Sunday, July 29, 2007

On Songwriting: Limitations and Opportunities - Part Two

So, what do I mean by limitations? I’m not talking about your shortcomings. (And we all have those.) I’m actually talking about structure. Specifically, song structure. More specifically, verse structure – those very precise patterns that we impose upon our music. ABAB, ABCB, AABB, etc.

Let’s pause and remember two things: 1) Back in my Blog “Mechanics – Part One” I remember that when I started writing songs at the age of 13 I had no rules. That is to say, I hadn’t learned about structure. Songwriting at that time for me was fun and easy. Of course it was – there were no rules! I was creative and wild and doing anything I wanted in those songs. Sometimes it produced good results. By accident. And not often. I did have an innate sense of rhythm and rhyme so things usually worked out. And I’m not saying that I shouldn’t have done that. Everybody’s gotta start somewhere, and everybody’s gotta write crap, and everybody’s gotta have that learning curve. As far as I know, all writers, in any literary discipline, spend a lot of time writing schlock that nobody ever sees, at every stage of their career. It’s part of the process. And, of course, creativity is good. I encourage creativity and wildness and going beyond the ordinary in your writing. But, 2) also back in that blog, I said that you have to learn the rules in order to bend them, stretch them and break them.

Sometimes, one’s attitude can alter perception. You can look at a structure, know you have to work within it, and view it as something that limits you and your creativity. If you have an ABAB structure, for instance, you know that every other line has to end with a rhyme (the A lines rhyme and the B lines rhyme). And, depending on your structure and time signature, etc., you only have so many beats in which to put your rhymes and get your message across. I call it “economy of word.”

(Most Western music, especially pop music, is divided into segments of eight beats in some way. It might get counted as four or sixteen, but it always has something to do with eight. There are many people more qualified than I to teach music theory, so this is as far as I’m willing to take this thread. But try an experiment: turn on the radio to any station playing modern music – Pop, Rock, Hip Hop, Alternative, Folk, Country – and listen to any random song. Start counting. You’ll see, or hear, that everything divides neatly into eight. Note: don’t try it with Jazz, Broadway, or Post-modern. And in the Folk and Country genres you may occasionally get something in three, but that’s the exception.)

Trying to fit everything neatly into a structure can be frustrating. And it can be (should be) challenging. But “challenging” is a good thing. You should be determined to rise above challenges. They should push you in a positive way. I’ve taught myself to look at what could be viewed as constraints instead as creative challenges, as opportunities to stretch my creativity. How can I say this in the most effective and most poetic way, using only the words I need to use that will fit into this structure? Economy of word. Refer to my essay “Wasted Words.” Every word is important. You cannot afford to waste any.

I approach it as if it were a puzzle. And it actually gets very exciting. I love the feeling of finding that perfect fit. It’s a triumphant moment. But, like a puzzle, you can't force the pieces to fit. They have to fit naturally, organically. It has to feel right. I’ll create a scenario, based on fact, to illustrate:

I’m working on my song “Edge of the Ocean.” I don’t have the title yet, but I know it’s going to be based on an image that someone put into my head. A teacher, referring to teachers who come back to school in the Fall and have to start over again with students who don’t retain information over summer vacation said, “it’s as if Moses kept getting to the edge of the Red Sea, but had never been able to cross it.” Hmmm, good image.

Right around the same time, I’m reading some Torah commentary about the story of Abraham and Isaac. The author points out that at the moment when Abraham held the knife over the tied and bound Isaac, in those seconds before he became aware of the ram, the fate of human history hung in the balance. The entire future of Judaism rested within Isaac. Had Abraham not noticed the ram and plunged the knife, there would likely be no Jewish people (and thus no Moslems or Christians). Hmmm, another compelling image.

Can these two ideas work together? What can I say in this song with these images? What’s my message? The thought process begins. (See “Wasted Words, Parts One and Two.”)

I have this riff I’ve been playing around with, maybe something will fit. I start playing around with the riff and some chords. I start singing some words. “Are we standing at the edge of the ocean…?” What was that image? Trying to get across, but can’t. Frustration. “Are we standing at the edge of the ocean / just to keep our feet upon the shore?” OK. That’s strong. That’s my A and B line. Do I want to go ABAB or ABCB? Well, what rhymes with ocean? “Devotion” is a pretty cool rhyme. But can I make it work without being corny or trite? Let’s see. I’ve framed the first line as a question. Maybe I should carry that through. “Are we holding close to our devotion…” “Close?” How about “tight.” “Are we holding tight to our devotion / in our grip…” Yeah, “tight” suggest “grip” and that’s a good pairing. What rhymes with “shore?” (I go through the alphabet, I use rhyming dictionaries.) Lots of things rhyme with “shore” but nothing is jumping out at me as a strong rhyme, as a way to end my next line. Hm, too bad. “Shore” is a strong word and creates the image I want. But let’s see what happens if I change it…need a synonym…“land?” “…just to keep our feet upon the land?” What rhymes with “land?”

The process carries on until I end up with:

Are we standing at the edge of the ocean

Just to keep our feet upon the land?

Are we holding tight to our devotion

In our grip or is it slipping through our hands?

It’s a pretty strong quatrain. And the melody is also strong, so far. Now, there are a couple of other things to point out. I had the opportunity to employ some internal rhyme: “grip” and “slip.” In the line it’s not a perfect rhyme, but it’s in there. And listen to the feet, the accents, the buoyancy it creates. “In our grip or is it slipping through our hands?” Also, because “hands” is plural and “land” is not, it creates an imperfect rhyme. But it’s close enough. I’d rather sacrifice that bit of imperfection for meaning. And as a sung lyric, it’s a barely noticeable sacrifice.

So, now I’ve got an ABAB pattern. But my verse is far from complete. I need another section. I’ll spare you the internal monologue, but I break the mold a bit and come up with three lines that rhyme. So, in effect, I’ve got an A section and a B section which all together forms an ABABCCC pattern (don’t look at how it’s laid out on paper, count the beats):

Are we standing at the edge of the ocean

Just to keep our feet upon the land?

Are we holding tight to our devotion

In our grip or is it slipping through our hands?

Have we been brought to the edge

Never to have crossed?

Had we entered the desert

Never having gotten lost

Would we still fight for freedom

No matter what the cost?

Now I’ve got my patterns and structure established for the verses. I’ll stick with it through the rest of the song. I’ve imposed a limitation – ABABCCC. Now, all the verse need to follow that formula. But it’s not a limitation. It’s an (all together, now) opportunity. An opportunity to use your skill with words and wordplay, and invent the best possible lyric for the situation within the structure, economically and poetically.

Turn those negatives into positives. “You can’t do it that way” really means “OK. Then I’ll do it this way. And It’ll be even better.”

It’s a good life lesson, too.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

On Songwriting: Limitations and Opportunities - Part One

So, having read my previous blogs, we know that music has structure and patterns. We’ve looked at basic pop song structures, we know terminology and vocabulary (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.), I’ve alluded to patterns like ABAB and ABCB, and tossed around terms like theme and variation. We now have a foundation on which to build.

I won’t spend a lot of time (or waste a lot of words) on definitions. It’s not my intention to make this an essay about how many different structures there are and what their names are, or what exactly is a “foot,” or why I think “meter signature” is a more accurate term than “time signature.” But ask me the next time we’re in a social situation. It’s a great conversation for sucking the life out of a party. There are plenty of text books and websites that cover the terminology and the “book learnin’.”

No, we’ve covered the basics, and built this common foundation so we can talk more about the psychology of songwriting, the emotion of songwriting, the passion of songwriting. As I’ve said before, good songwriting is not just about slapping words together. You may be able to put together a quatrain…sorry…four lines that rhyme, and even have a message in it, but is it compelling? Does it grab the listener? Is there subtext?

One of the most powerful anti-war songs I know is “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon. I’ve heard it, and even sung it, many times, but it never fails to stir emotion in me. It’s a rare listening when I end up with dry eyes. (The song really needs to be heard, or read, in its entirety to get the full impact, but for brevity I’ll only cite part of it here.) It’s based on a true story from WWI when, on a cold Christmas Eve, a German battalion and a French battalion, engaged in battle, engineer a temporary truce, play soccer, share chocolates and photographs of loved ones and sing Christmas carols together. By morning each side goes back to its own trench to begin the “work of war” once more.

Now, an inexperienced songwriter might render the last verse like this:

We all know that war is wrong
Can’t we all just get along?
Together we can make it right
We’re all one family, why do we fight?

OK, that was just off the top of my head, and if I were a second grader, it might get high marks. But you get the idea. There is a message there. One may even be able to put a strong melody to it. But is it compelling?

Maybe I can ratchet it up a notch:

In battlefields we’ve cried and bled
In graveyards we have mourned our dead
And the prayers they’ve said for loved ones dear
Could have been said for me, right here

Better. Maybe.

But go back to what I said in “Wasted Words, Part 2” about putting your listener in the song, personalizing it for them, making it real and relatable. McCutcheon framed the song as if it was a story told by one soldier from his perspective. We experience, through his eyes and thoughts and memories very specific sounds and sights, the bitter cold, the tenuous respite from killing and the temporary camaraderie. And he does this all with a steady eye on the poetic. He stays away from cliché and triteness. His last quatrain is this:

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same

It’s simple. It’s eloquent. It’s powerful. (Especially in context.) So, make the most of your choices. This is the whole crux for me. I’m about to reveal a simple songwriting philosophy of mine that has also served me well as a life lesson: Turn what look like limitations into opportunities. One old cliché might be the one about one door closing and another one opening. Turning limitations into opportunities; Imposing structures and making the most of them. We’ll continue that thread in Part 2 of this Essay.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Who I Don't Like

This post started out as an intro to a section of my website, on the Virtual Reality page, called Noah's Recommended Listening. However, it turned out to be stuff I don't recommend. So, I'm posting it here instead:

My musical tastes are pretty diverse. It took a long time for that to happen. In Jr. High and High School, I rarely listened to what anybody else was listening to. I never got into Led Zepplin or Three Dog Night, for instance.

I did like Paul Simon, James Taylor, Peter, Paul and Mary and Doc Watson. Still do. And I’ve always liked the Beatles.

In high school I was in the Heights A Capella Choir, an award winning musical organization doing some very complicated music from many different genres. We even did Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. And I did some musical theater. So I was exposed to lots of different kinds of music. I just never got into anything that was very popular at the time. It took me until after I graduated college, around 1982, before I started to appreciate the Rolling Stones.

I didn't like to listen to much music. Mostly, I wrote songs. But my writing suffered. Not only because I was a teenager, and few teens have the maturity to write a really great song (though some do). But, because I wrote in a vacuum. I was unwilling to listen to or appreciate most pop music.

I love a lot of music now. But first…

I will disclose, here and now, naked and in public (sorry for that mental image), for all to know and pass judgment, my three least favorite singer/songwriters. Now, I realize I’m in the minority here and, in some cases, my admissions about this have been known to cause riots. But music is so subjective. Everyone has a different sensibility. As it should be. This is what makes music and art and The Arts and Culture and pop culture what it is. No one can appeal to everybody. But the trick is, depending on how one defines “success,” to appeal to as many people as possible.

And before I tell who my three least favorite singer/songwriters are, let me say this: I can defend my statements. I can present a cogent argument about forced lyrics or weak melodies or useless rhymes or sentimentality or any of the other things I don’t like about their music. But I won’t do it here. If anybody wishes to engage me in a discussion, feel free to email me. But neither of us will change the other’s mind. Because art is not about an intellectual debate. It’s about gut reactions.

So, it may surprise you to learn, if you know what kind of music I like and write, that my least favorite singer/songwriter of all time is Harry Chapin. I can hear your sharp intake of breath and feel your metaphorical daggers coming through the computer monitor. But I don’t like his songs. Never have. I appreciate Chapin as a humanitarian. I admire what he did with the World Hunger Foundation and how he used his fame and money for that cause. I know all that stuff. It’s his music I can’t stomach. I’ll sum it up in one word: trite.

Coming in at number two for most disliked singer/songwriter – call out the riot police and take shelter in your homes – is Bruce. Yes, that Bruce. The, so called, Boss. I know he’s a terrific performer. And I like his politics. I just don’t buy all this “America’s Poet” stuff, as if he’s the modern day Woody Guthrie or Carl Sandburg. His lyrics don’t turn me on. It’s not his gravely voice (I love Tom Waits) or any other aspect of his production or performance. It’s his lyrics. Sorry. I know I’ve shocked and offended most of you by now. But, I’ve tried. I’ve really tried. I want to like him. I want to be in the majority. I want to feel what everybody else feels. I even bought “Greetings From Asbury Park” in New Jersey and drove through the state listening to it. How much more trying could I have done? Still didn’t like it. I saw him up close at a John Kerry Rally in Cleveland. Loved what he said. Liked how he sounded, just him and his guitar. Still didn’t like the song. I loved him when I saw him perform at a Woody Guthrie tribute and he sang “Going For a Ride in the Car, Car.” That was my best Springsteen moment.

My number three least liked singer/songwriter is Neil Diamond. And I’ll make no apologies for this one. His stuff is just trash. Although I like some of the stuff he wrote for the Monkeys. But, “Song sung blue/Every garden grows one?” Gimme a break! Or, “Money talks/But it don’t sing and it don’t dance and it don’t walk?” It makes me gag. Don’t even get me started on “Crunchy Granola Suite.” OK. Get me started. I just picked up the lyrics on his website and must now share them with you:

I got a song been on my mind
And the tune can be sung, and the words all rhyme
Deede-ee deet deet deet deet deet deet deedle dee dee

Though it don't say much, and it won't offend
If you sang it at school, they're liable to send you home
Never knowin' what you're showin'
Think you're growin' your own tea
Good lordy

Let me hear that, get me near that
Crunchy granola suite
Drop your shrink, and stop your drinkin'
Crunchy granola's neat
Sing it out
Da da da da
Da da da da da
Dee dee dee dum

One or two digestible songs like “Solitary Man” or “Sweet Caroline” does not make up for that and the rest of his sappy, crappy inanity.

I guess I have to throw Dave Mathews into the mix. As with Springsteen, I’ve tried. Bought the CDs, listened, read lyrics, liner notes, etc. Couldn’t get into it.

Well, that’s enough of who I don’t like. For my Recommended Listening picks go to and click on the Virtual Reality page, or just click here.