Songwriting Tips, News & More

Songwriting Tip: The Missing Link

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Mon, Jun 23, 2014 @03:04 PM

THE MISSING LINK

by John Capek

 songwriting

Popular songs as we know them today perhaps found their shape and form with one of the seminal founders of American popular music, Stephen Foster. Stephen Foster is often credited as "America's First Composer" and widely regarded as one of the first who made professional songwriting profitable. Foster wrote songs that we often mistakenly think of as folk songs. His songs include:

“OH! SUSANNA”, “OLD FOLKS AT HOME” (SWANEERIVER)”, “MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME” “BEAUTIFUL DREAMER” “DE CAMTON RACES” (CAMPTOWN RACES, DOO DAH) and “JEANNIE WITH THE LIGHT BROWN HAIR”

 

The form and nature of these songs are significant in their connection to everything that followed. These songs were short, had verses and chorus’s or refrains, they were easy to learn and repeat and they tapped into the popular culture of their time. It is profoundly significant that we still know these songs now, about one hundred and fifty years after the time that they were written.

 

Stephen spent much of his life in Pittsburgh where he worked consistently at his songwriting,.  As a professional songwriter he had made it his business to listen to the various styles of music circulating in the immigrant populations of the newUnited States.  He used images and a musical vocabulary that would be widely understood by everyone.  Foster worked very hard at writing, sometimes taking several months to craft and polish the words, melody, and accompaniment of a song before sending it off to a publisher.  His sketchbook shows that he often labored over the smallest details, the right prepositions, even where to include or remove a comma from his lyrics.

 

It is also important and significant to know that Foster kept his own account books, documenting in detail how much his publishers paid him for each song, He also estimated his probable future earnings on each piece.  His contracts were written out in his own hand.  These contracts are the earliest written agreements that  we know of between American music publishers and individual songwriters.

 

Within twenty years of Foster’s death, the concept which he had a large part in creating, that of writing songs for publishers for money, developed into what came to be called Tin Pan Alley, named for a street in New York City (West 28th StreetbetweenBroadway and Sixth Avenuewhere all the music publishers had their offices.) By 1890, sheet music sales of popular songs was a thriving multimillion dollar business.

Had Stephen Foster survived for another twenty years, it is possible that his catalogue of songs would have been worth hundreds of million dollars.

 

The immediate successors to Stephen Foster’s legacy were numerous well known songwriters who’s work has survived them. Irving Berlin had his first significant hit with Alexander’s Ragtime band in 1911. Show Boat, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, was the first hugely popular musical comedy in 1927.  "Ol'ManRiver" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" are songs that have become standards in the “great American songbook George Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess premiered in 1935. Summertime is an all time standard song from that show

 

The electric guitar was first seen around 1936. Alan Freed invented the term Rock and Roll in 1951. Berry Gordy formed Motown records in 1959

The Beatles had their first major hit with I want to Hold Your Hand in 1964

Hip hop, a blend of rock, jazz, and soul with African drumming,  was born in theSouth Bronxin 1978 or perhaps in Kingston Jamaica with dub DJ’s earlier than that.

 

Tin Pan Alley, the center and focal point of American popular music can be directly linked to another New York institution and landmark. That landmark, the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway became the very definition of pop music in the 1950’s and 1960’s

 

By 1962 the Brill Building contained 165 music businesses: a musician could find a publisher and printer, cut a demo, promote the record, and cut a deal with radio promoters, all within this one building. Some of the better known songwriters associated with the Brill building include:

 

   * Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller

   * Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman

   * Gerry Goffin and Carole King

   * Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry

   * Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil

   * Burt Bacharach and Hal David

   * Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield

   * Hugo & Luigi

   * Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

   * Paul Anka

   * Jim Croce

   * Bobby Darin

   * John Denver

   * Neil Diamond

   * David Gates

   * Billy Joel

   * Kris Kristofferson

   * Roger McGuinn

   * Joni Mitchell

   * Carly Simon

   * Paul Simon

   * Phil Spector

   * ChipTaylor

   * James Taylor

   * Gene Pitney

   * Artie Kornfeld

 

I believe that there are two seminal key ingredients that link the various stages of unfolding of popular music. The first is the dedication of the writer to his art and craft. The second is the economic factor.

 

In describing the writer’s dedication to his art and craft, I have discussed how meticulous Stephen Foster was in fine tuning and perfecting his tunes.

 

On a similar note it is useful to read Rennold Wolf’s account of how he, Irving Berlin, Vincent Bryan, and Channing Pollock worked together on a show song inAtlantic City:

 

     “We assembled in Mr.Berlin's imposing suite of parlors, where there was a piano.... Seated at the instrument, he was not long in conceiving a melody, which immediately he began to pound out. All night, until dawn was breaking, he sat on the stool, playing that same melody over and over and over again, while two fagged and dejected lyric writers struggled and heaved to fit it with words.... One cigarette replaced another as he pegged away; a pitcher of beer, stationed at one end of the keyboard, was replenished frequently; and there he sat, trying patiently to suggest, to two minds that were completely worn out by long rehearsals and over-work, a lyric that would fit his melody. Mr. Pollock and I paced the floor; we sat, in turn, in every chair and on every divan in the rooms; we tore at our hair; we fumed, we spluttered, and probably we cursed”..

 

These examples of work ethic continue as the songwriters process to this day. I personally have spent six months fine tuning a song, where the first draft or sketch took a few minutes to unfold. My peers work in the same way.

 

In discussing the second important link, the economic factor, it is significant to know that most of the successful songwriters who’s work has transcended time and genre were also very aggressive entrepreneurs.

By the age of 15, George Gershwin had quit school and was a pianist and "song plugger" for a Tin Pan Alley publisher.

One of the first "popular" music publishers in Tin Pan Alley  was T.B. Harms. T.B. Harms started out as a songwriter. His company ultimately became George Gershwin’s publisher.

 

At the time, songwriters were also "songpluggers," a term that is still used today. Instead of waiting for the market to come to the publisher, the publisher would use songpluggers to take songs to the market. A songplugger's main job was to place songs with performers. Songpluggers were aggressive and influential, singing to passing crowds, going to department stores and sports events, and just about anywhere they could find an audience.

 

As I have suggested, I believe that the two major ingredients involved in success as a songwriter are:

 

1  Serious and meticulous attention to detail of craft.

2.. A dedicated investment of time and energy into the business of songwriting.

 

In recent months there has been a lot of hand wringing, whining and complaining about the state of the record industry. InCanada, there has been the biggest decline in CD sales in the history of the world. Similar situations are occurring everywhere. Industry think tanks are focussed on how to monetize the new paradigm.

 

No-one anywhere has suggested that perhaps the reason that CD sales are about to die is that the songs suck.

 

There was a time where singers and bands were not the writers of the songs that they performed. Songwriters and artists were two separate entities. In our current environment, artists write their own songs. This has repercussions. I believe that rather than blaming the intrusion of a new technology on the demise of the record industry, I would point to the fact that there are no great songs being written that will last for 150 years or more like the songs of Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin or Cole Porter.

 

Perhaps the cycle will bring back the art and the craft of songwriting when the attention to detail and art and craft become a priority again. At that point i believe that the audience, the market will respond and be willing to spend money for music of quality.

 

Rod Stewart leads the list of popular music icons who have recorded John Capek compositions. Others include Bonnie Raitt, Cher, Diana Ross, Joe Cocker, Toto, Chicago, Olivia Newton John, Little River Band, Heart, Manhattan Transfer, Isaac Hayes and Amanda Marshall. John Capek’s most performed award winning songs include : “Rhythm of My Heart”, ”This”, ”Soul on Soul” and “Carmelia”.  Capek’s most performed productions include Dan Hill’s Billboard hit duet with Vonda Sheppard, “Can’t We Try” as well as work with Ken Tobias, Gene McLellan, Good Brothers and Downchild. As a keyboard player, John has recorded with Diana Ross, Olivia Newton John, Ian Thomas, Marc Jordan, Dan Hill, Kermit, The Chipmunks, The Simpsons and countless other international performers. John’s songs are heard in the feature films, “A Perfect Storm”, “Cocktail”, “Blown Away” and many others. For more information go to www.johncapek.com

For more information on the 19th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to:http://www.songwriting.net

 

Tags: songwriter, song writer, Song writing, Chorus, Songwriting, Verse, tip, Stephen Foster, craft

Songwriting Tip: Striking the Right Chord

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Tue, Apr 02, 2013 @09:00 AM

STRIKING THE RIGHT CHORD

 Danny Arena, songwriter

By Danny Arena

One kind of "creative rut" that songwriters can easily fall into is when the chorus section of all their songs starts to sound the same. Some songwriters get into the habit of using the same chord to begin the chorus of every song they write. In one of my SongU.com courses, we look at some of the many chords you can use to start your chorus as well as some of the successful songs that have used them in the past.

 

The I (ONE) CHORD

Contrary to popular belief, there's nothing wrong with starting the chorus to your song (or bridge in an AABA song) on the "I" chord. Be careful though, to make sure your chorus contrasts from the verse - either rhythmically or melodically. For example, both the chorus and verse to hit song "She Believes In Me" (songwriter - Gibb) begin on the I chord, but the melody soars high in the chorus in contrast to the melody in the verse. Similarly both the verse and bridge to song "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" (songwriter - Howard/Arlen) start on the I chord, but the 8th note rhythm of the bridge makes it stand out in contrast to the half note feel of the verse. The Bruno Mars hit, “Just The Way You Are” takes the opposite approach and the rhythm in the chorus contains longer notes than the verse even though both sections start on the I chord.

 

THE iim (TWO MINOR) CHORD

The iim chord is similar in structure to the IV chord, but, like the iiim and vim chord, it is a minor chord with a different sound quality than the IV chord. It is not used very frequently to begin a chorus, but is used more often as a starting chord of a bridge section in an AABA song as in the old standard "I'm In The Mood For Love" (songwriter - Fields/McHugh).

 

THE iiim (THREE MINOR) CHORD

Another chord which is similar in structure to the I chord is the iiim chord. It is not used as frequently to start a chorus as the vim chord but has a similar sound quality. The Beth Neilson Chapman adult contemporary hit, "All I Have" (songwriter - Chapman/Kaz) has a chorus which starts on the iiim chord, and the bridge of the Elvis Presley AABA classic, "Can't Help Falling In Love" (songwriter - Weiss/Peretti/Creatore) starts on a iiim.

 

THE IV (FOUR MAJOR) CHORD

Another common chord choice for starting the bridge or chorus of a song is the IV chord. Probably the reason it is such a popular choice among songwriters is because of it can be set-up easily. By ending a verse on the I chord, you automatically have set up the chorus to begin on the IV chord. This is because of the natural "pull" the I chord has toward the IV chord (technically speaking, the I chord acts as the dominant of the IV chord). Some of the many songs which use the IV chord to start the chorus (or bridge), include the Kenny Rogers classic: "Lucille" (songwriter - Bowling), the Christina Aguilera ballad, “Beautiful” and the Train hit, “Hey Soul Sister”.

 

THE V (FIVE MAJOR) CHORD

A common chord used to begin a chorus in a song is the V chord. The V chord is a naturally unstable chord and the I chord is a naturally stable chord. So when you end the verse on the I chord and start the chorus on the V chord, you create a contrast. The chorus in the Reba McEntire classic, "Rumor Has It" (songwriter - Burch/Dant/Shell) starts on the V chord.


THE viim (SIX MINOR) CHORD

The vim chord is a chord which is fairly close in structure to the I chord. In fact, two of the three notes that make up these two chords are the same. The one note difference between these two chords results in the vim chord having a more "somber" quality as opposed to the "brightness" of the I chord. Starting the bridge on the vim chord can result in a change of mood in a song as in, "Through The Eyes Of Love" (songwriter - Hamlisch/Sager) or "What I Did For Love" (songwriter - Hamlisch). The Grammy winning song, "Wind Beneath My Wings" (songwriter - Henley/Silbar) begins its soaring chorus on a vim chord as does the chorus in the Taylor Swift hit, “I Knew You Were Trouble.”

So that gives you six different approaches you can try the next time you're looking for a different sound for that chorus you're writing. Maybe one of them will spark something in you that will help you create a standout chorus.

Hope to see you on the charts.

 

About Danny Arena
Danny Arena is a Tony Award nominated composer and professional songwriter. He holds degrees from Rutgers University in both computer science and music composition, and serves as an Associate Professor at Volunteer State Community College in Nashville, and an adjunct member of the faculty at Vanderbilt University. In addition, he has been invited to teach songwriting workshops throughout the U.S. and abroad, and performs his original songs regularly in Nashville at venues like the Bluebird Café. As a staff songwriter for Curb Magnatone Music Publishing, he composed several songs for the musical "Urban Cowboy" which opened on Broadway in March 2003 and was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and a Tony Award for Best Original Score. He is also the co-founder, CEO, and one of the main site developers of www.SongU.com, which provides over 100 multi-level courses developed by award-winning songwriters in addition to online coaching, co-writing, industry connections, and pitching opportunities.

For more information on the 18th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, please go to: http://www.songwriting.net

 

Tags: songwriter, song writer, Song writing, Songwriting, Nashville, Bluebird Cafe, tip, Danny Arena, Tony Award, Chord

Songwriting Tip: A Demo A Day

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Tue, Mar 06, 2012 @12:00 PM

 

Songwriting Tip: A Demo A Day

 

A successful songwriter gets you creative in a hurry 

By Joe Bouchard

Songwriting Tip: A Demo A Day

 

When many of the great rock songs were written in the ’60s, writers would hack out a song in an hour or two. For example, “A Hard Day’s Night” was written by John Lennon overnight. The next morning it was done and ready to record in a few hours.

I’m very happy with the songs I’m doing these days. The biggest change to my working style in the last three years has been my “Demo in a Day” habit I’ve gotten into. It goes like this:

 

1. Start with a great hit song.

 

2. If you can’t find a hit song in your bag, use any song sketch that you’ve got. Or cover somebody else’s song. You’ll learn if you force yourself to dig, and be creative. Remember—even the great songwriters write a stinker sometimes, but keep pushing.

 

3. Get a good computer (Mac is my preference, but many successful writers make brilliant music on PCs too) and sequencer/DAW program. Learn the programs thoroughly. If you are having a problem with a program, look up a solution on YouTube. Chances are some geek has posted an answer, and can show you how things work without reading the manual.

 

You don’t need a lot of fancy hardware. I use only two mics for demos, an SM57 for guitars and a RØDE condenser for vocals. Most everything can be done with a direct box, or with plug-ins in the sequencer. My recording program is MOTU Digital Performer, I’ve been using it for years; occasionally I’ll use Pro Tools, and have started using Logic too.

 

4. Demo the song. Work quickly.

 

 

Morning

 

Get up early. Shut off all emails, Facebooks, don’t answer the phone—let the answering machine pick up all calls. Don’t watch the morning news, or check the weather. Make coffee.

 

First, record a Guide Demo to a click if you can—mono or stereo, it doesn’t matter— with just simple piano chords, or acoustic guitar chords. Don’t be fussy. Just throw an open mic in the room and wail away. Don’t fix any wrong notes or out-oftuneness, the cruder the better. This Guide Demo will force you to stay focused to get you to the finished “Demo in a Day”.

 

Put the Guide Demo in the top track of your sequencer. You will be turning this on and off as you work on your “Demo in a Day”.

 

Add markers at the top of your sequencer that mark the intro, verses, choruses, any bridge, and the ending.

 

Now do a rough drum track. I use Toontrack Superior Drummer; the sounds are very realistic and I have hundreds of MIDI drum files that give me any style I might want. I even bought other drum MIDI files from a company called Groove Monkee. They all work seamlessly with Digital Performer. Making drum parts is only a matter of drag and drop from the Groove section of the plugin to a MIDI track that is assigned to the Superior Drummer instrument.

 

Use markers to vary the drum parts as a real drummer would. Add fills either a bar or two bars before each new section. It’s easy to see on the screen when a new section is coming. Usually the drum feel is the hardest to nail, so try different parts until you are happy with the feel and how it expresses the feeling in the Guide Demo. Be patient, this could take up most of your morning.

 

Break for lunch when you’ve got the drum part programmed.

 

 

Noon

 

Right after lunch start recording rhythm guitars. The goal is to have a finished song by the end of the day, so you can’t get too fussy with sounds. I often use a Line 6 POD for guitar. It’s fast and it works. The sounds are very mixable. Even Pete Townshend admits to using one in a pinch. Next do piano parts or other coloration

 

parts. Percussion can help too. Bass parts you can do last, or first—it’s up to you. Don’t spend a lot of time on fixing little things. Loop a part if you stumble in the 2nd verse, or 2nd chorus.

 

Doubling parts will make it sound like a classic rock song. I don’t double with copy and paste and time shift, I prefer to actually play the same part twice and pan them L and R. It sounds like the way music was made in the late ’60s and early ’70s. [See this month’s Talkback for hints on creating doubled parts quickly—Ed.]

 

Sing a rough vocal. Add harmonies. Double the harmonies. Replace the rough vocal with a better vocal. I don’t like Auto- Tune, but I might use the tiniest amount on a rough spot.

 

All the time I am recording, I’m reaching for plug-ins that do my eq, compression, and reverb. If I need to automate part of the mix, I’m doing that as I’m recording.

 

 

And night

 

Break for dinner. After dinner, mix it down. It shouldn’t take too long to get something reasonable, since you’ve already set up eq and compression as you were recording. When you get a mix, load in onto your MP3 player. Take a short drive in your car and test the mix. I always do the “car test” for mixes. Remix until satisfied.

 

By now it’s about 10 PM. Do you know where your song is? It should be mixed and presentable to your friends, relatives and the rest of the band.

 

I’ve spent months working on certain song demos. In the end, with that style of recording the results are mixed at best. The “Demo in a Day” technique works better. By forcing yourself to work quickly it’s easier to keep zeroed in on the emotional focus of your song.

 

By the end of the day you will hear whether the song is going to be great or not. If it isn’t, don’t sweat it, you’ve only invested one day of your time; tomorrow you can go on to a new song. The perfect song is waiting around the corner.

 

Joe Bouchard is a singer, songwriter, and bass player who has worked with his brother Al in bands like Blue Öyster Cult— he was first interviewed in our October 2011 issue. To learn more about his music, visit www.bluecoupeband.com.

 

Excerpted from the March edition of Recording Magazine 2012.   ©2012 Music Maker Publications, Inc. Reprinted with permission. 5408 Idylwild Trail, Boulder, CO80301 Tel: (303) 516-9118 Fax: (303) 516-9119 For Subscription Information, call: 1-800-582-8326 or www.recordingmag.com  For more information on the 17th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, please go to: http://www.songwriting.net


Tags: songwriter, song writer, song write, Song writing, Songwriting, songwrite, 4-track, Joe Bouchard, tip