From teenage alienation to middle-aged loss and regret, lyrics from popular music can escape their song to become an anthem of our youth or a lifeline through loss and solitude. Nick Berkeley speaks to song writers and musicians about how the words of a three minute pop song can come to have such impact on us all. He dissects the craft of the song in a quest to understand the alchemy that converts seemingly simple words into thoughts of great impact and meaning. From Noel Coward to Kylie Minogue, seminal folk songs to outsider hip hop, there are words and phrases that the music fan can cling to, and remember, forever.
Starting in August 2016, about once a month, I have been leading an evening workshop for Oxford Songwriters Meetup. We are gradually working through some of the main topics in my Oxford Songwriting Syllabus. The meeting on 25 Sept 2016 was called ‘Finding a ‘Big Idea’ to focus your song’. We divided the evening into two sections:
What is a Big Idea? (And how does it effect how you write your song, as well as the impact on the listener?)
What makes a good Title? (And how does it relate to your Big Idea, songwriting process, and impact on the listener?)
These are the teaching notes that I gave out that evening. If you were there, these notes should make complete sense. If you weren’t at the workshop, I hope you still find these notes useful – and you could always come to our next meeting! Read more ›
This is the second song analysis to be posted on this blog. As I said I have said elsewhere, a song does not have to be good, or one we like, for us to be able to learn a lot from it about the craft of songwriting. This is a set of teaching notes that I created for a songwriting workshop at Wallingford Bunkfest (3 Sept 2016) and the Oxford Songwriters Meetup (25 Sept 2016). For those who came to those workshops, hopefully these notes will make sense straightaway. For those of you reading this song study of ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ for the first time, I’d like to encourage you to work through my notes, with the lyrics open on another page, and stopping and starting the June Tabor video as you go. You need to set aside at least half an hour to do this, but it’s worth it. My analysis is organised according to categories in the Songwriting Pentagon, and the Oxford Songwriting Syllabus. Read more ›
We can learn a lot about songwriting through close study of other people’s songs. It doesn’t matter whether the song is ‘great’, mediocre or terrible; a song will always teach us something about the craft if we keep an open mind and study it for long enough. It’s also good for us to analyse songs that we don’t like, or that are in styles we would not normally listen to. This can improve our critical faculties, widen our musical palette and lyrical imagination, and is therefore likely to make us better songwriters.
This is a set of teaching notes that I created for the Oxford Songwriters Meetup on 24 Aug 2016. For those who came to the workshop, hopefully these will make sense straightaway. For those of you reading this song study of ‘Hell No’ for the first time, I’d like to encourage you to work through my notes, with the lyrics open on another page, and stopping and starting the video as you go. You need to set aside at least half an hour to do this, but it’s worth it. My analysis is organised according to categories in the Songwriting Pentagon, and the Oxford Songwriting Syllabus. Read more ›
This blog entry is part of the series on book summaries. It is the notes that I made as I read through: Furia, Philip (1990)Poets of Tin Pan Alley: a history of America’s great lyricists, Oxford University Press, New York. It may be that, as they are my personal notes, not everything here will make sense to the general reader. However, I hope it will prove useful, and perhaps encourage you to get the book and work through it. Furia does some brilliant and useful dissections of famous song lyrics, to show why they work so well – a songwriter could learn a lot here! It’s also worth keeping a browser tab open on YouTube, and another on a lyrics website (or Google search), so that you can listen to the songs that Furia refers to, and read song lyrics in their entirety. A songwriter needs to study the masters – reading and listening – and Furia has given us a wonderful way in to do this. Read more ›
In The Craft of Lyric Writing, Sheila Davis writes: “Good writers are generally good editors, Any serious writer wil tell you that plays, novels, and poems aren’t just written – they’re rewritten.” (p.293) Here are some ways to analyse lyrics – other people’s or our own – to find out why they work, or why they need rewriting. Read more ›
Don McLean’s iconic song ‘American Pie’ has a fascinating set of lyrics. These days, it might seem a strange and obscure collection of references and images that don’t speak to later generations. But he captured the hearts and minds of people who lived through the social, political and cultural upheavals of his generation. The video below cleverly reveals with images what the song is actually all about – brilliant!
Over a period of only a few years, the Beatles revolutionised the world of pop music with their innovation in harmonic, melody, song structure, lyric writing, instrumentation / arranging, and recording techniques. Not only that, they revitalised the musical landscape for classical composers, who felt empowered to return to tonal musical language, and to experiment with combining the sound palettes of different musical genres from different historical periods and cultures across the world.
The composer and documentary presenter Howard Goodall presents here a 45 minute programme (2004, Channel 4, UK) explaining how they achieved this:
Is it possible to be original in songwriting? There is that famous verse in the Bible: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) All songwriters start their journey having already heard many songs, many times. The sounds and associations of all these songs become part of their vast mental and emotional library. Ideas, words, images, stories – these, too, are formed out of the raw materials of life experience and observation. Many (most?) combinations will inevitably be like someone else’s song or lyric. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. And yet, most artists like to do something that hasn’t been done before. How do we navigate this? Here are two experienced voices on this question: musician and producer Mark Ronson, and ex-Chair of Warner Bros UK Rob Dickens:Read more ›