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!

The Secrets of Successful Collaboration

Reposting here a short article I wrote for ASCAP a while ago, with some thoughts and musings about successful collaborations, and some of the transformations that can happen in the process…

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SECRETS OF SUCCESSFUL COLLABORATIONS

Creative collaboration is very much like dating. I can’t think of any other experience that comes close to the strange alchemy that either happens, or doesn’t. Everyone has that person in their life, someone you really admired and were absolutely sure if they just returned the admiration that you would dance, heel-clicking, off into the horizon…only to discover that your dream came half-true. You DID get close to that person, and found out that they only brush their teeth twice a week. Or yell at their mother. Or give you dirty looks when you eat meat. The idea of what you think your partnership will be doesn’t turn out to have the right chemistry even though you were sure it would. Well, creative collaboration is very similar, and also similar in the way that you get better at predicting success, knowing what to look for, being totally fine when it doesn’t work out, and counting your lucky stars when it does.

The article continues here: ASCAP

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.