Tuesday, February 27, 2007

And the award goes to....

I was watching the Academy Awards last night. Amazing thing, I didn’t fall asleep and was actually inspired to write a song. The song that I wrote this morning is titled Bound for Great Things. Check it out in my Songs in Process section.

The main theme of the evening was gratitude and celebration. It may have just been that I’m tuned in after watching the movie the Secret, either way this had to be my chorus.

I built my verses based on some of the nominees and their inspiring stories:

- Forest Witaker talked about watching actors at the drive-in and how it started his dream.

- Jennifer Hudson was trashed by Simon on American Idol (see it on YouTube) only to be nominated for 4 Academy Awards. Actually Simon did her a favor, her performance last night showed how much she had grown since that time.

- Al Gore was acknowledged for his contributions in educating us on global warning. For me it’s rising from defeat to greatness.

- My last verse was that you don’t need to be on the screen to have greatness. “It’s what you do that makes your heart sing.”

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

A song a day

I've written four songs in four days. All could use more work, but I'm pretty happy with what came out. I spent between 1 and 2 hours on each song and each was written with a slightly different process. I've started a new category on my web site, "Song in Process." I'd welcome any feedback.

1) Don't Know What to Do - I had chords and melody in my head, but was drawing a blank on lyrics. I went to Mark's blog and in less than an hour, this song emerged.

2) Untitled 1 - I started with a drum track, then recorded the melody, next the chords and finally a counter melody. My goal was to start with a melody, before getting locked down by chords. Here's what emerged.

3) Medals out of the closet - Driving down the road, I came up with the lines, "took the medals out of the closet, forgiven but not forgotten. The next morning I wrote the story about a Vietnam vet who was finally coming to grips with his service. I'm going to explore this one further in a few weeks.

4) Saturday morning - I woke up this morning and started to play a few chords. It just fit a relaxed Saturday morning. I asked Julie for some ideas of what a lazy Saturday morning looked like and in 30 minutes the song was done.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Circle of Fifths demystified

I've often heard about the Circle of Fifths. I studied it many times but it's always been this abstract concept that I could never really grasp. Last week in a session with Ben Senterfit, the light bulb came on. In the last week I've developed scores of progression using it.

Here's the trick. Go to Ben's web site and print out his illustration of the Circle of Fifths. While your there check out his site and drop him a note to say thanks.

Step 1 - Go to the figure on the right for the key of C. Notice that the IV chord (F) is to the top left and the V chord (G) on the top right. Play a simple I IV I V progression ( C F C G). Go to the figure on the left and pick another note to start on. Play the same progression. You just played the same progression but in a different key.

Step 2 - On the right figure start on C, go to any of the chords on the bottom, then back to C. Try the same exercise, start on C, go to any of the bottom chords, then to the IV or V chord, and then back to C. All these chords are in the key of C so any combination should sound OK.

Step 3 - Apply the same steps above but flip the chart over by starting on the Am. For the I, IV, I, V the chords are Am, Dm, Am, Em. Your now playing in the relative minor of C.

Pretty fun. Now let's get a little more interesting.

Look at the chart on the left. We'll use the key of D for ease.

Step 1 - play D, G and repeat D, G (sounds good).
Step 2 - Play D, C, G (still sounds good, but you no longer feel in the key of D)
Step 3 - Play D, F, C, G ( little more dissident, "Old Man" by Neil Young)

The further you get away from the starting point, the more dissident it feels. Ben describes it as a rubber band, as you stretch it around the circle the more tension it adds, wanting to go back home.

I've had a lot of fun with this. My current favorite is G to Eb (way out there). I play,
G Eb/ G Eb/ G Eb D. Getting to the D, everything feels resolved.

Last step for tonight, changing keys. It's easiest to move between keys that are close to each other, like moving from the key of G to the key of C. Look first at the chords that are shared between the keys. Using the V chord for the transition is the most common way. For example:

John Prine in "Angels from Montgomery" moves from the key of G in the verses to the key of C in the chorus:
Verse G C G C/ G C D G// (the G is the V of C)
Chorus G F C G/// then back to G in the last line G C D G (The transition back to G happens in going to the D)

I've had a lot of fun moving between keys. My current favorite is moving from C to the key of Bb Starting in the key of C - go C, Am, Dm, F (the V of Bb) then to Bb by Gm, Bb, returning home by Bb F G (the V of C) then finally C. The progression I'm using looks like:

C Am Dm F // Gm Bb//F G C

This is lots of fun when you get it.

Let me know how you make out. If you have other ideas on how to use this, add a comment!

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Co-writing in cyberspace

Last night, I had this guitar melody in my head but couldn't think of any lyrics. In desparation I went to a fellow blogger's site, Mark, who I've had just posted the perfect lyrics. In the next hour, I recorded the song and sent it to him. It's still needs a lot of work, but it just demonstates the power of collaboration.

One thing that we did not do beforehand was come to an agreement on ownership. Luckily Mark is pretty cool and in a matter of seconds we agreed on 50:50. Of course, neither one of us think we're going to get rich on this song, however....

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Daine Warren - discipline of songwriting

The January/ February issue of American Songwriter has a series of articles on the Legends of Songwriting. Definitely worthy of checking out!

The first article I read was about Diane Warren. She has been nominated for 9 Grammy's, 6 Academy Awards, and 4 Golden Globes. The list of artists she's written for is a who's who of the music world.

A few points that jumped out at me are:

- The discipline - She gets to the office at 8:15 and writes throughout the day. She states, "In songwriting it's the mental muscles and musical muscles (that you need to work out), you have to constantly keep up the hard work. Sure there has to be inspiration, but a lot of it is just hard work."
- When she travels she has a keyboard put in her hotel room "because I have to work."
- In response to how does she define a great song, "Boy, you feel it, don't you?... It's the perfect balance or art, craft and emotion."

I typically play the guitar everyday, however, I write sporadically. This article reminds me of what it takes to be a successful songwriter.

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I've been receiving a lot of feedback lately on my site. I'm doing this for fun so thanks so much for the feedback and encouragement.

If you disagree with anything I say or have a different perspective, please add a comment. I'm still learning and would like to learn from you ....

Below are my favorite recent comments:
  • At last month songwriting group we had a new face. When we asked him how he heard about the group, he said he was looking at some guy named Jeff's blog. Jared you made my night. Also, your song was great. Keep coming back.
  • Amanda used some of my materials for a college class and wanted to know how to reference me. I know you will get an A.
  • Buddy stated, "I would just like to say that of all the songwriting pages I have looked at, yours has been the most helpful and useful. I have been playing guitar for about a year, and have just written my first song which is only about a minute long but I am excited about writing more and hopefully someday I can be good enough at it to have a few people sit around and listen to me." Buddy, congratulations on your first song. That's so cool! Send me an MP3 and I'll post it on my web site.
  • Mark wants to co-write. As soon as I get some time, you're on! I also enjoy your site, www.lyrichut.blogspot.com.
  • Anonymous said... I always find it slightly odd that people have this creativity v craft dilemma. To me, craft is nothing more than the grammar of songwriting... However, if you wish to share that musical language with others in a way that they can get, then you need to employ the grammar of a song - form, structure etc... more. Good comment. My challenge is I'm putting my energy into studying the craft, rather than creating. Also, some days I'd like to create a new language.

Thanks again and keep commenting!!!!!

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Friday, February 16, 2007

4 approaches to writing a song

I picked up the book, How to Write Songs on Guitar by Rikky Rooksby. The first section, even though very basic, helped me crystallize some thoughts.

His formula for a song is:

Song = lyrics + melody + harmony + rhythm

For myself, I've used the chord progression for the melody, harmony, and rhythm. Rikky defines the chord progression as harmony only. Ouch!

He then goes on give four different approaches to writing a song

1) Write the lyrics first then set to music. In this approach the lyrics set the mood for the music. They may suggest chords and a melody. You don't need to play an instrument to write lyrics. A frequent commenter on this blog, Mark, only writes lyrics and is looking for folks to add the music. Check out his site.

2) Start with the melody then add lyrics and chords. This is probably the least common approach. Julie is my melody person. Playing the a melody instrument (violin) it comes more naturally to her. We worte both College Years and Slow Down by starting with the melody. The lyrics came last. We're working on a new song that I started with some chords and Julie heard a melody. Unfortunately, the melody required me to change to some more difficult chords, but it sounds great. Next stop lyrics.

3) Start with the harmony (i.e. chord progression) - This is my most common approach and I assume for most other guitar players. It's really easy to string a few chords together and thing you have a song. The problem becomes that the chord progression can limit the melody, especially after you fall in love with a lick or two.

4) Start with a rhythm - Use a drum machine or keep a beat by clapping. To me the sense of rhythm, more than anything separates the quality of singer/songwriters. In general, this is the area that most need improvement on, myself included. (See my past postings on groove). One of my first really good songs was written on an airplane, by keeping time on my leg. Eventually I added the guitar. My daughter and I commonly use this approach in the car, we wrote Going to the River This Way.

In learning songwriting, I've spent the majority of my time on guitar progressions and lyrics, my weaker areas are melody and rhythm. Guess where I need to work???

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

First thought/ best thought

I've come to the realization that I'm a terrible rewriter. I can write a song, but then I'm done with it. After receiving comments, rarely do I go back and change anything substantial.

In talking with Ben Senterfit he told me about two 60's Beat poets, Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Both were renowned in their time. Kerowac wrote with the philosophy, first thought, best thought. Ginsberg on the other hand was write, rewrite, then rewrite again.

Both worked but for different reasons. The first thought, best thought concept lead to something free and loose, yet still rough around the edges. Very appealing the first time you hear it. The write and rewrite felt more polished, yet something you needed to savor, looking for the deeper messages.

In thinking about this, I'm very much along the lines of first thought, best though (or as my friends might say, first thought, only thought). I could use a cowriter to add that polish.

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Creativity in songwriting - the four stages of learning

I continue to ponder songwriting as a craft vs. creativity. Lately I've felt my creativity slip, while I learn more and more each day.

In teaching canoe instructors, I talk about the four stages of learning:
- Unconscious incompetent. Don't know and don't know that you don't know (i.e. totally clueless)
- Conscious incompetent - Know that you don't know
- Conscious competent - Can do if you really concentrate
- Unconscious competent - Can do without thinking about it

I think that pure creativity is highest during the first two stages. You don't know the rules, so you're constantly drawing outside the lines. You try things that the "experts" would never consider or had discounted from other's experience. The majority of times you fail, but occasionally you hit on a great novel idea. I've learned a lot in canoeing from those who never had a lesson, but just went out and survived. For that reason, I like hearing the songwriter, who developed their craft by themselves and is bringing it to the world for the first time. The majority need help, but occasionally...

For songwriting, I would classify myself in the third stage. I can write decent songs if I really think about it. Unfortunately, a lot of energy goes into thinking about it. I can get from point A to point B (the finished song) but am not gracefully. It also takes a ton of energy to do it right.

Where I really want to get is the fourth stage, unconscious competent, to go from point A to point B with ease and grace , to create songs without thinking about it. To date my best songs have been those that just flowed only took 2-3 hours to write from start to finish.

Unfortunately the only way to go from the third to fourth stage is practice and time. Yuk work...

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones - breaking the mold

Lately I've been thinking a lot about writing a good song vs. being creative. As I learn more about songwriting, there are ways that are proven to work and hundreds of songs have been written that way. There are also the rare few who have broken the mold and created something totally unique.

On Saturday night we saw Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. I had only heard their music in passing, so all that I was listening to was new. During the first few songs, I was looking unsuccessfully for the common songwriting components. By the second song I gave up and just started to enjoy the music. What I was listening to was unique, music that breaks the mold, yet is totally successful. For example, instead of a clear recognizable melody, there were themes. I wasn't humming any tunes as I walked out, instead, walked out with images. I also couldn't really decide how to classify the music, toward the end I decided it was a funky bluegrassy jazz. It seems the academy also has trouble with the classification, they were nominated for Grammys in contemporary jazz and pop/instrumental. Bela has the record for categories of Grammy nominations.

What I was most impressed with was the musicianship and innovation of the whole band. Each artist had recreated their craft. At times the base became a lead instrument and I could hear vocals coming from the base. The rhythm player, used a drum guitar and played traditional drums one handed, better than most with two hands. Sax, flute, and more was outstanding. And of course, Bela changed my concept of a banjo forever.

In a songwriting class I had taken with Wendy Woo, she had started out with "in songwriting there are no rules, just guidelines." Bela Fleck and the Flecktones proved that point and I'm grateful.

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