Teaching a song writing class this fall

Charlie Bernstein

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In the back of my songwriting book (well, the first one), I have some personal musings:

Words of a song:
-- create an image
-- when we extract a meaning from the image, we create emotion
-- so the words create an image, which creates meaning, which creates emotion
-- the emotion is created from past experiences, so the individuals response and interpretation of the song will be different, since each individuals past experiences are different.

So, the words create images & emotional responses, based on each individuals past experiences.
Words (the story/images) tap into our memories at a subconscious level.
Good thought. I'll be sure to include imagery in the words toolbox.
Well, these are my musings, and may not be applicable or helpful in what you're presenting in class.

I think one session should be devoted to the musical aspects: tempo, rhythm, melody, as well as volume (dynamics), tone and percussiveness.
Yes. As I think I said, the first session will include some lecture on the toolboxes for words and music.
These aspects should complement the theme of the story.
Yes — or belie it. Two great belie examples: In the Hunter/Garcia tune "Friend of the Devil," the words are a downer, but the the tune is perky, which gives the meaning a twist. In Steve Winwood's "Back In the High Life," the words are happy but the music isn't, which casts the whole song in irony — which Warren Zevon zeros in on in his version.
IMO beginner songwriters tend to overlook their ability to bore people. (Especially today people can be bored very quickly.)
Varying the momentum (tempo, rhythm &/or melody), as well as the intensity and tone, can create interest.
We can also add interest by adding chord inversions, slash chords, chord variations (add 2nd, sus 4th, 6th, M7, M9), seventh chords, and chord substitutions (9ths, 11ths, 13ths, 9b5, etc), and spice up chords changes with Dim and Aug chords.
Yup. That'll be in the music toolbox.
In a nutshell, it is often far easier to make a song boring with dull musical attributes than with dull words.
Interesting idea.

Thanks!
 

Charlie Bernstein

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Not to pile on (I'm merely developing a motif) but melody is not only huge, it's probably where the most people need the most help. I know I sure do. I tend to write as a rap to avoid dealing with melody while the content is being hammered out. But now I'm stuck and I don't want it to be a rap, nor a one repeated note monotone "melody"
We won't discourage rap, of course. Some of my favorite no-rapper artists have used monotony to great effect, like Guthrie, Dylan, and Gil Scot Heron.

Melody is a tool in the toolbox. As songwriters, we might never use it, but we should know how.
 

effzee

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A few years back a band of mine opened for an excellent mostly female all-originals hard rock band called The Rumours. When I heard the name, I was in disbelief- surely they were a Fleetwood Mac coverband? That public perception never occured to them (they are in their 20s)
Huh. I immediately heard Graham Parker in my head when I read that, haha.

Um, speaking of good lyricists, he'd be one of them. Elvis Costello and Jim Carroll followed my thought bubble here, too.

Anyway, what I would like to get from a songwriting course would be a deeper understanding of chord progressions, why they work the way they do, and how to create melodies on top of them.
 

swarfrat

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That wasn't meant to disparage rap, even though I'm not a huge fan.. When I write as a rap it's to keep my lyrics aligned with meter. It's very much unfinished at that point though, as I'm not a rap artist.
 

swarfrat

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Okay - I have to admit - I've occasionally mocked single note melodies as unimaginative. Not really lumping the Beatles or Chopin in there with the modern examples. This despite the working melody I'm using in a tune being relatively flat. I ran across this today... and I'd never really thought of what it's good for - building tension. And I think my working melody is probably on the right track after all after watching this video.

 

blueruins

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Some things I’ve learned writing song for 40 years…For every rule you’ll find countless great songs that break that rule.

However, IMO a great song is one with integrity.

By integrity I mean that every facet of the song serves the central idea of the song. The lyrics convey the main idea. The words and metaphors are consistent and carefully chosen to convey and illuminate the themes.

The music should be evocative of the lyrics and appropriate to the message. Hendrix was a master at musical allusion; I think of how he made the wind howl in his cover of Watchtower or how he shot the lady down in Hey Joe. Jimi was always illustrating his words with music.

The best of the classic singer/songwriters such as Billy Joel always understood and we’re masters of this craft. Piano Man was written to sound like a beer joint rag to further the theme of the story. Paul Simon likewise always conjured images of ethnic New York neighborhoods he wrote about or could convey the expanse of a moonlit field with a rolling fingerpicked passage.

If you can get across the feeling of your lyrical ideas you’re well on your way to being a good songwriter.
 

oldunc

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Thanks! Good thoughts.

Yep. Tools, not rules. A linguist on another forum I visit likes to say that English doesn't have rules, it has tendencies. The same goes for song writing — in any language.

So we plan to supply folks (if anyone signs up) with a lyrics toolbox and a music toolbox. The first session will cover those — and now that you mention it, cliches will be in the lyrics toolbox.

The issue is where/when/how. Without 'em, we wouldn't have "I Second That Emotion" or "Knock On Wood" or "Stop In the Name of Love."

As you can tell, I love cliches. One of my best recent songs is called "Don't Knock It Till You Try It." Cliche? Utterly. Grammy fodder? Hardly. A perky little ditty? You bet!

When my oldest niece was three, she was doing something highly zany. So I said, "Tiya, you're out of your mind." She stopped what she was doing and very patiently (like she was talking to a three-year-old) said, "No, Charlie. I'm in my mind. I'm out of your mind."

When I got home, I cranked out a solid girl-dumps-boy breakup song: "She's Driving Him Out of Her Mind."

Re booze and rain:

Another where/when/how. No topic or word is off limits. We won't tell anyone what to work on. We'll just help them make it work.
I don't think any (non synthetic) language has rules. Some of the cliches you mention are actually plays on cliches (I Second That Emotion, Stop in the Name of Love), which I think could be a separate category entirely. The trouble with cliches (or plays on cliches, like "Driving Him Out of Her Mind") is that I spend the rest of the day trying to remember where I've heard them before.
Good luck with the project.
 

Old Verle Miller

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Some things I’ve learned writing song for 40 years…For every rule you’ll find countless great songs that break that rule.

...

If you can get across the feeling of your lyrical ideas you’re well on your way to being a good songwriter.
You so appropriately include a reference to Paul Simon, who I consider the master of no-rules songwriting. Consider two of the greatest songs of all time, The Sounds Of Silence and Bridge Over Troubled Water and compare those to the loose and silly genius of You Can Call Me Al or Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard.

An entire course could be built around his work.
 

standup

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Sounds like a challenge — your students may coming from all over the map.

I’ve been writing songs for many years, and always try to get better. I wrote one when I was 25 that paid a small amount in royalties for years. I’m writing better songs now, but they’re not getting played except by a very small number of folks online. What did I know when I was 25? Not much. I know more now.

oh well, there’s no sign of me quitting.

Teach your students a bunch of the starter exercises. Get them writing lists of words, or word clouds, or charts of related words. I find all those things useful. Give them a reading list, maybe with books by Pat Pattinson, folks like that.
 

Charlie Bernstein

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I don't think any (non synthetic) language has rules. Some of the cliches you mention are actually plays on cliches (I Second That Emotion, Stop in the Name of Love),
That's right.
which I think could be a separate category entirely.
Cliches have at least two subs: as-is and altered. I plan to cover both. Without cliches, the song world would be a poorer place. The skill comes in using them intentionally.
The trouble with cliches (or plays on cliches, like "Driving Him Out of Her Mind") is that I spend the rest of the day trying to remember where I've heard them before.
Good luck with the project.
=O]
 

Bluzzi

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It seems like your course would be better suited to focus on songwriting appreciation. Study song lyrics of a few genres, talk about what worked to make them popular, how they blended with melody or chord structure, language, common motifs, etc.

The theory there is maybe the students will find a pro songwriter that they particularly like and want to emulate. Sorta like literature classes where you study several styles of literature and talk about the characteristics of each. I found Vonnegut that way and have since read every novel he wrote.

Some examples:
Hank Williams
Buddy Holly
Grateful Dead (this is really rich in borrowing other styles)
Bob Dylan (He was a bohemian songwriter from the mold of e.e. cummings or Ginsburg.)
John Prine (A truly great songwriter on par with F. Scott Fitzgerald for economy of prose)
Jimmy Buffett (A truly mediocre songwriter, but he's popular. Why?)
Beatles (of course. But mostly John Lennon, who effortlessly switched from writing very meaningful lyrics to nonsense. You could do a whole hour on I Am The Walrus. And he loved Lewis Carroll, so you can examine what he borrowed.)
Eminem
Smokey Robinson
The Carter Family (compare a Carter Family song about heartbreak to a Rolling Stones song about the same topic)
Excellent response. Most of us do not have any mentors when it comes to music or songwriting. The latter is even harder to find. Don't forget to teach about confidence and vulnerability as well. Confidence enough to believe in what you do and vulnerability enough to write something honest (hardest thing to do without being maudlin).

No rules to it all is true but I think it's more there are rules but then when you actually are in the process there are no rules. Also there are many types of writers or writing songs. There are songs that write themselves. Those can be the toughest for me as I always wonder why it was so easy!. Then there are the ones where you have music but the lyrics come in pieces over weeks or months. Then there is all the other permutations of those.

The main thing for me that keeps me going is that I truly love writing. I NEED to write. Listening to the best songwriters in the genres you love is the best school. So many amazing songwriters out there it can get discouraging. Yes you probbaly will never achive the level of a Dylan or Lennon McCartney or Lucinda Williams and a hundred more literary geniuses but who knows you may have one great song in there and it's worth striving to find out!
 

Bluzzi

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Well, we shouldn't forget that terrible music still gives joy to someone out there. Jessica Simpson sold 2 million copies of her first album. I'm a music snob and a literature snob; which is my problem and not anyone else's problem.
Well there is no accounting for taste as they say...but then I say it's true until you reach a point and get **** and try and taste that!
 

Charlie Bernstein

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Excellent response. Most of us do not have any mentors when it comes to music or songwriting.
Yup. That's why we think people will sign up.
The latter is even harder to find. Don't forget to teach about confidence and vulnerability as well.
You can't teach confidence. We aim to build it.
Confidence enough to believe in what you do and vulnerability enough to write something honest (hardest thing to do without being maudlin).
We'll cover that in our Hallmark card discussion.
No rules to it all is true
Exactly. Our mantra: Tools, not rules.
but I think it's more there are rules
I can't think of any. What rules are you thinking of?
but then when you actually are in the process there are no rules.
No, indeed!
Also there are many types of writers or writing songs.
Yup. That's why we want to help students develop their own approaches instead of teaching them ours.
. . . The main thing for me that keeps me going is that I truly love writing. I NEED to write.
Yup. It's like people who love practicing guitar get good at it.
Listening to the best songwriters in the genres you love is the best school.
Yes, we'll encourage that. We'll start by asking: What's a song you wish you wrote? Why? That will tell us a lot.
So many amazing songwriters out there it can get discouraging. Yes you probbaly will never achive the level of a Dylan or Lennon McCartney or Lucinda Williams and a hundred more literary geniuses but who knows you may have one great song in there and it's worth striving to find out!
Fer sher! My partner in crime Buddy and I both expect that the students will have at least this in common with us: that they have countless songs in them ready to come out.

It's people who feel that way who will sign up.
 

Charlie Bernstein

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Well, we shouldn't forget that terrible music still gives joy to someone out there. Jessica Simpson sold 2 million copies of her first album. I'm a music snob and a literature snob; which is my problem and not anyone else's problem.
It's not a music appreciation class. It's a songwriting class. We'd be loath to say Jessica's (or anyone's) music is bad. If a student's musical muse is Jessica, that's fine with us.

We're not song snobs. We're song sluts.
 

Charlie Bernstein

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True, to classical music snobs, the music I like is terrible.

I had a co-worker once who was really into Garth Brooks. The more brain-dead and hackneyed ol' Garth got, the more this dude liked it. He later got fired for looking at dirty pictures on his work computer though, not sure if the two things are related.
It depends. Were they dirty pictures of Garth?
 




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