Poets of Tin Pan Alley (notes on Furia’s book)

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 ›

Lyrics Checklist – good writers re-write

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 ›

The lyrics of American Pie (Don McLean)

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!

The Beatles – a musical appreciation and analysis

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:

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Originality in songwriting

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 ›

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 ›

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. Read more ›

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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 ›

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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 ›

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: