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Thread: Have tips for a songwriting course?

  1. #1
    Registered User Charlie Bernstein's Avatar
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    Default Have tips for a songwriting course?

    A friend and I are signed up to run a songwriting workshop this fall. All inclusive, with emphasis on words and structure. Knowledge of simple guitar chords will be helpful but not required.

    It'll be five two-hour sessions.

    Course title: Songcraft: Turning good song ideas into good songs.

    Do you have experience with songwriting workshops? Have any tips? Know any good exercises?

    Thanks!
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    I have no experience with songwriting workshops. I bought a couple songwriting books, Songwriting Without Boundaries and Writing Better Lyrics, both by Pat Pattison, who is a professor at Berklee College of Music.
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Simple 1,4,5 shiftable, fretboard, tone centre exercises and bass runs or two note arpeggios in G major?
    (Like alternating bass on guitar but showing the relationships on the fretboard).

    I know a lot of good songs, but canít remember many good words. Mostly unsurprising ideas. I think itís the melody that carries it.

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    Registered User Charlie Bernstein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Quote Originally Posted by Simon DS View Post
    . . . I think it’s the melody that carries it.
    Thanks!

    My friend and I both believe the magic is in the combination of words and music. When a song is good, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

    Different people have different strengths and interests and tastes, so we'll want to take them in the direction that's right for each of them.
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Quote Originally Posted by cfantx View Post
    I have no experience with songwriting workshops. I bought a couple songwriting books, Songwriting Without Boundaries and Writing Better Lyrics, both by Pat Pattison,W who is a professor at Berklee College of Music.
    Thanks!

    Can you describe any especially helpful exercises?
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Some of the material in the two books overlap. A lot of timed, sense-bound "Object" writing exercises.

    Example: Write for 5 minutes using an object (let's use 'Soft Bed' as an example) to get you started. You don't have to stay on the topic. Some were 10 mins, others just 90 seconds.
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Quote Originally Posted by cfantx View Post
    Some of the material in the two books overlap. A lot of timed, sense-bound "Object" writing exercises.

    Example: Write for 5 minutes using an object (let's use 'Soft Bed' as an example) to get you started. You don't have to stay on the topic. Some were 10 mins, others just 90 seconds.
    Cool! Thanks.
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Off the top of my head, I haven’t done this for a while.

    Start with an unblocking brain-storming, ‘...that’s a great idea, that’s a great idea..’ session, no judgements, no rationalisations, the more outrageous the better, ‘everything gets points/silence gets nothing’. Laughing gets points, standing up and sitting down gets points etc.

    Then you could get them to write out an emotion/chord progression map.

    Make them list about fifty of the daily-encountered common emotions, then go through a lot of two chord progressions asking which emotions you’d relate to which changes.

    eg. IV, V, IV, V, IV = listlessness? indecision? unrequited love? etc
    V, I,V, I= fulfillment, and...?
    I, IIm = ?

    Close eyes, list fifteen emotions in 30 seconds.

    Then there’s the Blues scale emotions...

    Then the daily-encountered hardships, write out a mind map connecting feelings. Try to get them to think of things you wouldn’t normally associate, but can associate because it’s a unique individual’s (strange) story. (You can make it neutral later).

    What does someone in the crowd want you to write your song about? Who? What are they like?
    Choose someone who doesn’t like you... etc

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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Quote Originally Posted by Simon DS View Post
    Off the top of my head, I haven’t done this for a while.

    Start with an unblocking brain-storming, ‘...that’s a great idea, that’s a great idea..’ session, no judgements, no rationalisations, the more outrageous the better, ‘everything gets points/silence gets nothing’. Laughing gets points, standing up and sitting down gets points etc.

    Then you could get them to write out an emotion/chord progression map.

    Make them list about fifty of the daily-encountered common emotions, then go through a lot of two chord progressions asking which emotions you’d relate to which changes.

    eg. IV, V, IV, V, IV = listlessness? indecision? unrequited love? etc
    V, I,V, I= fulfillment, and...?
    I, IIm = ?

    Close eyes, list fifteen emotions in 30 seconds.

    Then there’s the Blues scale emotions...

    Then the daily-encountered hardships, write out a mind map connecting feelings. Try to get them to think of things you wouldn’t normally associate, but can associate because it’s a unique individual’s (strange) story. (You can make it neutral later).

    What does someone in the crowd want you to write your song about? Who? What are they like?
    Choose someone who doesn’t like you... etc
    I like the way you think. Thanks!
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Quote Originally Posted by Simon DS View Post

    I know a lot of good songs, but can’t remember many good words. Mostly unsurprising ideas. I think it’s the melody that carries it.
    I know that many musicians aren't interested in words. And I think most musicians, song writers, and fans would agree "it's the melody that carries it." Still, Bob Dylan was "the voice of a generation," not the composer or musician of a generation. A great many fans of Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, John Prine, Buffy Ste-Marie, the Band, and a great many more listen to every word they sing.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Rhythm and timing are often what hook people into a song. When they move or dance to it you have them. That is all rhythm. How many songwriters even think about rhythm?

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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Quote Originally Posted by CarlM View Post
    Rhythm and timing are often what hook people into a song. When they move or dance to it you have them. That is all rhythm. How many songwriters even think about rhythm?
    All the songwriters I named in Post #10 had great rhythm, and I suspect that they thought about rhythm too. On the other hand, I don't remember anyone dancing to Bob Dylan who was certainly one of the most popular singers of the sixties, and who certainly had good rhythm. People talked about his lyrics far more than they talked about his tunes. My point is that if you're not interested in lyrics, don't assume no one else is.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Ranald, Bob Dylanís songs were rubbish. Just poetry with a solid rhythm, what is that?
    Hereís an example:


    https://youtu.be/WJ8GUwNaboo

    Canít dance to this stuff.

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  22. #14
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    But you can dance to a disco track. Plenty of rhythm there. Does that make it a good song?

    Rubbish.

    I think it's time to get back to helpful suggestions for Charlie. My biggest one is this:

    I once took a weekend seminar on how to successfully deal with writer's block. I was the only songwriter; most attendees were novelists or poets. That's not to say I couldn't relate to the problem and benefit from solutions, just that I was unique in that regard.

    Some of the techniques discussed have proven quite useful. The most important one is: write first, edit later. The instructor, Bernard Asbell (a fairly well-known biographer of FDR, among other achievements), had a technique he called "Freewrite." Basically, the idea is to just write whatever you're thinking, as freely as possible, and then sort out the form and structure later. Just get it out of your mind and onto paper and work on it later. This has helped me immensely over the years.

    Another technique was lists. Write a list of words associated with your theme, then use them to form sentences. For poetry (and songs), also write a list of words that rhyme with the theme. Sometimes when I've used this method, songs nearly write themselves.

    A good example is my song, "I Don't Mind Doing Dishes." I had the idea one day to write a country song about this mundane task (country has a long history of such things). I wrote a list of things I liked about doing dishes (yes, there are many) and a list of words that rhyme with "dishes," used a somewhat corny melody with a twist or two, and in ten minutes I had a song. Years of inspiration and ten minutes of work. It's the first song of mine my mother liked. Not too surprising - she was familiar with the subject matter, and it's pretty cute and funny.

    One last tip I've learned from this session - or possibly Lucinda Williams' example, as she uses it a lot - is: use nouns more than adjectives. Find words that convey the emotions or ideas you want to impart, rather than just saying "I feel this or that." This can produce imagery that resonates within others. A great example of this is her "I Envy The Wind." It conveys an intense yearning for her loved one without ever using the word "love."

    So, at the time I had this song called "Writer's Block," which had been bothering me for having been incomplete for years. Indeed, all I really had was the refrain, nearly shouting the title - which was a kind of release when frustrated with being unable to finish another song. I went home after Saturday's session, and thought I'd put what I'd learned to work. Within an hour I'd finished it! I was so impressed with this success that I decided I had to share it with the group the next day. I practiced it diligently for a good long while in order to perform it flawlessly. Everybody loved it. They got what I was talking about, even a couple of little in-jokes. Like "Wish I could tell you people/ What it is I want to say."

    Well, I hope this helps. I wish I could be more helpful with the musical side of the question. I find melodies and chords come easier for me. I have tunes running through my mind all the time; I often wake up with some idea, which I'll sing or play into my phone so I don't forget. That is, if I think it's any good. Some ideas are just not that good. But a lot of the time, a lyric will suggest a melody. I'm not sure how that works, but it's typical for me. The best songs are the ones where melody and lyrics appear together. That's pretty rare, and pretty wonderful. I'm not sure how to work that into a lesson, but it would be good to emphasize to your students that these two major elements should work together for a song to be successful. Many songs from the Tin Pan Alley and Swing eras are still popular today because of this sympathetic dynamic interaction. They should keep that in the back of their minds, at least.
    Last edited by journeybear; Jun-18-2022 at 8:27pm. Reason: just one more thing ...
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  24. #15
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Simon, I don't know if your remark is tongue in cheek or not, but many people including thousands of singers and musicians who recorded Dylan's songs would disagree. I'm not Dylan's number-one fan, but I think that, at best, he wrote great songs. My point though is that many people find lyrics important. I know that numerous pop songs have weak and obvious lyrics, but folks write books and dissertations about other songs and song writers. At one time, bookstores sold many books and magazines containing song lyrics without music. Now, many websites contain lyrics without music, often with a discussion of the meanings of those songs. Many musicians aren't oriented toward words, which is fine. In Joni Mitchell's biography, she said that Miles Davis's family told her after he died that Miles wouldn't collaborate with her because he didn't trust (or perhaps "like") words -- and I'm not going to challenge Miles. However, a great many people do pay attention to words in songs. During my teens, when I didn't play an instrument, I could sing whole albums (e.g., Sgt. Pepper, the "White Album," Ladies of The Canyon) from beginning to end, even without the record playing. I was quite aware of what the songwriters were saying. I also loved instrumental music, as well as many pop songs that were shallow but fun ("Surf City, here we come"). People react differently to the same things. I'm not arguing against the idea that if a song "has a good beat and it's easy to dance to," a great many people will "give it about a 78," no matter what the lyrics. Still, other people regard the words and music as working together to convey ideas or emotions. Some people going to a songwriting workshop may be interested in learning to express themselves verbally and musically rather than wanting to tag words onto a tune.

    To Charlie, I'm not a songwriter, however one singer/songwriter, whom I met as her career was rising, told me that her songs improved considerably after a mutual friend, a storyteller, advised her to "make pictures in her songs." Since then, I've noticed that a great many of the most popular songwriters use a great deal of visual imagery in their songs, including all the folks I've listed in Post #10. "Sgt/ Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is a "visual" feast from beginning to end. Paul Simon's songs have a similar quality, "The Boxer" for instance. Think about your favourite songs, and you'll likely find many more with the same picture-making quality.
    Last edited by Ranald; Jun-18-2022 at 9:03pm.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    I have and highly recommend every book on this list up to Writing Better Lyricss by Pat Pattison. I don't have first-hand experience with the others.

    https://library.mi.edu/songwriting/printmaterials
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    A friend of mine, who is a somewhat well known music instructor at places like Kaufmann Kamp and Wernick's Merlefest Camp tells a story about a lovely young singer songwriter type at an open mike. She gets up and performs one of her very meaningful, personal, introspective songs full of lyrics or something like that. And it continues.....interminably. Half the audience has gotten up to go outside. The rest are asleep. She finishes. There is a faint smattering of applause. She then says "And now for my next song...."

    That pretty much finished off the audience for anyone else who may have wanted to perform that night.

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  30. #18
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Sorry Ranald, I was thinking of the 1970’s (UK) when we’d provocatively say that something is rubbish, or use some other hyperbole to describe the opposite.
    Last edited by Simon DS; Jun-19-2022 at 3:22am.

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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Some songs have a timeless quality helped by good melody and structure and words that merely sketch in some evocative details, leaving the listener to fill in the rest.
    You don't get so bored with repetition because they don't over-describe.

    I'm thinking of Jimmy Webb's songs for Glenn Campbell, particularly Wichita Lineman which keeps getting rediscovered by young people.

    That's a high bar to set for a workshop, I guess.

    Dylan mostly goes the other way but has produced some exercises in spareness, notably John Wesley Harding.

    Like other great songwriters, and composers, his goal seems to be transcendence - to take the listener's mind somewhere else.
    Bren

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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Often with words a statement is made (or a set up line, two statement lines and a response line per verse).
    For example:

    1 I met a lot of girls in my time
    2 they were like this
    3 they would like that
    4 but she was very different, oh yeah!

    Then the melodic phrases tell the same story, minor chords at end of 2 and 3.
    Oh, yeah!

    This response can also be mimicked with following harmony lines.
    During the instrumental harmonised solo ppl will subconsciously construct the story which is repeated in musical form.

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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Quote Originally Posted by Ranald View Post
    I know that many musicians aren't interested in words. And I think most musicians, song writers, and fans would agree "it's the melody that carries it." Still, Bob Dylan was "the voice of a generation," not the composer or musician of a generation. A great many fans of Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, John Prine, Buffy Ste-Marie, the Band, and a great many more listen to every word they sing.
    I'm a words-come-first guy. I hate songs with bad (in my opinion) lyrics and am annoyed when I can't make out the words.

    But it's the way words and music come together that make or break a song — even a Dylan song.
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Quote Originally Posted by Charlie Bernstein View Post
    I'm a words-come-first guy. I hate songs with bad (in my opinion) lyrics and am annoyed when I can't make out the words.

    But it's the way words and music come together that make or break a song — even a Dylan song.
    You'll get no argument from me!
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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  40. #23
    Registered User Charlie Bernstein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Quote Originally Posted by Simon DS View Post
    Ranald, Bob Dylan’s songs were rubbish. Just poetry with a solid rhythm, what is that?
    . . . Can’t dance to this stuff.
    Valid. I love that tune, and Deadheads have been dancing to it for years. But you're right, it's not a dance beat. It wasn't written for discos or raves. Not all songs are. That's the writer's choice.

    As long as it's a conscious choice, that's fine. If Dylan came to our class and said he was happy with one of his tune's lyrics but he wanted to make it more danceable, we'd happily help with that.

    Our class won't tell people what music to like or what artists to emulate. We'll ask them whose music they like and emulate — and why — and help them go in their chosen directions, whether it's Dylan, Nick Cave, Beyonce, or Ellington.
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    Registered User Charlie Bernstein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Have tips for a songwriting course?

    Quote Originally Posted by CarlM View Post
    . . . How many songwriters even think about rhythm?
    Interesting question. We can't poll the world of people who write songs to ask them. But certainly every successful songwriter takes rhythm seriously.
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    Quote Originally Posted by journeybear View Post
    But you can dance to a disco track. Plenty of rhythm there. Does that make it a good song?

    Rubbish.

    I think it's time to get back to helpful suggestions for Charlie. My biggest one is this:

    I once took a weekend seminar on how to successfully deal with writer's block. I was the only songwriter; most attendees were novelists or poets. That's not to say I couldn't relate to the problem and benefit from solutions, just that I was unique in that regard.

    Some of the techniques discussed have proven quite useful. The most important one is: write first, edit later. The instructor, Bernard Asbell (a fairly well-known biographer of FDR, among other achievements), had a technique he called "Freewrite." Basically, the idea is to just write whatever you're thinking, as freely as possible, and then sort out the form and structure later. Just get it out of your mind and onto paper and work on it later. This has helped me immensely over the years.

    Another technique was lists. Write a list of words associated with your theme, then use them to form sentences. For poetry (and songs), also write a list of words that rhyme with the theme. Sometimes when I've used this method, songs nearly write themselves.

    A good example is my song, "I Don't Mind Doing Dishes." I had the idea one day to write a country song about this mundane task (country has a long history of such things). I wrote a list of things I liked about doing dishes (yes, there are many) and a list of words that rhyme with "dishes," used a somewhat corny melody with a twist or two, and in ten minutes I had a song. Years of inspiration and ten minutes of work. It's the first song of mine my mother liked. Not too surprising - she was familiar with the subject matter, and it's pretty cute and funny.

    One last tip I've learned from this session - or possibly Lucinda Williams' example, as she uses it a lot - is: use nouns more than adjectives. Find words that convey the emotions or ideas you want to impart, rather than just saying "I feel this or that." This can produce imagery that resonates within others. A great example of this is her "I Envy The Wind." It conveys an intense yearning for her loved one without ever using the word "love."

    So, at the time I had this song called "Writer's Block," which had been bothering me for having been incomplete for years. Indeed, all I really had was the refrain, nearly shouting the title - which was a kind of release when frustrated with being unable to finish another song. I went home after Saturday's session, and thought I'd put what I'd learned to work. Within an hour I'd finished it! I was so impressed with this success that I decided I had to share it with the group the next day. I practiced it diligently for a good long while in order to perform it flawlessly. Everybody loved it. They got what I was talking about, even a couple of little in-jokes. Like "Wish I could tell you people/ What it is I want to say."

    Well, I hope this helps. I wish I could be more helpful with the musical side of the question. I find melodies and chords come easier for me. I have tunes running through my mind all the time; I often wake up with some idea, which I'll sing or play into my phone so I don't forget. That is, if I think it's any good. Some ideas are just not that good. But a lot of the time, a lyric will suggest a melody. I'm not sure how that works, but it's typical for me. The best songs are the ones where melody and lyrics appear together. That's pretty rare, and pretty wonderful. I'm not sure how to work that into a lesson, but it would be good to emphasize to your students that these two major elements should work together for a song to be successful. Many songs from the Tin Pan Alley and Swing eras are still popular today because of this sympathetic dynamic interaction. They should keep that in the back of their minds, at least.
    Re rubbish: I'm not a disco fan, even if are a few disco hits I've enjoyed. But if any disco songwriter wannabees come to our class, we're not going to throw them out. We're going to help them ease on down their disco road.

    Your advice on writer's block is great. Duly noted. Thanks!

    I've been in a lot of classes that used freewriting. I didn't need it, but it did help some students. I'd forgotten about it, so thanks for that reminder.

    The lists idea is new to me. I like it.

    Re adjectives: I'm wary of them, too, but well-placed adjectives can be what makes a song. Without blue and dead, Tom Waits' "Never trust a man in a blue trenchcoat, never drive a car when you're dead" wouldn't be forever stuck in my head — or anybody else's.

    Having said that, I do agree students should understand the pitfalls of adjectives. More generally, they look for exactly the right word. The song I'm working on now is completely done — lyrics, chords, bridge, melody, everything — except whether to use gremlins or gargoyles. Gremlins flows slightly better, but more people know what gargoyles look like.

    Your last point is the most important and something we plan to stress: "a lot of the time, a lyric will suggest a melody." Lyrics and music work together to create a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

    Many thanks for the suggestions. Just the kind of tips I was fishing for.

    PS — And yes: "I wish I could tell you people / What it is I want to say" is a keeper!
    Gibson A-Junior snakehead (Keep on pluckin'!)

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