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Staying Off The Downbeat – with The Clash

When I react to a song emotionally, at some point I get interested in looking for the craft-related reasons why it’s working for me.  The other day I was listening, for the nth time, to The Clash’s ‘Train In Vain (Stand By Me)’, written by Joe Strummer & MIck Jones – great song, great record… […]

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Writing Something Is Better Than Writing Nothing

Yesterday I posted a quote about writing (from William Stafford) – “When you get stuck, lower your standards.”  This is an interesting thought that, as I understand it, goes to the heart of what writing is. He didn’t say, “When you get stuck, put out your CD/upload/publish/record (with lower standards) anyway.”  He’s talking about writing.  […]

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Sing The Words Like You’d Speak Them

This week I’m writing about one of the basic principles of Songwriting… but one that too often gets lost in the shuffle, particularly given how wide open lyric-writing options are at this moment in time. Sometimes called Prosody (inaccurately, imho), it usually means singing words as you would speak them – putting the melody and […]

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“What Should Come Next In This Song?”

Maybe I’ve written a Chorus… now what will the Verse be?  Or I have a Verse but not yet a strong sense of musical direction for the Chorus.  Or it feels like the song needs a Bridge… but that the Bridge could go almost anywhere… Here are two questions I ask myself – one more […]

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How To Harmonize A Simple Melody Creatively – by NRBQ

Top New York City guitarist Larry Saltzman recently reminded me of a song I love – NRBQ’s ‘If I Don’t Have You’ (written by Joey Stampinato & Skeeter Davis).  This song seems to me melodically and harmonically lush in a way that we often think of as ‘Beatle-esque’ – that is, it reminds us of […]

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When Bad Tempos Happen To Good Songwriters

I’d bet that most songwriters have their ‘tempo comfort zones’.  Many of us, including me, tend to write most of our songs at a few similar tempos. These tempos are like any habit – not always good for me, but what I’m used to…  Comfortable for me, if not the listener. Why is this a […]

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Bob Dylan’s Verbs… and What I Learned From Them

There are many extraordinary aspects to Bob Dylan’s songwriting… but today let’s consider his Verbs.  Yes… verbs. Recently I produced an artist who did a cover of Tangled Up In Blue, a great Dylan song.  But I didn’t know how great it was until I’d heard it a few hundred times (which is what happens […]

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Raising The Stakes Can Help a Lyric

One way to combat blandness in a lyric (a battle worth fighting) is to increase what’s at stake in a song, make it more dramatic. I recently was working on a new song called ‘The Bridge’.  I had the music and words for the Chorus, the lyric of which was: We came to the bridge […]

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A Quick (Usually) and Effective (Sometimes) Way To Improve A Song

I’ve found that sometimes one of the quickest and most effective ways to improve a song is to simply try changing the order of the Verses, couplets, or lines. As I write a song, the lines and Verses often seem to belong in a certain order.  Or I might be writing to a rough outline […]

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Major 7th Chords – Due for a Songwriting Comeback?

Listening to how great it sounds in Frank Ocean’s ‘Super Rich Kids’ made me realize how underutilized the major 7th chord is in contemporary pop music.  Major 7ths have always had a place in what used to be called soul music, and in jazz, and they still do.  But it’s a sound worth considering in […]

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There’s Always a Good Reason To NOT Write – Creating a Songwriting Practice

Near the beginning of most new Songwriting workshops or classes I do, I emphasize this point: ‘There’s Always a Good Reason To NOT Write‘. I think it’s kind of a universal truth for writers. Very few of us have people begging for new songs.  Most of us lead pretty busy lives.  Work, money, family, marriage, […]

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Today’s Top 5 Ways To Make A Song Better

1) Improve The Melody Play the melody by itself, on an instrument.  Play it very slowly.  Listen to it without chords or lyrics.  Does your melody tell a story of its own (without the words)? Is it too static; does it need more motion?  Does it jump around too much (much less common!)? Does it […]

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Don’t Forget About The SOUND Of The Words

As far lyrics go, where the rubber meets the road  is how the words Sing.  Why do some verses or sections of my songs ‘sing’ better, easier, than others?  Because I got the sound of the words right. The hardest-to-define aspect of a lyric, and therefore the most neglected, is the sound of the words.  […]

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(Bass) Substitutions Allowed – On The Songwriting Menu

Early in the process of writing a song I usually start playing just the melody of the song, by itself.  Then I play the melody accompanied by just the bass notes.  I believe this often tells me more about the strength of my basic musical idea than hearing the entire chord/harmony. Not that the full […]

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Opening Up Your Chord Sounds – Or Not

I’ve noticed that most writers tend to either stick with triads OR use upper extensions (7ths, 9ths, etc.) a lot.  Often those ‘choices’ are just habits.  Making such dramatic ‘all or nothing’ stylistic choices may not be in a particular song’s best interest. In some styles of music it’s fine.  If you’re playing traditional folk […]

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With Songs, The Cutting Can Be The Hardest Part

This week’s post touches on a painful subject – cutting things that I really like from a song.  This is particularly important in songwriting because it’s such a compressed form.  Three or four minutes give you very little time to wander around and still be effective!  So the cold-blooded willingness to cut becomes a premium […]

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In ‘Song Time’, How Long Is Too Long?

The writer says what he or she has to say… and the length of the song just is what it is.  Genius songwriter/lyricists bursting with fresh ideas and stories, like Bob Dylan or Eminem, don’t need to worry much about this.  But for the rest of us I think it’s well worth taking the clock […]

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When And Why Should I Put A Bridge Into A Song?

Although the Bridge of a song can be delightful, by the time it comes along the verdict on a song is usually in – the listener is already around two minutes into the song and the most important parts of it have been heard and responded to.  Similar to on Orwell’s Animal Farm, all parts […]

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Today’s Top 10 – Most Common Songwriting Mistakes, Part 2

Everyone’s heard thousands of songs.  If a songwriter isn’t on her or his game, even an ‘unsophisticated’ listener (who’s actually pretty sophisticated these days) will know what’s going to happen next before it happens.  For me, everything on this list connects to one of two ideas – Avoiding Predictability and Bringing the Listener’s Attention to […]

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How To Finish Songs… When It’s Easier To Just Start A New One

In basketball they say about some players, “He/she is a good finisher.”  That means that when they get close to the basket with the ball, they can actually get the ball into the basket.  Many pro players, good ones, can’t do that.  Because finishing is hard; a lot harder than just getting really close. But […]

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