Thursday, July 16, 2009

Practicing Your Songwriting

I recently had an article appear in the Serve the Song blog (a blog I read pretty regularly and find very useful). Here's the article:

Like anything, songwriting improves as one practices one’s craft. Practicing songwriting can often be a daunting task not only because it seems odd as a concept (What is the difference between practicing songwriting and being creative by actually engaging in the process of songwriting?) but also because it requires admitting that your own songwriting needs improvement.

Many times, once we write something we have a hard time letting it go, admitting that it needs complete rewriting or that may just not be that good to want a live performance or recording. Many years ago, I read somewhere that Charlotte Cafferty (then guitarist of the Go-Go’s) wrote hundreds of songs that never saw life beyond her notebook. She viewed these is not good enough for live performance and use them as examples to learn and practice what worked and what didn’t work.

Personally, for every 10 songs or so I write, one makes it in front of a band; and for every five that I bring to the band, one makes it to a live performance or recording. While this may suggest that I’m extremely prolific or just plain suck at writing, I take a different view: In a sense, all those bad songs I write are practice for the good songs I write.

In any event, admitting that a song you have written requires rewriting/retooling/rejecting can be difficult. Sometimes when I’m just not in the mood to rework my own material, I turn to the work of others. My approach is this: How many times has a song you don’t particularly like gotten stuck in your head? It happens to me all the time. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and one of my kids’ favorite songs is stuck in my head. Sometimes I (inadvertently) hear a song by an artist I don’t like, only to have the song repeat over and over again in my head throughout the day. There must be something about these songs that makes them “stick.” So, I use these songs as material to practice my songwriting. Literally, I take these songs and start rewriting them, taking them apart to figure out what makes them tick and why they are so catchy. At the same time, I’m honing my own skills with melody, harmony and rhythm.

Deconstructing a Hit

When practicing songwriting, it’s useful to think about what it is that makes these songs (perhaps regrettably) so memorable. Is it the melody? Is it the artist’s phrasing? Is it the rhythm or chord progression? As such, rewriting an existing song can serve several important purposes:
  1. By dissecting and rewriting an existing song you can learn a great deal about what makes its melody catchy or its rhythm addictive. I often take an existing song and try to change one aspect (e.g., melody rhythm progression) while keeping everything else constant. This allows me to see how, say, the artist phrasing works within a melodic or harmonic structure.Sometimes I keep the melody and try to change the chords or rhythm in order to understand how a seemingly catchy melody can be supercharged by the right rhythm and harmony to create a monster you can’t get out of your head. Through this, you learn what works and what doesn’t for more general songwriting.
  2. This type of work also gives you an opportunity to step outside of your genre. Maybe you can take that goofy Carrie Underwood song about cheating and turn it into a mambo? Maybe you can really stretch out an do what these guys did, converting a Brittany Spears song into a fugue. By stepping out of your genre and writing something really different, you open yourself up to new ways of conceptualizing a song. You hear new rhythms and phrases that may spark ideas for your own original material.
  3. Finally, by working from an existing song you are not only learning from an example of a “successful” song, but you’re also practicing your own craft. In re-writings say a Beyonce song or something from the soundtrack to bear in the Big Blue House, it’s impossible for you not to interject your own ideas and style. As such, your songwriting, arranging, and your toolkit of songwriting tricks and ideas can only get better.

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