Songwriting/Composition for Practical People?

November 9, 2009 1:07 PM

I'm interested in learning more about songwriting / composition. What I'm not interested in are the glut of "How to get rich writing top 40 hits for dummidiots" titles out there.

I've been playing one instrument or another for about 25 years... over the last 5 years or so I've made a deliberate effort to get some music theory fundamentals under my belt and I've done OK as far as that goes; whatever I haven't memorized is familiar enough to at least re-look up without too much trouble.

The book that has helped me tremendously with regards to theory is Edly's Music Theory For Practical People, and I find myself wondering if there might not be an equivalent book on the subject of how to put all this stuff together... not formulas for writing hit songs (I have no aspirations of "making it big," I'm happy enough doing my own spare-time thing), or set-in-stone rules for proper composition, just something that surveys and explains common structures and chord progressions in a straightforward and thorough manner.

Genre-wise, I find myself at the curious cross-roads of having been raised on 70's hard rock and 50's jazz and then introduced to old-time stringband music 7 years ago... I'm not too picky.

I know that I am plate-of-beansing this a little bit.. past a certain point there is nothing for it but to just noodle around and see what happens, but I'd love to focus my noodling a little bit more. If you kind folks can recommend any books or web sites I'd be much obliged!
posted by usonian (17 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

If there's anything a few years of college theory taught me, it's that rules were made (in 1850) to be broken.

That said, Forms & Analysis really opened my eyes to start looking at musical superstructures instead of just chord-to-chord relationships. We didn't really use a text in that class, we just poured over Bach/Beethoven/Chopin scores for a semester.

If you're into 70s hard rock and 50s jazz and whatever else, listen for the superstructures employed in those pieces. I'm betting you'll find them to be very similar to each other.

Most of the classics we listened to wound up being in Sonata (A B A) form; even the modern stuff where they threw tonality out of the equation. Most jazz charts are in a shortened A B A form where A is the head, B is a 15-minute string of solos, and then they re-state the head.

And I'm sure everyone's heard enough pop Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus to last a lifetime.

Other interesting forms to consider are Rondo (A B A C A B A) and the good ol' palindrome. Heck, you could use Haiku as a form if you were clever enough (I'm not).
posted by man vs sun at 8:51 PM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Jimmy Webb's Tunesmith is an interesting read: part memoir, part songwriting and lightweight theory guide.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:42 AM on November 10, 2009

I was going to suggest Tunesmith yesterday but then I remembered that I hated that book. My brother bought it for me, singing it's praises. It was an interesting read but I tuned out toward the end.
The one thing I got from that book (that I was already doing) was to have a place that's your area, yours alone, to write/make music. And he's way too anal about perfect rhymes (you can't rhyme "rain" with, say, "name," EVER) even though it always nags at me so much that I can never not make a true rhyme now.
I think for the most part I resented his preachy "this is the way" tone because the entire time he was wagging his finger at me I was thinking, "ya, but 'someone left the cake out in the rain?' Really?"
posted by chococat at 12:31 PM on November 10, 2009

Oh yeah, it's wicked preachy; I definitely skimmed big portions. I still think it's worth reading, though, if only to see how someone who's been immensely successful at writing songs for a living approaches it.

And MacArthur Park is a travesty. Ugh.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:36 PM on November 10, 2009

Your right, that sounded like a bitchy shoot-down of your suggestion; I'm sorry uncleozzy.
Yes, it is worth reading. If only, in my case, for rejecting things certain things and adapting others. He's Mr. Formula in a big way; but I do value the rhyming dictionary and thesaurus now, more than I used to.
posted by chococat at 12:41 PM on November 10, 2009

Hasten to assure all that I'm not being dismissive or negative here, but I'm not convinced that there's any book that will unlock the mysteries of composition or songwriting. I have to admit up front that I'm a card-carrying technical ignoramus and have deliberately never read any books about theory or songwriting (or guitar playing, come to that). My intuition is that you'll simply learn a sort of orthodoxy that will result in predictability. I'm definitely one of the "if I know what I'm doing, the muse will vanish" school.

There are obviously no right ways or wrong ways here, but for what it's worth I tend to favour what, if memory serves, is John Lennon's take on this. He simply said that he was always looking to surprise himself. Figuring, I guess, that if he did that then others would be surprised (and delighted) too. So following his example one way to unlock things is to start writing on instruments that you're unfamiliar with. Because the simple fact of not having the technical chops on it (or the theoretical hang-ups around "do's" and "don'ts") means that you will be forced to keep things simple and may accidentally stumble across those little surprises that mean the difference between the quotidian and the special.

In summary and joking aside, the perfectly serious point here is that this approach is a way of connecting with your innate musicality - something that can become obscured and suffocated by technical proficiency......or reading "how to" books!

Alternatively you can just drop acid and see what happens.....heh.

No offence taken by anyone - I hope.
posted by MajorDundee at 12:10 PM on November 11, 2009

Thanks uncleozzy, chococat, I just put in an interlibrary loan request for Tunesmith, along with a an omnibus Guitar For Dummies tome that includes sections on theory + composition. I'll report back.

MajorDundee, I totally hear where you're coming from, and I know that i many ways this is like asking "how do I lose weight" when I know the ultimate answer is "eat less and exercise!"

But to stretch the fitness analogy further, I'm looking for the couch-to-5k program to hopefully get a sensible start and not wind up puking my guts out.

I also know that I need to get used to the concept of musical sketches, that everything I try to put together isn't going to be good, and that songs aren't going to spring fully formed from my forehead.. but after a lifetime of learning how to play stuff that's already been written by someone else it's tough.
posted by usonian at 2:00 PM on November 11, 2009

I genuinely empathise with you usonian. I spent many years as a sideman in bands where I never got the chance to write, and thought that it just wasn't in me. But I started just with little ideas - riffs, snatches of tunes etc. The real breakthrough was writing my first song. Which wasn't brilliant, but it did kind of hold together. Once that happened and I realised I could do it, the floodgates opened. It's really a confidence thing I think.

My advice would be not to try to write a whole "song" in one go. Just try to come up with ideas to start with. And you'll find, in time, that - "hey, if I put this idea with that idea I got me a whole song!". And then you'll be up and running. Hell, I'd even be willing to hear some of your ideas and then suggest how you can put some together if that helps. Give you a bit of a bump start as it were.... Send me a note if you want to give it a try.
posted by MajorDundee at 2:34 PM on November 11, 2009

I read a lot of books about songwriting. I actually like several of the "write hit songs NOW!" books -- ultimately, they mostly want the same thing I want: catchy, interesting three-minute songs. The audiences might be a little different, but you can tell what to take or leave, when "formulas" should become "guidelines" (or be rejected entirely), etc. The best ones are written by people who love the kind of music they write. The lessons can be applied to lots of different styles of music. It's all just more stuff to put in your toolbox, anyway, and you can use it or not, but at least it's there.

Here are some of my favorites:

Inside Classic Rock Tracks: Songwriting and Recording Secrets of 100+ Great Songs
Rikky Rooksby looks at 100 songs from the '60s through the '90s and breaks each one down, talking about how they're structured, pointing out little things to listen for, discussing what makes the song unique -- not incredibly in depth or anything, but really interesting. It's British in origin, so there are some choices I've never heard of, and there are some that just seem odd (T'Pau?).

Rooksby has several other books which may be of some use, including The Songwriting Sourcebook and Arranging Songs. The first one talks about chord progressions, with techniques for "musically effective chord sequences" and how they fit into different song sections, with charts of various song forms. The latter has some stuff on song structure as well, but more on the roles various instruments play and how they interact. Lots of guitar stuff, which doesn't interest me, so I can't say anything about those sections.

6 Steps to Songwriting Success
Jason Blume is an unapologetic "hit song" guy -- he'll remind you that he wrote songs for Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys more times than you can count. But there's a lot of solid stuff in here, including a lot of "Anti-writer's block" exercises that I've used with some success several times, and there's a lot of strong, simple stuff that just never occurred to me before reading it here.

Sammy Cahn's Rhyming Dictionary
Ohhhh, Sammy Cahn is awesome. This is a good rhyming dictionary, first off, with a structure that I find more intuitive than some others. But the real selling point is the first quarter or so, in which Cahn tells stories about how he wrote some of his hit songs ("Let it Snow," "Love and Marriage") and talks about what leads him to the rhymes he uses, and what parts he changed and why. Really neat.

Chord Progressions For Songwriters
What it says. Tons of chord progressions, broken up into categories ("Doo Wop Progressions," "Flamenco Progressions," "Coltrane Changes"), with songs listed for each one. Good for two things: Defeating writer's block by flipping it open to a random page, and also for getting a start faking a particular style.

Hope you find some of these interesting!
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 1:03 AM on November 12, 2009 [6 favorites]

Oh, and I see you're into old-timey stuff -- pick up the Lomaxes' American Ballads and Folk Songs or Sandburg's The American Songbag and let 'em soak in.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 1:12 AM on November 12, 2009

Wow, thanks Karlos! Those all look really promising, especially the Chord Progressions for Songwriters - I can't help but think that building up a vocabulary of things like that would be a big help when trying to come up with one's own's variants; like any other knowledge domain I've progressed in, half the battle is amassing enough knowledge to get comfortable with things.
posted by usonian at 5:36 AM on November 12, 2009

umm, you can't rhyme "rain" with, say, "name," EVER - can someone explain this to me?

It seems like a good rhyme to me... songs that rhyme too perfectly seem a bit trite generally. the rhyme is not that important - if the flow & melody of the words works without too much forcing things into boxes.

But then I"m more a fan of Bowie-esque Pop where he will even occasionally eshew the obvious rhyming word for something that doesn't at all.

I play around with a lot of music and I've never worried too much about proper songwriting. I just get in there and let things evolve (or not).

I think I"m of the opinion that if you throw enough crap at the wall something will stick. I actually read books about production rather than 'song writing' but it probably comes of too much time spent listening to Electronic music.

Case in point was the February 2009 RPM challenge (an album from scratch in a month) I didn't worry too much about trying to write a great song at all... I just went with what was working that evening and I think I managed to write some of the best songs / sketches that I have ever written. (and some bad stuff - but you take the good with the bad).
posted by mary8nne at 12:28 PM on November 12, 2009

For me the most important thing is (are?) the lyrics. That is, thinking about what I want to write about. Then the music carries the lyrics along. As far as the music goes, I get frustrated writing in the conventional diatonic scale and usual chord sequences, but when I go too far afield, into the realm of the kind of "serious" music that I studied in college (Bartok, Schoenberg, etc.) my songs start to sound flat and emotionally unengaging.

But don't you ever feel, "enough already with the I-II-V7-I and its variants?" So I'm trying to find some kind of a balance there. I understand wanting to see what the chord sequences are so you can then vary them, but in a way I think it might be a trap to get those sequences embedded too strongly in your head.

It's nice to just play around with sound and write whatever sounds good to you. Hit songs are generally boring and icky. I was listening to Lady Gaga the other day, whom everyone seems to love, and thinking, just more of the same three or four chords. But I guess the appeal is, "you can dance to it"
posted by DMelanogaster at 4:48 AM on November 24, 2009

oh, and the appeal of Lady Gaga also is that she's young and sexy.

I forgot.
posted by DMelanogaster at 4:49 AM on November 24, 2009

But don't you ever feel, "enough already with the I-II-V7-I and its variants?"

I get that sometimes. My solution tends to be to start futzing around with two less-obviously-married chords at random to see if I get some workable core of a phrase out of it, and then go from there. Going from there will often involve relaxing back into more familiar harmonic territory, of course, but at that point there's something a little less obvious about the overall harmonic structure of the song and that's good enough for me.

I'm not a brilliant navigator of harmonic backwaters, I think my writing strengths tend toward the more obvious in terms of chord structure. My hellbent ventures into the outre tend to, like you say, fall flat: experiment for experiment's sake, but it doesn't pull people in and involve them emotionally.

So a hybrid approach, with enough of an odd bit to make someone's eyebrow twitch but then a dose of the intensely familiar. I've stopped worrying about whether or not being able to dance to it is a bad thing.
posted by cortex at 7:42 AM on November 24, 2009

This is not a recipes book, but if you do play a little guitar, Jon Damian's book is an interesting read. It's not designed to provide you with song frameworks, but rather to approach composition in a variety of ways.
posted by nicolin at 5:53 AM on November 26, 2009

Great recommendations, thanks again everyone! I have a feeling I'll be referring back to this thread often. the 'Guitar All in One for Dummies' book came in via inter-library loan, and after a brief skim it looks like a great resource for guitar-centric information; lots of surveys of typical techniques and phrasing for various styles, and it includes 'Songwriting for Dummies'. Seems like a good 'pick it up and read a couple of chapters for ideas' book to have on hand.

I really wish the Dummies people had chosen a different name for their series, though, because it would save me from feeling like I have to apologize to smart people for reading them.
posted by usonian at 11:35 AM on December 2, 2009

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