Category Archives: Melody

Song Writer’s Block: Help Is At Hand!

Why Writers Block is a myth.

I have never had writer’s block. I try, and I try, and I try, but I just keep writing. I’ve got writer’s block block.

Sure, I’ve had periods of slacking off, but that was just down to laziness, business, or boredom. In the back of my mind I knew that if push came to shove I could crank out a verse or two.

Sure, I’ve had trouble in the writing process. I’ve been clawing up the walls trying to think of rhymes, I’ve been going for long walks trying to coagulate my themes, I’ve been busting my gut every now and then to complicate my chord progressions. It’s never an entirely easy process.

And sure, there have been times when I’ve been absolutely clueless and left my bedroom in a huff, swearing to cast down the pen and all who wield it, and I’ve sat down and played XBOX all night instead.

Any of these things sound familiar? Thought so. I’ve got all the symptoms of writer’s block, I’ve just never diagnosed myself, right? Wrong.

When most people think of writer’s block they imagine that their stream of creativity has been somehow cut off at the source, and they need huge action to pry open the dam. But that’s not it: you’ve been looking at the stream, not the reservoir.

Each one of us has an immense wellspring of raw songwriting material with which to create stuff. Where, I hear you ask? Your whole life. Every friend, every story, every moment, every emotion, every setting, every character, every accidental metaphor, every bureaucratic injustice, every human fallacy, every bit of cloud, every dust mote, every cat, dog, or amoeba: it’s all there to write about. You’ve got no excuse to be blocked up.

But if you were to say: “but, but, but… my writer’s block comes from not being able to think of good rhymes, good metaphors, or good melodies.” Don’t worry. Start with bad rhymes, bad metaphors, and bad melodies, and work up from there. Allow yourself to be bad for a while. No-one expects you to be a teenage prodigy: But keep writing.

But if you were to say: “but, but, but… I can’t even express how my writer’s block stops me.” My advice is to get off your hind parts and roll away your stone. I stopped writing through pure, unadulterated laziness. Just a moment of self-control and you’ll power through the supposed block.

So, what is writer’s block? It’s one of three things: the excuse your brain gives you when you want to play XBOX; it’s the inability to create, through lack of practice, good song structures; and it’s the inability to see the world that inspires you.

And if you still think you’ve got writer’s block: get out and live. If inspiration comes from life, then make that life huge.

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Do Lyrics Matter In A Song?: Chuck Berry Vs B.B. King

The First Great Rock Lyricist: Dont Chuck Berry.

“The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away
You know you done me wrong baby
And you’ll be sorry someday”

The Thrill Is Gone – B.B. King

Reading B.B. King’s lyrics without accompaniment is a bit like peeing in a fridge: cold, unsatisfying, and not really what it’s meant for. Slapping his lyrics up on here does the great man a real disservice, but let’s take them as they are for a moment. They’re fairly pedestrian, without much depth or particular interest.

“Way down in Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
He never ever learned to read and write so well
But he could play a guitar just like ringing a bell

Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry

Compare his with Mr Berry’s. Chuck’s lyrics absolutely leap off the page. They’re so rich: full of character, energy, imagery, and humour. Mr Berry’s lyrics were so good they defined a whole genre. Not only that, but they lasted: I’ve heard that Johnny B. Goode has been appeared on more albums than any other song in history.

Before the King-ites come howling out of their Blues Dens, I’m not saying that Chuck beats B.B. I’m saying they’re equally good: Blues lyrics are more a vehicle for the music. They highlight the emotions in broad strokes, which is fine, but they struggle with detail.

What Chuck does differently is specificity. He narrows his focus, bringing in literary elements such as character, plot, and setting. He can tackle any subject – from political to romantic – and take it any way he wants – from humorous to sentimental.

The contrast between the two is huge: It’s the difference between seeing the world out of focus and seeing it in 20:20. Being able to accurately portray the world is the greatest and most important facility of the artist, and sometimes broad strokes is not enough.

So yes, lyrics do matter in a song. Unless, of course, you’re King of the Blues.

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What Makes A Great Chorus?

The Ting Tings: Jules De Martino and Katie White.

“Clap your hands if you’re working too hard”

The Ting Tings – Hands

If the Ting Tings hadn’t strapped this lyric onto an interminable sub-Kraftwerk wind tunnel and had it voiced by a supermarket counter, it would have been the best chorus ever written.

I can’t resist it. It voices a universal truth of our work-stricken modern life. It speaks to the backbreaking labour of the working class and the high-voltage deskwork of the bankers. It makes you proud to work and proud to rebel. In 9 syllables, ladies and gentlemen.

A good chorus can make or break a song. It’s the song’s gravestone: the verses can have faff around a bit, but the chorus is what they’ll remember. It can pump a song to new levels of commercial appeal: there’s a reason that one-hit wonders plague our charts. They’re all built on strong choruses. Example: £100 to anyone who can remember the lyrics to the second verse of “Who Let The Dogs Out”?

When trying to describe a perfect chorus, people will often grope for the boardroom bonehead’s best buzzword: ‘It’s really catchy.” “Wow, that’s so catchy.” I want to tell you here and now to think of “Catchy” as a myth.

There can be no doubting that some songs are ‘Catchier’ than others, though I feel unclean using that word. Melody contributes, chords contribute, and structure certainly contributes, but I honestly don’t really care too much about a ‘Catchy’ formula: it makes it seem as though you should base your songwriting around whether it’s Catchy or not. Let me tell you: if you bash on the front gate of the Catchy mansion, you won’t get anywhere close.

So let’s try the back way in. I love Hands because it epitomises what I think a good chorus should do. Let’s split this down into two stages.

First: Validation. The first thing a great chorus should do is validate an identity, either of a group or a community. Consider Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA. You’re trying to get the ‘That’s Me!’ moment on the other end of the wireless. I’ve heard it said that art should articulate and make clear what people feel, and the chorus is your moment to shine.

There are two routes: either you reach out to as many people as possible on a general level, or you speak to a small group incredibly personally. What makes Hands so incredible is that it speaks to a universal audience on a deeply personal level, but that’s a once-in-a-career moment. I’d advise taking one of the two routes above and hoping that you strike gold.

Second: Catharsis. This is where you can deliver a chorus that can change someone’s life. Once you’ve achieved the ‘That’s Me!’ moment, you’ve got them in the palm of your hand. Now it’s time to smack them out of the park.

This is where it takes a bit of personal tailoring to your audience. More often than not it’s simply enough to give people a voice. Consider Pulp’s Common People, or Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changing: the very act of giving voice to those who cannot speak gives the song strength. But you can do so much more: once you engage people on a personal level you can breathe new life into their lives.

Every music listener has songs that light a fire in their hearts, that seems to speak directly to you. Validating an identity, then allowing that identity Catharsis. That’s the big secret.

You have 9 syllables to change someone’s life. Choose carefully.

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Lyrics or Music: Which One First?

How to get the most out of your harvest. (Image Source: Flickr)

In my rather lengthy period of blogging absence I’ve noticed quite a trend amongst the twittersphere. In 140 characters, always the same question, repeated like a broken record. When you feel the sudden bolt of creativity, what should you reach for? Your right hand itches for the pen, but your left longs for the guitar. Which one?

I’ll tell you: Both. When you feel that raw pulp of creativity welling up, you’ve got to start singing what you’re thinking. If you play an instrument, strum some chords together and sing over it. If you release all those inhibitions, you’ll start finding lyrics and melodies that you wouldn’t be able to dream of if you worked through it one by one: working through both at the same time gives a song an incredible unity of elements that you can’t recapture when you separate them.

This is why I devoted an entire post to the Ernest Hemingway quote: “The First Draft Of Everthing is S**t”. The more you just let go, the more you stop censoring your work, the more good stuff you’ll get out of those spurts of creativity. It’s an elegant irony: The more you allow yourself to be s**t, the better you’ll be.

I can understand the appeal of “Lyrics Or Music”: it seems to provide a clear structure: first one, then the other. But separating the elements can do a great deal of harm to your songwriting, so what kind of structure can we place instead?

Think about a wheat harvest. You’ve got two stages of production (I assume: bear with me, readers, I ain’t no farmer). First, the combine harvester goes around and gathers all the wheat it can. No stalk is left untouched. You get a lot of chaff, but you get a fair bit of wheat as well. Let’s call it the harvest stage.

In the second stage, the farmers go around and pick all the wheat out of the chaff. The chaff gets thrown away, and the wheat gets stored. It’s a slow process, but it’s very deliberate and pre-meditated. Let’s call it the refinement stage.

You can apply the same logic to your songwriting. First, harvest. The sun may only shine on your creativity for half an hour a week, but you’ve got to gather all the material you can from that. Write down the chords, record voice memos of the melodies: do whatever you can to remember them, because this is where the best wheat comes from. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll write a lot of s**t, but this where the second part comes in.

Second, refinement. Take the wheat from the chaff. In between the creativity is where all the good work gets done. I mentioned Bruce Springsteen’s Car analogy in a separate post, but I’ll return to it again: If three cars aren’t working, you take all the parts that work and stick them in a new car, then bolt ’em all up and get it on the road.

If you write 3 terrible songs, I bet you that there’s enough good bits to get one song really revving hard. Thing is: songs are far more malleable than cars. Take a chorus from one and turn it into a bridge. Take a strong lyric and slap it onto a strong melody. You’ll have to tweak the lyrics, but the new combinations of verses and chorus’s will throw up delicious new themes and ideas. You really can’t go wrong.

The car analogy goes further: remember that 10-minute stream of consciousness piece you wrote about your ex-girlfriend? (read: beat-up 1970 Austin Maxi) Strip it for parts and move on. Start thinking of your songbook as a junkyard rather than a showroom. Don’t be afraid to go in there with a sledgehammer.

The Lyrics or Music debate really needs silencing. Don’t waste your creativity noodling away on meaningless melodies, or stressing over stale poetry. Dive upon your instrument of choice and play.

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The Secret Ingredient Of Productivity

Kung Fu Panda (2008) - Enlightening productivity ideas and family fun.

I am writing to you, gentle reader, in a state of disarray. After crash-landing back into my university schedule I have suddenly been inundated with countless pressures on my time and energy. I feel as though I’m trapped in a giant, greasy bagel of need which is sucking out all my creative juices.

Needless to say: songs still need to be written, blogs still need to be written, essays still need to be written. But how can it be managed? How can you remain productive? I’ll tell ya, but first I’m going to explain the airborne omnivore currently floating in your eyeline.

Mr Kung Fu Panda, or Po to his friends, works at a noodle shop run by his dad, Ping. Ping sells loads of noodles because of the ‘secret ingredient’ that they contain, which apparently makes them extra nice. Po, disapproving of this dull business venture, nonchalantly becomes a Dragon Master, appears in a short training montage, and goes up against some kind of evil tiger.

However, at his moment of doubt, when all hope is fading, when he realises that he can never fulfill his promise to be a Dragon Master, he turns to Ping.

“Son,” Ping says, “Do you want to know the secret ingredient of my noodles?

“There is no secret ingredient.”

I know that many may not appreciate taking advice from a cartoon goose, but this is too important to miss out on.

Productivity is a state of mind. If you feel energised and focused, you will work more and therefore produce more. So, whatever you do to make you feel productive actually makes you more productive. Let me explain.

I reckon it’s all down to the placebo effect. Many of you will already know what this is, so I won’t go into detail, but you can Wikipedia it if the mood strikes you. It basically means that if you attribute an object/situation with an effect, the brain will simulate the effect and make you believe it is working. For example, if you tell someone that an M&M will make their headache go away, it will help kill the pain of their headache. But there’s no secret ingredient in the M&M which suddenly turns it into an efficient painkiller: you are the secret ingredient.

It also applies to the creative process. I have a friend who could only write poetry if she drove out to a remote location and scribbled in the dark. Roald Dahl could only write in his shed, using a rotting plank as a desk. Both effective, if slightly mental, placebos.

I have purpose-built my own placebo. Want to know what it is? Tea. Yes, Tea. If you didn’t know I was English before, you do now. When I’m working, I do 50 minutes on, 10 minutes tea drinking. This can go on for hours before I need a proper break. It’s not the caffeine, the heat or even the regular breaks that make me productive, though they probably contribute: It’s just that when I hold that mug of Tetley’s in the morning, I feel the need to work.

How did I do this? The law of repetition and relation. A fair while ago, I purchased Call of Duty 4, and on the same shopping trip bought a new coat, filled with fake fur which had a very distinctive smell. The heating had gone out in our house, so as I settled in for a massive sesh I put on my new coat. To this day, when I smell that fake fur I feel like I want to shoot things. The repetition of playing for such a long time had related the smell of the coat with the feeling. Weird, eh?

So what does this mean for you? It means that if you discover a placebo that naturally makes you work harder, turn it into a habit. With enough repetition, you will relate the object to the feeling, like my cup of Tetley’s. Your creative juices will flow, you’ll become super-productive, and you’ll finally take your place as a Dragon Master.

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Don’t Look Back In Anger: Why The Best Stuff Is Old

Paolo Nutini's Sunny Side Up (2009)

“It was in love I was created
And in love is how I hope I die”

Coming Up Easy – Paolo Nutini

Paolo Nutini’s Sunny Side Up has been whipping around my iPod for the whole Christmas holiday. It’s a barnstormer; Nutini completely does away with the pillock-pop of his over-produced first album and just tears the studio apart.

It’s written about his time touring, and it would be a spectacularly narrow album were it not for his musical eclecticism. He samples a huge variety of genres, from swing blues (Pencil Full of Lead), to scottish folk (Chamber Music) to first-wave ska (10/10). But he doesn’t just try to imitate them; he gives them all the Nutini treatment, ramps up the energy levels, and commits them to disc.

But why bother sampling all these different genres? Surely, great artists can pull brilliant new arrangements out of the air? Surely, they’d just be suddenly inspired, jump out of the bath, and run naked down the street clutching a new chord progression?

Oh, no. Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal. The reason that it’s such a good idea to nick what’s gone before is that it works. You wouldn’t launch a product without market research, would you?

Bob Dylan stole from Woody Guthrie. The Rolling Stones stole from Chuck Berry. And those guys were working in times when music was expensive. We’re the lucky generation. We’ve got Spotify, iTunes, YouTube… an almost limitless supply of free/cheap music at our disposal, going right back to the 1910’s. So why would you stick in the noughties?

I know that plucking random artists out of the air can be a thankless task, so I’ll show you what I use to get ideas from the past. http://www.allmusic.com/ is a tremendously under-used service. It’s the Wikipedia of music, with detailed reviews of artists, albums, and songs. But here’s the clever bit. Say you use the genre bar on the homepage, and go into Rap. You can then click on, say, Jazz-Rap (which is awesome, by the way) and you get a detailed biography of what the Jazz-Rap movement was all about.

Then, you click on Top Artists. This is the cool bit. Not only do you get a detailed list of everyone who’s ever made Jazz-Rap, but you get a ranking of how representative they are of this genre. Perfick.

So, next time you’re stuck for ideas, head over to allmusic.com, put on your musical balaclava, and get ready to rob!

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Fly Me To The Melody: How Chords Work

A stylishly rumpled Ol' Blue Eyes.

“Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars

Fly Me To The Moon (In Other Words) – Bart Howard

TUNE! I dare you to listen to the Frank Sinatra version without clicking your fingers. For the uninitiated, it’s a rip roaring Bossa Nova Wedding Disco extravaganza, with a whole wodge of Great Gatsby swing in its tail. It’s a corker.

And it doesn’t age. Written in 1954, it still sounds like it’s flowing off the pen of a Broadway hitmaker. How does it do this? What’s the magic elixir?

It’s the melody. One of the best I’ve come across, actually. It flows like a river, all full of accidentals, tiny little steps, perfectly placed leaps, and a chord progression that’ll knock your socks off.

Here we go:

| Cm7 | Fm7 | Bb7 | Ebmaj7 || Ab | Dm7b5 | G9 | Cm7 |

Ohhh yes. Those bewildered by music theory, please come out from behind your desk chairs. I shall now endeavour to explain this big ol’ mess.

1. Focal Points

The melody’s beautifully simple if you imagine it like this: you’ve got a wooden block that’s six notes long. The melody tracks from one end to the other, and then goes back up. You start it at the top of the scale (Eb-Ab), and after each half-a-line you move it down one note. So, it goes like this:

Fly (Eb) me to the moon (Ab)
And let me play (D) among those stars (G)
Let (C) me see what spring (F) is like
On Ju-(B)-piter and Mars (Eb)

How utterly perfect! You’ve moved your 6-note woodblock down 4 notes and you’ve made it back to the root! Doesn’t it make you smile? These notes I’ve drawn onto the lyrics are what I’m gonna call the Focal Points of the melody, and as we can see, they move in a wonderfully structured order in this song.

So, use this idea of the woodblock in your travels. Doesn’t have to be six notes long, it can be as many or as little as you want, but it will really benefit your writing.

2. VI’s and V’s

Have a look at that chord sequence up top. Notice anything? No? Well, I’ll tell ya.

Chords are creatures of habit. They’re used to moving in cadences (harmonic transitions), and they don’t take kindly to small jumps. Happily, this progression is jammed full of 4th and 5th cadences. It’s got swing, momentum, and just sounds right.

It’s a strange phenomenon, and someday some wiry-haired academic will churn out a dissertation on it. For now, though, let’s just marvel at the phenomenon of cadences and use as many 4th and 5th’s as is humanly possible.

3, Accidentals in Chords

The super-nerds among you will have noticed the apparent mistake in the ‘Focal Points’ section and will be eagerly hovering your mouse above the comments section like a digital vulture. For the normo’s: can you spot it?

Yes, that’s right, I did mean to put (B) instead of (Bb). It’s an accidental (a note not normally in the scale) that rides beautifully over its corresponding chord: G9.

See, accidentals are what make a melody stand out. Think about Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’. (“Very Far… Very Far…”) It’s all very well sticking to the regulation Doh-Ray-Me scale, but a real showstopper melody has to have a few accidentals.

But how do you get them in? Well, if you’re using the woodblock idea to get a melody on the road, then stick one of the focal points on an accidental. It’ll sound gorgeous.

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