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.

Preface
  • Preface: expression, form, aesthetics; rescue form from mediocrity
  • Preface: 1) Inspiration comes from the guts. 2) Technique is a personal and private conceit. 3) Creativity as a concept is perhaps not well understood by the people who practise it most successfully.
  • [Analysis will reveal the craft, but not the magic.]
Out of thin air
  • 2 Publishers want to discover a great song
  • 2 “Most amateurs do not regard the writing of songs as a serious hard work.”
  • 2 Set specific and realistic goals
  • 2 A good writer is versatile, and can write in any genre for any purpose
  • 3-4 Song types: memories affecting feelings; current things affecting us; things that will affect us; satire; making a point through a fictional character; story; silly; surrealism; allegorical tale
  • 4 A writer must feel things strongly
  • 4 An idea and a song title are pretty much synonymous
  • 4 Have a destination in mind
  • 5 There is no one method
  • 5 use a rhyming dictionary and thesaurus, and a book of quotations
  • 5 study other lyricists and composers, especially great material
  • 7 Pro songwriters are not good at promoting others; they are busy promoting themselves; beware being sued for intellectual property (IP) infringements
  • 9 John Gardner “All great writing is – in a sense – imitation of great writing.”
  • 12 Study masters of great poetry
  • 12 Not all poetry is lyrical, but all great lyrics are poetic
  • 12 Lyrics use high literary devices and should be measured by high literary standards
  • 15 pay attention to great composers
  • 15 Learn to read music, and play an instrument
  • 16 Learn to write chords
  • 16 Software to notate what you play in MIDI
  • 17 Access own feelings to write words
  • 18 Refresh in new pastures
  • 18 Spend time in other disciplines
  • 18 Experience life keenly
  • 19 No recipe for a hit. Bad songs can be hits.
  • 19 Aim to write good songs
  • 19 90% of what you write will go nowhere
  • 19 Be tough and sensitive
In this room you’ll never make a mistake [creativity and generating ideas]
  • 21 Michael Bennett “In this room, you’ll never make a mistake.”
  • 22 “creativity is a blameless process”
  • 22 starting an artistic project will always lead to some “stage fright without an audience”
  • 22 “So for those of us who have a nervous system and still want to get some work done, tranquillity is in order. The primary ingredient in that tranquillity might be to pardon ourselves in advance for any real or imagined inadequacies and approach the work with the attitude that we will see what happens, make the best of it and enjoy the journey. Paradise is the road to Paradise.”
  • 23 Continuity of workspace
  • 23 Keep regular songwriting hours
  • 23 Take breaks
  • 23 Maintain access to the sensory world
  • 24 Record everything as you play to catch the subconscious
  • 24 Keep all history of working on a song, including all jottings
  • 26 Creativity implies there are no mistakes. Performance does have mistakes.
  • 26 Keep a notebook [and MS paper] at all times [and a recorder] – NB the story of Hammerstein II who overheard the phrase ‘My Heart Stood Still’ when in a cab with Hart
  • [observe life, record overheard phrases]
  • 27 Note down imaginative interpretations of what you see
  • 27 “Look for deeper meanings behind the seemingly trivial and write them down.”
  • 28 Your notebook is your fieldwork
  • 28 Note enough detail and context to recall the original inspiration
  • 29 Don’t talk about an idea until you’ve given it some shape.
  • [is there such a thing as a bad question?]
  • [be a magpie in your learning]
  • 34 You must be able to produce a high end demo very affordably
  • 36 Don’t substitute good songwriting with over-fancy audio production
It’s only words
  • 37 “Every word, every note must count.”
  • 37 Learn to tell a whole story in 3 minutes
  • 38 “Usually there is only room for one or two characters in our little radio plays and perhaps fifty seconds for each act.”
  • 38 A title can be ‘pre-echoed’ in a line, before we hear it as a last phrase in a chorus
  • 40 punchline of a story needs to come at the end of a verse, in the chorus, or even only as the last line of the song
  • 41 create a surprise ending to a ballad
  • 41 Sondheim “I find it useful to write backwards, and I think most lyric writers probably do too when they have a climax, a twist, a punch, a joke.”
  • 42 lyric eavesdrops on an intimate conversation or innermost thoughts
  • 42 A last line can subtly adjust a wording that has been used earlier, e.g. ‘You’ve got that lovin’ feelin’’ becomes ‘bring back that lovin’ feelin’
  • 43 Use a cliché or saying, but make the other content high quality
  • 43 Use a cliché for a title
  • 44 Titles: question; pun; place; time; imperative; travel; abstract; dance instruction
  • 45-7 Song types: religious songs that double as love songs; comedy; satire; novelty; tribute to the dead; protest; deliberately poor quality; ballads
  • Davis, Sheila (2001) The Songwriter’s Idea Book, F&W
  • 48 “The simple truth is that anyone who has had hands-on songwriting experience knows that the process is fluid and that to be successful it must be mutable and words and music mutually adaptable.”
  • 49 People have a low opinion of the songwriter’s craft
  • 50 “we need to learn to construct a good lyric by itself before we attempt the more difficult task of setting words to a relatively unchangeable melody.”
  • 50 “A song is a structure”
  • 51 Method 1: write a heartfelt letter. Method 2: Make a comprehensive collection of ideas. Then put the material to one side and let mind wander
  • 52 Songwriters must have a logic for where their song is going
  • 52 However good an idea is, discard it if the lyric [or music?] is clearer without it
  • 52 Understand conventional song forms
  • 53 Draw on your own vocabulary but also use a dictionary and rhyming dictionary
  • 54 Beware well worn rhymes
  • 54 In the title or hook, find a keyword that rhymes
  • 56 If a keywords has few rhymes, replace with a synonymous keyword with more rhymes
  • 56 Use a thesaurus
  • 56 Less usual words save you from clichés
  • 57 “The interesting choice of word leads to unique rhyme. The unique rhyme to an extraordinary line. The extraordinary line to an original perspective that makes a song stand out from the rest. By varying our word choices and being biased slightly in favour of the unusual, by giving our listener the benefit of the doubt in our assumptions of his or her intelligence we grant ourselves the potential to create original and significant works, songs that will make a reputation for the writer an an innovator – someone to be take seriously. It is such a writer that producers and recording artists listen to almost without question if for no other reason than curiosity.”
  • 57 Don’t use false rhymes.
  • 58 False rhymes weaken effect, and affect the listener unconsciously
  • 59 The present tense is especially hard for a lyricist to work with
  • 61 Bad writing, not the dictionary, is the problem
  • 62 Gene Lees ‘Modern Rhyming Dictionary’ is excellent, and includes a large foreword on songwriting.
  • 64-6 Rhymes: single/masculine; double / penult / feminine / two rhymes; unstressed; triple / antepenult / three rhyme; quadruple rhyme (several words); smothered rhyme (running / sing); identical (hair / hare); eye rhyme (cow / blow); Mosaic rhyme (Ohio / I owe)
  • 66 Rhyme some but not all verses?
  • 68 Sondheim “Lyrics exist in time – as opposed to poetry, for example. You can read a poem at your own speed.”
  • 68 Story must be completed in a song
  • 68 Lyric must contain all necessary info in a finite number of notes
  • 70 Lyrics aren’t meant to work by themselves
  • 70 “Song lyrics are meant to be heard in their entirety and with the music that helped shape them. A song is a magical marriage between a lyric (some words) and a melody (some notes). It is not a poem. It is not music. It is in this gray area of synthesis between language, rhythm and sound that some of the most acute of all sensors of human emotional lie.”
  • 71 “rhyme in time with notes sublime”
  • 71 leave out ‘fool’ or any words we don’t normally use; don’t use ‘baby’ or ‘yeah’; 72 ‘heart’ is overused; ‘love is overused and has no good rhymes
  • 72 Unrhymed title line can be at the start and end of verse or chorus
  • 73 Use unrhymed title line every other line
  • 73 Use contractions eg ‘don’t’
  • 73 avoid archaisms
  • 73 Don’t write dodgy lyric simply to fulfil melody, rhythm or rhyme
  • 74 Song titles are not subject to copyright
  • 74 Don’t use a song title that is already out there
  • 75 “We must make an effort to see familiar things in innovative way”; search “for a new way to express the familiar”
  • 75 unexpected opposites work well
  • 76 avoid ‘this is my song’
  • 76 don’t borrow [or even vaguely echo] other people’s lines
  • 77 Related rhymes (because of song’s idea, metaphors & content) are ‘kissing cousins’
  • 78 small conjunctions can be very powerful – and, or, but, when
Elements of form
  • Metaphor & simile (Webb’s definitions are very blurred!]; imagery; analogy; allegory; alliteration; onomatopoeia
  • Iamb = . _
  • Pickup
  • Trochee = _ .
  • Anapest = . . _
  • Dactyl = _ . .
  • 89 “there are almost inevitably more bars of music than there are metric feet in a given song”
  • 90 “In songwriting, uniformity in the length of lines creates monotony and works at cross-purposes to the fluidity and diversity that interesting music requires and that composers will want to achieve. From a songwriting standpoint ‘nursery rhyme’ predictability is not only annoying but debilitating. The best lyrics have an element of asymmetry in the length and positioning of the different lines.”
  • 91 Conversational tone lyrics [my feeling is that many of Webb’s examples prove how structurally weak this form is – with no perceivable pattern, the listener is not held well, and even though the music is patterned, it doesn’t seem so, because the words aren’t]
  • 95 Rhymes: random, initial; interior; exterior
  • 96 Musical structure validates a lyric [really?]
  • 96 For impact, rhyme with a half line finish
  • 97 Message and story must be at the core
  • 97 Avoid most slavish rhyme schemes (eg AAAA, ABAB)
  • 98 Beware bad enjambement
  • 102 Two-verse form often has early line as a late or ending line as well, perhaps with slight variation; not always the song title
  • 103 Use last lines to juxtapose opposites
  • 105 2-verse songs climax at the end (lyrically, and sometimes musically)
  • 105 Multi-verse strophic song that tells a story is a true ballad
  • 107 Blues = strophic
  • 107 Blues often finish with a punchline twist
  • 112 Prologue sets the scene or asks a question
  • 115 Bridge [my definition 2, or Middle 8 def. 1] helps take us to a new state of affairs, reflected in final verse (e.g. Smoke gets in your eyes)
  • 120 Chorus: 1) can follow a verse and usually does. 2) can precede a verse as the beginning of a song 3) can follow a bridge / release as at the end of a song 4) can precede a verse when it occurs at the end of a 1st verse and before a 2nd verse
  • 120 Verses prepare a Chorus, which is the punchline idea
  • 120 Lead-in = ramp = climb
  • 120 Verse-leadin-chorus = powerful structure. V-C-V-C-bridgeà … = pre-bridge settles us in one space, and bridge/release takes us up a gear before final chorus or verse-chorus
  • V-C-V-C-B-V-C should be all you need to get story / message across
  • 124 Tag / epilogue – new musical and lyric material after the end of the song (whether verse or chorus); distinct from ‘extension’, which is not new material
  • 131 Experimental and through-composed forms
  • 133 Study form, and imitate it. “There’s nothing you can hear that you can’t lear n to write for yourself in your own way.”
  • 133 Fade – a way for producers / recording studios to end a piece with repetition of final song material, gradually turning the volume down – commercially powerful psychologically, leaving the song in your mind, unfinished ….
  • 134 Breakdown – pared down musical texture, perhaps 4 bars, added at the end, before the Fade, to give the feel the song has ended, but then final Fade material adds a final kick for the listener
It can’t get no verse …
  • 139 more rhymes allow for varying reappearances of a chorus
  • 139 choose a speed and time signature [mood?]
  • 139 the first line of a song frames the listener’s thinking and attention [this could mean the first line of words, or its music, or perhaps the musical intro itself]
  • [Some lines have merit or potential, because they come making a connection with ourselves, so that the line truly comes from within us.]
  • [Don’t use a word you would not personally use in your own life in context other than a song; and you should know what it means!]
  • 151 Opposites (or contrasts] work well e.g. ‘What are you running from, what are you running to?’ [Perhaps this because musical structures can easily parallel these.]
  • 152 Uses ‘baby’ in the lyric. [Never use the word ‘baby’!]
  • 153 “This is a good chorus utilising interesting language.” [Webb has used words like ‘unreconciled’, ‘exalted’, ‘defiled’. Actually, I think it is a weak chorus, precisely because of this kind of language. It is not everyday or conversational. It is ‘intellectual’ vocabulary, lacking emotional directness. The clue to the problem is Webb’s description of this as ‘interesting’, which is different from real, direct, touching. His word ‘utilising’ is itself self-conscious. What’s wrong with just saying ‘using’?]
  • Stephen Bishop, Songs in the Rough, St Martin’s Press – studying sketches of songs and talking to their writers. [Unfortunately impossible to get hold off. Abebooks currently selling at almost £300, and only 2 copies available. April 2016]
  • 154 “Remember that writing a song is a fluid process wherein the major components can be freely interchanged almost as though we are working on a zero-gravity construction sire in high earth orbit.”
Give us a tune then, Jim
  • 156 From 1950s onwards, increasing emphasis on rhythm, and less on melody
  • [Lyricist must not let words master him, but be master of words and form. The search for rhymes must not distract the lyricist from the intended message.]
  • 157 Melody construction: ascend, descend, repetition, duration, chromatic colouring, modulation [and Milton Babbitt’s ‘tonicisation’]
  • 157 usually one note per syllable [unless it is ‘art’ song]
  • 164 Keys can have their own feel or ‘colour’ or association. [This is true for equal temperament tuning on the piano. Keys can also have a ‘feel’ on a guitar, since chords are structured around their relationships under the fingers: if a shape must be found higher on the fret board, then this will have a lighter sound, and the voicing is unique for that shape and position.]
  • 165 “at least one aesthetic approach could evolve from the exclusion of clichéd options”
  • 166 “I get more than my share of half-step [semitone] composition in most romantic classical music. It is this kind of whining, which somehow almost always manages to sound out of tune.” [This is staggering ignorance – and arrogance! I suspect that Webb is not particularly literate in the classical canon on Western music history. He has not clearly identified the genre, period, or nationality of the music he dismisses. He continues his contempt on p.168 where he says that semitones rarely come as a surprise, that one should use them sparingly, and that they went out of fashion after the 1940s. This whole section about chromaticism, semitones, and so-called ‘classical’ music needs to be ignored.]
  • 171 “It is a smooth blend of adjacent and ‘skipping’ tones that creates beautiful tunes.” [This is simplistic, and subjective!]
  • 171 Sing a tune to check its singability. Don’t be over-ambitious in vocal pitch range. [This is for commercial purposes – average singers need to be able to sing your song.]
  • 172 Leonard Bernstein (Harvard lecture): “What is a variation anyway? It’s always in one way or another, a manifestation of the mighty dramatic principle known as the Violation of Expectation. What is expected is, of course, repetition – either literal or in the form of an answer, a counterstatement, or whatever, and when those expectations are violated, you’ve got a variation.”
  • 174-5 Transformational operations of a motif: inversion, augmentation (of duration) [could also be of interval], retrograde, diminution (of duration) [or interval], modulation, imitation [or sequence], harmonic progression via chord substitution, dynamic changes, deletions [or interpolations and additions], permutations [i.e. combinations of these]
  • 176-7 “[The] technique of carefully altering the direction of the melody’s travel can be applied to any portion of a tune that sounds derivative or a bit stale. We are all capable of grinding along in the well-dredged channels of other composers’ passages. It requires a real effort of will and relentless self-criticism to blaze a trail.”
  • 177 Melody can follow a lyric that is describing direction [or movement] in the physical world.”
  • 178 “Melody should mirror the natural rhythm of the language as much as possible.” [Except that breaking this rule deliberately can create novel and delightful effects, e.g. Gershwin’s ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, or ‘Top Hat, White Tie and Tails’.]
  • 179 Webb has a strict hierarchy of vowels, from most favoured (OO) to least (EE), especially for high notes. [However, this is based on ignorance of vocal technique. A well trained singer does not favour any vowel over another in terms of difficulty or beauty of sound. So it depends what kind of singer you are writing for. Webb’s advice holds good if you are writing for broad commercial success, and for singers who have little knowledge of vocal technique, which is most!]
  • 179 Avoid ending a phrase or song on EE or a double consonant.
  • 180 Break rules to be original or creative. [This is not a good enough reason – the compositional choice should be based on serving the expression of truth.]
  • 181 [Incorrect definition of synaesthesia.]
  • 181-2 We can get trapped in our own writing habits: “As songwriters we are used to thinking in a certain specific way. We develop stylistic peccadilloes over time and these become mental traps. Eventually we may be composing inside an invisible cage of habit.”
  • 182 Chord progressions and sound textures are not subject to copyright. [Neither is a song title. However, Sammy Cahn advises finding a unique title because a) you want to be uniquely remembered for that title, b) you don’t want someone at ASCAP giving the wrong writer royalties.]
  • 184 The subconscious plays an important role in writing.
  • 185 Keep writing materials by your bed.
  • 186 Use sounds from the environment as inspiration for creating a melody
  • 187 New guitar tunings open new chord structures and progressions
  • 195 “Taking advantage of the ear’s propensity to expect a certain result by substituting an unexpected one, which is to a large extent taking advantage of all the musical literature that has preceded us historically, or repetitive material that we have deliberately ‘planted’ in the listener’s mind.” [Remember that every work of art sets up its own ‘rules’, parameters and patterns that are part of its language and ‘voice’. Once those rules are there, we have to work within them; that can include knowingly challenging them, which is a way of working within them. But we can’t arbitrarily ignore, break or depart from those rules, and expect the resulting artifact to ‘work’ in the sense of having its own integrity or coherence, and feeling as if it is all made of the same cloth.]
  • 195 “The Principle of Substitution: a chord can always be substituted for another if it contains at least one tone that is shared with that other.”
  • 209 Consider the speed of harmonic change [e.g. every 2 bars, every bar, every 2 beats …]
  • 209 Making compositional choices: “How much is enough? How little is too much?”
  • 213 Melody and harmonic structure are mutually dependent
  • 213 [Webb’s definition of ‘cadence’ as a harmonic cul-de-sac is not accurate.]
  • 213 “variations and transformations are the wellsprings of all good musical art” [So perhaps think in terms of conservation of musical material. Have a small amount, and exploit it fully in variations and transformations.]
  • 217 Add melody to a lyric, or a lyric to a melody. Add chords to a melody, or a melody to chords.
  • 218 “Create something original that sounds familiar? Oxymoronic as it may seem, this is the mysterious territory wherein the great songs are discovered.”
In search of the lost chord
  • 226 Use ostinato
  • 233 Use pedal notes
  • 237 Bernstein and polytonality: “the combination of two different chords automatically creates a third one, a new phonological entity”
  • 238 Voicing [how the notes of a chord are spread out, and in what order]
  • 240 Thickening chords [doubling notes]
  • 241 Modulation
  • 242 chromatic modulation; using diminished 7th chord for modulation
  • 244 diatonic modulation
  • 245 enharmonic modulation
  • 246 arbitrary / skip / abrupt modulation
  • pp 247-51 [The extended musical examples here are musical ramblings that a composition teacher should challenge. There are arbitrary changes of key and random repetitions of material, none of which gives any sense of either internal musical coherence or emotional logic or sense of development of idea towards a conclusion. While Webb’s suggestions in his text for musical exploration are useful, his own results here show how such explorations can get a composer horribly lost.]
  • 252 Circle of Fifths [This is not ‘Bach’s’ as Webb calls it, but intrinsic to the structure of chord relationships in all music based on the Western European tuning of 12 notes in an octave span.]
You and the words and the music
  • 257 It’s ok for melody writing to influence a change in the lyric. [But note how some lyricists of yesteryear prided themselves on writing lyrics that required no musical alteration by the composer whose music was written before the lyrics.]
  • 259 Find the “rhythmic profile” of the lyric [its primary and secondary accents, and non-accented syllables, as well as which syllables need to sound longer and which shorter]
  • 265 A hiatus in a tune can parallel a question mark in the lyric.
  • 266 Chords gives emotional clues
  • 267 “Please remember that these so-called rules are only guidelines, practices and habits and that they are meant to be discarded on a whim or at a moment’s notice if instinct dictates.”
  • 267 Rhythm in the voice part or in the accompaniment can provide a good ‘hook’.
  • 269 “At the end of a song the composer’s primary concern should be to make the meaning of that last line clearer than day.”
  • 269-70 “Perhaps if the reader sees the bare words ‘the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye [‘Oh, what a beautiful mornin’ from Oklahama. Rodgers and Hammerstein 1943] and remembers that the proper music has to be provided for these words, he will gain some understanding not only of the problem posed the composer by the words but the solution of the composer’s problem provided by the words themselves.”
  • 270 Oscar Hammerstein II: “It must be understood that the musician is just as much an author as the man who writes the words. He expresses the story in his medium just as the librettist expresses the story in his.”
  • 271 Bernstein: “The idea of repetition is inherent in music even when the repetition itself is not there at all.”
  • 271-3 “Here are some things to keep in mind when writing melody:
    1. Never stifle an impulse. You are not editing. You are composing. (Quincy Jones calls this ‘choking the baby in the crib’.)
    2. Either write down or record every note you play. Fortuitous accidents happen more often than one might expect. It can be exceedingly difficult to remember one of these serendipitous ‘mistakes’ after the fact.
    3. Don’t be reluctant to write a ‘dummy’ tune with the idea of refining it afterward. Get the rhythm of the melody in sync with the lyric, avoiding what Sondheim calls mis-accents.
    4. If your melody has ‘stalled’ and you don’t know quite what to do with it try some substitutions. A new chord of even a modulation will sometimes kick the melody off in another direction.
    5. Sing along with your melody constantly and avoid writing anything that is unsingable. (if you can’t sing it don’t assume somebody else will be able to.)
    6. The composer should be careful to avoid writing more than one note on the same syllable (melisma) – but should not be so fanatic as to sacrifice a gorgeous turn of melody for the sake of a technicality.
    7. “… A composer setting words to music (I believe Bernstein actually means to say ‘music to words’] seeks those notes which he considers most condign to the semantic values of the words he is setting.” Leonard Bernstein
    8. “Turning a melody ‘sideways’ merely requires changing a few notes in the original melody while keep most of the same rhythms and note values. In many cases it amounts to plagiarism.” Michael Feinstein. … Musical thievery is to be avoided …
    9. “Roger Englander, who was a close friend of Leonard Bernstein, once made me aware that one of the themes from Vaughan Williams composition inspired the main musical phrase of ‘Cool’ from West Side Story, just as a theme from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes became ‘A boy like that’” Michael Feinstein. Don’t be so timid of being called a copycat that you do not allow yourself to absorb and mirror and be influenced by the music and melodies of the great masters. All the beautiful things you’ve ever heard can find legitimate new expression as they move through you and are influenced by your taste and experience.
    10. Avoid repeating the same note excessively or returning to the same not too many times or too often. There is no cut-and-dried formula for determining how much is too much.”
  • 275 Singers vary the rhythms, so why shouldn’t the composer?
  • 276 Has the message been delivered, or is a Bridge needed?
  • 277 Choruses can bring new interest by slight variation in the lyric.
  • 286 Song components can be assembled in any order – lyric, chords, melody, bass, rhythm etc
  • [Warning: Webb’s method has its uses in developing basic compositional literacy of elements, but his method based on substitution produces banality and cerebral results, and avoids personal connection or deeper craft.]
At odds and ends [collaborating]
  • [Tim Rice (attrib.): The sign of a great song is that you can hear the words and remember its music, or hear the music, and remember its words.]
  • 288 The history of songwriter collaborations is marked by tension, dislike and acrimony
  • 289 It is helpful if collaborators have differing styles / outlooks.
  • 290 Stephen Schwartz (after collaborating with Bernstein on the Mass): “when we write we tap into abilities of which we’re normally unaware”
  • 290 “… music has to rule. If the music is dominated too much by the lyric, the song doesn’t come off. This is a function of what you might call ‘the collective emotional unconscious’ – the power of music that is cross-cultural and deeper than words.”
  • 290-1 “[Collaborating] is a kind of synergy. You trade positions. One person writes while the other is editor and critic and then the roles are reversed. You have to be able to absorb the criticism and understand that in the end everything has to please everybody.”
  • 291 “One cautionary note: When you’ve finished, when it’s all done, there’s a tendency to inflate the estimate of one’s own contribution. Tunnel vision, when there’s intense involvement, is not uncommon. Try to ‘sleep on it’ before discussing the split of the creative contributions. … Erring on the side of generosity will serve you well – and assuredly bring back good karma as the years, and songs, roll on.”
  • 292 Beware your collaborator having others in the background. [They become invisible forces interfering in the creative process.]
  • 293 “… one must be careful not to proceed with a project until the requirements, perimeters, final authority and most intimate details of the collaborative process are clearly understood by both parties.”
  • 293 “I don’t work as a lyricist on projects which include lyric fragments from another writer what are meant to be used.”
  • 296 Marilyn Bergman: “The most important elements are trust, respect, and a willingness to sound stupid.”
  • 296 Alan Bergman: “The process must be joyful.”
  • 296 Alan Bergman: “After the work leaves our hands, it ‘belongs’ to the artists, producers etc.”
  • 297 Alan Bergman: “… here is where respect and trust come in. If one of us isn’t happy with a word or an idea, we explore other alternatives. And the more you work the more you realise the alternatives are endless. And of course the flexibility extends to being ruthless with the work. I think what separates the amateurs from the professionals is the ability (and the willingness) to rewrite.”
  • 298 Barry Mann: “The major impediment to collaboration is fear. Every collaboration begins with the sense of unwillingness to reveal ourselves as in Oh my God, he’s gonna find out, he’s gonna know I’m a fake, that I do’t know what I’m doing.”
  • 302 “Be wary of surrendering a royalty position on a song without being convinced that a transforming contribution of real significance has been made by the would-be ‘collaborator’. This may necessarily force a conflict between the desire to place the song quickly and easily by overlooking a bending of the rules and walking away from a sure thing, expensive dignity intact.”
  • 304 “Do you have a silent collaborator? If you bottle up emotions or censor your writing out of fear that the person who lives closest to you will respond negatively to certain subject matter then you already have a collaborator, if purely a negative one.”
  • 305 “Sometimes I think that ‘writer’s block’ is nothing more than a breakdown of communications between a writer and his or her subconscious co-writer. Here’s a suggestion: When writing alone treat your subconscious as a living breathing collaborator by providing moments of relaxation and introspectio, opportunities for your ‘partner’ to talk back to you.”
  • 306 “The art of collaboration is a special gift. Some writers are simply too egotistical and self-centred ever to do it right. It involves a great deal of genuine selflessness and dedication along with an inexhaustible tolerance for the peccadilloes of one’s fellow man.”
Getting to first base [getting songs placed, and the publishing and recording business]
  • 310 “Should you try to be a singer/recording artist? I honestly can’t hink of any reason why you shouldn’t, considering the vocal talent in today’s market seems be more a matter of ‘sound’ than ‘technique’. Almost everybody has a ‘sound’. Only a baker’s dozen of male/female divas all clustered together at the top of the charts have what could properly be identified as ‘voices’.”
  • 310 “Current technology provides an efficient and inexpensive means of creating professional quality demos at home. There is no excuse for the writer not to have a clean, competent demo of each song.”
  • 311 “A songwriter should play his wares for someone who’s listening.” [i.e. find someone who is willing to listen, and looking for an artist or repertoire A&R] “It is vital that a writer does not waste precious time and money on sending demos and lead sheets to perfectly hopeless destinations such as other songwriters or groups that write their own or to record labels.” “The writer has to know who is looking for material, what kind of material they are looking for, and why they are looking for it.”
  • 312 “Another area where it is important to concentrate is the world of personal contacts. Ninety-five percent of all songwriting business is conducted face-to-face.”
  • 313 “You must play and sing anywhere, anytime, any way you can. Self-promotion is the only promotion you’ve got.”
  • 314 Have a presence in a songwriting city.
  • 314 “A PO box or answering service is simply a way to remove the onus of ‘small-townism’ from a return address and make a homegrown operation seem more credible and professional.”
  • 319 Be realistic about getting feedback from high quality professionals: “If you think you’re gonna send something to me and get a two-page feedback on what I liked in two weeks, it’s just not gonna happen.”
  • 320 “If your songs are appreciated in the cabaret environment, word gets around, people begin to come in to listen and your reputation as a potential Broadway writer begins to be established.”
  • 320 “build a network of converts, preferably important people who know of me and will recommend my work to others”
  • 320 “You have to be good. You have to have your craft together in order for someone of this calibre to disrupt their personal life to show an interest in you.”
  • 322 “Succeeding in this genre [musical theatre] is much about the smooth use of power and unaffected social ease. The iconoclast, not matter how brilliantly gifted, will not fare well.”
  • 322 Musical Theatre Roles: Producer, Investors, Director, Choreographer, Composer, Lyricist, Book Writer
  • 327 Advertising Jingle Roles: The Client “They don’t have to make musical sense but can be surprisingly specific about what they don’t want to hear”; The Agency “Their creative staff (fine arts executives) will come up with the ‘pitch’, the storyboards, ‘lyrics’ (they insist on calling them ‘copy’) and a handful of musical concepts.” The Jingle House. 328 “The fee will always be a buy-out. Composers are not paid for broadcast performances or television or radio commercials.”
  • 329 “The trick, you see, is to sing on the commercial. People who sing on big national commercials get rich. It is amusing sometimes to observe a composer standing amid a choir of nightingales, mockingbirds, canaries and thrushes, opening and closing his mouth like a confused crow with nary a not issuing and the client and the agency rep standing there beaming, tapping their feet and patting each other on the back.”
  • 329 Irwin Fisch: “There’s a real division in the business between song-type jinges (pieces with lyrics and vocals) and underscore.” 330 “There used to be underscore which was musical in the traditional sense; the notion of sound design is this contemporary thing – the merging of musical content and sound effects; either the sound effects are used musically, or music is used as effect, or some combination of both.”
  • 332 “Writing jingles is an exacting and tedious discipline. Even more so than in songwriting per se there is an electron microscope focused on every note and chord. More money is spent arranging, performing and recording a thirty-second spot than most recording artists spend on their whole album. Give honour to the jingle writer when you hear one of those deceptively simple yet annoyingly unforgettable petite airs. Think of the pressure-driven atmosphere where it was created and the difficulty one has in verbally communicating musical ideas to people who, for the most part, know best what they don’t want.”
  • 333 Listening to demos he is sent: “I will always listen to the first song. Whether I listen to the second song or not, or the third song, that’s up to the writer.”
  • 334 Publisher/ Songwriter roles (New York): The Publishers; The Performing Rights Societies (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC); The Composer & Lyricist “Viable deals for ‘lyrics only’ are in the realm of fantast fiction. The Lyricist needs to be paid with a music writer.” The Artist; The Producer; The Label; Artist & Repertoire (A & R) employed by the label.
  • 337 Henry Gross (Sha-Na-Na): “Here’s the deal. All you have to do is show up with five great songs, by that I mean undeniable songs, and you’ll get a publishing deal in Nashville. It won’t pay much, maybe ten to fifteen thousand dollars a year to start, and that might be for all your publishing. People who dream of being songwriters will do anything they have to do to support themselves. Let me put it this way, everybody who ever painted my house was a songwriter.”
  • 340 Joyce Rice (head of writer/publisher relations at BMI): “Today’s songwriters really educate themselves to what’s going on, from legislative issues to business matters, and they keep track of their own affairs. … My advice to a new arrival [in Nashville] would be to get a job to tide you over – you’ve got to want success so bad that you’re willing to spend the time and effort to learn the business and make the contacts that will help you get where you want to go. Do not pay anyone any money – there are lots of demo and publishing schemes that are only designed to take your money.”
  • 342 “Most Nashville A&R men like their chords simple, their rhythm strong and two-steppy, and their sentiments conventional and to the point. A snappy title based on a cliché with a double entendres or pun repeated at then of each chorus will still open doors.”
  • 343 Nashville songwriting: Publishers (not too difficult to get a deal); Producers (most have their own stable of writers); Artists (quite friendly and approachable); Labels (always looking for singer-songwriters, but vocals have to be excellent); Performing Rights Societies (one door to all); Live-Performance Venues (loads!)
  • 351 ‘Pushy etiquette’ – it’s ok to have demos to hand to people you meet casually [it’s like a business card]
  • 358 J.D. Souther: “Playing every coffee house and bar is more important than walking into people’s offices and playing them tapes. I didn’t get a deal because I walked into David Geffen’s office or Jimmy Bowen’s office. I got a deal because we played all the time … and after we played enough, we got better and the musicians themselves started talking, and sooner or later someone from a publishing company came to see us.”
  • 359 J.D. Souther: “If you want to be good at making music, make music.”
  • 360 Linda Newmark (Polygram): “My advice to a songwriter who is a newcomer to the music business is to get involved with some of the professional songwriter organisations, such as the National Academy of Songwriters, the Songwriter’s Guild, and other music industry organisations such as NARAS (the organisation that puts on the Grammy awards), and a performing rights society (ASCAP, BMI or SESAC). These organisations and other music industry groups provide panel discussions, workshop and other opportunities for people who are serious about the music industry. I think it is also important to hook up with other songwriters. AS a songwriter you should first and foremost focus on working on the craft of songwriting. You should also create opportunities to learn about the business and to get to know (and learn from) people who are successful at what you want to do.”
  • 361 Writers are more successful if they have produced artists, or had songs recorded.
  • 364 Don’t believe anyone who says ‘you’re the only writer on the project’
  • 365ff Film music roles: The Managers (of writers and artists); Film Music Agents (critical to get personal contacts); The Director (decide aesthetic requirements); The Film Producer (will go for the writers likely to be box-office safe); Studios (the Client); Heads of Music (in charge of hiring and firing anything to do with music); Music (departments with staff that handle specific music genres for different media, eg TV); Record Producers (their popularity is very changeable, but they have access to the hot film projects); The Label (a concept and market that is in flux); Live Performance Venues (in Los Angeles, to get heard)
Living with it [music, money, and surviving in the business]
  • 369 “Hack writers don’t get writer’s block and paradoxically neither do hungry ones. Writers who are flush and experienced enough to be jaded, are bound to get it.”
  • 372 Peyton Wimmer (founder of Services Invested in Musicians Support): “Therapy doesn’t end your creativity.”
  • 372 Good to have songwriting events where “songwriters get together simply to play their songs and get acquainted with one another” “no awards are presented, the only pressure being a subtle impetus to try and play as good a song as the other person” “sit together in easy camaraderie, discussing their mutual problems, families and concerns for the future” 373 “educational opportunities” “outpouring of love and respect songwriter to songwriter” “the pressure of making a living recedes in favour of a tangible spirit of unilateral support”
  • 373 “The connection between emotional upset and the creation of a powerful song is simply too well established. In a broader sense, unfortunately, this says that most civilians are unhappy and frustrated because they provide an insatiable appetite for our depressive effluence.” [Perhaps a tad cynical?] … “The writer is in a position where an overdose of sanity might be commercially and even artistically lethal.”
  • 375 Copyright Term Extension Act 1997: “In no way should the freedom of access offered by the Net abolish or disregard the rights of creative people.”
  • 375 Jay Landers (record producer): “My view of the Internet and whatever new technologies that come along is that we need to embrace them because 1) they’re not going away and 2) any mechanism that can bring more music to a wider audience is ultimately a good thing.”
  • 380 “Many courts and judges seem to have difficulty with the concept of the intrinsic worth of a given copyright. Obviously a ‘hit’ song, one that has sold millions of records, is an ‘object’ of value even though songs are not three-dimensional and don’t actually exist anywhere except in the air when they are being performed live or played on equipment. But what about another song by the same writer that has never been recorded? What is this ‘new’ specimen worth?”
  • 381 Songs don’t have an intrinsic value. Royalties come from earnings, not value.
  • 383 Royalties should be paid promptly, and not collect interest for the publisher.
  • 383 Publishing rights get transferred often, so ownership and royalties can be hard to trace.
  • 384 “The writer must know that he or she is ultimately responsible for seeing that fair payment is made.”
  • 384 “Songwriting is not a dreamlike, passive, artistic pursuit. It is hands-on business practice, and the bleached bones of those who have foolishly mistaken it for something else line both sides of the metaphorical stairway to songwriters’ heaven.”
  • 386 BMI is owned by broadcasters. ASCAP is a membership society.
  • 387 “songwriting is a cottage industry much like a family farm. Good fortune ebbs and flows and there are some rich farmers and maybe a few rich songwriters.”
  • 388 “a songwriter is probably the only citizen of this country who cannot sell his property, that is, his publishing company, without the okay of his spouse and children”
  • 388 Against restaurants, bars and retails stores being exempt from paying for music licence. “Think about [this] the next time you are sitting in a romantic restaurant, listening to Mercer and Mancini ballad and chewing on a ninety-dollar filet mignon. Isn’t the music worth a couple of extra cents? (The busboys are getting paid.) Oh yes, religious radio stations are protesting as well, the ones who claim they are non-profit while soliciting billions of dollars in tax-free money.”
  • 389 Catalogues get sold to large publishing houses who don’t release them – so no money gets to the writer.
  • 390 J.D. Souther: “I think part of reinventing yourself as an artist is realising that the world doesn’t revolve around you, and that actually can produce a more revelatory kind of work, a more examined life in art.”
  • 390 “I have to remind myself that writing a good song is worthwhile in and of itself, that at the end of the day if it is only me that has heard the music, wadded it into a tight ball and thrown it in the wastebasket, then it still ranks as one of the better days that life has to offer.”
  • 391 “It might be helpful to remember that no one is going to put up a statue of any songwriters we know until a long time after we’re all dead. You will never be in a position to look over your shoulder and see your bronze-likeness sitting on someone else’s piano. So forget about it.”
  • 392 “The songwriter, of all people, should be financially conservative with a clear understanding of what another songwriter once wrote: ‘Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.’ Longevity is where it’s at. Being able to make money doing a variety of things, being a sideman, an arranger, a performer, a producer, even a copyist, anything to surf over the inevitable ‘corrections’ in our marketplace. Sometimes the bottom just drops out.”
  • 393 “Generally speaking … the music business will be found to be peopled with good-hearted, well-meaning folk who will respect and remember genuine goodwill. Our village is a small one as towns go. Word about behaviour and treatment of others travels fast and is rarely questioned. … It is a good policy to refrain as much as possible from ‘show business gossip’ and unfounded speculation.”
  • 393 “Failure is inevitable. It is best to confront this terrible fact at the outset. If a writer’s every twentieth song were recorded and it became a hit, it would constitute a phenomenal, if not unequalled, record. Virtually every writer of any stature has had a red-hot streak and then a brain-numbing, white-knuckling downward slump during which he or she may believe that nothing of any consequence will ever again occur in his or her career.”
  • 393 “People love a fresh face.”
  • 394 “To go the distance a songwriter has to take the hard hits and maintain a stubborn self-esteem.”
  • 394 “I don’t believe in writing songs by committee.”
  • 395 “The nemesis of creativity is stasis. When we are cowed, sullen and emotionally dead in the water, when the career seems to be stalled and no part of life is going very well, a violent, arbitrary and radical change of direction is called for.”
  • 396 “It may become necessary to change course many times during a creative life. It is a good thing, a thing not to be feared, and strong medicine.”
  • 397 “… songwriters may be the only ‘physicians’ who actually have the power to heal ourselves. Writing songs is probably the best autopsychotherapy ever invented. In fact, the infamous ‘writer’s block’ may be nothing more than a stubborn unwillingness to cure ourselves, a psychomasochism caused by our refusal to confront the truth and put it into the air regardless of repercussions.”
  • 397 Paul McCartney 1982 “Songwriting is like psychiatry; you sit down and dredge up something that’s deep inside and bring it out front.”
  • 398 Music as consolation, or resistance.
  • 398 Don’t repeat – move on, innovate.
  • 399 George Carlin: “An artist has an obligation to be en route somewhere.”
  • 399 Martha Graham” No artist is pleased .. there is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a strange, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
  • 399 Joni Mitchell (1979, Rolling Stone): “You have two options. You can stay the same and protect the formula that gave you your initial success. They’re going to crucify you for staying the same. If you change, they’re going to crucify you for changing, but staying the same is boring. SO, of the two options I’d rather be crucified for changing.”
  • 400 Don’t write letters [or emails] that you’ll later regret.
  • 401 “Somebody has said that diplomacy is giving the other guy a way out. It is also about giving yourself a way out and that means keeping bridges intact if possible. An important part if keeping bridges intact is periodic maintenance.”
  • 404 A songwriter’s moment in the Paradise of success and celebrity may be brief; this is one of the hazards.
Epilogue
  • 410 Joni Mitchell (1997 Rolling Stone): “Back before the singer-songwriter, a very competent musician did the music, and a very competent lyricist did the words. But everybody does both now, so you’ve got a lot of mediocrity.”
  • 412 Webb laments [as do I!] that he “observed a mature and intelligent young artist rhyming ‘misconstrued’ with ‘destitute’ with ‘you’ in a song playing during NBC’s ‘The Tonight Show’, heard advertisements rhyming ‘city boy’ with ‘cowboy’, ‘God’ confidently rhymed with ‘slob’, by a Top-10 writer, and in a recent song by the band Sponge, heard the phrase ‘sixteen candles down the drain’ repeated ten times after each verse. As Noel Coward opined, ‘how potent cheap music is.’”
  • 413 Wynton Marsalis “When you hear the same beat on every piece of music in our society it tells you something is wrong.”
  • 416 “But the most unforgiveable sin of our generation? We don’t listen. We shamelessly criticise music we’ve never listened to.”
  • 417 “One’s ears are like any other muscle of the body, when they are not used they atrophy.
  • 418 Listen to new music, and to music that is not to your taste. 1) “it is an antidote to ignorance” and one can converse and criticise from a position of being informed. 2) Unfamiliar music is good medicine. It can open our minds, or even affirm our current musical outlook. 3) “we might just hear something that we like!”
  • 421 Carly Simon: “Radio has forced us into a long, dark narrow hall, a corridor of people obsessed to fit us into the margins of what ‘makes a hit’ because the ‘suits’ have taken over and there are few record company heads like Jack Holtzman, who was interested in the music at least as much as he was the money, and proud to have and love the great artists on his label even if their records didn’t sell or ‘go gold’. Now at the top we have too many people who don’t know about or even like music.”
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