Wednesday, May 09, 2007

On Songwriting: Mechanics – Part Two

Now that you’ve listened to the Beatles early music, let’s take a closer look at it. Pretty much every song from 1963 – 1964 follows the same basic pop song structure. And that structure is still in tact today, used in many contemporary pop songs. (The Beatles didn’t invent it – though they may have perfected it). Here’s the form:






Bridge (or Middle Eight)






Outro (or Coda, or Tag)

It varies, but that’s pretty standard. In today’s pop music the bridge may not be repeated a second time because the nature of lyrics is a bit different. And somewhere in there, there is usually (but not always) an instrumental break, but we don’t need to deal with that right now.

The verse, the chorus and the bridge are the building blocks for your foundation. Let’s understand exactly what those words mean.

According to the online source The Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary, the definition of verse is: a group of lines which constitutes a unit. Often there are several verses in a single text, and usually the rhyme scheme, rhythm, and number of poetic lines and feet are the same from verse to verse in a single text.

Lyrically, the verses are what move the story of the song along (even if it’s not a story song), they propel the idea forward.

The chorus, or refrain, is like a verse in that it is a group of lines with a rhyme scheme. But the chorus is repeated at intervals throughout the song and does not vary lyrically. It’s usually the main idea of the song, the message that gets repeated throughout. It’s where, as a songwriter, you want your “hook” to be, lyrically and musically. The chorus may or may not use the same rhyme scheme as the verses. I often try to vary the rhyme scheme to set it apart and help it stand out.

Not all songs use a bridge, but it’s a useful tool. The Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary defines it as a “Transitional passage connecting two sections of a composition.” The bridge is unlike the rest of the song musically. It may or may not adhere to a previously established rhyme scheme or pattern, or have one at all. It does more than just “connect.” The bridge gives you a chance to restate the main theme in a new way. You can change perspective or add a twist to the story. It can add a sense of heightened excitement, a sort of a tension before the climax and release. Bridges often appear before the last chorus, or sometimes before the musical break. I don’t always (or often) use a bridge, but when I do, I try to make it the “ah ha!” moment in the song – the moment where the listener realizes the deeper meaning. It adds another level or layer to the structure, or maybe it reinforces the foundation.

We’ll get into examples of bridges and verse and choruses in the next section. You can follow this link for a good article on bridges.

The intro is a musical statement that brings the listener into the song, or introduces the song. It can be as simple as one chord, or it can state part of the melody, usually the second half of the chorus (if your chorus is the standard 8 bars, then the last four bars). It can foreshadow musically what’s to come.

The outro, or coda, is the end of the song. The end of a song can be handled any number of ways. It can fade while repeating a line or two, with or without lyrics; It can fade on one chord; It can swell on one chord; It can restate part of the melody; It can be a simple “amen” progression (IV – I); It can be a “cha cha cha” pattern…It all depends on the type of song and how you want to affect the listener, how you want to lead them out of what you just taken them through.

This is my outro for this section. Examples coming up. This is my outro for this section. Examples coming up. This is my outro for this section. Examples coming up. This is my outro for this section. Examples coming up. This is my outro for this section. Examp

Monday, May 07, 2007

On Songwriting: Mechanics - Part One

OK. Let’s talk about The Basics.

I know what you’re thinking: I don’t need to go over The Basics, I already know all that stuff. You’re probably thinking that even if you have never written a song before. Everyone thinks they’ve got The Basics covered.

But, whether you’re a novice or an experienced songwriter, it never hurts to review The Basics – or what I’ll call variously the rules or the mechanics – or look at them from a different perspective. Because, it’s how you use those basics, those mechanics, that will set you apart from other songwriters. It’s how you follow – and break – the rules that show you off as either skilled or inept. Just as there is a fine line between genius and insanity, how you use The Basics in your songwriting is the line between understandable and indecipherable, nonsensical and innovative, inviting and inaccessible, “hooking” the listener or leaving them floundering.

I’ll illustrate this metaphorically and anecdotally. My metaphor is Picasso. If you only have a cursory understanding and appreciation of art, and view one of his Cubist offerings, let’s say Female Standing Nude (charcoal on paper, 1910), you may recognize it as “good,” but you may also be inclined to dismiss it as “doodling” or “something your four year old can do.” It may look easy, but try to recreate it and you would probably fail miserably. That’s because Picasso didn’t start there. He learned the rules, the mechanics, of art first. Or, take any one of his Surrealist works – seemingly unrelated objects thrown together, body parts not where they’re supposed to be, eyes misshapen and unaligned…but still, it’s intriguing, beautiful, masterful. That’s because Picasso knew The Basics, the rules, the mechanics. He spent a lifetime studying them. And he knew how to reinvent them and break them and bend and alter them. He understood Realism and could produce it. He understood shape and form, light and shadow, line and color. And with that foundation, he could expand and invent and innovate.

When I was just starting to write songs (at age 13), I had no rules. I had, of course, listened to music, and taken some piano and theory lessons, but I didn’t really know anything about writing songs. I started making up words and putting them to music. Or making up music and slapping some words down to it. And because I had no rules to bind me, to limit me, some of the stuff I came up with as a teen was pretty interesting and new and sometimes even good. But mostly it was not. Mostly, it was amateurish and adolescent. There is, of course, a learning curve, but I didn’t really begin to blossom until I was in my 30s. (I’m a late bloomer in many facets of my life). I had a gift. But I didn’t nurture it. I just wrote songs. Whatever came into my head.

When I was in my 30s I began teaching music to middle school kids in a private school. So I started brushing up on my theory, and learning things like song structure. I started putting names to the tools I was using – verse, chorus, bridge, ABAB, AABB and ABBA patterns, internal rhyme, imperfect rhyme. I learned about symphony structure – theme and variation, secondary theme, restating the theme, breaking up the theme and tossing it amongst the sections of the orchestra rhythmically and melodically, recapitulation. I started reading interviews with, and articles about, songwriters and their techniques. All of these things helped make me a better songwriter. I strengthened my foundation and broadened my musical horizons.

A note here about broadening your horizons. Do it. Become genuinely interested in as many things as possible and read as much as possible. (I don’t spend nearly as much time reading as I would like. I could blame it on, oh, any number of things, but really it’s just discipline.) Read good fiction and poetry and biographies, see theater, do theater, see good movies, learn history, stay abreast of current events, read books of trivia, go to museums, do stuff you’ve never done before. All of this will benefit your songwriting. Really. But, more about this in another essay.

In Part 2 of this essay we’re going to check under the hood and take apart the engine so we can see how things work and understand what makes the car run. (It’s a good thing I’m using an analogy here, because you really wouldn’t want me doing that to your car.) In the meantime, here’s your homework: listen to a few early Beatles songs, like Love Me Do or I Want To Hold Your Hand or anything else from that era. I’ll get back to you.