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[EXPERT SONGWRITING ADVICE] Knitting a Sonic Fabric

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Mon, Mar 02, 2020 @08:00 AM

by Pat Pattison


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I was listening to John Mayer’s album Wildfire and was stopped dead by this line from his song Badge and Gun:

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

The line made me feel something. I love when that happens. It’s always a sign that I need to take a closer look – to understand how the line did it – to find any useful tools that might help my students write even better songs. So, in I went.

First, the line is a wonderful, fresh way to say, “I wish I could go back to a younger, easier time.” Here’s a bit more context:

Gimme my badge and gun

Gimme the songs that I once sung

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

 

Of course, the image “badge and gun” works on many levels, but primarily creates a nostalgic look at a young boy dressed in cowboy hat and chaps, pretending to be an old-time sheriff in a dusty town, taming the Wild West. Ah, youth. Pretty cool.

But it’s not only what John Mayer says, it’s the way he says it:

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

Why does it sound so good? At first glance, it might seem like the line’s energy is a product of the internal rhyme between black and back.

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

But the simple internal rhyme doesn’t begin to explain why this line sounds so attractive. There’s a lot more happening.

Let’s take a closer look. First, at the vowels, other than the internal rhyme.

 

Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound in non-rhyming stressed syllables, close enough to each other for the connection to be heard.

Listen to the short i (as in it) echo in gimme and kick:

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

And the long o (as in go) echoing in those and alone

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

 

The vowel repetitions create an additional layer of sonic connections. Combined with the internal rhyme, these assonance connections help to knit a small piece of the lovely sonic fabric this line creates.

There’s a lot more vowel activity going on here, in addition to the simple assonance. But it’s a bit more subtle. Look:

 

Hidden Assonance

Many vowels contain more than one sound. They’re called diphthongs. When two diphthongs share one of their two sounds in common, they create hidden assonance.

Hidden assonance works a lot like the musical concept of voice leading:

…where each musical note transitions to the next in a smooth, harmonious way, moving as few notes as few steps as possible and thus often retaining common tones.

Hidden assonance works with common tones – two different diphthongs sharing one of their sounds in common.

The territory in hidden assonance can be a little slippery, since English vowel pronunciation can vary from country to country, region to region, town to town, even neighborhood to neighborhood. But whatever your vowel pronunciations, whenever you use diphthongs, hidden assonance will come into play. Just use your ears. You’ll hear it.

First, there are the straightforward diphthongs,

oi (as in boy) = long o (as in go) + long ē (as in me)

ou (as in couch) = ä (as in papa) + long ū (as in too)

Some of the long vowels are actually diphthongs too. Take the long a (as in lay) for example. It’s a combination of short ě (as in end) and long ē (as in me). Go ahead, say lay slowly a few times.

l ě ē

See how it works here:

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

Now say jet and lay slowly. Listen. Can you hear the short ě in jet echo the short ě in lay?

j ě t l ě ē

Pretty neat.

Like long a, long o (as in go) is a diphthong, containing two distinct sounds – short ŏ (as in hot) plus long ū (as in too). As you’ve seen, in

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

there are two long o sounds, those and alone. Both contain ū (as in “too”). Now listen to the vowel sounds in down, the more straightforward diphthong. It contains ä (as in papa) plus ū (as in too). So in

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

you can hear the long ū connecting those, down and alone. Voice leading. Slow them down and listen:

those = th ŏ ū se down =d ä ū n alone = al ŏ ū ne

All three share the long ū in common!

Another one. You know that the long a in lay is a combination of short e (as in end), and long ē (as in me). Now look at the long i in nights. It’s a combination of ä (as in “papa”) and long ē (as in me). So both lay and nights share long ē, connecting them with the obvious long ē of gimme!

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

Again, slow them down and listen. Notice the hidden assonance – the connection between one of the sounds in the more complex diphthongs:

Gimm ē lay = l e ē nights = n ä ē ghts

There’s one more, which you’ve probably already noticed. Since the vowel sounds in down contain ä (as in papa) plus ū (as in too) and the long i in nights combines ä (as in papa) and long ē (as in me), it’s hard to miss that they both share ä:

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

down =d ä ū n nights = n ä ē ghts

Slow them down and listen. Easy to hear now, isn’t it.

Hidden assonance may seem pretty subtle, but it’s no more subtle than the repetition of common tones in complex musical chords, an ordinary feature of musical voice leading. It’s a real thing. Musicians use it all the time. Lyricists can do it too, using the voice leading techniques available in hidden assonance. It adds yet another layer to the sonic fabric of a line. All of it created by vowel connections.

Now, let’s turn our attention to consonant sounds.

Alliteration

Here’s the most common understanding of alliteration:

The occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words.

Look at the alliteration of the b sound:

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

And the l sound:

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

Pretty neat. Another layer kitted into our sonic fabric.

So is that it? Does that exhaust the layers in Mayer’s line? Nope. Not even close. As we did when we talked about hidden assonance, it’s possible to extend the concept of alliteration, treating it like the musical concept of voice-leading,

…where each musical note transitions to the next in a smooth, harmonious way, moving as few notes as few steps as possible and thus often retaining common tones.

Using this idea, we can talk about repetition of consonant sounds not only at the beginnings of words, but also inside words (medial alliteration) and at the ends of words (terminal alliteration).

First, find the k sounds in:

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

Yup.

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

Now, find the n sounds:

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

Right:

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

Knit. Knit. Knit.

We could stop here and convince ourselves that we’ve gotten to the core of the line – that we’ve discovered why it’s so attractive sonically. And we’d be nearly right.

But there’s yet another layer of discovery, based on the work of the legendary literary critic Kenneth Burke from his ground-breaking work in his essay On Musicality in Verse. He calls it concealed alliteration.

 

Concealed Alliteration

Burke divides consonants into families, governed by where you place your tongue to produce the consonant sound. He recognizes three families: the M family, the N family and the Ng family. Say each one and notice the position of your tongue.

M is formed by closing your lips and flattening your tongue, forcing the air column into your nasal passages, but including your mouth as a resonating chamber.

N is formed by raising the tip of your tongue to your hard palate, again forcing the air column through your nasal passages, but this time including the back portion of your mouth as an attenuated resonating chamber.

Ng (as in “sing”) touches the middle of your tongue to your soft palate (velum), again forcing the air column through your nose, but this time excluding your mouth from acting as a resonating chamber.

Let’s work first with N, where you raise the tip of your tongue to your hard palate. What other consonants use this tongue position? Work your way through the alphabet and find them. I’ll wait.

Interesting, huh? Here is N’s family, listed from closer relatives to more distant cousins.

 

N

d

t

j

ch

l

 

Say the word down and notice what your tongue does at the beginning and end. Do you feel your tongue touching your hard palate twice? That’s concealed alliteration, created here by the repetition of the N position in the d and n of down. Pretty cool.

Take your time and find the members of N’s family in our line:

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

I found j, t, l, d, and n.

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

Say the line a few times, paying attention only to the times your tongue touches your hard palate. You can both hear and feel the connections created by the members of the N family. A pretty tight-knit bunch.

Now look for M’s family. Lips coming together, flat tongue. I’ll wait.

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

Yup:

 

M

b

p

 

There are a few other distant cousins, but these will do. Now find M’s family, the concealed alliterations, in our line:

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

I got:

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

Of course the b connection was already apparent as simple alliteration, but it’s nice to invite m to the party too. Say the line a few times and pay attention to your lips.

Nice.

Finally, Ng’s family, which touches the middle of your tongue to your soft palate (velum). Again, go through the alphabet and locate those consonants that position you tongue in the Ng position. I’ll be patient.

Yup, g and k.

Now find members of Ng’s family in our line.

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

Say the line a few times, concentration only on where you raise the middle of your tongue to your velum.

Of course you noticed k, which we found in our search for alliteration. But it’s nice to invite g to the party too:

Gimme those jet black kick back lay down nights alone

That pretty much does it. We’ve pretty much seen all the strands in this lovely fabric of sound. It may seem like a long journey just to understand one line, but by now you should have a pretty clear understanding of what makes this line so remarkable. Not only does it say something interesting by creating a complex and attractive metaphor, but it underscores the words by knitting an ingenious fabric of sound, weaving the ideas into a unified whole. Brilliant.

Of course it’s one thing to be able to analyze a line for its sonic fabric, and quite another to create a sonic fabric deliberately and consciously. Whether John Mayer composed this lovely sonic fabric fully aware of the choices he was making, or whether it “just came out that way” makes little difference. It’s still this complex blending of sound and meaning that makes his line work so well. Whether or not he did it on purpose, you can.

Creating a strong sonic fabric takes focus and practice. In my 2nd edition of Songwriting: Essential Guide To Rhyming: A Step-by Step Guide to Better Rhyming for Songwriters and Poets, you’ll find plenty of exercises to improve your knitting skills. Exercises not only for rhyme and rhyme types, but also exercises to help you create the more remote elements of your sonic fabric, including hidden assonance, concealed alliteration and even a new concept, family assonance.

In the meantime, listen carefully, have fun, and most of all, write fearlessly.

Pat Pattison

 

Also, watch this YouTube video about Pat Pattison's book:

 

 

Pat Pattison is a professor at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches lyric writing and poetry. In addition to his four books, Songwriting Without Boundaries (Penguin, Random House), Writing Better Lyrics (Penguin, Random House), The Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure (Berklee Press), and The Essential Guide to Rhyming (Berklee Press), Pat has developed five online courses for Berklee Online: three on lyric writing, one on poetry, and one on creative writing, all available through online.berklee.edu. His filmed series of lectures for Coursera.org has over 1,600,000 students enrolled to date. Pat has written over fifty articles for various magazines and blogs and has chapters in both The Poetics of American Song Lyrics (University Press of Mississippi) and the Handbook on Creative Writing (Edinburgh University Press). He
continues to present songwriting clinics across the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. Pat’s students include multiple Grammy-winner Gillian Welch, John Mayer, Tom Hambridge, and Joelle James; Artists Karmin, American Authors, Liz Longley, and Charlie Worsham; Hit writers Amy Allen, Justin Tranter, Greg Becker and many, many more.

https://www.patpattison.com/

 

For information on the 25th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: https://www.songwriting.net

 
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Tags: songwriter, song writer, song write, Song writing, Chorus, Songwriting, Berklee, songwrite, Pat Pattison, Berklee College of Music, Rewrite, Alliteration, Assonance, Hidden Assonance, Proisody, Concealed Alliteration

How to Write Lyrics: 8 Tips to Inspire Your Meaning

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Mon, Feb 03, 2020 @12:03 PM

by Steve Lipman

songwriting2

A painting is composed of shapes and colors, arranged in such a way to create a cohesive picture for the viewer. Painters become better with practice by showcasing their art and developing a personal creative process - most of the time. Sometimes, inspiration works in mysterious ways.

A song is very similar to a visual masterpiece. Each sound, phrase, and word - arranged in just the right order - elicits an emotional or intellectual response from the listener. A song is an intangible creation, built of many parts to achieve a myriad of effects.

Just as the visual artist might dive into the world of their craft, songwriters and lyricists are well-served by doing the same. Great lyrical songs touch their listeners by combining the impact of their words with the emotional power of its music. That’s why I suggest you ask the following questions about the song you are trying to write.

 

  1. What Do You Want to Say?

Painters often take time to visualize their work before the brush hits the canvas. Developing a guiding statement for your lyrics - what they want to say - keeps your message top of mind as you work. The question is: What is the subject of my song?

 

  1. Who Are You Writing To?

The listener may be the person you are addressing in your song. It could be someone else - someone who broke your heart or stole it. Or, it could be a series of rallying statements for the world at-large. Regardless, a song always speaks to someone or something.

Understanding who the song is speaking to gives lyricists direction with the finer details of writing such as tone, character, and point of view.

 

  1. How Do You Want to Say It?

What’s the emotion behind your message? Is it an aggressive call-to-action? Or, a sweet tune for the love of your life? Just as there’s a difference in what we might say to someone we’re mad or happy with, the emotional and psychological origins of your message should come out in your writing.

 

  1. Now What’s the Right Word?

Next, you need to think about the lyrics (words) in your song. Again, who is speaking them, and to whom, will help you determine how the lyrics are heard.

The right words put the listener exactly where you want them. Great lyrics convey a message effectively when they are embodied by the music. A song should feel like a complete experience, meaning that everything that needs to be said finds itself in your lyrics.

Finding the right words is tough. Sometimes, such as in the case with Led Zeppelin’s “Rock n’ Roll,” a song can be completed in 15 minutes in the studio and get slapped onto an album.

On the other hand, Bob Dylan always said his song, “Tangled Up in Blue” took him “a decade to live, and two years to write.” Crafting great lyrics often takes care, patience, and time.

 

  1. How long does it take to write a song?

It could be somewhere between 15 minutes to a lifetime. Some songs are started but never finished. Sometimes the unfinished song is telling you that you don’t know enough about the subject you are writing about. And, sometimes, the passion behind the song dissipates. My advice is to write a song until you can’t write it any more. The song will let you know when it is completed. Learn from it and move on to the next song.

It’s what made “Tangled Up in Blue” take two years to write, and “Rock N’ Roll” take 15 minutes. If your song feels complete, it is. If it doesn’t feel complete, then it needs more work.

 

  1. The Next One will Always be Better

According to veteran songwriting coach Randy Klein, writing a great song requires drawing from past experiences.

Each song you attempt to create is a demonstration of your understanding of song craft, and of your ability to draft lyrics that make an impact. As you work on your current piece, it’s always helpful to reference past pieces and utilize the lessons you learned from their creation.

 

  1. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Many songwriters forget there is a lot of power in the rewrite.

Perhaps one of the most effective ways of battling writer’s block - what many people may call “hitting the wall” - is by taking a different approach. More often than not, the first draft of a song is a collection of ideas which should be considered temporary.

Rewrites allow you to explore a different direction with your song, while using elements already created to guide the way. Many songwriters are completely surprised by what comes out of them during the rewriting process.

 

  1. Test Your Audience

If you’re inspired to write a song, it means you want to communicate something to someone else. Having a sample of who that “someone else” is may be invaluable to your editing process.

 

A phrase may resonate with us because it comes from within. Yet, it’s not uncommon for something meaningful to us to fall on someone else’s deaf ears. That’s why workshopping your lyrics with trusted listeners can inspire valuable revisions, or tell you the song is on the wrong track altogether. In this instance, remaining humble is key.

 

In the end, it’s your voice.

You may be sitting there asking yourself, “Does every songwriter incorporate each of these eight steps into their songwriting?”

The answer to that is absolutely not. Just like any form of art, songwriting is a personal journey, the success of which is most clearly determined by whether you’re happy with the finished product.

Any songwriter who wants to get better at writing lyrics can use any number of these steps to help them along the way. You may also decide you want to study songwriting in college, or take the journey on your own.

Either way, it’s your words, your voice, and your message going into people’s ears. Treat each song like an individual experience, a singular journey to navigate - and remember to always enjoy the process just as much as the finished product.

 

Steve Lipman is founder of Inside Music Schools, a music school admissions consultancy based near Boston, MA. He has experience counseling aspiring professional musicians from performance and songwriting to music production and music business. Having spent more than 40 years at Berklee College of Music as Director of Admissions, Assistant Dean of Students, and as Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, he is one of the country’s leading experts on contemporary music education and college admissions.

 

For information on the 25th Annual USA Songwriting Competition, go to: https://www.songwriting.net

 
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Tags: songwriter, song writer, song write, Song writing, Chorus, Songwriting, Berklee, songwrite, Berklee College of Music, Rewrite, visualize, Steve Lipman

Songwriting & Lyric Writing Tip: Prosody

Posted by Jessica Brandon on Thu, May 05, 2011 @05:07 PM

Prosody

by Pat Pattison

 
Pat Pattison, Songwriting Professor

Songs are your best teachers. I try to learn something from every song I hear. I try to see what's working, and why where the song connects with me where it makes me feel something. Then I look under the hood to see how it was put together, to extract tools that I can pass on to my students. I¹ve found great advice for writing in Aristotle's Poetics, where he says that every great work of art displays the same quality: Unity. Everything works together, everything in the work belongs and serves the purpose of the work.

songwritingpic

Aristotle's may have been the first statement of Prosody: appropriate relationship between elements, whatever they may be: melody and words, chords and message, rhyme scheme and emotion, and many others. This has become the guiding principle in all my writing and teaching. In Leonard Bernstein's brilliant lecture series at Harvard in 1973, "The Unanswered Question," he shows how both music and poetry use the same fundamental principles. True indeed, for all the arts -- they are all fundamentally the same, just having different avenues of expression. Painting is different than song, but at the deepest level, they all use the same principles: tension/resolution, symmetry/asymmetry, etc. This has allowed me to teach poetry to musicians, using a language they know and love to explain how poems work: counter-pointing, rhythm, syncopation; constructing tonic, subdominant or dominant functions at the ends of lines.

They get it instantly, and it allows them to look at the other arts the same way. Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter and Poetic Form is a marvelous book, especially chapter three where he talks about poetic use of rhythm, and the emotional effects of various syncopations within a line of metered poetry. The relationship between lyric and melody works in the same way. The combined effect of the three works creates compelling reasons to have a huge toolbox to draw from, and to select and use these tools in support of the central idea of your song: its number of lines, lengths of lines, rhythm and phrasing of lines, rhyme scheme, and rhyme types. The structure you create acts as a film score would adding additional emotion to the message, even controlling how the listener perceives it.

Looking at writing through the eye glasses of Prosody focuses everything. It keeps the message and emotion central, and organizes the elements of structure to support them. I've learned a lot by reading and paying attention tot songs, and I've tried to pass those ideas along in my book Writing Better Lyrics, now in its second edition.

Pat Pattison is a professor at the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA, USA. For more information on the USA Songwriting Competition, go to: http://www.songwriting.net

Tags: songwriter, song writer, Song writing, Prosody, Lyrics, Pat Pattison, Paul Fussell, Berklee College of Music, Harvard, Leonard Bernstein, Songwriting Coach