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.

 

Advertisements

MuseScore 2.1 a MAJOR Update

What’s better than FREE? High-quality notation software that is as good as (and in some cases better than) paid software, but still free! Welcome to MuseScore 2.1.

The MuseScore team has demonstrated their integrity with their great programming, but they have reached new heights with their announcement of MuseScore 2.1, the first major update since 2015’s version 2.0. After working for a long time on version 3.0, the enormity of the project and issues of backward-compatibility kept pushing a release date farther back than they liked, so they came up with a great idea: cherry pick the best features of 3.0 so far, make over 300 bug fixes,  spiff up the user interface and simply call it MuseScore 2.1.

That little “.1” is deceptively simple; this is an enormous “update.” There are far too many great improvements to copy here, so I’d suggest you head over to the MuseScore web site and check out the video that gives a short but inspiring look at a few of the new features, followed by a text list of many of the best new features. Don’t skip the video, because with the new support for all SFZ libraries, you really do have to hear it to believe it. You can also mix different SFZ’s to get just the instruments that you want.

You can upload your pieces to the MuseScore site, for private or public viewing. This version will also upload an MP3 of your score so that it plays back with the instruments that you chose, and now others can hear it just as it sounds on your computer. You can even keep a change log if you upload different versions of a piece.

Some of the innovative ideas go far beyond what you might expect for FREE software, such as the “swap” function that allows you to swap two sections of music by cutting the first, swapping it into the place you want it to go, while the function takes the music to be swapped out of there and onto the clipboard so that you can simply paste it into its new spot. A great time (and sanity) saver!

Of course the one feature that the MuseScore team has been working on for years is importing a PDF file as flawlessly as possible, and now with the enhanced playback options the project with the IMSLP to make thousands of classical scores available and playable is closer than ever to reality in a version that will please most classical music enthusiasts. This is a project with ambitions, and so far they have outdone themselves. Bravo!

Remember that YOU can help too. Gaze over their development page to see the myriad ways that you can help, from editing words to writing code, to testing, and yes of course to donating. Just think — you can be a part of computing history and help musicians all over the world! Even just playing around with it and finding obscure bugs is a big help.

If you don’t have MuseScore 2.1 yet, try it out TODAY. If you do have an older version, update right NOW. You will be glad you did.

 

One-Man Band LIVE (and what a band!)

A lot of us find ourselves in remote places at times, or in other situations where we ourselves are the band. It helps to be able to play a number of instruments if we want to record something “band-like”. Even those of us who are able to play a number of instruments well enough, and to sing without inspiring washroom breaks for anyone listening, it can be an exciting if somewhat nerve-wracking experience each time the red-light goes on and the recording is happening.  But of course we can always re-record, although finding the acceptable version without the need for “just one more tweak” can be a mind-killer without a producer to say “Good enough; now move on.”

So I salute all of you who produce your own music because you have to, or because you <…shiver…> want to. Now, that said, there is a level that only a few enter into, and of those who do, it is no great shock to find musicians of the calibre of Jacob Collier.

I found out about Jacob Collier from NS Design, who are stoked that Jacob plays their new NTXa bass (which I guess makes my old NXT bass a ‘vintage’ model now), but this is just one of the many instruments he has mastered, which helped him to win TWO Grammies:1) Best Arrangement: Instrumental or A Capella and 2) Best  Arrangement: Instruments and Vocals.

The NS Design artist web site for Jacob Collier says this: “Based in London, UK, Jacob has been inspired by many sounds – his music combines elements of Jazz, A cappella, Groove, Folk, Trip-hop, Classical music, Brazilian music, Gospel, Soul and Improvisation (to name a few), which culminate to create the world of ‘Jacob Collier.’ ”

Jacob’s own web site features his debut album and live dates, as well as quotes such as these:

“I have never in my life seen a talent like this… Beyond category. One of my favourite young artists on the planet – absolutely mind-blowing”

— Quincy Jones

“Wow!! Jacob, your stuff is amazing”

— Herbie Hancock

“Staggering and unique… Jazz’s new messiah”

— The Guardian
It also features his astounding “Jacob Collier and his One-Man Live Show Creature perform[ing] ‘Don’t You Know’, an original song from Jacob’s debut album ‘In My Room’; filmed live @ Village Underground, London, May 28th 2016.
This is a pretty amazing tour de force of technology, and I applaud him for being able to put it together and use it so creatively. Maybe it will inspire some of you to make music you never thought possible. Or maybe it will just make you appreciate your current band mates a bit more. Either way, you win.

Great Gifts for Musicians

Yes, it’s getting late, but a lot of us have the ultimate gift over the next week or two: time!

firstsong

If you (or a loved one) have always wanted to write a song but never quite gotten around to it, or to finishing one, check out my book How To Write Your First Song. (In Canada, click here.) No previous theory is necessary, just the desire to write a song that you will be truly proud of. I share some of the ways I go about it, but the main aim of the book is to help you find your own way. While your first song is always the hardest to write, there is little in this world as satisfying as finishing one. (BTW, this book is also meant to help accomplished songwriters who have hit a wall and need a way around it that works.)

And if you are feeling really generous, to a friend, significant other, or yourself, Dorico is a great choice. I’ll be writing more on it in a few days, but the 1.0.20 update confirms that they are on track to become THE notation software program to use.

How To Write Your First Song

HTWYFS

I wrote this book because I have met too many people who want to write songs but can’t because of what they know.

Hey, wait! Don’t I mean “what they don’t know?” Well, no and yes. The book does cover everything that you need to know to write your first song, but it also puts music theory into the perspective of a songwriter, and not a composer of symphonies 200 years ago. While any music theory should help you understand music better, so that you can play it or write it better, it is often taught via “rules” — and pretty much any modern song breaks several of those rules, and the best break a lot of them.

The book re-frames music theory that you may already know as a tool for you as a songwriter. You rely on your own ear for what sounds “good” to you, and you develop your own process for finishing a song that you like. There are no exercises because you don’t invest yourself in something that is just for practice. Instead you write a song that you like, one that you are proud to play for friends and family, and even in public if that’s your goal.

As usual, the title can’t tell the whole story. I aimed this book at novices and at accomplished songwriters who have hit a wall. We all have times where nothing seems to come to us and we feel like we’ll never write again. The value of having a process is that you can start with a simple idea, even one from a song that you rejected before, and by working with it you can re-shape it into something you truly love. It works because you don’t learn my process, you learn your own (which may well be totally different from mine).

I can shamelessly promote my own book because I’ve seen the approach work with students who had no musical training to ones with PhD’s; and from metal-heads to writers of classical lieder. We’re not aiming to get you to Number One on your first attempt, but we do get you to the point where you can write your own song that pleases you. I think that’s a great start.

http://www.amazon.com/How-Write-Your-First-Song/dp/1495001938/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459779912&sr=8-1&keywords=how+to+write+your+first+song