from good to exceptional, explore a new angle in your lyric, a fresh approach or a novel way to express your concept. This can be done in both the title and the individual lines of lyric.
Notice how intriguing the titles and corresponding concepts are in classic songs such as “Billy Jean,” “Hotel California,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Take This Job and Shove It” and “Proud Mary.” There are also countless examples of contemporary hits that have unique titles and lyric angles, such as “Roar,” “I Hope You Dance,” “(What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You) Stronger,” “From a Distance,” “Alien,” “I Kissed a Girl,” “The House That Built Me” and “I Drive Your Truck.”
At the time I wrote this article, seven of the top 10 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart had one-word titles, demonstrating their popularity. Hits with one-word titles have included: “Problem,” “Rude,” “Fancy,” “Cruise,” “Crazy,” “Wanted,” Stay” and “Domino.”
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ GRAMMY-nominated hit “Same Love” blazed new territory with a lyric that tackled the topic of same-sex love and marriage. It’s interesting to note that the chorus of that song is sung from the first-person perspective. By avoiding “preaching” to the listeners, and not telling them what they should think or feel, the song evoked emotion by allowing its audience to empathize with the singer.
If you were a recording artist seeking material, would you choose a title and concept as interesting as one of those listed above—or a more mundane idea such as “Oh, Baby I Love You,” “You’re the One I Need,” “I Miss You”? A great title and an equally strong concept can be the ticket to take your song to the top of the charts.
Incorporating Nonsense Syllables/Non-Lyric Vocal Hooks
A publisher at one of my workshops told the attendees, “When you add a ‘na-na-na,’ an ‘oh, oh, oh,’ ‘hey, hey, hey,’ or some other sounds the audience can sing along with, you increase your song’s chances of being recorded ten-thousand-fold.” I’m guessing it might not help quite to that extent, but his point is an important one.
One of the catchiest and most memorable elements of Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert’s number one duet, “Somethin’ Bad,” is the “oh, oh, oh” sung during the intro and included throughout the song. Similarly, Bruno Mars featured a hook sung on the syllables “oh, yeah, yeah, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” during the intro of his GRAMMY-nominated “Locked Out of Heaven.”
The use of non-lyric vocal hooks is not limited to any specific genres, and exceptional examples of these can be heard in Lady Antebellum’s “Compass,” Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” Britney’s “Till the World Ends,” Feist’s “1-2-3-4” and Keith Urban’s “Long Hot Summer.” While it won’t be right for every song, this tool is an important one that can help sear your song into listeners’ brains.
In summation, if you don’t give an artist, an A&R executive, record producer, music publisher—or your listeners—a compelling reason to choose your song over the competition—they won’t. Think outside the box and give your songs those extra points that can turn them from good songs to hit songs!
[Reprinted with permission from BMI Music World Magazine]
Jason Blume’s songs are on three Grammy-nominated albums. One of only a few writers to ever have singles on the pop, country, and R&B charts, all at the same time—his songs have been recorded by artists including Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, the Gipsy Kings, Jesse McCartney, and country stars including Collin Raye (6 cuts), the Oak Ridge Boys, Steve Azar, and John Berry (“Change My Mind,” a top 5 single that earned a BMI “Million-Aire” Award for garnering more than one million airplays). In the past year he’s had three top-10 singles and a “Gold” record in Europe by Dutch star, BYentl, including a #1 on the Dutch R&B iTunes chart. Jason authored three of the best selling songwriting books, 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting, and is in his nineteenth year of teaching the BMI Nashville Songwriters workshops. A regular contributor to BMI’s Music World magazine, he presented a master class at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and teaches songwriting throughout the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, the U.K., Canada, Bermuda, and Jamaica. He is also a winner of the USA Songwriting Competition (in 2002).
For more information on USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net
LYRICS AND POETRY
by Harriet Schock
I’ve noticed a lot of people confuse poetry and lyrics. I think reading poetry can make you a better lyricist because good poets do the following things that lyricists should also do:
1) Say a lot in a few words. I call it emotional shorthand
2) Write visually or show don’t tell
3) Use irony
4) Use conversational language, especially found in modern poetry.
I have all my students read the poetry of Charles Bukowski and Billy Collins. There’s something about Bukowski that gets writers to “catch” irony. I don’t think you really learn to be ironic, but you can “catch” it like you would a cold. I’ve had students who had never had a drop of irony in anything they’d written come in after a week of reading Bukowski and suddenly they had developed the skill of being ironic. Even though Billy Collins also writes with irony, it’s Bukowski I’ve noticed they catch it from more than Collins.
Poetry can inspire lyrics, just as other lyricists can inspire songwriters. But poetry is not lyric writing. I used to be a member of a group of poets and I’d bring in a lyric for a new song. If my song had a chorus, they’d all complain, “But you’ve said that!” Yes, a repeating chorus is definitely a convention of songwriting, not poetry—or Broadway for the most part, but that’s a different subject.
Some lyricists also use the word “poetic” to absolve themselves from writing something no one understands. Of course, that’s not being “poetic.” It’s merely being obscure and that’s a choice, in some cases. In other cases, the writer simply cannot be clear, thinks and writes in a jumbled manner which does not communicate anything to the listener and, in a last ditch effort to defend it, says he’s being “poetic.”
The structure of a song is different from poetry, as well. Verses, choruses, pre-choruses and bridges are of no concern to poets but they are important to lyricists. How the lyric fits the melody is vitally important as well. Furthermore, modern poetry rarely rhymes and lyrics usually do. So if you’re a poet, you may be on your way to becoming a lyricist, but there’s a lot to lyric writing that poets may be aware of. Conversely, songwriters and lyricists becoming aware of modern poets is something I highly recommend.
If you’ve never seen “Born Into This,” the film about Charles Bukowski, you might want to check it out. There’s at least one songwriter in there it how important an influence Bukowski was on their writing.
Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit for Helen Reddy, "Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady" plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored three other Jaglom films starred in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s current film, “The M Word,” features Harriet’s song “Bein’ a Girl,” performed on camera at the end of the film. Harriet is in the process of writing the songs for “Last of the Bad Girls,” a musical with book by Diane Ladd. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. In 2007, Los Angeles Women In Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and a popular online course by private email. For her performance schedule, list of credits and samples of her work or information on her book (Becoming Remarkable, for Songwriters and Those Who Love Songs), her songwriting classes and consultation, go to:www.harrietschock.com
Reading Between The Lines
by Bronson Herrmuth
Whenever you sit down to write lyrics for your new song, be sure and say what you mean. Never assume that your listeners are going to be able to read “between” the lines because they won’t. Count on this because it’s not going to happen. Every song you write should have a very distinctive beginning, middle and end to the story you are telling. The simpler you can say it, the better. As songwriters, we all deal with this and how you handle it is going to make the difference between writing a great song, or just a good one. Great is the objective of course, because great songs have the ability to inspire great singers to want to sing them, no matter how many other singers have rendered their versions. This is why the greatest songs get covered over and over as the years go by. The song is so great it never ceases to inspire great vocalists to want to put it on their record too in their own distinctive style. You have to say exactly what you mean, with each and every word you commit to your lyric sheet. Don’t worry about this as you’re writing the original draft because doing so often means your song will never get written. The best songwriters have mastered the craft of rewriting. They have the ability to detach themselves emotionally from their creation and go back and rewrite it to make sure this is the outcome. This is easier said then done but it’s essential to learn the craft of rewriting and develop the ability to go back before you call your song finished and go over it with a fine tooth comb to make sure you’ve achieved your goal. Try this. After you’ve written your song give it as long as you need for the initial excitement you feel wears off and it becomes just another song you’ve written. For some it’s a day or two, for others maybe a week or two or longer. We all have those songs we really like but we’ve never finished, and maybe that’s the one to try first. Every completed thought in your song - and usually that’s each line - pull it off to the side and then look back at your title. There should be no gray area, no doubt, that the line you’ve written relates directly to your title. To give you the idea, if your song title is “Snow Plow” and as you’re going through each line and you see the words – walking through the desert – this is a line that needs to be rewritten and quick! I refer to these lines as “burrs” and in many cases a potential song title to be pursued at a later date. You’ll find these burrs quickly if you go through your song line by line and each and every one needs to be rewritten before you call your lyric complete to your new song.
Based in Nashville, Bronson Herrmuth has worked in music publishing and production for more than 30 years. He is president of Al Jolson Black and White Music, Jolie House of Music, and Iowa HomeGrown Music. Signed as a recording Artist with RCA Mexico from 1981-1985 with Iowa band, The Ozone Ramblers. He is a songwriter, band leader, a multi-instrumentalist, and he has toured 44 states and 18 countries as a performer. He's traveled the USA speaking at Music Conferences as a Panelist, a Mentor and Workshop Instructor. An associate writer for MusicDish.com, 5 Star Productions, Country Music News International, a contributing author to the Indie Bible, a columnist for MusesMuse.com, and the Nashville Music Guide. Bronson is the author of the book “100 Miles To A Record Deal”, and his soon to be released new book is called “Opening The Closed Door”. He’s the Host of radio programs for Creative and Dreams Music Network, a founding member of acoustic duo Crowding 50, and a member of the Nashville Association of Talent Directors (NATD). For more information on USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net
by Harriet Schock
The great thing about being a writer or an actor is that we get to live so many lives. I mean the ones you create. The ones you elaborate upon. The ones you fantasize. I'm in an amazing acting workshop for singers called the Musical Artists Workshop taught by Gary Imhoff. Sometimes in an improv, we’re given a situation and you simply have to think “what if…” In fact, much acting is done from “what if.” What if I were in a whole different situation, a whole different life. What if I were different? A different kind of person entirely, or just a little different.
I remember as a child going around to my parents’ friends and asking them this philosophical question: If I had a different great-great-grandparent, would I be me only different? Or would I be a different person who’s a lot like me? Well, many years later I came to my own conclusion about that, but for songwriting, it works either way. If you’re a girl, you can pretend you’re a guy who does all those things guys do that drive you crazy. Or you could pretend you’re unbelievably wealthy. Or maybe you’re having an affair with someone incredibly wealthy who is, of course, unhappy. (“Lyin’ Eyes” by Henley and Frey)
People who know my writing and/or my teaching know that I think the two most important elements in songwriting are truth and craft. They also know by “truth” I don’t mean facts.There is truth in many situations which you can find, even if you haven’t lived that particular factual situation. Some years ago I was asked to write a lyric (Misha Segal wrote the music) for a Motown film (“The Last Dragon”) in which the main character was a young African American man who was a virgin, practiced Kung Fu and fell in love for the first time. I went for the truth of it rather than the facts, none of which were helping me. We wrote a song that’s been covered by 30 people either live or on record. It wasn’t really a big “what if,” considering I’d fallen in love and I knew how that felt. That’s what I concentrated on. The songs is called “First Time on a Ferris Wheel.” Smokey Robinson sang it in the movie. Carl Anderson, my favorite singer of all time, recorded it and sang it live. It’s on my home page if you want to hear Carl sing it.
One of my newest songs is called “When I Write About It” and it discusses how we can change the way it really happened, whose fault it was, who left whom and basically every detail of life like we want it. And isn’t that being the creator of your own artistic universe?
Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit for Helen Reddy, “Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady” plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored three other Jaglom films as well as starring in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s current film, “The M Word” features Harriet’s song, “Bein’ a Girl,” sung on camera. Harriet is in the process of writing the songs for “Last of the Bad Girls,” a musical with book by Diane Ladd. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and a popular online courses by private email. In 2007, Los Angeles Women In Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. For her performance schedule, list of credits and samples of her work or information on her book (Becoming Remarkable, for Songwriters and Those Who Love Songs), her songwriting classes and consultation, go to: www.harrietschock.com.
For more information on USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net
Songwriting Tips: 10 Elements of a Song
by Steve Cheeks
When studying songs and songwriting, there seem to always be common threads to the basic components of successful songs. Like most people, I am measuring a songs success by it's popularity more than any other factor, although it is not the only factor to consider. With that thought being set aside, lets look at the elements that make up songs in the Modern Contemporary Music era (the last fifty years of rock, pop, country and R&B). Please also note that these are not considered to be in any particular order.
1. Melody - The melody is the tune of the song that you sing or play. The best melodies are considered to be "catchy". This typically means that the melody is memorable, which should be the desired effect.
2. Chords (chord progression) - The chords accompany the melody of the song. This can also be, and is typically, part of the rhythm of the song. A chord progression is the order in which the chords are played.
3. Beat and Rhythm - The beat of a song is what "drives" the listener to "feel" the song (fast or slow). It is also referred to as the tempo (speed) of the song. Because music stirs our emotions, we often are drawn to a song because of the beat. The rhythm on the other hand, is the beat that the various instruments (drums, bass, guitar and keys) create.
4. Genre and Style - the genre of a song (rock, pop, country or r&b) is typically established by the beat and rhythm of the song. The style may vary once the song is constructed with the words and/or instruments. The style of the song branches out from the genre, such as, punk rock, alternative, hip hop, blue grass etc.
5. Concept (story) - All songs have a story line or theme. Typically the song title will convey the essence of that story idea and the words (lyric) will expound upon that idea or theme. The story concept and theme is typically stated in the title of the song.
6. "Hook"- Simply stated, the hook is the part of the song that you just can't get out of your head. It sort of "sticks" to your thought process, sometimes, even if you like it or not. All great (if not memorable) songs have great hooks. A song may also have sub hooks that are sections,words, phrases of music that will get inside your brain. The song title can typically be a "singable" hook or phrase as well.
7. Lyrics - What is being "said" in the song comes through the words called the lyrics. The lyric describes the concept, theme and/or title of the song. A lyric will typically rhyme in rhythmic phrases in the sections of music.
8. Song Sections - Songs are divided up into sections and have names, such as, intro, verse, chorus,bridge etc. Typically, the verse describes the concept of the title and hook that are typically in the chorus. Other sections such of music, such as the intro, bridge, lead breaks, etc., will function to support these main components of the song. Sections consist of measures (also called bars) that are typically four beats in length. Although they can be longer or shorter, sections are typically eight measures (bars) in length.
9. Arrangement - The arrangement is actually two-fold. First, the arrangement is the order in which the sections of music are placed, such as, intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus and so on. Secondly, the organization of the instrumentation, vocals and/or other parts of music that make up the song, are considered to be the arrangement as well.
10. Length - The length of a song is always a consideration, depending on the use of the song. If a song is being written and arranged for radio airplay, songs today are typically three and a half to four minutes long. They can be shorter or longer, but this is the typical length in today's musical formats. It should be stated that you will find successful songs with less (or even more) of the ten elements that are listed here. That doesn't make the song right or wrong, just different.
There are always exceptions to every rule,and in music, you will find that to be the case more often than not. In searching songs, I believe you will find most "hit' songwriters will use proven formulas with the elements listed above, in some shape or form. I always remind songwriters and musicians alike, that there are no "have to be's" in music, just "probablies." That's the purpose of using the word "typically" so often. As always, go back and study some of the songs from your favorite genre to see how many of the elements you can detect. I'm sure you will find that the more successful the song, the more song elements that are in the song. This should give you a great overview for your study. Happy Hunting!
Steve Cheeks is a Producer, Arranger, Singer, Songwriter and Psalmist. As a teacher, Steve has taught many hundreds of students how to play, perform and compose music with many different instruments. Currently, Steve is on a mission to teach the world to play and sing. He resides in Evans, Ga.
For more information on USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net
The Most Important Thing Is Everything
by Barbara Cloyd
If your goal is for your songs to be hits on Country radio there are a lot of factors to consider when you write. Does every line make sense? Do they all work together to support one main idea? Is the language conversational? Is there a solid rhyme scheme? Is the melody memorable? Is the chorus catchy?
That’s just a small sampling of what it takes for a song to be a hit. It can be overwhelming. Sometimes you find the perfect rhyme that says exactly the right thing, but maybe it’s not a word people say every day. Sometimes you find a wonderfully clever line but you have to cram a few too many syllables into the melody. You have to make compromises sometimes, right?
Wrong. You have to get it all exactly right.
Once at a workshop I heard a publisher say that the people he pitches songs to are “looking for any reason to say no.” As soon as they hear one thing they don’t like, they pass and go on to the next song. If that seems harsh, remember, they have no shortage of songs to choose from. There are more than a thousand new ones written every week just by the staff writers who are writing full time with the support of a publisher. Plus every hit writer has a large catalog of songs that haven’t been cut yet. That’s your competition,
It’s also important to realize that when artists cut a song that becomes a hit, they have to live with that song for their entire career. They don’t want to make that kind of commitment if there is any little thing that doesn’t feel right.
If you want to make money with your songs, don’t settle when you write. I was told early on, “If you think maybe there might possibly be something wrong with your song, it’s wrong.” Be honest with yourself. For example, did you use a tired cliché instead of finding a fresh way to say it? Are you leaving it to the demo singer to make lines work where the words don’t fit the melody quite right? Are you keeping lines that don’t further the idea of the song because you love them? If you left a weak line in place so you could finish the song, did you go back and improve it?
Once you’ve worked out all the bugs, it can be a good idea to put your song away for a while and come back to it with fresh ears. I always do that, and it’s amazing how many times I see problems with a song that sounded like a masterpiece when I finished it. After fixing every weakness I can find my next step is to play it for other people who will be honest with me, and their feedback often points out more things that need polishing.
If all this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. But if you aren’t willing to do it, there are lots and lots of writers who are. Tom Shapiro, who has written seventeen #1 hits, says that the difference between a really good song and one that will make you a lot of money is the last five percent. Your family, friends and fans are rarely as critical as Music Row. It’s great to soak up their support but don’t let it keep you from acknowledging how high the bar is set and pushing yourself to reach it.
Since it began in 1986 Barbara Cloyd has been hosting the open mic at the Bluebird Café, where she has seen newcomers like Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney and David Wilcox, as well as many of today’s top writers. After Lorrie Morgan took Barbara’s song “I Guess You Had To Be There” into the top 10 developing songwriters began asking Barbara for feedback and advice. This led to her career as a teacher, offering one-on-one consultations and hosting the popular “Play for Publishers” workshops. She’s also well know for her ability to spot talent and many now-successful writers and artists owe their start to introductions she made for them. For her dedication to helping writers the Nashville Songwriters Association’s gave her the Maggie Cavender Award for Exception Service to the Songwriting Community.
For more information on USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net
Understanding the Most Common Song Structures
by Anthony Ceseri
When I first started writing songs, I went through a phase where I had no regard for song structure. I thought to myself “Everyone writes a verse then a chorus, then another verse and another chorus. That’s so bland. I want to be different!”
So I wrote a few songs that would start with one section, then go to new section, then a third new section, then a fourth and so on. You couldn’t even label these sections as verses or choruses because they’d show up once and be gone from the song after that.
What I didn’t realize at the time, was my songs were chaotic. And as a result no one wanted to hear them again after the first time. There was nothing to pull them in. There weren’t memorable.
Song structure is important because it organizes our songs. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel in order to be creative.
Think of the most common types of song structures as universally agreed upon roadmaps for your songs. They tell us where the song is going. We’ve heard the most common structures so many times that we’re practically trained to know what section is coming next. While that might seem like a bad thing, it’s not because it brings a familiarity to our music which makes people want to hear it. It does that from the very first time we hear a song with a common structure.
The Most Common Structures
With that in mind, let’s look at the most commonly used song structures in popular music.
Verse / Chorus / Verse / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus
This one’s also known as an ABABCB structure, where A is the verse, B is the chorus and C is the bridge. This one’s extremely popular. Radiohead’s “High and Dry” is a good example of this song structure.
Verse / Pre-Chorus / Chorus / Verse / Pre-Chorus / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus
This one’s a slight variation of the first structure we looked at. The only difference here is the addition of a pre-chorus which shows up before the choruses. A good example of this structure is Katy Perry’s “Firework.” The part that starts on the words “You just gotta ignite the light…” is the Pre-Chorus.
In both of these song structures it’s fairly common for the chorus to be repeated a second time at the very end of the song to really drive the hook of the song home to the listeners.
Verse / Verse / Bridge / Verse
This one’s a bit of a departure from the first two structures we looked at. It’s also known as an AABA structure. This time A denotes the verse, while B denotes the bridge. There’s no chorus is this type of structure. Instead, each verse usually ends (or begins) with a refrain. A refrain is a line or two that repeats throughout the song. Since it’s usually the title, the words of the refrain usually stay the same, while the rest of the verse lyrics change.
A lot of times this song structure will have a lot of variation in the verse melody, since the verses repeat often. It keeps their melody from getting boring during all the repetition.
The Beatles and Billy Joel have used this song structure a lot. The song “We Can Work it Out” by the Beatles uses this structure. If you listen to the song, you can hear that the title line “We Can Work it Out” is the refrain in the verses. The section starting on “Live is very short…” is the bridge.
Any of these structures can be modified as appropriate for your song. You may have noticed that in “We Can Work it Out” the bridge is repeated twice. This is a pretty common modification of the AABA format since a lot of times a simple verse, verse, bridge, verse structure often makes for a very short song.
Common Song Structures without Bridges
Those three song structures are the big ones. There are two others that are common as well, but they’re used less because they don’t have a bridge.
Verse / Chorus / Verse / Chorus
Also know as an ABAB structure, this one is a simplified version of the ABABCB structure, with the bridge omitted.
Verse / Verse / Verse
This one’s also know as an AAA structure. It’s not used often because it’s hard to keep things interesting if all you have is one section being repeated. Like the AABA structure, this one also makes use of a refrain in the verses, as the central focus. Bob Dylan uses this song form in “Tangled Up in Blue.” Take note of the variation in the melodies through a typical verse. It’s crucial in a song with this structure in order to keep the melody interesting.
A bridge helps to change up the sound of a song and keep it interesting. It prevents a song from simply being a repetition of one or two sections. That’s why these two song structures don’t show up as much as the first three we looked at. But you should know that they do exist in songwriting.
The Role of Each Section
Song structure is a bit more than arranging a song’s sections in a certain way. It’s also important to understand that each section typically has a role to fulfill. If you know the role of each section in your song, you’ll be better prepared to modify a song structure, as you see fit.
Lyrically, the verses of your song will move your story forward. The chorus or refrain is likely to have the same words each time, so the verse is your chance to keep your ideas moving along.
Think of your chorus as the big idea for what your song’s all about. That’s partly why your title is most likely to show up in your chorus. Your title also sums up what the song’s about. Melodically, the chorus will be the catchiest part of your song. This is what people will have stuck in their head long after your song is over. That’s another reason it’s good to have your title in the chorus. When people get your chorus stuck in their head, they’ll easily know what your song is called and can find it later when they want to hear it again.
The pre-chorus is an add-on before the chorus. It usually repeats the same lyrics each time, the same way a chorus does. Musically, a lot of times it creates a nice build up to what’s coming in the chorus. Katy Perry’s “Firework” was a good example of that.
The bridge is a departure from what we’ve heard in a song, previously. This goes for both the lyrics and the music. Lyrically it’s an opportunity for a new perspective. Musically, it’s a chance to offer the listener something they haven’t heard before to keep the song interesting.
In the AABA, or AAA structures, the refrain is the line that draws all the attention in your verses. It’s usually at the beginning or end of each verse and is often the title of the song.
The hook doesn’t necessarily refer to a specific section of a song, except to say it’s the catchiest part of a song. Most of the time, it will be your chorus, if your song has one. If your song doesn’t have a chorus your hook will most likely be your refrain. As hit songwriter, Clay Drayton, says “A fish knows the hook… Once it’s in you, it’s hard to get it out.”
Those are the basics of song structure. You can modify the common song structure to fit your song as you see fit, but it’s good to know what they are so you can use them as a starting point. Not only will they bring familiarity to your songs, but they’ll give you a good guide on how to lay out your music.
Anthony Ceseri is a songwriter and performer who has traveled the country in pursuit of the best songwriting advice and information available. From classes and workshops at Berklee College of Music in Boston, to Taxi’s Road Rally in Los Angeles, Anthony has learned from the most well-respected professional songwriters, producers and performers in the industry. For a lot more songwriting information, grab your FREE EBook here: http://successforyoursongs.com/freeoffer/
For Information on the USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net
Your Best Bet for a #1 Song
by Ralph Murphy
For a small business owner such as a songwriter/publisher, knowing the market is vital. Budgeting for success means looking at income (when it decides to come in!) and making informed decisions about how to spend it most effectively. Up near the top of the list of expenditures (almost right next to eating) are demo costs. The financial outlay for demonstration recordings has risen to $750 - $1,000 per song. So, if you write 30 songs a year and only have $10,000 in your demo budget, you're going to have to make some hard choices.
The Truth About Dogs and Chickens
Let's say you've written this song about a Chicken. You love it! Your mom loves it! The special person in your life loves it! However . . Radio is only playing Dog songs. Fortunately, you've also written four Dog songs, which everybody loves. Your dilemma? You only have enough money to produce a three-song demo, but you have five songs (four Dog songs and one Chicken song). What do you do? Now, unfortunately, I have suitcases full of demoed Chicken songs, so I know what the songwriter side of me says; however, I noticed early on in life that food is a good thing and that eating makes me happy. So, while grumbling and complaining about how radio should be playing more Chicken songs, I demo three of my four Dog songs so I can continue to support my nasty food habit! In the frustrating war between art and commerce, commerce wins.
Let's be honest. Though it shouldn't, radio drives the "commercial" aspect of the songwriting process. (Did I already mention that I like to eat?) It affects just about every decision we make creatively. In March, 1999, country radio did something seismic in nature, which impacted songwriters and publishers dramatically. As an experiment to maintain listenership, Country radio decided to slow the progress of records going up and down the charts in hopes of breeding the kind of familiarity that keeps listeners coming back for more - commercials, that is.
As a result, I became curious and decided to try an experiment of my own. I started by researching the Billboard Country chart for 1999 and found that a total of 18 songs reached #1. Taking a closer look, I began to wonder: what type of song is reaching the top in this brave new world of radio? A world in which, though yet another ripple effect of deregulation, big radio chains have been allowed to buy up and homogenize most of the "mom and pop" country stations resulting in:
Country songs being slotted between jingles and musical links that sound like they're written and performed by Metallica;
on-air personalities who, with rare exceptions, really don't know (or care) about country music, and
an increase in the amount of commercial time that effectively gets rid of two or three records per hour.
But, I digress! What we began to see on the chart before March is that records did indeed start taking longer to climb and began to linger longer, that is, taking longer to fall off completely. Before March, the total average time a song spent on the chart was 26.5 weeks. After the March changeover, that time increased to 32 weeks - adding more than a month to the life of a song! (In fact, Lonestar's "Amazed" was on the chart for more than a year.) What kinds of songs enjoyed success? Let's look at a few dynamics . . . .
Anything in common?
Common characteristics for the 18 #1s were that all of them were contemporary pop/country; 4/4 in tempo; romantic, primarily humorous, sad, and heartfelt. Half were stories; half were conversations. The average intro was 13.2 seconds.
Let's examine the producer/A&R, mantra - "We are looking for mid to up-tempo positive love songs." Yes, you can say it in your sleep!
Surprisingly, though, ballads accounted for 50% of 1999's chart toppers, followed by up-tempos at 33% and mid-tempos at 17%. Now, before you crown ballads king, let's look at the amount of time spent at #1. Even though more ballads made it to #1, they tended to fall off quicker. In fact, up-tempos spent 49% of the year at #1, followed by ballads at 31% and mid-tempos at 20%. So, even though mid- and up-tempos combined accounted for only half of the #1s, they spent a combined 69% of the year in the top spot.
Strangely enough, you had a slightly better chance of having a #1 with a ballad, but spent significantly less time at #1 and on the chart.
75% of up-tempos went from a linear melody in the verse to a soaring melody in the chorus. Which means, basically, the listener got a story [linear - very little motion, few chord changes] and something to hum at the supermarket [soaring - significant motion and chord changes] in the same song and apparently liked that a lot!
It is almost impossible to tell a story over a soaring melody because the human animal can only hear one moving part at a time and, given choice, will always defer to melody. So, wherever the writer wants to tell a story, the melody is kept to a minimum.
As for ballads, five of the nine went from linear to soaring.
Since you were born, radio has given you songs in any one of six variations.
As the writer leads listeners through a song, he or she creates an expectation in the audience's mind that they are being led through the story to a hook (conclusion) in a way that they are familiar with. The writer can alter the format slightly only as long as the listeners feel informed, included and satisfied (once delivered to the hook/conclusion). If that effect is not achieved, the listeners simply reach for the dial and tune out. The writer has failed structurally.
That being said, the 18 #1 records in 1999 used only three of the six forms:
2nd Form: Verse-(Verse Opt.)-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Instrument-Chorus-Etc.
3rd Form: Verse-(Verse Opt.)-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Instrument-Chorus-Out
4th Form: Verse-Lift-Chorus-Verse-Lift-Chorus-Instrumental-(Lift
Five of the six up-tempos and 50% of all #1s were written in 3rd form. The exception to this in up-tempo was Terri Clark's "You're Easy On The Eyes," which was in 2nd form. This is significant because 3rd form is known as the most forgiving form because you can have a weak line or two in a verse but still have a huge chorus to save you. Plus, there's a bridge to add information or show the listener the other side of the coin. With mid-tempos, all the forms were equally represented. As far as ballads go, we find that four of the nine ballads were 3rd Form, followed by three in 2nd Form and two in 4th Form.
Person and tense
100% of up-tempos were written in first person (I/Me/My).
Additionally, 72% included the second person (You/Your) and 39% used the third person, generally as a device for conflict. As far as tense goes, 83% of up-tempos were set in the present, with 27% in the past and only 15% in the future.
As for ballads, 89% used the first person, 89% included the 2nd, and 33% added the third person.
Let's add one more dynamic to this mix. Six of the 18 #1s were written or co-written by the artist, with five of the six being ballads. So the old A&R belief that ballads are artist-driven gains some credence given this information.
Your best shot
So, you have Dog songs and you have Chicken songs. Where do you spend your demo dollar?
Your best shot for getting a #1 record is to write:
mid- to up-tempo
romantic/humorous or sad/heartfelt theme
contemporary pop/country style
story or conversation
1st person or 2nd person
linear melody with a story to a soaring chorus
13 second intro
So much for Chicken songs!
I would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Phil Goldberg and Chad Green indulging my "need to know" in helping research the above information. Most importantly, thank you, Mark Ford, for massaging and editing my lunatic fringe ramblings into a coherent form.
(Printed with permission from Ralph Murphy)
Ralph Murphy, hit songwriter and expert, has been successful for five decades. He wrote huge hit songs such as Crystal Gayle's "Talking in Your Sleep" and "Half the Way". Consistently charting songs in an ever-changing musical environment makes him a member of that very small group of professionals who make a living ding what they love to do. Add to that the platinum records as a producer, his success as the publisher and co-owner of the extremely successful Picalic Group of Companies and you see a pattern of achievement based on more than luck. Achieving "hit writer" status has always been a formidable goal for any songwriter. Never more so however than in the 21st century. Catching the ear of the monumentally distracted, fragmented listener has never been more difficult. Getting their attention, inviting them in to your song and keeping them there for long enough for your song to become "their song" requires more than being just a "good" songwriter.
*His new book Murphy's Laws of Songwriting "The Book" arms the songwriter for success by demystifying the process and opening the door to serious professional songwriting. Hall of fame songwriter Paul Williams said in his review of the book "If there was a hit songwriters secret handshake "Da Murphy" would probably have included it." To get the book, enter 3 or more songs at the 11th Annual IAMA and receive this exclusive book »
WE DON’T CARE WHAT REALLY HAPPENED
by Harriet Schock
I have a chapter in my book Becoming Remarkable called “Reality: the Training Wheels” which points out how helpful it is to a songwriter to write something real because the pictures are there in his memory to access for the story. That does not mean, however, that what actually happened needs to be the story line of your song. I also have a chapter called “Truth vs. Facts.” For my full view on both of those points, I can refer you to those chapters. The point I’d like to make here is that sometimes writers get hung up on what actually occurred and fail to see the “truth” of the situation. If the truth of your song is that you miss someone like mad, and he happens to be a few miles up the street, you don’t have to say that. Putting him in another continent can tell your story just fine. Many people know that “Midnight Train to Georgia,” by Jim Weatherly was originally “Midnight Plane to Houston.”
I rarely tell the story of how “Ain’t No Way to Treat A Lady” started out, and never in print, but here goes. The first verse starts “I guess it was yourself you were involved with…I would have sworn it was me.” The first actual words I wrote down were…”I guess it was myself I was involved with…I would have sworn it was you.” Well I knew that wasn’t going to fly (and yes, I was on a plane at the time). I immediately changed it. With the change, it led easily to the last two lines of the verse “I might have found out sooner if you’d only let me close enough to see.” Maybe in real life I had taken responsibility for the disaster of the relationship, but I sure wasn’t going to write the song that way. They say that everyone in a dream is the actual person dreaming. I happen to think that’s true of songs too. Everyone in our song is actually us. Now THAT’S a scary thought. But isn’t it also liberating? We can be the villain we’re vilifying. And ask any actor: Aren’t villains more fun to play?
So be the villain and write a song to yourself from the hero’s (heroine’s) viewpoint like Sting reportedly did in “Every Step You Take” written from his wife’s viewpoint. No one will know who is who. And as long as it’s compelling, we won’t care at all if it “really happened that way.”
Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit for Helen Reddy, "Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady" plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored three other Jaglom films as well as starring in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s current film, “The M Word” features Harriet’s song, “Bein’ a Girl,” sung on camera. Harriet is in the process of writing the songs for “Last of the Bad Girls,” a musical with book by Diane Ladd. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and a popular online courses by private email. In 2007, Los Angeles Women In Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. For her performance schedule, list of credits and samples of her work or information on her book (Becoming Remarkable, for Songwriters and Those Who Love Songs), her songwriting classes and consultation, go to: www.harrietschock.com
For more information on the USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net