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  1. #1

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    Let me start right out with a disclaimer: I chose songwriting to discuss very much by design. I'm not an expert in orchestration; counterpoint and larger classical form; 'cell', 'artificial scale use or non-chordal writing; or African-derived rhythm/polyrhythm---though they certainly are subjects of interest to me and areas I intend to try to master. I do know a few things about writing songs (with lyrics) and GASB/Jazz/Pop type instrumentals, and have given myself wide berth for experimentation within those realms. I will therefore limit my observations about what works for me
    to those. And this is not a vanity thread: your input is welcome. Let's grow together.

    1. Melodic/Harmonic Architecture:

    In constructing melodies with supporting bass lines/harmonies, except where it would be effective, say, in blues or some rock forms; or parallel-type harmonic movement---avoid doubling the top melody voice in the bass. There are stronger options, like using contrary motion when possible, and generally really thinking out a complimentary bass and harmony line where the melody is supported by inner voice movement; 3rds or 5ths in the bass, and not unisons w/o a very good reason (like 'dramatic' emphasis).

    When using parallel movement doubling in the bass can be effective. I find it more effective to use 2nds or 5ths on top against the ascending or descending bass movement. Or pedal the bass while moving the melody and changes. Ex: in a song of mine, Not a Bad November, which had a lot of whole-step, chromatic, and II-V movement, I wanted to have contrast at the 'wrap-up' moment: a repeated vamp in instrumental melody against the lyric 'November'. I wanted to reduce the harmony to 'power chord' movement, to further isolate the section. So, in A Major, the sequence (link to a good demo directly below) was A2 G2/A F Maj 9#11/A (end of form). I was also careful to have a 2nds and 4ths tension on top:



    Pedals are a useful tool, when not overdone---just like anything else. Bill Evans used them effectively in both harmonizing and composing (Peri's Scope); Chris Anderson came up with the interesting spin of placing pedals on top. When the pedal breaks it has a feeling up build-up/release, so to have the pedal go on just long enough is critical.


    In Tom Harrell's beautiful early waltz Open Air, he has the melody/changes to the 1st 7 bars rub against an Ab pedal: Ab Maj 7 Gb/Ab G/Ab Db Maj 7/Ab. He breaks the pedal in bar 7 with another brief pedal: Bb min 7/C---then gets to the relative minor of F Min via a Gb 13. He uses the pedal device throughout the song, but never wears it out. And he never doubles the bass and lead:



    Role of Harmony:

    Here I fear I will get pushback, but remember: I'm talking mostly about songs in the GASB tradition. I know that jazz writing has changed and evolved; and great writers like Wayne Shorter (Allan Holdsworth fascinates me of late) create an environment and mood with harmony and unusual resolution or non-resolution of same. This is very effective for that kind of writing. In 'meat-and-potatoes' standard; Broadway; film or pop writing (the 'pop' admittedly a huge umbrella) generally melody and rhythm are the featured players. Harmony ought to be attractive but supportive. You might have trouble if the harmony is so dominant it steals the thunder of the melody and especially the lyric. No one's gonna whistle your changes, trust me. This may sound archaic, and maybe it is---but it works, and has for a long, long time.

    Balance of Ideas and Craft:

    'Cleverness' is quite the temptress. And writers should always lean toward their instincts---be they 'deep'; simple; loquacious or short and sweet. But after the creativity has poured out and written down or recorded is the time to rein in excess with craft. Stephen Sondheim has said 2 things I agree with: Writing is rewriting; and dull and smooth, rather than clever and awkward (remember, again, he's commenting on song, with lyrics---his chief concern). 'Cleverness' is when IMO the writer is too 'present', and may be showing off. What's good for the song, its 'character' and original intent, is what should rule---even if it means that your best ideas end up cut b/c they sound forced, or betray the intent by calling too much attention to themselves.

    But when this comes off as natural it can be a wonder to behold. Bacharach's rhythmic playfulness never sounds forced, but (in the words of Leonard Bernstein) 'fresh and inevitable'. Ex: in A House is Not a Home, bars 7-10 ('No one there to hold you tight, etc.) there is an against-the-meter rhythmic displacement that is nothing short of brilliant (and hard as hell to memorize!). He also actually changes meter for a few bars (as does Jobim), as in Do You Know the Way to Santa Fe. Again, it never sounds forced, but inevitable---and lifts the tune and lyric up w/o 'invading'.

    I think the key is: don't rush! It's easy---too easy---to let passion rule as it pours out. Let some time pass (as Benny Golson does and advises) and really vet that sucker. Yeah, favor the idea and feeling, but with sense and balance for the good of the piece.

    Lyrics:

    Maybe guitarists here who write are not that interested in lyrics per se, but it's still worth getting a handle on, if only as another discipline.

    Don't hide behind rhyme and alliteration or use them in place of a real idea. Wait instead. Rhyme; inner rhyme; prosody are great things, but can also be tricks of the professional hacks when that's all the lyric offers. A well-known lyricist team do this to distraction, thereby marring what could have been great songs. I understand the pressure of the deadline and big bucks involved at the high levels of the film or writing for name artists with looming projects. Still, it's not a reason to ruin a song with pretty or fancy words that supersede a good message or feeling---again this is a shallow kind of cleverness that draws attention to---and shows the sweat of---the writer, and away from the song.

    A common beginning lyricist mistake: 'going global' and not sticking to one theme. Think of a song as a one-act play, heard in real time. (A poem, per Sondheim, is read, not heard, therefore time may be taken to reread). If there are too many ideas and themes pouring out it will confuse and even turn off the listener. Every lyrical; rhythmic; melodic and harmonic brick is in place in a well-made song. There'll be plenty of other opportunities. Never discard anything. Save it for the next song.

    Generally, in pop writing near-rhyme is acceptable. It's a no-no in theater writing. (It amuses me that Jimmy Webb has beaten himself up for years over the near-rhyme in Wichita Lineman: Time/line. Give yourself a break, dear Jim! It worked, and its a wonderful song). Identities---rhyming a word with itself or its homonym---is generally frowned upon by quality songwriters. There's always a better solution. Be patient.

    Good books on lyric writing include: Tunesmith (Jimmy Webb)---which also covers melodic/harmonic/rhythmic construction, and very well; several by Sheila Davis; Songwriting: a Complete Guide to the Craft (Stephen Citron); Finishing the Hat (Stephen Sondheim). Sondheim is very bitchy and uber-critical of his peers---and even takes shots at mentor Oscar Hammerstein, so 'keep or sweep'. But know that he's practiced the craft successfully for 70 years (and saves the harshest barbs for himself).

    Ok, cats. That's my little summation. So study the 'rules', throw out what you consider BS by me---and get out there and break them!

    Happy writing!!
    Last edited by joelf; 05-04-2020 at 09:32 PM.

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  3. #2

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    Thanks for starting the thread, Joel.
    I fancy myself a songwriter and have given a lot of thought (and practice) to the craft over the years. Distracting weekend for me---nothing earth shaking but my mind's a jumble today---so "don't start me to talking" about this just yet. But I will follow this thread and contribute as it rolls along.

  4. #3

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    I love Leonard Cohen's line, "If I knew where the good songs came from, I'd go there more often."

  5. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by MarkRhodes
    I love Leonard Cohen's line, "If I knew where the good songs came from, I'd go there more often."
    Asked what made great composition as opposed to merely very good, Nadia Boulanger was unable to answer, except to say it was 'a mystery'.

    And that's the beauty part...

  6. #5

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    Quote Originally Posted by joelf

    A common beginning lyricist mistake: 'going global' and not sticking to one theme. Think of a song as a one-act play, heard in real time. (A poem, per Sondheim, is read, not heard, therefore time may be taken to reread). If there are too many ideas and themes pouring out it will confuse and even turn off the listener. Every lyrical; rhythmic; melodic and harmonic brick is in place in a well-made song. There'll be plenty of other opportunities. Never discard anything. Save it for the next song.
    I was thinking about this on my morning walk. I agree with 'sticking to one theme' but am not sure 'think of a song as a one-act play' is the best way to do this. I think it may be for some, and perhaps for all songwriters at one time or another. Some songwriters are thought of as storytellers while others tell a story now and again but write other ways as well. Consider Cole Porter, a remarkably witty guy. I think 'theme and variation' is a better way to think about such standards as "You're The Top,"
    "Anything Goes", "Brush Up Your Shakespeare", and even "I Get A Kick Out Of You."

    You're the National Gallery,
    You're Garbo's salary,
    You're cellophane!

    It doesn't get much wittier than that but it's not advancing the story because it's not a story, it's 'how many ways can I say you're the top?' (Which was a fine idea for song.)

    Irving Berlin was also funny and could take an idea expressed clearly at the beginning of a song ("Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better") and just, well, milk it for several chouruses. And that's some high quality milk! I think of his "Blue Skies" as more of a moment (or mood) than a story and that's suitable for a song because songs are short and suggestive.

    Or consider Lorenz Hart's "I'll Take Manhattan". It's a series of scenes-in-the-city that are connected---Mott Street, Delancey, and my my favorite, "We'll go to Coney and eat bologna...on a roll," which is my favorite description of a hot dog ever--but it's not a play or a story at all. Yet it's highly descriptive.

    I know you know this. I'm not arguing with you. But you've been at this a long time and are giving thoughtful advice to those new(er) to this craft and some might take 'one act play' too literally. Not all great songs tell a story or unfold like a story. Some people will gravitate toward that sort of writing but a lot of good songwriting can be of the theme-and-variation sort.

    Sometimes universal themes---marraige, family, separation, school, having a job you don't like, being in debt, drinking---allow songs to begin 'in medias res' and it's less about telling a story than suggesting 'we've all been there' (or, at least for the duration of the song we can put ourselves in that place).

    Morning thoughts, not a thesis. ;o)

  7. #6
    Mark: You're talking about Porter's venerable 'list songs'. They humorously go to naming many names or things---but they unify around one 'hook'---usually the title. Ex: Let's Do It. Everything from 'educated fleas' to who-all knows what else, but the theme of 'let's do it, let's fall in love' remains the main event.

    In the case of what are called 'conversational' lyricists (a designation I dislike and disagree with): Dylan; Joni Mitchell, etc., of course their more sprawling themes and verbiage have been given wider berth.

    I was talking about a traditional practice, perhaps formulaic---but always given as coin of the realm by songwriters of stature and experience---old-school for sure, but tried and true for that way of writing (thousands of songs done that way, for at least a century and 20 years).

    New forms rise as the Phoenix, though, and new rules will apply---once they're 'codified' and the art beaten to death (LOL---not really)...
    Last edited by joelf; 05-04-2020 at 09:34 PM.

  8. #7

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    Quote Originally Posted by joelf
    Mark: You're talking about Porter's venerable 'list songs'. They humorously go to naming many names or things---but they unify around one 'hook'---usually the title. Ex: Let's Do It. Everything from 'educated fleas to who-all knows what else, but the theme of 'let's do it, let's fall in love' remains the main event.
    Right. Homer put a "list song" in the Iliad (-the list of ships). Many good songs have been written that way, standards even.
    "Rhode Island is Famous For You" is another one like this and I LOVE that song. ("Pencils come from Pencil-vania, vests from Vest Virginia..." And yes, they are unified, as I said, but not a story, much less a one-act play. "My Favorite Things" is another song like this.

    Also, many pop songs can have, in a sense, 'generic lyrics'. I don't mean bad or lazy but rather lyrics that are not intended to tell one person's story so much as to describe a common event (such as going to the beach or 'a night on the town' or being in the Army or going to school). Think of Mercer's "GI Jive", Chuck Berry's "School Days", Allen Toussaint's "Workin' In The Coal Mine", Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons", "Under the Boardwalk", or Irving Berlin's "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee".

    Now Berry's song unfolds the way a schoolday does. (Chuck is a damned good writer.) Mercer's too. One might call this 'a day in the life' writing.

    Sticking with Mercer, "Moon River" draws a lot of its power from things the lyric never clarifies but rather assumes. (What is the river? Who is his huckleberry friend?) I think that's an incredibly good song but in a strong sense it's a song that works by assuming you already know a certain story by Mark Twain.

  9. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by MarkRhodes
    Also, many pop songs can have, in a sense, 'generic lyrics'. I don't mean bad or lazy but rather lyrics that are not intended to tell one person's story so much as to describe a common event...
    Universal is the word.

    I used to write lyrics and before that instrumentals inserting 'inside jokes': I'd put the word 'up' on an upbeat; use hidden quotes or partial quotes. I must've been quite taken with what I took to be my own 'cleverness'. Looking back, what arrogant snobbery!

    I had been writing lyrics for maybe 5 years---a baby, really---when I wrote most of a song called You're my Foundation in tribute to the Jazz Foundation of America, of whom I'd been a client (the PSA video of the song and story behind it---with a lot of big shots I've never met---has been posted here in 'Our Own Compositions'). Anyway, I wasn't crazy about my lyric. One night I heard Jimmy Norman (lyricist of Time is on My Side; collaborator with Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix; long time Coaster; and underground R & B legend---though I knew none of this. Hadn't even heard of him) being interviewed by Delphine Blue on WBAI. They were discussing his career and his new release, Little Pieces.

    Long story short: In the interview, Jimmy let on that he was a client of the JFA, and how they paid his medical bills and rent (as they had mine) and how volunteers checking in on him had found a heap of songs he'd forgotten he'd written---piled in a corner, forgotten. That's how the CD came about. I thought Jimmy would be the perfect collaborator to co-write my song, which was already in a Gospel vein, with a backbeat. I also figured it would be a hell of a press hook: 2 clients give back to the charity that helped them, etc. A winner. I approached Jimmy at his regular Saturday night gig at Roth's Steakhouse. Sat in, and floated my idea.

    We finished the song the November, 2008 night of Barack Obama's first election---results coming in on the TV as we worked. Can't make this stuff up! So I had shown him my lead and lyric sheet, and sounded him about the lyrical wall I felt I'd hit.

    That's when the learning started:

    I had the line 'You lift me up...' with 'up' on an upbeat.

    'Look, man. That's all well and good. But who's gonna get your inside jokes but you? What's the point? Are you writing for you only? Put something universal in there, if you want it to mean something to someone else'!!

    I learned a lot from Jimmy, but nothing more valuable than that: to make the personal universal in writing. Been trying to do that ever since---and it does not mean 'dumbing down' or writing down, but writing to. As a direct result, I'm now much more concerned than before with communicating with people playing. It's all connected.

    Universal, but not pandering or simplistic. It doesn't devalue the intellectual or artistic content of one's work one whit. The beauty part of art is that many things can coexist---one bolstering the others...
    Last edited by joelf; 05-05-2020 at 08:50 AM.

  10. #9
    And, Mark: Some songs---great ones---are downright surreal. What's the 'story' in I Am the Walrus? Is there one? Who cares? It takes us on such a wild 'image excursion' that form or focus doesn't seem to mean much. And in it's own weird way, it's also a 'list' song---images piling up fast, one after the other. Blue Jay Way, 'psychedelic' trappings notwithstanding, is a much more focused, traditional song.

    BTW, it amuses me to no end when armchair analysts 'probe' for what they take to be deep meaning in songs---that live only in their heads. 2 amusing anecdotes re Bob Dylan: 1. I met a former long-time roadie of his. Some wag was publicly averring as how Visions of Joanna was absolutely about the decline of the USA---because of X, Y, and Z in the song. Dylan chuckled to the roadie, and told him the song was about some people waiting for friends to show up at the house---period. 2. The infamous A.J. Weberman, who took to looking through Dylan's trash for spoons, needles---proof that Dylan was a junkie, b/c his lyrics 'confirmed' this wacky theory. (Weberman is such an interesting anti-hero that I myself wrote a story-lyric---as yet needing music---Dylan's Villain: The Ballad of A.J. Weberman).

    And the one-act play theory I embraced after reading the introduction to Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat. He delves into the difference between poetry, light verse, and song lyrics. What he was saying (and, agree or disagree, it's fascinating reading) in a nutshell: lyrics and music are mutually dependent: they need each other and give each other weight and support. A song is heard in real time, so there isn't time to parse meaning. So every lyrical and musical brick has to count, concision, no waste. The one theme concept I got from Sheila Davis's books. She was merely describing the common mistakes of even talented beginning songwriters, so enthused they can't stop themselves and end up writing 2 or more songs in one. That can overwhelm and confuse.

    Me, I'm at the stage of lyric writing I was long ago at guitar playing: still copying my heroes, and reading (and sometimes taking as gospel) all the 'experts', especially the ones really doing it (Webb and his book a prime example). But one's true voice ought to supersede all that, once one at least knows the ground rules. Anything goes, if artfully and skillfully presented. I try not to follow the rules so much anymore, don't over-rhyme as much, and have found a voice that uses humor, a returning to themes I really feel something for (tributes, lost youth for 2), and isn't 'afraid of the dark'. I'm evolving, and that's what matters...

  11. #10

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    Quote Originally Posted by joelf
    Universal is the word....
    Universal, but not pandering or simplistic. It doesn't devalue the intellectual or artistic content of one's work one whit. The beauty part of art is that many things can coexist---one bolstering the others...
    Yes, universal is the right word. Thanks. I'm all for that. I think this is where Irving Berlin excelled.

    It was a bit different for Cole Porter, who never came off as a regular guy or as one taking the 'everyman' point of view. Yet "Night and Day" and "Under My Skin" are great songs about yearning. I think yearning / obsession was Porter's great theme.

    I was talking with Frank (fep) earlier today and the subject of Steely Dan came up. We both like a lot of those Becker / Fagen songs. Not GASB material, though several Steely Dan / Donald Fagen numbers have found thier way into fakebooks used by jazz musicians, so it's a legit example at least of quality pop music songwriting. A lot of their lyrics are enigmatic----if there's a story, it's not clear what it is. They make a habit of 'inside jokes' and allusions to jazz musicains (Coltrane, Parker) and tunes "Relaxin' at the Camarillo", "Groovin' High," "Scrapple from the Apple"... And they've sold millions of records and people keep listening to stuff they put out in the early '70s, so it clearly works.

    Perhaps this did not happen as much in the '40s as it does now but there is an audience (and has been for 50 years) for songs where you aren't quite sure what's happening but are drawn in and get involved in a way you wouldn't if things were more on the nose.

    Leonard Cohen is like this too. He's never incoherent but you can listen to song like "Hallelujah" and hear things in it---things meaningful to you---that you were oblivious too five or fifteen or twenty-five years previously. As for "First We Take Manhattan," which I've loved since the first time I heard it, I have never been sure who "we" refers to. But I think that's a great song, a far greater song than, say, "I Got Rhythm", a song which has no more nuance to reveal on the tenth listen than on the first. (Not lyrically, I mean.) One might argue this is a weakness of much GASB lyric writing: it has to make full sense at first blush and the best way to do that is to pick an obvious theme and use obvious images (moon / June).

    Some songwriters are geared more toward creating an experience than with telling a story. (A song might also do both.)

    This is a country-ish song that's been recorded by at least 75 different people ( from Dave Dudley to Jim Croce to Taj Mahal to George Thorogood to Gram Parsons to Steve Earle to Arlen Roth w/ Brian Setzer) and is still being played. It's a truck driving song. There are a lot of those. There are several terms in it that would not be known by non-truckers, yet I don't think that kept anyone from enjoying it. I think it makes people feel like they are a truck driver rather than hearing a truck driver's story. (I have long had a theory that audiences like hearing things they don't grasp right away but feel they will come to understand in time if they pay attention, as long as those things seem to make sense to the people they hear saying them. Most of us are fascinated by the jargon of specialized fields---medicine, music, sports, law enforcement, or truck driving---even if we don't understand it. If this is true---big if, I admit---IF this is true, then it can be a MISTAKE to make things too easy for an audience to understand.)

    This is Dave Dudley's version of "Six Days On The Road." It was not the original but is the most popular. It came out in 1963.


  12. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by MarkRhodes
    It was a bit different for Cole Porter, who never came off as a regular guy or as one taking the 'everyman' point of view.

    ....a far greater song than, say, "I Got Rhythm", a song which has no more nuance to reveal on the tenth listen than on the first. (Not lyrically, I mean.)
    Sorry to keep going back to Sondheim. He's narrow-minded in the extreme, but also uber-brilliant---and his observations stick in my brain (if only) re GASB writers.

    So here goes:

    Sondheim's observations about Porter (whom he admired) and Noel Coward (whom he did not) are interesting---and, especially in the case of Porter, have been borne out by history.

    Porter came from the privileged class, and was comfortable with it. Coward was a jealous and resentful outsider. To illuminate the difference, Sondheim compares Porter's Well, Did You Evah? to Coward's I went to a Marvelous Party.

    Finishing the Hat, p. 229:

    'Porter's consists of giggling backstairs gossip, Coward's of snickering observations about physical anomalies and sexual preferences (for the record, it is well-known that both were gay, with Porter being a bit more 'out', though married---and Coward very much closeted). This difference may be a reflection of the fact that Porter was born rich and Coward poor. Porter was always part of the upper crust and felt comfortable with it; Coward was an intruder and covered his desperation to be part of it by sneering at it...'.

    Re Ira Gershwin; I agree with Sondheim that he tried so hard for rhymes that 'you could see the sweat'. To me, though he came up with some great lines his stuff was shiny and bright on the surface but when you peeled a few layers off wasn't all that deep or meaningful. He tried for what came naturally to Porter and Yip Harburg: word virtuosity.

    Steely Dan were cool. I haven't listened a super lot, but my feeling is that their music was very much of its time, not a bad thing in itself, I suppose. I do wonder how long their stuff will last. And there's a pretentious, winking, I'm-so-hip quality that annoys me slightly, even in their titles. They almost remind me of the protagonist in Dave Frishberg's I'm Hip:

    (paraphrasing) I'm very into macrobiotics
    And soon I'm planning to get into narcotics.

    They were quite talented and expressive, but I find Leonard Cohen the far better writer, no contest...

  13. #12

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    [QUOTE=joelf;1030393]
    And the one-act play theory I embraced after reading the introduction to Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat. He delves into the difference between poetry, light verse, and song lyrics. What he was saying (and, agree or disagree, it's fascinating reading) in a nutshell: lyrics and music are mutually dependent: they need each other and give each other weight and support. A song is heard in real time, so there isn't time to parse meaning. So every lyrical and musical brick has to count, concision, no waste. The one theme concept I got from Sheila Davis's books. She was merely describing the common mistakes of even talented beginning songwriters, so enthused they can't stop themselves and end up writing 2 or more songs in one. That can overwhelm and confuse.

    /QUOTE]

    I get what Sondheim is saying. Back when I was a seminarian I had to give the 'reflection' at Mass 75 times one semester. (It can only be called a 'homily' if a priest gives it but that's what I was doing.) I came to appreciate the point Sondheim is making: everything has to make sense immediately. People hearing a sermon can't refer back to the previous paragraph. You also learn to avoid tidbits that might be nice but could distract. Once I wanted to use a line by Cervantes, "Hunger is the best sauce." But I didn't use the name Cervantes because I didn't want people to start thinking about Don Quixote. So I said 'a Spanish writer' which people understood to mean 'his name is not important to what I'm trying to tell you.' (Providing detail that a listener doesn't need is a mistake and one screenwriters are prone to---when you leave a movie wondering, 'but what became of so-and-so?' you realize the writer put a question in your mind but didn't answer it. You feel punished for paying attention, always unpleasant.) By the way, Johnny Mercer's "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" lyric is based on a sermon he heard from a street preacher at a shelter where he went with Peggy Lee.)

    But when it comes to songs, "It Ain't Necessarily So." A lot of good pop songs are not conceived as stories but as jokes. (Well, not AS a joke but in the same way a commedian conceives a joke.) Examples: Mean To Me and I'll Be Seeing You. The work of the lyric is to start with the title phrase meaning one thing and end the song with the same phrase meaning another thing. (We go from "Mean to me; why must you be mean to me?" to "Why can't you see what you mean to me?". In the latter we go from "I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places..." to "I'll be looking at the stars but I'll be seeing you.") A lot of songs were writtten that way and many are still performed. It's a legit way to write a pop song but you can't do it (except by chance) unless you know how this sort of lyric works.

    Your mention of "I Am The Walrus" put me in mind of novelist John Gardner's idea of a novel as a fictional dream and that as long as the writer keeps from breaking the dream, the reader won't wake up. I think this goes for a lot of songs too: they put you in a mood and as long as they don't break it, you ride along, even if not everything makes sense. (Things don't make sense in dreams but they hang together somehow.)

    I once interviewd Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde and told her that I loved her line, "The dragons in the distance honk their horns with such persistance", which is about waking up from a dream and realizing sounds attributed to a character in the dream are from the reality around you (traffic in the street). Some would get that on first listen but others would not and that's not a bad thing.

    I like a lot of things from the GASB, obviously, but popular songs are not primarily experienced as sung from a theater stage during a musical. Many audiences think if you can give it all to 'em in one pass, you're not giving 'em much. Many songwriters don't have Sondheim's concern about making it all clear the first time through because their assumption is that songs (songs you like, anyway) will be heard over and over and there is joy in discovering new layers of sound and meaning on repeated listens.

  14. #13
    Dig...

  15. #14
    This just came today. 1st interview: one of my heroes (as a human more so than a musician, but still), the great Pete Seeger. Next was a 360% turnaround, Livingston-Evans. (I remembered, alas wrongly, a Bob Dylan interview too).

    The world of songwriting is huge...

    Songwriters on Songwriting by Paul Zollo | ISBN: 9780306812651 - Alibris

  16. #15
    Bob Dylan (from an interview in the edition of the book I don't have). Real food for thought:

    Bob Dylan on Sacrifice, the Unconscious Mind, and How to Cultivate the Perfect Environment for Creative Work – Brain Pickings

  17. #16

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    Quote Originally Posted by MarkRhodes
    Yes, universal is the right word. Thanks. I'm all for that. I think this is where Irving Berlin excelled.


    [...]


    I was talking with Frank (fep) earlier today and the subject of Steely Dan came up. We both like a lot of those Becker / Fagen songs. Not GASB material, though several Steely Dan / Donald Fagen numbers have found thier way into fakebooks used by jazz musicians, so it's a legit example at least of quality pop music songwriting. A lot of their lyrics are enigmatic----if there's a story, it's not clear what it is. They make a habit of 'inside jokes' and allusions to jazz musicains (Coltrane, Parker) and tunes "Relaxin' at the Camarillo", "Groovin' High," "Scrapple from the Apple"... And they've sold millions of records and people keep listening to stuff they put out in the early '70s, so it clearly works.
    Having written very little in the way of jazz (perhaps 5 or 6 tunes out of 200 I've penned), one thing I picked up from the Dan -- and I'm a huge fan -- is how the mysterious nature allows the listener to identify his or her own meaning, if they're so inclined. Sure, the enigmatic references can sometimes hinder that process, but I reckon quite a few of their songs are based on personal experience, yet the story is told in a way that allows the listenner to supply their own meaning.

    In essence, this is inviting the listener into the creative process. I like that. So a long time ago I decided that when I write lyrics, I want them to have significance to me personally, but I also want them to have shoulders broad enough to accommodate the many meanings listeners might themselves apply. A side-benefit of this approach has been that I'm less worried about rhyme and such.

    Another thing I do when penning lyrics -- or writing prose, which I do as a hobby -- is paying close attention to meter, internal rhyme/echo, alliteration (though that's too easy to overdo), and congruent imagery (basically, avoiding mixed metaphors or similes).

    I generally start with a simple melody and a harmonic spine, which then may (or may not) gather complexity in voicing as the process moves along. When I feel like I have a solid foundation, only then do I write the lyrics. I can count the number of my songs that came lyrics-first on one hand. That's a demanding approach to writing, for me.

    As with writing prose, I'm a big believer in "second draft equals first draft minus 10%". Rewriting harmonies will happen if I decide I need a different mood for the lyrics I've written. Rewriting lyrics is an ongoing thing for me until I know I've hit the sweet spot. I no longer try to jam every "brilliant" idea into a song. I let a couple of musical ideas convey the feel, and no longer aim to write epics worthy of Yes or Rush. Instead of displaying facility with the craft, I'm much more inclined now to understand that a while well-written song is a journey of sorts, it is not and should not be meandering.

    My .02, for what it's worth.

    Love the thread, lots to chew on.

  18. #17

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    Quote Originally Posted by Thumpalumpacus
    Having written very little in the way of jazz (perhaps 5 or 6 tunes out of 200 I've penned), one thing I picked up from the Dan -- and I'm a huge fan -- is how the mysterious nature allows the listener to identify his or her own meaning, if they're so inclined. Sure, the enigmatic references can sometimes hinder that process, but I reckon quite a few of their songs are based on personal experience, yet the story is told in a way that allows the listenner to supply their own meaning.

    In essence, this is inviting the listener into the creative process. I like that. So a long time ago I decided that when I write lyrics, I want them to have significance to me personally, but I also want them to have shoulders broad enough to accommodate the many meanings listeners might themselves apply. A side-benefit of this approach has been that I'm less worried about rhyme and such.
    I get this. I am a huge fan of the Dan but I am also a fan of many lyrics which are straightforward, unadorned, yet compelling. One of my favorite examples is the Johnny Cash song "I Don't Like It But I Guess Things Happen That Way." (Jack Clement wrote it and I think the official title is "I Guess Things Happen That Way" but the whole line is something that I have found myself using in daily life over the years.)

    There's an old Woody Allen line bit about a writer whose work required an extensive understanding of his life, which not even he (the writer being discussed) had. Got such a kick out of that. I think it's from his collection "Without Feathers."

    But there is an important way in which writing lyrics differs from writing poetry----lyrics are only part of a song and the music can covey much meaning (as can the tone of voice, whether one is screaming or sounding ironic, etc.) A lyric need not carry all of a song's meaning. The music can convey much about setting and mood without a syllable being spoken.

    If I write the lyric first, it tends to be central.
    But if I have a killer guitar part with a strong rhythm which requires short phrases, the lyric's main task is to not get in the way.

  19. #18

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    Quote Originally Posted by MarkRhodes
    But there is an important way in which writing lyrics differs from writing poetry----lyrics are only part of a song and the music can covey much meaning (as can the tone of voice, whether one is screaming or sounding ironic, etc.) A lyric need not carry all of a song's meaning. The music can convey much about setting and mood without a syllable being spoken.

    If I write the lyric first, it tends to be central.
    But if I have a killer guitar part with a strong rhythm which requires short phrases, the lyric's main task is to not get in the way.
    This is a very important point in songwriting: is it the groove or the lyrics that supply the feel? Do they work together, or work in contrast to each other? The interaction of the different elements does a lot to define a song, and sometimes, not define a song (I'm thinking of things like "Bye Bye Love" from the Cars, where the music is upbeat but the lyrical content mordant -- and in other songs, vice-versa, sad-sounding music with an uplifting meaning).

    And you're absolutely right about identifying a song's strong point, and sublimating its counterpoint to that message. When the lyric carries the hook, as a songwriter, I must set aside my desire often to make the music stand that tall as well; as a theatrical metaphor, for every stage-front, there are sets and scenes which allow the dialogue to stand on its own, spare, concise, unobtrusive.

    And when the music is, I dunno, exalting, or panoramic, the job of the lyrics is to not get in the goddamned way. It's a tricky balance. I think the only real extraction from this is that in any song, message is everything, and it is affected by both writing, arrangement, and presentation.

    You want a good writing exercise? Write bittersweet, where you must capture both the happiness and sadness of an event. That's a mighty thin line to dance upon.

  20. #19

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    Quote Originally Posted by Thumpalumpacus
    And when the music is, I dunno, exalting, or panoramic, the job of the lyrics is to not get in the goddamned way. It's a tricky balance. I think the only real extraction from this is that in any song, message is everything, and it is affected by both writing, arrangement, and presentation.
    Part of presentation nowadays includes the persona of the singer who also wrote (or co-wrote) the song he is singing.
    To continue with Steely Dan, I think the only cover they ever did was of Duke's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" (on "Pretzel Logic") They were doing their own songs and their previous records were part of the assumed framework of latter ones.

    And then there is the singer who may only occasionally write a song (or a lyric) but who seeks out material to suit an onstage persona and so is able to make a song be heard a certain way that has as much to do with its success as the songwriting itself.

    I'm thinking of Peggy Lee's recording of "Is That All There Is." The songwriters (Jerry Lebier and Mike Stoller) did not want Peggy to record it. They thought she was all wrong for it. She managed to record it anyway (she chose a then-23-year-old Randy Newman to do the arrangement.) But the record company didn't want to put it out. Finally she got her friend Joey Bishop to have her on his show where she would sing it---she told the record company and they begrudgingly pressed a few thousand copies. The song earned her a Grammy and became part of Lee's legend. It seems more "her" than some of the songs she wrote with husband Dave Barbour (-and they wrote many good songs together).


  21. #20

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    We haven't talked much about form.
    I think we all know the 32-bar AABA form of many standards (-and a few of the most common variations).
    Not knocking it but that's not how most pop songs (or country or rock or metal or hip-hop songs) tend to be written now.

    Here is a common pop song structure that runs a bit longer.
    Intro
    Verse
    Pre-Chorus
    Chorus (or refrain)
    Verse
    Pre-Chorus
    Chorus
    Bridge
    Chorus
    Outro

    That can be closer to 64 bars. (Some standards are long---"Night and Day" is 48 bars and "Cherokee" is 64.) The first verse is often twice as long as the second and third.
    It's not rocket science but it is worth paying attention to.

    Here's a short video on Max Martin, who has written 70 hit songs, 22 of them reaching #1 on the charts. He knows what he's doing. (His work is not my favorite. I'm not suggesting you should love all of it, or any of it. But he's no fluke or fly by night either. You don't succeed that many times by luck alone.)


  22. #21
    Mark mentioned Randy Newman, also singers who sift and pick songs for their onstage persona.

    Randy Newman does both. Shrewd enough to realize the strengths and limitations of his singing voice, he creates characters in his songs, sings as them---and you believe him.*

    One of his devices is to assume the guise of the 'unreliable narrator': a character who's done something bad, or narrates a story and maybe you don't trust his veracity, but he draws you in. He did this brilliantly, particularly in Good Old Boys (reissued as Rednecks). He often is the Southern 'dope' who knows the Yankees are mocking him---which makes him hate them all the more.

    But he combines all the devices in Marie, from that recording---and creates an evergreen tear-jerker. (I'm so taken and moved by Marie, I play it 'au jus' as a solo insrtumental. The melody stands on its own). He knew he wouldn't be believed singing a love song straight, in that Gravel Gertie voice---so he sings it in character: a drunk, f-up who had to get loaded before telling his woman not only how much he loves her but how much he's failed her. You end up loving them both.

    *These comments are culled from Paul Zollo's indispensable songwriter interview series, Songwriters on Songwriting and More Songwriters on Songwriting...

  23. #22

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    Quote Originally Posted by joelf
    Mark mentioned Randy Newman, also singers who sift and pick songs for their onstage persona.

    Randy Newman does both. Shrewd enough to realize the strengths and limitations of his singing voice, he creates characters in his songs, sings as them---and you believe him.*

    One of his devices is to assume the guise of the 'unreliable narrator': a character who's done something bad, or narrates a story and maybe you don't trust his veracity, but he draws you in. He did this brilliantly, particularly in Good Old Boys (reissued as Rednecks). He often is the Southern 'dope' who knows the Yankees are mocking him---which makes him hate them all the more.
    That was Randy's wheelhouse, alright. Mark Knopfler was doing that with "Money For Nothing".
    Mark and Randy worked together on at least one of Randy's biggest hits: "It's Money That Matters"




  24. #23
    And Mark: Let's also distinguish the difference between the 2 meanings of 'verse': in the old GASB sense a verse is a 'preamble', a set-up for the body of the song, a foretelling of what's to come in the story. It can be in 1st or 3rd person, and often is in a different tempo, rubato---even a different meter. In many songs the verse is dropped in repeated usage. It may have come from a musical, and its meaning wouldn't translate into popular song usage. Ex: My Foolish Heart has an 8-bar verse, neglected until Tony Bennett (with Bill Evans) brought it back. Conversely, no one I know of has ever performed Stardust; Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most; or Lush Life w/o the verses---sacrelig! (Sinatra recorded Stardust in verse only).

    In pop music, a verse is what a 'refrain' (also 'stanza') was in older GASB songs: It's a section of the story, repeated melodically, with different lyrics---and 'spelled' by the chorus---which repeats the same lyrics after 1 or more verses. Sort of a Greek chorus commentary---and hook...

  25. #24

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    Another songwriter who wrote character songs was Warren Zevon.
    My wife and I were singing this while making dinner the other night.



    Warren also liked to mock songwriting tropes. (He was a funny guy.)


  26. #25

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    Quote Originally Posted by joelf
    And Mark: Let's also distinguish the difference between the 2 meanings of 'verse': in the old GASB sense a verse is a 'preamble', a set-up for the body of the song, a foretelling of what's to come in the story....
    In pop music, a verse is what a 'refrain' was in older GASB songs: It's a section of the story, repeated melodically, with different lyrics---and 'spelled' by the chorus---which repeats the same lyrics after 1 or more verses. Sort of a Greek chorus commentary---and hook...
    Right. This is why we call a solo over, say, rhythm changes as 'taking a chorus.'
    In the GASB the verse is what gets you to "and that's why....."

    But we're not writing in the '40s.
    Put another way, if Cole Porter were alive today, he wouldn't be writing 32-bar AABA songs. He used that form because it was the most popular form for popular songs at the time. It no longer is.