Can you really teach someone to write better songs?

I so often get asked whether it’s really possible to teach someone how to write a song. There still seems to be a mysterious veil of magic and witchcraft about it, that is very fuelled by interviews with songwriters talking about channeling the muse.

It turns out that songwriting is really like anything else. You can name the parts and elements, see how people have used them in the past, and use that vocabulary to understand how songwriters are currently using and innovating on those elements, as well as possibilities for other innovations. The same is true in visual art, design, creative writing…and there appears to be no cultural attachment to the idea of the muse—or pure inspiration—as the singular route for successful creation in those domains. And yet, somehow (sigh), it persists in the realm of songwriting.

I thought I’d offer a glimpse into the inside of the songwriting classroom. This is an exercise I posted for my Songwriting Workshop group at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Open Academy recently. We had a lengthy discussion about the importance of reflecting a lyric’s natural syllabic stress pattern in the melody. Melody—like language—has strong and weak beats, and if we don’t match the pattern between lyric and melody, whacky (and generally yuck) things start to happen. At best, you get Katy Perry’s unCONdiTIONallY. At worst, you start to erode the intelligibility, and therefore emotional resonance of your song. Lyrics become wallpaper. And in my experience, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy in the life of the songwriter: if you believe lyrics are mere wallpaper, you will write lyrics that end up as wallpaper. But as soon as you believe that people might listen to and care about lyrics, you suddenly start writing lyrics that people listen to and care about. Part of this is making sure they can be understood, and that they are conveyed with the full force of expression and emotion, which in English, is conveyed by patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables.

So this Songwriting Assignment first sets out to take a lyric, and set it melody, taking care to set the lyric to a melody that retains that natural pattern.

Secondly, the task here then hones in on 3 melodic tools for creating contrast between sections, ensuring that when you move to the Chorus, it will be felt emotionally.

Without further ado…

You can grab a lyric to work with by heading over to the YouTube channel here—it’s posted in the description under the video. And yes, please subscribe to the channel!

Songwriters on songwriting

I’ve been baffled lately that there aren’t more songwriters in the world who write about writing. Luckily, there are centuries worth of novelists, essayists, and other author types who have written so lucidly and honestly about the craft of writing, its messiness, its need for discipline. (Some of my favourites are On Writing by Stephen King, Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman, and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.)

There is, of course, the classic ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’, which I dip into a few times a year, and has given me almost a decade of interesting insights. With that said, it also reveals the ways in which songwriters are much more oblivious to their craft than their counterparts in prose or poetry. There are so many references to being a ‘channel to the muse’ that it makes my muse want to shrivel up and take up chain-smoking.

With all of that said, there have a been two delightful books that came out in 2020 that are, I hope, forging a more honest and fertile ground for other songwriters to share the details of their practice.

One is ‘How to Write One Song’, by Jeff Tweedy (which I discovered reading Austin Kleon’s blog, one of my faves).

I loved, and tried, his ‘word ladder’ exercise, which reminds me a lot of Pat Pattison’s metaphor collision exercises. The exercise basically involves having a column of nouns that are drawn from one area/field/room, and another column of verbs that are drawn from something totally unrelated. What I like about Tweedy’s version is the sense of freedom and experimentation in how to simply mix and match, with a loose brain:

“…take a pencil and draw lines to connect nouns and verbs that don’t normallyw ork together. I like to use this exercise not so much to generate a set of lyrics but to remind myself how much fun I can have with words when I’m not concerning myself with meaning or judging my poetic abilities.”

My go at the word ladder!

The exercises are fun, creative, and specific. But the real gems in here are the stellar insights into the creative process:

“One of the reasons I advocate so strongly for maintaining some creative pursuits in life is my belief that not knowing exactly how something like a finished song comes together creates an incredible magical feeling that always leaves me satisfied and full of wonder. There’s really no exact way to do it—it’s not like putting together IKEA furniture. It’s just about getting started on the right path.”

What I love about the book is that Tweedy is all about the wonder, but also about the nitty gritty of HOW you go about putting yourself on that path. I’m so glad he wrote it.

The other book that came out this year is Anais Mitchell’s ‘Working On a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown’, but more about that later…!

Sonnet – Zen and the Pizza Delivery Guy

I teach a poetry class for Berklee Online. The course culminates in the writing of a sonnet. I’ve always loved the sonnet form. That tight little couplet at the end is like a bow on a birthday present.

In the week before the end of the class, just as lockdown was easing in Sydney around June 2020, I went with my family to a local pizza restaurant. As we waited at the table for our pizza to arrive (well, to be honest, it was only me waiting. My kids had taken an interest in the bathroom…), a delivery guy came into the restaurant to collect an order. I wrote this for him.

As dough began to bubble on its pyre,

Fior di latte melted languidly.

The waiter pointed out the oven’s fire,

And my two delighted children begged to see

The bathroom one more time. There’s no accounting

For the tastes of youth. From the open doors,

With music pulsing through the restaurant, in

arrived a delivery man; a pause.

He then began to dance with shuffling feet,

hands and fingers that twirled, sparkled and skipped.

My kids returned: “What are you smiling about?”

I could have said, “Delight, my dears, is wrapped

Inside surprise”—so wise, so clear, and true!

Instead, I said, “Oh, nothing. How’s the loo?”

Me, June 2020, pizza restaurant in Newtown, Sydney.

Lyric Writing Masterclass March 16 2020

Can songwriting actually be taught? Can your lyrics actually improve, or are you just born Bob Dylan?

Author Ann Patchett beautifully writes: “Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?” Great writers know that while we must always “leave room for the acts of the spirit” (as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it), that there are a set of tools, techniques, strategies, methods and ways of understanding language that can systematically improve how we express whatever we want to express.

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 9.45.43 amIn my lyric-writing life, there are a handful of very simply and incredibly effective techniques, that once learned, made my songwriting drastically improve. Within a few years of using them, I could count John Mayer and Pat Pattison as two of my mentors, and was on the Songwriting faculty at the Berklee College of Music. It has been my life mission since learning these to pass them on to others. I hope you’ll join me on Monday as I go deeply into the first of these transformative principles of great lyric writing.

Lyric Writing Masterclass—Monday March 16 6pm (Sydney AEDT)

Sign up here.

More info here.

Songwriting Workshop at the Sydney Conservatorium

Giving and receiving meaningful feedback on your creative work is probably the single most important thing to actually developing your practice and seeing your work improve.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson, who famously inspired the idea of the ’10 thousand hours rule’ for developing expert performance level at anything, cites ‘meaningful, specific, and detailed feedback’ as one of the most critical aspects to moving beyond the plateau that most people stop at in their creative practice.

In that spirit, the Songwriting Workshop that I teach at the Sydney Conservatorium Open Academy is centred around the combination of weekly projects that fine-tune specific aspects of the songwriting process, with detailed and personal feedback on song projects throughout the term. The next term starts October 14. You can find more information here, and here:

Hope to see you there!

Creativity as a physical act

At the beginning of this year, I joined the gym. Again. I was more optimistic about it this time, since both of my kids were now in daycare a few days a week, so I had a bit more time.

At the same time, I was actively working on songwriting projects with and for other artists and bands. Most are in genres that are not my natural comfort zone, so I decided to listen to playlists of music in those genres while working out.

And I had the most astounding experience:

All of my best and most creative ideas came to me while working out at the gym. There is a magical alchemy in the combination of listening to music, thinking about songwriting, and having oxygen pumping through my brain. There is also something going on with doing bilateral physical action that seems to connect and synthesize cognitive processes in a way that I don’t ever experience when I sit down at my desk, trying very diligently to “be creative.”

BonjourThis ‘surprise’ really shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. Tom Waits is often visited by ideas while driving—or rolling around near the garbage (listen at 40:00); the shower is good too. John Mayer once told a group of us at Berklee that he would get up and take a walk at the moment when he felt a surge of a great idea coming to him.

So the idea of it isn’t a surprise, but the very real experience of it is. And it has made all the difference for me in keeping me motivated to exercise. As a time-poor person (aren’t we all…), I have not been great at making time for exercise. But now, when I go to the gym, I’m not constantly trying to dissuade myself due to lack of time; but (usually) keen to go and get my best creative work done for the day.

photo credit: Fresh on the Net