How to Write Your First Song

OK. Several people have asked why I have not reviewed my own book here. Seriously, what do you think I’d say? After working on it for months, trying to create a book that would help the novice songwriter, as well as one who has “hit the wall”, to find their own process and create a song that they are truly proud of. One that they would not hesitate to play for friends or critics. Of course I think anyone thinking of writing their first song, or getting back into it should buy the book. But for good reasons, not just because I wrote it. I felt that there was a need for this book and I remember the agony of writing my very first song, that took one year to write, compared to my second which I finished in one day. But it took me a year to learn what I needed to write a song that I still like, decades later, and one that helped me to get into the Music Composition program at the university of my choice.

I wished I’d had a book like this when I was starting out, so I wrote it in the hopes of helping people in similar situations. I have unique training, with advanced degrees in computing and music, as well as Music Criticism, Music Theory, Computer Music, and Education, but my most practical qualification comes from decades as a music reviewer and listening to over 1,000 LP’s and CD’s most of which were from people trying to break into or make it in the music world. I’ve heard the same mistakes repeated countless times, but I have also found some true gems, all of which defied convention in their own way but still evoked a strong response in the listener. So while I can’t tell you how to write a guaranteed great song (no one can)  I can tell you what will ruin even a great idea that could have been a hit. To get that hit, or even songs that you like consistently, you need to know your own process for writing, and I can help you to find that.

How many Grammy speeches begin with “I’d like to thank the author of the book …” Not many, and yet so many song writing books promise, implicitly or right out there, that you will end up creating a huge hit, and if you don’t, it’s your fault. It’s more realistic to listen to the “overnight sensations” who tell you that they have written 100 songs and finally learned their craft by trial and error. My goal was to help you find your own process to write a good song without having to go through the 100 duds; to shorten the “error” period. Maybe it won’t be a hit, maybe not “commercial” enough, but it will be a song that you like and are proud of. And with a start like that, you can only improve.

Hits are a combination of craft, hard work, and luck. Good songs are a combination of craft and hard work — no luck required. You may not get wealthy, you may not even make a living at it, but you will be able to write songs that you like and even build up a modest fan base who enjoy your music. That’s a lot better than sitting and dreaming of “making it.” And you have to start somewhere. (And yes, I suppose you could use the concepts to analyze hits you like and maybe write a hit yourself. Maybe.) I’ll tell you what my aims were in writing the book, and you can see if they reflect your situation and might help you.

The BIG ONE is to get you over the hump of wanting to write a song but not doing it. (This includes established songwriters who have hit a wall and may even feel “washed up.”)  Maybe you’ve tried and got bits and pieces of several songs that you just can’t finish to your liking. Or you’ve written one according to a formula or copying a song you like that you can’t be proud of. An important step that you might be wondering about is to determine if songwriting is something that you really want to do. I won’t try to talk you into it, and you might discover that you’d rather just listen to songs. Even if that is all you get out of the book it will save you lots of time and frustration and let you get on with what you really want to do more.

But if you find that you truly want to write songs, I will help you to find and refine a process that works for you. There are lots of ways to approach songwriting, and the book is written so that you can try different things and see which ones produce results you like. It’s a very personal activity that reflects who you are, and only you can decide what you want to express and how you will do that. I don’t want you to copy how I go about writing a song, but rather to discover how you do. At the end of the book you will have written the first song that you really like and are proud to play for anyone, from a close friend to a record producer.

How do you get that kind of confidence? Together we look at building on your strengths and getting past your weak spots. Maybe you don’t have the theoretical background you feel you need. I’ll show you what you need to know without any extras like, say, the range of the piccolo or the notes to beware of when writing for clarinet. Or maybe you have lots of theoretical training, so much that you become “rule-bound” and have to loosen up your concepts so that you can move ahead just as music has moved past the “rules” that were established for music of the past. (Music theory always lags behind practice!) In fact, songwriters have a different perspective on music theory from classical composers, whose works form the basis of most standard music theory. The introduction of guitars and drums, as well as digital music sources, has given new life to older concepts that have been refined in new directions, as in jazz or progressive rock, or kept as a basis for new uses in popular music from country to hard rock and its more metallic derivatives.

At its most basic level, music comes down to repetition versus novelty, with enough repeated material so that we can recognize it as the same song but new parts that give variety so that we don’t get bored. Every genre or style does this in different ways, popular and classical, Western or Eastern. Music is truly infinite in its possibilities.

The book has access to all the musical examples online, where they can be played or downloaded. I personally created over 100 audio examples so that you hear our topic rather than just read about it. More importantly, you can decide whether you like it, and how you might improve it to make it more to your liking. You need to learn to critique your own ideas, but it is often much easier to start by critiquing the work of others. The difference here is that we will be concentrating on one aspect at a time, so that you refine what harmonies you like, what rhythms speak to you, how lyrics fit the melody (or don’t!), and many more aspects that are personal to you. I can tell you that the reason I prefer to be a reviewer to a critic is that I don’t assume that everyone shares my musical taste, so I point out what I find interesting in a song but leave it open to the reader and listener to agree or not, and to find more in it. Read old critics’ views of many songs that have become legendary over time and you will inevitably find articles saying how awful they are and how the artist will disappear, just as that very artist is starting a decades-long career as a major star. You might not like songs that I do, but you should like, or love, every song that you write. It should speak to you, even if to no one else.

Rather than go on and on, I’ll let you read the first page of the introduction to the book here. You can find a little more on the Hal Leonard site here, and order it from there or from Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, or find it in your local music store.

 

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Calibre – The Great FREE E-Book Reader / Manager

As I’ve read more e-books, I’ve come to really appreciate Calibre. It’s an e-book reader for your computer, library manager for hardware e-book devices, and format converter for both, plus a lot more features that let you bookmark, edit, backup and more. If you are online it will even help you shop! It is open source, which means that anyone with the skills can modify it and submit their mods for testing, but it also pretty much assures that it will be around for a long time and will remain free. Big thanks to Kovid Goyal for providing the world with this free app that outshines most if not all of the other e-book software around. I can’t say for sure because after trying a couple and finding Calibre, I’ve never been tempted to try anything else.

I had to write this column because I got a request from a friend for help with a somewhat expensive e-reader that could not read the format of the book she just bought. I read the blurb (there was no user manual) and it vaguely suggested it could read all “common” formats, and her book’s format was definitely a common one. So she switched to Calibre and all is well. I suggest that you check it out at calibre-ebook.com/

The video on that page shows you how to setup the manager for a hardware device, and how to use it to send books from your computer to your device and bring them into the manager from your device. If you have a book that is not in your device’s format, Calibre formats it automatically when you transfer it to the device. Calibre will search online for a book you request, returning a list with the lowest-priced one at the top, a very convenient way to shop for books. It will let you edit the metadata for any book, but if you have a large collection you might want to use its automated feature that searches the internet and finds the metadata for large numbers of books, which you can edit later at your convenience, if you like. To find a particular book, or just find something to read, you can browse by cover or tags such as author, genre, etc.

Calibre also reads PDF’s, so you can manage your PDF scores, articles, etc. along with your e-books in one convenient place.

Calibre has a great way to get news: choosing “Fetch News” brings up a list of languages in which news is available with the number of sources for each (over 300 in English alone!). Clicking on the left-hand triangle opens a list of the news sources in that language. You can set a schedule for downloading news from a source, as well as a number of days before the download is deleted. Of course, if some of them are pay-only you will need to have a subscription, but most are free.

There is so much to Calibre that I suggest you check it out for what you need in an e-reader or e-book manager, and then gradually you will find more uses that you never thought of. But if you read e-books at all, you really should check out Calibre.

UPDATE: A number of people have written that they cannot get Calibre to work on their iPhone or iPad or iPod Touch. The Calibre FAQ shows how to use it with these devices.

The Calibre help page has links to the FAQ, the user forum, and their blog as well as to the user manual, which is available in several formats.