Co-writing songs

Illustration by Andy Watt

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 229. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Andy Watt. Click the image to download a pdf.

There are very few jobs where you promise to give away half your wages before you get to work, but this is what happens when two or more people decide to write a song together. And they do it with good reason; did you know that almost half the number of chart-topping hits in the USA since 1955 were written by more than one person? But if collaboration is clearly an effective way of writing a song, how is it done? How do two brains work together to produce something truly great? [Read more…]

Accidental plagiarism in songwriting

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 229. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Andy Watt. Click the image to download a pdf.

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TGR229.plagiarism

It’s a common feeling. You write a line and it immediately sounds just right. Timeless. Familiar. Almost… too familiar. You play the finished song to your mates and someone notices – you’ve copied someone else’s track. Gutted, you delete that great-sounding line and spend hours trying to write something that sounds as good.

This sort of accidental copying happens to every songwriter from time to time. Most of us just exhale sadly and hope wait for inspiration to flow again, following the tracks of our tears. But some take the darker path, keeping the copied section and hoping that no-one will notice. Leading us to the inevitable question: how much of someone else’s song can actually be copied?

The answer, frustratingly, is ‘none at all’. Contrary to popular myth, there is no maximum number of notes you can copy ‘legally’. If your song sounds recognisably like part of another song, and the other side can demonstrate in court that copying has occurred, you could end up owing someone a lot of money, or even lose ownership of your own work. [Read more…]

You can’t teach songwriting! (from Total Guitar magazine)

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 231, September 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Andy Watt. Click the image to download a pdf.

TG231 screenshotTo many songwriters and music fans, the title above seems pretty self-evident. Most successful songwriters weren’t taught how to write songs, and besides, songwriting is a form of self-expression, so what’s to teach?

Perhaps surprisingly, speaking as someone who ‘teaches’ songwriting, I’d go a long way towards agreeing with this statement. There is no formula for writing a song, and although there are methods and techniques that are in common use, these are so varied that it’s impossible to identify one that works in every situation. But if we assume that most songwriters don’t write their best work on the first attempt, it follows that if songwriting can’t be taught, it can certainly be learnt.

How, exactly, do we learn? If popular song is a form of self-expression, it could be viewed as a kind of language, with its own grammar, structure and rules. We can learn a (second) language by buying a phrase book or working with a teacher, but it’s easier just to go and live in the relevant country – and of course we learned our first language just by growing up hearing it every day.

The first teaching method is to ensure that the student has heard lots of songs, and by ‘heard’ I mean really listened in detail. If you love a particular songwriter’s work, it’s worth putting the hours into working out exactly how their songs are constructed. How many bars are in the intro? How many times per bar do the chords change? What rhymes, images and syllable-counts are used in the lyric? Is the melody mainly scalic (consecutive notes), static (repeated notes) or intervallic (leaping between notes)? We don’t necessarily have to copy all of these characteristics all of the time, but a little bit of this sort of geeky analysis can help us to understand what we love about our musical influences. By analysing repertoire, we can build up an arsenal of songwriting weaponry from which to choose when we’re writing. Our song could begin with four bars of Pearl Jam-style half-bar chord changes, have an opening lyric with some Joni Mitchell-esque visual lyric imagery, using descending scalic melody sequences reminiscent of JS Bach. And because we’re only copying compositional characteristics (as opposed to the actual music or lyric) we’re still being creative. This method can help us to break existing musical habits: paradoxically, using someone else’s techniques can make our own songs sound more original.

TG231 illustrationThe second teaching method is to apply all of the above to our own songs, and learn about our personal songwriting styles. We all have subconscious musical rat-runs in our songwriting. One of my own students recently discovered, through self-analysis, that he’d written an entire album where every melody phrase started on the second beat of the bar. Once he’d realised this he could choose to allow or avoid the tendency; in this way he developed new creative options in his songwriting, making his albums more interesting for the listener.

The final, and perhaps most important teaching method, is disappointingly obvious. In a word – practice. Songwriting is a musical (and literary) skill and it gets better the more you do it. A guaranteed way to make your songwriting ten times better is to write ten songs and trash your least favourite nine.

But this is all unnecessary, cry the naysayers. The Beatles were never taught songwriting – they just wrote from the heart. Well, not taught perhaps, but they certainly learned. Strumming along to Little Richard and Carl Perkins records in Liverpool living rooms – and six-hour covers band sets in Hamburg clubs? Repertoire analysis. Co-writer negotiations between Lennon and McCartney? Self-analysis. And the journey from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’? Practice.

So no, you probably can’t teach songwriting. But every time we listen to the radio, go to a gig or play a cover version, we’re learning to write better songs.

The Song Remains The Same – Why? (from Total Guitar Magazine)

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 228, June 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Naomi Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

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TGR228–evolution

Every song is different. Different words, different chords, different melody. If parts of a song sound similar to another, the musicologists get busy and the lawyers move in. But when you think about the way songs are constructed, you might say that they have more similarities than differences.

Dig out the chord sheet and lyrics for the last song you wrote, and play it through. Chances are, it’s in 4/4 time, lasts between three and four minutes, features the title in the chorus, has 4-bar sections, and stays in one key throughout. The chord changes probably occur on the barline or the half barline, and there will be two or three verses with rhymes at the end of each line – all sung by a first person character. Even if it doesn’t have all of these characteristics, it probably has most of them. Almost all successful songs do.

There’s no law that says we have to write songs within these constraints, and yet we keep coming back to them. Why should this be? One theory is that there’s a form of evolution going on, through a version of what Charles Darwin described as variation and selection. The logic goes like this: thousands of new songs are created every day with different characteristics. Music fans ‘select’ – through CD purchase, gig attendance, downloads, viral sharing etc – the songs with the characteristics that appeal to them the most. Most new songs don’t become popular, ie, they ‘die out’, while only a minority ‘survive’.

But evolution can’t exist without reproduction, so how do songs ‘reproduce’? In interviews, songwriters love talking about their influences. When we write songs, we’re affected by all the music we’ve ever heard. Chuck Berry begat the Rolling Stones, and the Stones gave birth to Primal Scream, who had a baby and named it Kasabian. As Darwin might say, songs inherit characteristics from their parents. When we write songs, we add new creative ideas to the mix; if enough people like our new song, it might become a success, and go on to influence other songwriters. Variation, selection and reproduction.

Of course, extreme ideas are constantly being tried. New songs might have long durations, non-rhyming lyrics and unusual time signatures, particularly in specialist genres such as metal or prog. But take a look at any list of classic favourites. Hardly any of them feature these more exotic characteristics, but they very often have some slightly quirky feature that makes them different enough to avoid cliché but not so ‘far out’ that music fans walk away.

Through the efforts of all songwriters, song evolution is constantly trying different mutations, and music lovers keep selecting the ones that they like the most. The result is a form of music that is always changing and refining itself, with each new song being a unique individual but resembling its ancestors in some way. Influential songs have themselves evolved from other successful songs, and so on back into history, presumably all the way to the prehistoric cave gig that started it all.

EvolutionAs songwriters, we already subconsciously know the ‘rules’ of song form, having absorbed them through a lifetime of listening to music. Over hundreds of years of songwriting and listening, songwriters and fans alike have learned these rules and passed them on. Eventually we’re not even aware of them – we just assume we’re going to write an intro, verse and chorus, and be finished before the egg timer pings.

Does this mean that we’re not creative as songwriters? Are we just recycling the same song over and over? Far from it. A haiku has seventeen syllables. Most movies last longer than one hour and less than three. Video games have goals, progression and achievement. Novels are usually more than 100 pages and fewer than 1000. All of these art forms have their own rules, geniuses and classics. Form doesn’t restrict creativity – it defines it.

Most of the really great songwriters listen to lots of other songs. We can’t escape our influences – they live on in every song we write. Darwin may have missed the birth of rock ‘n’ roll by around 75 years, but he sure seemed to know a lot about songwriting.

Don’t Bore Us – Write a Chorus (Techniques for Songwriters)

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 227, May 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Naomi Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

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Here’s a psychology experiment. Tell a group of mates that you’re going to ask them to sing the verse of a well-known song, and that they have to start singing as soon as you reveal the title. Get them to breathe in deeply and be ready, and then tell them the title is… All Right Now. Everyone will sing the chorus, even though you had asked them to sing the verse.

You’ll find this trick works with any title-based classic – try it with All You Need Is Love, Sweet Child of Mine, Smoke On The Water, No Woman No Cry or Blowin’ in the Wind. Why should this be? I think it’s because the title of the song has put the chorus into people’s minds, and these particular songs use the title in their choruses. Rock music history has proved time and time again that music fans like songs with big choruses more than they like chorus-less songs. Take Radiohead – a band that (I’m sure we can agree) has done some work that’s pretty challenging and ground-breaking, including lots of songs that don’t have anything you’d call a ‘chorus’. But if you look up their most popular songs on Spotify or iTunes you’ll find the chorus-heavy Creep right at the top of the list every time. Try the same with 1970s prog rockers Yes, or their contemporaries Genesis. At the top of their respective lists you’ll always find big-chorused tracks such as Owner of A Lonely Heart and Invisible Touch rather than the more complicated ‘album track’ material. Whether you prefer these popular singles or the less well-known stuff is a matter of personal taste, but the message from the download charts is clear – lots of people like big choruses based on a simple title.
We already know that well-loved choruses are usually higher in pitch than the rest of the song, meaning we tend to put more energy into singing them (see TG215’s ‘Rules of Thumb’). But we can learn from their other characteristics too. Have you ever thought about that word ‘chorus’? The original ‘Greek chorus’ was a group of singers who would comment on the action in the theatrical plays of ancient Greece, summarising the story for the audience or revealing the characters’ innermost feelings. In songs, the job of a ‘chorus’ – to summarise meaning for the listener – can be just the same. For a straightforward example look no further than The Beatles’ She Loves You; the verse provides background plot about the characters’ relationships, and the chorus simply chants a summary of the song’s meaning. Not all songs do this of course, but run the numbers: it’s amazing how often a chorus follows that ancient Greek wisdom.
So we know that many successful songs have big choruses based on a simple title, are higher in pitch, and summarise the meaning. Now reverse-engineer the logic. You want lots of people to listen to your songs? Write big choruses based on a simple title that are higher in pitch and summarise your meaning. Simples!
Or it would be, if we did not fear cheese. Lots of songwriters say that they don’t want their music to be thought of as ‘obvious’, ‘cheap’ or  – for some the worst crime of all – ‘commercial’. So we sometimes stay away from simple successful ideas like repeating the title in a chorus. Is this ‘cheesy’? Not many Van Halen fans would use that word to describe Runnin’ With The Devil, Jamie’s Cryin’ or Jump, all of which have title-heavy choruses. REM-lovers are pretty pleased with Everybody Hurts, and no Chili Peppers show would be complete without Californication.
There are techniques we can use to break these ‘chains of cheese’ that can push our creativity into unproductive self-doubt – and our songs away from popularity. If you’ve got a good title, try singing it over and over, trying out different notes and phrasing until you hear something you like. Push your voice so you’re singing towards the top of your range, and if it isn’t working or doesn’t feel right, try changing the key or underlying guitar chord and see what comes out. This will give you the pitch peak and might go some way towards suggesting a chorus hook. And while you’re chanting that title, perhaps a summary of the song’s overall meaning is starting to form in your mind. Look behind you. Standing at the back there’s a bunch of Greek guys in masks…

Lyric rhyming in songwriting

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 226, April 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Naomi Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

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There once was a guy from Japan,
Whose limericks never would rhyme,
He tried really hard,
But couldn’t do it,
And after a while he gave up!

If you raised a faint smile reading the paragraph above, it’s because the first line of the poem promised rhymes that never appeared. We’ve all heard hundreds of limericks, and the form requires a specific AABBA rhyme scheme, where the first, second and fifth lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines rhyme as a separate couplet. That expectation of rhyme has been hard-wired into your brain by all the limericks you’ve ever heard.

A similar expectation is built into the brains of music fans through years of listening to popular songs. There are examples of successful non-rhyming songs, but these are pretty rare – almost all songs use rhyme in some way. For the songwriter, rhyming your lyrics really goes with the gig. And if you’re writing in the English language, pretty soon you run into the universal songwriter’s problem: all the best rhymes have been used.

A large part of the craft of writing songs is the ability to be a problem-solver, and rhyming could be viewed as a simple word puzzle, where our task is to find the solution. Let’s say you want to convey a classic song idea such as “You’re the one I love”. There are only three ‘perfect’ rhymes available for the word ‘love’, and they are ‘glove’, ‘above’ and ‘dove’, all of which have been so heavily used by songwriters for hundreds of years that they’re near impossible to use without sounding clichéd. One solution is to choose a ‘forced’ rhyme that doesn’t quite work so well, such as rhyming ‘love’ with ‘enough’ or ‘of’. This works some of the time, but again it’s a well-known rat run for songwriters. The love/of rhyme appears in thousands of songs, such as the 1928 jazz standard I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby, which rhymes the title phrase with the slightly tortuous ‘That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby’.

And these rhyme challenges are the same for all of us. The word ‘heart’ is the only really useful noun in English that works as a decent metaphor for ‘feeling’, ‘spirit’, ‘my emotional self’ etc. And the only useable rhymes (apart from the obvious rude one) are ‘start’, ‘art’, ‘smart’ and ‘part’, plus related two-syllable words such as ‘apart’ and ‘restart’. This limited palette is endlessly recycled by songwriters, but the Heart-shaped well shows no signs of drying up. The difficulty is that some of the rhymes can force the song into particular phrases. How many times have we heard ‘back to the start’, ‘tear us apart’ and ‘playing the part’? It’s a fine line between classic and predictable.

Sooner or later – usually sooner – every songwriter runs into what I like to call a Rhyme Trap. This is where you write one line, then end up actually changing the meaning of what you’re trying to say just because you need the next line to rhyme. The character in Oasis’s Supersonic seems pretty macho, and perhaps isn’t the kind of guy who would drink ‘gin and tonic’, but the rhyme works, and the phrase sings well, so Noel chooses singability and rhyme over meaning. He’s a bit of a serial offender – the character in She’s Electric has a ‘cousin’. In fact she’s got about a ‘dozen’. By the third line, the verse’s AAA triple-rhyme structure has run out of perfect rhymes, forcing the ending with ‘oven’ (this is called a double assonance rhyme, poetry fans).

So what’s a poor songwriter to do? Going back to our example, we could simply tweak the phrase ‘You’re the one I love’ until it reads ‘I’m in love with you’. This leaves us with the much easier problem of rhyming ‘you’. Suddenly our rhyme pallette is enormous, giving us well over 30 perfect rhymes including ‘blue’, ‘clue’, ‘do’, ‘shoe’, ‘through’, ‘to’, ‘view’ and ‘who’. Fleetwood Mac’s Big Love shows this technique in action; the song sidesteps the ‘love’ rhyme trap by putting the word in the middle of a line, so that the lyric reads ‘Looking out for love in the night so still / Oh I’ll build you a kingdom in that house on the hill’. No hands in gloves, turtle doves or skies above to be found here. So, if there’s no solution, change the problem. Or take those tricky rhymes and wobbl’em.

All You Gotta Do Is Sing – lyric processes in songwriting

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 225, March 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Naomi Hocking. Click the image to download a pdf.

Lyrics are not poetry. And a poem is not a lyric. Poems have their own ‘music’, made by the natural rise and fall of the vowels, the rhythmic flow of the syllables and the breaks at the end of lines. As songwriters we can use melody to control how the audience receives our lyric. Melody has the power to give a few simple words a powerful emotional impact, in a way that neither a poem or an instrumental tune can achieve on its own. But how do we choose words that show our melodies in the best light?

To make a lyric singable, the vowels have to work properly. When a singer performs a song, the audience hears vowels more easily than consonants. Try singing the two-syllable word ‘calling’ over any two musical notes in the middle of your vocal range. Sing it out loud and long, and enjoy the feeling of those big vowels passing over your teeth. Now, using the same two notes, try doing the same with the word ‘quickest’. Doesn’t feel as good, does it? ‘Calling’ sings really well because the ‘aaaaa’ sound opens up your mouth and gives you a meaty vowel, whereas ‘quickest’ sounds unmusical because it contains more vocally restrictive vowels and tougher consonants, especially when you get to the ugly ‘st’ at the end of the word. And sure enough if you research the lyrics of any style of music, the word ‘calling’ is much more likely to appear than ‘quickest’, even though they’re both pretty common words. Songwriters tend to favour words with big vowels that avoid tongue-twisting combinations of hard consonants. As a rule of thumb, we should avoid sibilant words (with lots of ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds) whenever we can.

And listeners prefer single-syllable words most of the time. Read that last sentence back and try to sing it. Whatever notes you choose, it all starts to come crashing down when you sing ‘listeners prefer single-syllable’, but the phrase ‘words most of the time’ sings really well. You can stretch a monosyllable out over lots of notes (this is called a ‘melisma’) – for example the word ‘fire’ in Kings of Leon’s Sex on Fire is spread over three notes – but it’s impossible to make a two-syllable word fit a single note. Overdoing melismas when they’re not needed is generally considered a crime against music, but let’s not lower the tone with talk of Mariah Carey.

Let’s test our syllable-count theory on a couple of classic songs. The Beatles’ We Can Work it Out opens with the lines ‘Try to see it my way / only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong’. That’s 18 words, 17 of which are monosyllables. Hey Joe begins with ‘Hey Joe / where you goin’ with that gun in your hand (x2) / I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady, you know I caught her messin’ round with another man (x2)’ – 39 words, 34 monosyllables.

If lyrics are not poetry, neither are they the same thing as prose. This means you can take serious liberties with the English language and get away with it, as long as it sounds good when sung. Having melody on your side means you can say things in a lyric that are grammatically incorrect, such as Paul McCartney’s famous line “…ever-changing world in which we live in” (from Live and Let Die). You can cram in some dodgy rhymes, such as Kurt Cobain’s ‘self-assured / dirty word’ (from Smells Like Teen Spirit).You can make up words, as in ‘Pompitous of love’ (from Steve Miller’s The Joker). Or just use any old sounds. Be Bop A LulaNa Na NaNo DiggityGoo goo g’joob. And if the phrase sings well, it might notmatter if the song’s overall ‘story’ doesn’t make much sense, such as Deep Purple’s Black Night or Oasis’ Don’t Look Back In Anger. To misquote Duke Ellington, if it don’t mean a thing, all you gotta do is sing.

For the songwriter, the best and most obvious way to make a lyric singable is simply to sing it and see if it works. A lyric that looks great on the page may not work so well when you shine the cold light of melody upon it. Even if you’re not a singer yourself it’s worth singing out loud when you write – regardless of the quality or tuning, if you hear the words in context it’ll become obvious where the tweaks are needed. And if your lyric doesn’t read like the finest English poetry, no-one in the mosh-pit is going to complain.