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Paul Simon on Listening to the Critics

I don’t think it’s very good for a serious songwriter to pay attention to what critics say. It’s just too hard. And it’s not informative. They don’t know what they’re talking about. And can’t know what they’re talking about, by definition. Unless you write songs and make records, you just really can’t know what it’s about. A critic is not capable of distinguishing between a safe move that is executed, and an interesting mistake. An interesting mistake is by far the more valuable.

From ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’, by Paul Zollo.

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Song Starter: De-Tune Your Guitar

If you write on the guitar, try tuning the strings into an unfamiliar tuning. You will start hearing sounds you like rather than sounds that you might think are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I find doing this helpful, particularly when I start to get frustrated about doing the same thing over and over on the guitar, or too caught up in music theory. It gets me back into my creative right brain. If you play the piano, try picking up another instrument!

Specificity #1: Getting Specific About Ideas

Whether you are reading songwriting books, watching videos, going to workshops, in school, or paying close attention to excellent songwriters, you will eventually hear the same message again and again: MAKE YOUR LYRICS SPECIFIC.

This can be frustrating and confusing. At some point, you will write a song that you think is specific, only to be given feedback that it is ‘not detailed enough’. You might then right a song that is loaded with details, and told that it ‘isn’t universal enough’.

What’s going on? Part of what is going on is that there are DIFFERENT TYPES OF SPECIFICITY. The next few Insight Posts will take them one at a time. Today, let’s look at…

1. SPECIFICITY OF IDEAS

THE PROBLEM:

  • Your song is about many different ideas, or;
  • You are attempting to write ‘THE’ song about ‘regret’ (for example), that includes every sentiment or idea you have ever had about regret (or love, or travel, or growing old….).

THE SOLUTION:

  • Make a decision about the CENTRAL IDEA of your song. Decide what your song is about.
  • If your song is about ‘love’, which aspect of love is it about? Don’t make it about the full gambit or trajectory of winning to losing love. Pick one moment or aspect, and hone in all your ideas to bring that one CENTRAL IDEA into the spotlight.

Let’s use some pretend lyrics to put this into action.

EXAMPLE:

[Chorus]

Love is a drug that’ll hook you in

Love is a thief that will rob you blind

Love is book in a foreign language

With a meaning that’s hard to find

Here we have an interesting series of images and ideas, that are all somewhat ‘specific’. All the ideas are centered around the elusive nature of love, SO WHAT’S WRONG HERE? There are 3 (or even 4) separate ideas that are each competing for attention, without fully committing to one of them. Is it the addiction that you are focusing on? Is it the self-deception? Or is it the mystery? These are three separate songs! Once you decide which ONE you are writing about, you can focus into the details around the one specific aspect you are writing about.

[Revision]

Love is a thief that sneaks into your house

Steals your heart and robs you blind

Leaves you wondering what you even had in the start

Love is a thief in the night

NOW the idea is more specific because it is focused on ONE central idea.

TO DO: Take a look at a song you have written that you feel could use some revising. Have a look at your chorus (if it has one), and analyze how many different ideas are present in the chorus alone. See if you can revise it to focus on one, and make any other necessary revisions to your other sections.

Popular Themes in Songs for Film and TV

Songwriting is much like script writing in a lot of ways. Movies and TV shows always have a different set of characters, situations, tone and ambiance…but the reason that we watch them are for the developments and changes in characters, and most importantly for the relationships. A lot of the relationships involve chemistry, infatuation, coming together, growing apart, fear of loss, letting go, nostalgia….

Songs are very much the same thing – taking common and universal experiences and emotions, and using a unique and interesting set of characters, scenarios and timbre to express them. Luckily, the Film and TV market desperately needs music and songs to accompany the visual scenarios. At the Taxi Road Rally in November 2010, Robin Frederick, author of ‘Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film and TV’, enumerated some of the common themes for which Music Supervisors are constantly on the prowl:

Themes:

–       love relationships (all kinds; romantic relationships and all the stages involved in those; family love; friendship love)

–       becoming and individual (coming of age)

–       uncertainty

–       fear of letting go

–       discovery

–       conflict (frustration, anger, hurt, rebelliousness, helplessness)

–       good times and celebrations (joy, comfort, giving, sharing)

–       rebellion

–       isolation (nobody knows who I am)

Try using any one of these as a starting point for a song. Use the tools of Sense Writing to spend 10 minutes using one of these themes as your launch pad, and see what images, sounds, smells, tastes and visceral descriptions are conjured.

Listen to What People are Listening to

In 2008, I had a extraordinary experience of spending a week with John Mayer, working on tunes and at the end of the week taking a song into the studio and having Mayer produce it. I made a point of absorbing as much as I could during that week. It was visceral and obvious that Mayer has certain habits that contribute to his success.
The first habit I noticed is most likely one shared by many successful people: being prepared, doing your research, and knowing your audience – whatever it is. It was obvious that this permeates Mayer’s whole mode of existing. He has an incredibly broad vocabulary on popular music over the past 40 years. He referenced artists, bands and songs, could play most of what he was referencing, and was obviously literate in it, not in an academic way, but in the way of someone who has a ‘sticky curiosity’ – a genuine interest that is aggressive and passionate. He makes it his business to know EVERYDAY what is in the Top 20 – not to imitate by any means, but to know what the trends are. To know what people are listening to, no matter what you think of it. Ultimately you’ll have your tastes and preferences, whatever they are, but a good exercise as a musician and songwriter is to listen to everything (especially the popular stuff) and think to yourself: ‘What is one thing that is good about this? What’s one thing I would do differently? Why do people like this?’

No one is ever going to force you to write ‘Top 40’ music, but having an active curiosity about what people like and why they like it can help bridge the gap between your own authentic voice, and effectively communicating what you have to say to a listening audience.

Juicy Details

The first and most basic tool in your kit as a songwriter is your own completely unique perspective and experience of the world. Maybe you have thought ‘every song has already been written’, and it has! The universal themes of uncertainty, coming of age, love won and lost, rebellion, frustration, fear of letting go, discovery, conflict, isolation, celebration and ceremony continue to squeeze our little pink hearts and tickle our minds into reverie and action. The task of each songwriter is to imbue those universal experiences with the juicy details that make up your specific experience of them!

The best way to turn on you inner songwriter is an exercise I call Sense Writing. With Sense Writing, you will choose one image to concentrate your writing on. Once you have chosen your image, you will spend 10 minutes with your pen on the page describing this image and associations with the image. However, you will focus your writing on using your SENSES to describe it.

As songwriters, we are a special bunch who are blessed with not just five, but an alarming SEVEN senses with which to spin our word pictures! The SEVEN senses of the songwriter are:

Sight

Sound

Smell

Taste

Touch

Organic

Kinesthetic

Organic? Kinesthetic? Waaa….? I hear you ask…

The organic sense is the feeling and sensation you experience inside your body. When you are nervous or excited, this might be the shot of adrenalin that shoots like fireworks from your stomach to your throat. If you are drinking coffee, this might be the warm trickle that cascades down your throat, and puddles in the center of your stomach.

The kinesthetic sense is triggered anytime your perceptual relationship to the outside world is affected. This can be hard to grasp, and is best shown by examples. Some good examples might be dizziness or vertigo cause by heights – like when you are walking across a bridge and you look down between the slats at your feet. It might also be the dizziness you feel after a few glasses of wine, when you lay your head on a pillow and world starts to swim around you. It might also be when you are on a train looking out the window, and the external world seems to rush, like a horizontal waterfall, in a streaming shower of green and brown. Or even better – your kinesthetic sense goes wild when another train passes you by faster than the train you are on, and you all of a sudden get the sense that your train is travelling backwards!

DO IT NOW!

Sense writing should be no longer than 10 minutes. Do not stop writing! But do not write past 10 minutes! Sense Writing is a daily practice, and is best done in the morning.

Before you start, a good idea is to write the 7 senses at the top of your page, and make sure that you hit on as many as possible during the 10 minutes.

Here are some examples of images to get you going:

  • Objects: coffee cup; favorite t-shirt; couch; tree
  • People: teacher; doctor; dentist; chain smoker; professional dancer; actor on a stage
  • Places: airport; bus station; bed room; botanical gardens; circus
  • Moments: coming home at 3am; New Year’s Eve; my 7th birthday party

How to use Sense Writing

  • daily exercise – activate your inner writer.
  • mine your sense writing and collect your golden nuggets in a separate notebook.
  • when you have a song idea, sense write on objects, images, or people related to your idea.
  • when you have a section in a song, and you are looking for unique, interesting and vivid imagery for that section.