Through teaching and running Freeway, I’ve had many opportunities to hold and attend a lot of great songwriter clinics. So, I want to share some of the best advice I’ve learned about songwriting.
“A song is a snapshot of time” ~Tom Conlon
This is such an inspiring statement and so very true! Music is an amazing art form. Most people attach sound to music, but seldom visual art. Words and lyrics create settings and paint pictures in listeners’ heads. The music evokes certain moods. Certain lyrics will reflect the culture of the time period in which they are written. Various music styles move with time as well. Since culture will always continue to change and evolve, lyrics can be fresh forever. Just look Sam Cooke’s “Change Gonna Come”. It’s clearly about the civil rights movement. Songs are a “snapshot in time” and it’s almost our civic duty as writers to capture these moments.
“Make songwriting a Ritual.” ~ Danielle Howle
To master writing, you have to maintain the attitude you would with anything you would master. You have to stay the course and practice writing. One of the toughest parts about working out is getting yourself in a routine. You have to be intentional and set aside time to write everyday. Get into the ritual of songwriting. If you are prolific, you are bound to have some gems in there. Also, don’t be too hard on yourself. Not ALL of your songs will be amazing. I am a huge Beatles fan. They wrote a ton of tunes and they have a lot of songs that I don’t like at all. You can’t have the cream of the crop without a good sized crop.
“If you aren’t writing, you aren’t living.” ~ Tom Conlon
Yes. It’s the second time I’ve referenced Tom Conlon, but he is a very wise man. If you aren’t filling the tank up, how do you expect to put anything out? It’s the same as any endeavor in life. Take a trip out of town, watch a movie, read a book, listen to new music, go to a show, or take part in any other activity to create some new life experiences. If you aren’t experiencing life, you will not have anything to talk about. You will be amazed at how inspiring it will be.
Hopefully, these pieces of advice will aid you in being a better writer as well. Always remember the importance of your art, make it a priority, and live a little. Until next time, happy writing!
More Songwriting Tips:
Several years ago, my friend invited me to a guitar show at Jamil Temple. As I was walking through I saw Jerry Sims playing guitar in the middle of the show. Jerry is a local legend, owner of Sims Music, and even has his own signature 7 string Ibanez guitar. After he finished playing I asked him my question I ask every great player: “What’s your best advice for improving as a player?”. Jerry thought for a moment and answered, “Learn Tunes. Honestly, to this day, I try to learn a tune a day.” I was hoping for some profound answer, instead I got, “Learn Tunes.” That has stuck with me since then and has proven to be a fact. Today, I want to share 5 ways learning tunes can improve your playing:
Every song is like a new puzzle or challenge with techniques of varying difficulty. Metallica taught me bends, hammers, and pulls. Dire Straits taught me hybrid picking and double stops. Van Halen taught me tapping. Stevie Ray taught me how to play single notes while muting others. I could go on for days. My technique is a conglomerate of all of the tunes I have learned. To this day, I am constantly challenged by the songs my students bring into the lesson room.
Some of the best riffs and songs I have written have come from learning other songs. There are so many great ideas buried in your favorite songs. The trick is to actually tear the song apart and research its innards. You can find lyrical wit, chord structure, melodies, rhythm patterns, sound effects, instrumentation, and so much more to create a pool of ideas to grab from.
3. Language and style
As I have mentioned before, music is a language. Just as Spanish, English, and German all have different characteristics and vocabulary, so do the various styles of music. Digging into songs can give you the vocabulary used in specific styles. I have delved into classical, jazz, blues, rock, bluegrass, metal, indie, grunge, and much more. Every style was a new exciting adventure for me, equipping me with a new set of vocabulary.
Your repertoire is directly proportionate to how many types of gigs you can play. If you can cover a large variety of styles and tunes, you will be able to play in a lot more situations. Also, it makes stepping into a gig easier if you have less to learn. This skill also transfers into original projects. Most music you play with others will have strains of songs that have been written before. The ideas you have garnered from your repertoire will help you in your creative process. More gigs equals more money. Having a large rep can definitely increase your worth.
I have found that my inspiration in music ebbs and flows. I do my best to keep it peaking. One of my favorite things to do is just listen to music, find something that moves me, and learn it. This almost always inspires me to play and also to write. I encourage you in your down spikes to explore and find new music that churns that inspiration back to the surface.
If you are practicing the same stuff everyday, it may be time to add something new and stretch yourself in a new direction. Try to challenge yourself into learning a new song everyday this week, but don’t just learn the song, learn from the song. Use it as a source of inspiration and a way to propel yourself to new territory and opportunities. Happy practicing!
Listening is half the battle
Everyone that is serious about playing an instrument has a music goal they are trying to reach. Oftentimes, it is to play in a particular style or like a player they love. One of the first things I ask my students is, “What are you listening to?” The music you listen to directly affects what comes out of you. Here are some good analogies:
Music is a language. You can write, read, and speak. You can create letters, words, phrases, sentences, and novels. Every language has unique qualities. The best way to learn a specific language is to immerse yourself in it. Move to the country where people speak the language. Force yourself to interact with others and put yourself in a situation where you have to use it. This might be more uncomfortable than taking a class, but it will definitely stick with you better. The same goes for music. Listen to the style you want to learn. Start consciously adding those words to your vocabulary. If you are really serious about a particular style, visit or move to a city where that style is alive and thriving. For example, if you love jazz, you should listen to jazz and consider visiting or moving to New York City or New Orleans. New York has an amazing jazz scene. If you love country, you may consider Nashville. No matter what your aspirations are, you need to be surrounded by it and challenged by those who are living it.
Just like what you eat directly affects your body, what you listen to directly affects your musicianship. It’s probably not a good idea to base your diet on commercials and what they try to convince the public is “good.” We may find ourselves stuffing our faces with cheeseburgers and fries everyday. Don’t let popular music or radio be all that you eat. Seek out things that help you grow musically and stretch your ability. I personally appreciate all styles. Every style I have studied has improved my playing in a unique way. I am so thankful that I was introduced to jazz or I wouldn’t be as accomplished an improviser or know as much about theory. Also, had I not learned classical, I wouldn’t be as nimble with my finger picking and reading.
I love the potential of art within music! You can create moods with sounds, pictures with words, movement with beats, and more. When you listen to music, you are constantly exposing yourself to new ideas that can help spark your own creativity. You can take an idea used before you and put your own spin on it. Sometimes, you can take an idea and spark a brand new idea that’s never been used before. Just as with language and nutrition, you need to carefully consider the kind of art you are trying to create. If you are struggling with lyrics in your writing, seek out some renown lyricists or poets and listen to what they have to say. You’ll be blown away by how quickly it will come out of your body.
The moral of the story is what you put in the pot directly affects what your end product is. Make sure that you take the time to dive into the style you are trying to reach, stretch yourself musically, and equip yourself fully so that your inner artist can come out. Best of luck! Remember, when listening, choose wisely.
I recently did a blog series on Rhythm guitar. This blog is geared more for songwriters. One of the things songwriters often overlook when writing a tune is being creative with time and measure. I hope these ideas add a layer to your writing.
I often ask my students about time signature, and it always seems like such a mystery to them. It’s quite simple really. The first number is how many beats per measure and the second tells you which kind of note gets one count. For example, 4/4 would have 4 beats per measure with a quarter note getting one count and 6/8 would have 6 beats per measure with an eighth note getting one count. If you haven’t experimented with writing in various time signatures, do it right away! “Money” by Pink Floyd is one of the most popular examples of a song written in an odd time signature. It’s riff is in 7/4: 7 quarter notes per measure. Here is a list of tunes someone compiled that have odd time signatures:
Odd Time Song List
Most of my students bring me songs divided up into even measures of four. I’m not trying to say that there is anything wrong with that. Sometimes you can’t beat a good 12 bar blues or 32-bar tune; however, if you want some variety in your writing, try to shake it up. Write a song that has 4 measures, and then 5 on the next line. It will blow you away how refreshing it will feel. The creative possibilities are endless.
Mix it Up
Once you have tried odd time signatures and odd measuring, mix it up and really get creative. I have a song that starts off in 7/4 for the verse and goes to 4/4 for the chorus, and another that starts off in 4/4, and switches to 6/8 in the bridge. Maybe add a 2/4 measure. That’s another really cool technique to make a typical chord progression sound refreshing. Here are couple of songs to check that mix it up really well: “Black Bird” by The Beatles and “New Slang” by The Shins. Go listen to them and see if you can map out what’s happening in those tunes. Then, go experiment on your own.
I hope this entry will equip you with more creative ammo. Until next time, happy writing!
We talked about basic subdivision, passing, and mixing things up in Rhythm Guitar – Part 1. Then, in Rhythm Guitar – Part 2, we discussed techniques, resting, and adding/removing notes. Most recently, in Rhythm Guitar Part 3, we took the chord block and broke into pieces. Today, we are going to delve further into rhythm with accenting and swinging.
Yet another level of creativity is picking random parts of the beat and accenting them. Accenting simply means you play one beat louder than the rest. I generally recommend for my guitar students to over emphasize the accented beat, and play the others very soft. That way they can hear the distinction between them very easily. Start by accenting the first beat of any rhythm pattern. Then, shift the accented beat over one beat at a time. It completely changes the rhythm each time. Now, try mixing them up. The creativity is endless!
Accenting Two and Four
Often times, you will have the luxury of playing with a drummer. You may notice the snare drum often falls in two and four, as well as crowds clapping their hands. When playing rhythm guitar by yourself, it really makes your playing groovy by you accenting two and four, and simulating that “snare effect”. Play any rhythm pattern, and then accent two in four within the pattern. At first, it may feel strange, but over time you’ll feel the groove in your rhythm come alive.
It’s very important to distinguish a straight rhythm from a swinging rhythm. When you swing a rhythm, you are literally “swinging” the 2nd half of the smallest subdivision over closer to the next beat. For example, if you played eighth notes as your smallest subdivision, you would push the +‘s closer to the numbers. You can swing a little or a lot. Try taking a rhythm you normally play straight, and swing it. It will sound totally different, even though the tempo is the same.
Hopefully by now, it has been drilled into your brain the amount of possibilities you have with rhythm guitar. You are certainly empowered with a slew of tools to make you a better, and more creative, rhythm guitar player. Happy Strumming! Make sure you check out:
Rhythm Guitar – Part 1
Rhythm Guitar – Part 2
Rhythm Guitar – Part 3
Having good rhythm is very important! There is a lot more to it than just strumming chords. In the first part of this series Rhythm Guitar – Part 1, we discussed learning how to feel the basic parts of 16th note rhythm , mixing them up, and the concept of passing the strings. Today, in part 2, we will delve further into some other concepts.
Often, guitar players think of guitar techniques as being more synonymous with taking a solo. Though these are very useful for adding flavor to a solo, they can also be very helpful for your rhythm playing too. When you are creating your rhythm, try using guitar techniques such as: slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, etc. They can really spice up your guitar riff a lot. Don’t just consciously try to use these techniques, but be creative and intentional about where you place them. You can place a slide on the e of 1, or you could place it on the + of 2, or both. It comes back again to the principle of subdivision. The possibilities of creativity are endless, thus making you a more original player.
Not playing is as important as playing. Music students often overlook the importance of silence. Music is a language, and if you are having a conversation with someone, there needs to be breaks in the dialogue to evoke response. Try resting in places that you haven’t rested before. Again, be creative! Sometimes, I try to rest longer than I naturally want to. This forces me to be patient and feel rhythms my body aren’t accustom to. It’s amazing how unique the rhythms become.
This concept is similar to the technique concept. It is as simple as adding and removing notes for the chord you are playing. Sometimes I like to think theoretically about chords, but sometimes I like to just experiment, trust my ears, and see what comes of it. Just like with resting and techniques, you can pick where you want to add and remove notes from the chords. Again, the possibilities are endless, adding yet another layer to your creativity.
As you can see playing rhythm guitar is more vast than most people think. There are so many possibilities. Make sure you check out the concepts in Rhythm Guitar – Part 1 and stay tuned for Rhythm Guitar – Part 3. I will delve into even more concepts to shake up your rhythm playing and make it more interesting. Don’t settle for just strumming like everyone else.
I often tell people my guitar teacher changed my life forever. I loved taking guitar lessons so much! I love teaching music lessons even more! There are more benefits to taking music lessons than I have space for. So, I am going to try and narrow it down…wish me luck!
I remember overhearing Luke in his voice lesson at Freeway one week. He sounded so amazing that I had to poke my head in and compliment him. He never sang in front of a crowd before, and was frightened to do so. It came time for him to perform at his first showcase, and he was so nervous that he was shaking. Luke couldn’t go through with it. So he bowed out. Then, this past Sunday we had a Christmas recital for our music students. It came time for Luke to perform again. He was so nervous. At first, he said he couldn’t do it. His voice teacher, parents, other teachers at Freeway and myself encouraged him to do it. Luke stood on stage and sang his heart out. There were tears all throughout the audience. He crushed it! I watched a student’s confidence grow right in front of my eyes. I have witnessed this time and time again. There is no doubt that music helps kids grow in confidence.
Music is such a great tool to spark creativity. Students can create melodies, lyrics, riffs, songs, and much more. There are so many elements of music that you can manipulate such as: time, meter, dynamics, tone, pitch, and even the instruments themselves. Music doesn’t stop at performance. There is writing, arrangement, production, promotion, etc. The creative possibilities in music are endless and available to all music students. I constantly challenge my students to take what they learn from their lessons, apply it, and create with it. This makes the lesson material stick better, and urges students to create their own signature within music. Michael Cammarata comes to mind. He is a guitar student of mine. He started playing guitar in his 50’s. He began writing, recorded an album, and released it recently to his church and friends. This is a great example of how any student can begin the creative process at anytime.
Music lessons are a weekly commitment. Students must come at the same time each week, and be prepared for the previous week’s lesson. I give my guitar students practice schedules detailing what they are to practice each week. Then, I have them check off the days they practiced. I even go a step further and make them sign the schedule as an extra level of accountability. Recitals and showcases force students to be accountable for a certain part they must have prepared. I don’t know any student who wants to stink it up in front of a crowd, or let their fellow students down by not being prepared for a group performance. That is a great Segway into the next benefit.
Recently, our music students marched and performed in the Blythewood Christmas parade. The students that were performing on the float called each other and rehearsed together. Once at the parade, other students came early to help set up and carry equipment. While we were marching, students were carrying the banner, making sure the equipment was safe, clapping and singing, and handing out candy. The energy was so positive as students supported and encouraged one another. The various outreach opportunities, showcases, rock band classes, and all star bands give students the chance to learn how to work together. This is a skill that will translate into school, athletics, jobs, and more.
There is a lot of research showing that musical training has various cognitive benefits. These quotes are from the Journal of Neuroscience
“If you took piano lessons as a child but never continued with them in adulthood, they could still provide brain benefits later in life”
“…And the positive effects seemed to be stronger the longer a person took music lessons as a child”
“…people could stand to benefit from starting music lessons at a very young age”
“…musical training before age 7 is linked with more white matter in the corpus callosum part of the brain, as well as better performance on visual sensorimotor synchronization tasks compared with people who started music training after age 7”
A study of 7,500 university students revealed that music majors scored the highest reading
scores among all majors including English, biology, chemistry and math
~ The Case for Music in the Schools, Phi Delta Kappa, 1994
I could list facts all day long. It is very apparent that music has incredible benefits to the brain. I believe the research speaks for itself.
If you are an adult trying to stretch your brain, or a parent considering signing up a child for lessons, I urge you to do it as soon as possible. Music lessons are a great way to make people more well-rounded. The benefits are endless. Start your music journey today!