The Elements of Eloquence (notes on Forsyth’s book)

Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence: How To Turn the Perfect English Phrase (Icon, London 2013) is not likely to be on many songwriters’ shelves, but I think it makes a great contribution to any songwriter’s reference library. This a very entertaining read that shows how memorable (not necesarily ‘great’) quotations and lines become memorable because of the linguistic tricks that writers through the centuries have used. Forsyth gives lots of famous examples, and manages to demonstrate each of the linguistic devices in the way he explains each one. A great teacher! Read more ›

Posted in Lyric writing

Songwriting – a bibliography

How do you learn songwriting from scratch? What should be included in Lesson 1 of a songwriting course? The answers depend on where you are starting from, where you want to get to, what kind of journey you are interested in, and what experiences you are willing to have along the way. What should you pack in your songwriter’s travel bag? Here are some suggestions.

The list is based on a number of assumptions. Whether you are primarily a music writer or a lyricist …

  1. … you can basically remember and ‘hold’ a tune (even if their voice is poor quality)
  2. … you can keep to a beat
  3. … you can feel and reproduce rhythms
  4. … you can hear/sense chord changes and notice details of musical texture (at least when they are pointed out)
  5. … you have an appreciation for musical phrasing
  6. … you are interested in the nuts and bolts of how music is put together
  7. … when it comes to words, you are interested in their meaning, their sound, narrative, character, message, emotion, imagery, linguistic devices, structure and design

In other words, as a songwriter, you must have some feel for the both the detail and the big picture of a song.

Bradford, Chris (2005) Heart and Soul: Revealing the Craft of Songwriting, Sanctuary Publishing

Bradford wrote this with the full endorsement of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) – and yes, it is worth your while thinking about joining. The book is full of practical ideas about the craft of songwriting, with key interviews, advice and insights from successful British songwriters. Most importantly, this book is packed with important guidance on how the music business works, how to protect your intellectual property, and has lists of songwriting competitions, showcase opportunities, industry organisations, reading lists and useful websites.

Forsyth, Mark (2013) The Elements of Eloquence: How To Turn the Perfect English Phrase, Icon Books, London

This is not likely to be on many songwriters’ shelves, but I think it makes a great contribution to any songwriter’s reference library. This a very entertaining read that shows how memorable (not neccesarily ‘great’) quotations and lines become memorable because of the linguistic tricks that writers through the centuries have used. Forsyth gives lots of famous examples, and manages to demonstrate each of the linguistic devices in the way he explains each one. A great teacher! [Read my notes]

Davis, Sheila (1985) The Craft of Lyric Writing, Writers’ Digest

I absolutely love this book, and believe that anyone serious about songwriting, or lyric writing, should get to know this book inside out. The book will help you understand song structures, the use of language, working with the sounds that words make, marrying words with music, telling stories, coming up with song ideas, and much more. [I am currently writing up my notes on this book, and will post them on the website.] Another popular title by Davis: Successful Lyric Writing: A Step by Step Course and Workbook (2001)

Davis, Sheila (1992) The Songwriter’s Idea Book, Writer’s Digest, USA

“40 strategies to excite your imagination, help you design distinctive songs, and keep your creative flow”. This book is full of useful exercises that help lyricists develop their creativity and craft skills. It also helps writers to understand their strengths and temperament, and shows how to avoid falling into the traps of becoming stale, repetitive or predictable.

Furia, Philip (1992) Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists, OUP

This is a great read. Furia analyses many song lyrics of famous songs (1900-1950) of a repertoire of song often referred to as ‘the great American songbook’. There is a reason so many of these songs are not only memorable, but timeless classics that are still being covered by new artists now, 70-80 years later. Songwriters can learn much from studying the songwriting geniuses of the past. [Read my notes]

Hammerstein II, Oscar (1949) ‘Notes on Lyrics’, in Hammerstein, William (ed.) (2002) Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, pp. 3-48

This is a beautiful, important and inspiring essay, and is as relevant to songwriters now as it was when Hammerstein first wrote it. [Read my notes]

Horowitz, Mark Eden (2010) Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions (2nd edition), Scarecrow Press

This book is for geeks (I love it!). It assumes a decent level of knowledge of music theory, and requires commitment from the reader, but is worth the effort. It works through the musicals, looking at the manuscripts, not pads and rough drafts, with detailed interviews answers from Sondheim about his creative process as a composer and lyricists. [If you want the key learning points, then read my notes]

Jenness, David and Velsey, Donald (2005) Classic American Popular Song: The Second Half-Century, 1950-2000, Routledge.

This picks up from the year where Philip Furia (‘Poets of Tin Pan Alley’) finishes.

Lees, Gene (1987) ‘How To Write Lyrics’, in Modern Rhyming Dictionary

The introduction to the dictionary is short and packed with useful advice, with a particularly interesting section on the difference between using sophisticated or more direct vocabulary. He has wise advice about syllable combinations that are easy or hard for singers. [Read my notes]

Lennard, John (2005) ‘Introduction’ in New Oxford Rhyming Dictionary, pp. ix-xxxii

This is a clear description of different kinds of rhyme and rhyme schemes in poetry and lyrics. [Read my notes]

Modern Rhyming Dictionary A Practical Guide To Lyric Writing For Song (1987) Cherry Lane Music

Useful for American rhymes (not always the same as British!).

New Oxford Rhyming Dictionary (2006 / 2012) OUP

These rhymes are based on British pronunication. Songwriters need to consider what accent they are writing for, as rhymes depend on this.

Pattison, Pat (2009) Writing Better Lyrics: the essential guide for powerful songwriting, Writer’s Digest

This book has short chapters that get straight to their point every time. Pattison shows how different uses of language (a change of tense, the use of a pronoun, playing with an image) can send a lyric off course, or make it hit just the right spot. The exercises are easy to understand, and well worth doing. Pattison is the principal teacher of songwriting for the Berklee College of Music that also runs online courses. Among the books used on the course are: Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure: Tools and Techniques for Writing Better Lyrics (1991); Songwriting Without Boundaries: Lyric Writing Exercises for Finding Your Voice (2012); Songwriting: Essential Guide to Rhyming: A Step-by-step Guide to Better Rhyming and Lyrics (2014)

Perricone, Jack (2001) Melody in Songwriting: tools and techniques for writing hit songs, Berklee Guide

If we really want to develop as composers, we must immerse ourselves in as much music as possible, and in as many different styles as possible. Our brains must absorb the deep structures and patterns of music and sound by listening to and making every possible type of music.  That way, music becomes our ‘mother tongue’ which we can express ourselves. At the same time, it is extremely useful to learn in a more technical way how music is put together. Perricone (co-founder of Berklee College of Music) has written an excellent book on what melody is, how it can be shaped in different ways for different effects, and its relationship to harmony, rhythm, song structure, style, and so on.

Rachel, Daniel (2013) Isle of Noises: Conversations with great British songwriters, Picador

The excellent British equivalent of Paul Zollo’s American ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’, this book contains fascinating summaries of the songwriters’ careers and notable songs, along with interviews about their creative process. Contributors include: Ray Davies, Robin Gibb, Jimmy Page, Joan Armatrading, Paul Weller, Sting, Madness, Annie Lennox, Billy BRagg, Damon Albarn, Noel Gallagher, Jarvis Cocker, Lily Allen and others.

Rooksby, Rikky (2000) How To Write Songs On Guitar: a guitar-playing and songwriting course, Backbeat Books, pp. 117-136

Rikky (see his website) is a walking encyclopedia of songs and songwriting methods, and author of a multi-volume series on songwriting for Backbeat Books. He has also  published over 200 interviews, reviews, articles and transcriptions in music magazines. [Read my notes on his ideas on lyric writing] Also take a good look at How To Write Songs On Keyboards: a complete course to help you write better songs (2005) and  Lyrics: writing better words for your songs (2006).

‘Sammy Cahn, Beverly Hills, California 1991’, an interview in Zollo (1991/2003), pp.27-36

[Read my notes]

Sondheim, Stephen (2010) Finishing the Hat: The Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, with attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes

Sondheim’s own account of what makes for good lyric writing, and how this combines with music, is essential reading. Just reading his lyrics is an eeducation in itself. [Read my notes]

Songwriter’s Rhyming Dictionary, Souvenir, London

[Read my notes] for Cahn, Sammy (1984) ‘Introduction’, pp. xiii-xliv

Stolpe, Andrea, with Jan Stolpe (2015) Beginning Songwriting: writing your own lyrics, melodies and chords, Berklee Press

Stolpe is one of the main teachers for the Berklee College of Music. She gives some excellent ways into writing, whether you start with a groove / rhythm, a chord sequence, a fragment of a tune (melodic motif), an image, a random collection of words, a story, a single word or a title. The exercises are very do-able, and enjoyable – some of them can be done with songwriting groups and buddies. The book also contains some useful beginner information on music theory (notation, note lengths, scales and keys, rhythms, chords and harmony etc).

Webb, Jimmy (1999) Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting

This is often recommended on booklists for songwriters, and I can see why. It is packed full of the life experience of a very successful songwriter. Webb explores creativity, lyric writing, harmony, song structure, the music business, building a career, collaborating and much more. I think he is too quick to dismiss the world of classical music, and suspect it is an area he may not be particularly with – either its music, or its techniques. However, this is a useful book for any aspiring, or even professional, songwriter. [Read my notes]

Wilder, Alec (1972) American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, OUP

While Philip Furia’s book (‘Poets of Tin Pan Alley’) focuses on the lyrics of the period, this focuses on the music, and these two books work well as a pair. Wilder provides some incisive analysis of the music. One could argue that he has failed to give proper attention to the importance of the marriage of words with music. However, this is a classic, and benefits from its author having worked with many of the composers he mentions. [my notes forthcoming]

Zollo, Paul (1991/2003) Songwriters on Songwriting, Da Capo Press – interesting interviews of a huge number of songwriters on their craft and career

This is the detailed work of years of interviews with several generations of songwriters. We hear the writers talking about music, lyrics, songwriting and the music business, and insightful anecdotes about the creation of specific songs that are now part of our international heritage. Zollo has done us an enormous service in putting together this collection.

Posted in Books Tagged with: , , ,

Tunesmith: inside the art of songwriting (notes on Webb’s book)

I have long believed that singers become better interpreters of a song if they understand how that song is put together. That means studying the lyrics just as text, ideas, rhetoric, rhyme, metaphor, form, unfolding of character and narrative, message, and so on. Lyricists draw on a history of a language, its social context, literary heritage and forms (high brow and low brow), and singers enrich their understanding if they study these things too. And then there is the music. This also has many components, rhythm, pitch variation, harmony, musical texture, architecture, motivic development – and there is a history of musical styles, forms and assoiciations that composers draw on. And beyond that, the singer also needs to develop a deep appreciation of the relationship between words and music. The articles and book summaries I have put together on this website under the category of Songwriting are an important part of a singer’s learning.

The book noted here – Jimmy Webb’s Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting (Hyperion 1999) – is a really useful part of that literature. My notes are a mixture of summary, quotations, and (in square brackets) my personal responses. The book is packed with really useful advice about songwriting technique, and the songwriting business, from a seasoned professional. Jimmy Webb (see Wikipedia entry) has had many hits, such as ‘By The Time I Get to Phoenix’, ‘Wichita Lineman’, Up, Up and Away’, and ‘MacArthur Park’, colloborated with big name singers and writers, has been inducted into several songwriter Halls of Fame, and is the only artist ever to have received Grammy Awards for music, lyrics, and orchestration. I don’t actually find his music or lyrics very engaging, and I don’t think his songs rank among the ‘greats’ of 20th century songwriting. And you’ll see in some of my square-bracketed comments that I strongly disagree with some of what he has to say about composing, or his dismissive remarks about classical music. However, this is still a ‘must read’ for any singer or songwriter. Read more ›

Posted in Books, Creativity & Craftsmanship, Music Business Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Putting the listener first – 4 useful tests for your lyrics

Jason Blume (who has some great tips on songwriting) makes the important point: “It’s been said that great songs are rarely written—they are rewritten.” This means that we need to have tools that will help us edit and rewrite.

This post is about the value of blocking our ears to the lyricist in us, and opening our ears as new listeners to our own lyrics. What we have to remember is that the listener does not know what is in our (the lyricist’s) mind or heart. The listener only knows what is in the words. (The music also provides important emotional information, but let’s leave that topic to one side for now.)

In one of my posts about critiquing our own lyrics, I wrote “It is not helpful to leave the listener puzzled about what is going on. … Obscurity is self-indulgence on the part of the lyricist.” If the listener has to ask the lyricist, ‘What does this mean?”, then the lyricist has failed. A lyricist should not have to explain themselves or their lyric. So, when evaluating our own (or someone else’s) lyrics, we have to consider the listener’s experience, and how the song might come across to them. Read more ›

Posted in Lyric writing

Lyrics need to make sense – use simple language

Songwriters can easily fall into a trance about their lyrics, and not realise that the lyrics don’t make sense to the listener (that’s assuming the singer is enunciating clearly enough for the listener to make out what the words are …). The lyricist may be making too many assumptions about what the listener knows or will be able to work out; the listener doesn’t have the full background story that the lyricist may have in mind. The lyricist may have …

  • broken rules of grammar (how sentences need to be constructed),
  • muddled syntax (word order, and small and large units of meaning), or
  • undermined good style (clear ideas, consistent voice/register, appropriateness of content and vocabulary for the message and intended listener).

My father, a UK civil servant for 50 years, was fond of saying, “The most common error in communication is the assumption that it has taken place.” Through keen observation and analysis, it is almost always possible to express something more simply. That is as true for lyric writing as for any other kind of writing.

This blog entry takes some tips from some masters in communication:

Posted in Lyric writing

Critique your song lyrics using Gricean maxims

Songwriters need to be able to critique, edit and rewrite their own lyrics. It is helpful to have criteria by which to test the effectiveness of a lyric. What is not working? Why? What could we do to fix it?

As part of our criteria, we can borrow from the work of British philosopher of language Paul Grice (1913-88), who coined the idea of the cooperative principle. The cooperative principle describes how effective communication in conversation is achieved in common social situations. Recently, I have been playing with how Gricean maxims (as they are called) might be applied to songwriting, and help us polish our lyrics. We don’t have to follow the maxims. Actually, it can be very interesting when we don’t. But if we choose not to follow the maxims, it is worth considering why not, and what effect we intend by departing from the maxims – or, indeed, what effect we accidentally end up with if we ignore them.

The maxims fall under four headings: quality, quantity, relation and manner. Read more ›

Posted in Lyric writing

Songwriting for musical theatre – advice from Jason Robert Brown

Jason_Robert_BrownThe following notes are extended quotations from the 1.5 hour YouTube video of the Jason Robert Brown Songwriting Masterclass, published on 22 Feb 2013 by the The Dramatists Guild of America.

“Jason Robert Brown (born June 20, 1970) is an American musical theater composer, lyricist, and playwright. Brown’s music sensibility fuses pop-rock stylings with theatrical lyrics. An accomplished pianist, Brown has often served as music director, conductor, orchestrator, and pianist for his own productions. He has won Tony Awards for his work on Parade and The Bridges of Madison County.” (from his entry in Wikipedia.)

If you want to learn something about how to write for music theatre, watch not just the video, but put aside a couple of hours to listen to this YouTube playlist of full performance of Parade here. It is a phenomenal piece of work. So, onto some great advice from the maestro … Read more ›

Posted in Music Theatre Tagged with: , , , ,

Sondheim on songwriting (2)

stephen-sondheimI have introduced Stephen Sondheim in my blog article ‘Stephen Sondheim on Songwriting (1)‘. This piece is a set of notes that I made on the book: Mark Eden Horowitz (2010) Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions (2nd edition), Scarecrow Press. The book is a transcript of interviews about Sondheim’s musicals and shows. Sondheim talks not just about songwriting, but about the larger task of writing a whole show, the relationship to performers and other musicians, and also what a songwriter can learn from audiences.

[Note: Where I have marked MH, it is quoting Horowitz; otherwise all quotes are Sondheim. The comments in square brackets are my own thoughts and responses.]

Read more ›

Posted in Books, Lyric writing, Music Theatre, Music writing / Composing

Surviving the music industry – Iggy Pop

On Sunday 19 October, 2014, BBC televised the John Peel Lecture by Iggy Pop. He had some very interesting things to say about being a creative artist and  how to navigate the music industry. He also spoke eloquently about how the corporate world cheated and exploited artists, and how this has been replaced in our day by the public who “thieve” and “steal” from musicians. “The new electronic devices which estrange people from their morals also make it easier to steal music than to pay for it.” Here are my favourite quotes that I transcribed from the programme … Read more ›

Posted in Music Business

Rooksby on lyric writing (1)

Rikki-RooksbyThis article is a set of notes I made from the chapter ‘How to Write a Lyric’ in Rooksby, Rikky (2000/2009) How to Write Songs on Guitar: A Guitar-playing and Songwriting Course, Backbeat Books, pp. 117-136. It’s a great little chapter, packed full of interesting ideas, and useful lists of songs to illustrate each of his points. I hope that this blog article encourages you to go and read the whole chapter. The book itself is a must for any guitar-based songwriter.

Read more ›

Posted in Lyric writing Tagged with: