SAC 2016 SONGWRITING CHALLENGE WEEK 4

I’m late submitting this week but I met the challenge.  This week we were asked by Toronto-based singer-songwriter Emma-Lee to “tie two tunes together” by marrying parts from different unfinished songs into a new composition.

This was a hard challenge in part because I have many unfinished ideas but trying to bring them together in a new arrangement is surprisingly difficult.  Different rhythms, different keys, different moods, etc.  After sifting through my iPhone scratch recordings for some time, I finally decided to merge a melody from one fragment of an idea with a guitar riff from another.

The chorus was part of the guitar riff idea and the melody came from a very different song idea so I essentially had to write the lyrics from scratch.  The chorus is suggestive of a theme but I had to work out an angle on it.  In this case the lyrics aren’t too specific but lend themselves to a relationship-type song.  I decided I also wanted to keep it simple and short, so I opted for two verses with a short bridge, bringing the whole thing in under 3 minutes.

It’s a bit more pop than what I’ve been writing lately and the production is more than I would usually do for this kind of demo but I had fun with it, and that’s what matters

We’ve Both Been There

I know that love can be confusing-
when it undermines those plans you made
But I also know it bears repeating-
you’ve got two choices when you’re scared

We’ve both been there
We’ve both been there

I know frustration likes to hang around-
ticking like a time bomb that you wear
Before it blows you need to recognize-
there are others out there who still care

We’ve both been there
We’ve both been there

And I won’t tell you no lies-
cause I can see in those eyes
we’ve both been there

We’ve both been there

Words and music by Gordon Gow, Copyright 2016
Featured Image by Holly Jay flic.kr/p/sjJRJA

 

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SAC 2016 SONGWRITING CHALLENGE WEEK 3

This week’s challenge from Michael Perlmutter from Instinct Entertainment was to do a co-write with another participant.  The subject of the song was to be about “relationships” and the process was intended to allow us to be able to share our own experience “with a co-writer may help to craft the story and share the feeling in a more profound way.”

Collaboration presents many challenges unto itself; not the least of which is finding a time  and place to do it.  Online connections are good but face to face is probably better for me, and unfortunately that wasn’t going to happen this week because of other commitments.  However, I did manage to contact two Edmonton-based writers, BoneDog Dixon and Shauna Specht, both of whom I met through the SAC Edmonton Regional Writers Group.

My approach going into the challenge was to lend what I feel are my strengths in lyric writing to the collaboration.  Given the time constraints I also felt it better to draw on some material that was already somewhat developed rather than trying to create from scratch.

I write lyrics in tandem with music, using it as a kind of scaffolding for the process.  The scaffolding can then be pulled back to reveal a lyric.  That was the case with both of these songs.

I offered to send BoneDog a lyric with the title “That Love Ain’t True”, which is about the kind of relationships that really aren’t honest or healthy.   I felt that it fit with his blues-influenced approach to songwriting.  Originally it was written with a series of short verses followed by a refrain.  BoneDog suggested I expand the verses and he added some additional elements to the lyric.  His musical approach is really interesting, and very different from what I would have imagined for the song.  I like it, and think that if we were to continue working on it that I’d want to do an overhaul of the verses to give it a stronger coherence internally and possibly inject some dark humour into it.

I offered Shauna a lyric with the title “Save it for the Brokenhearted”, which is about a long term relationship that has come to an end;  however, it’s not a sad ending but rather two lovers who have reconciled with themselves about it and realize it’s time to move on.   Shauna was drawn to the theme but decided to take it in quite a different direction than the original lyric.  She retained some of the thematic elements and a few lines but it is also a completely different song after the co-write.  I’m impressed with what she’s done with it in such a short time span and now have a greater sense of how an idea in a co-write can develop in unexpected directions.  If we had more time to work on it together I’d probably press for a different chorus as part of the co-writing process.  Nonetheless, my compliments to her for this song, which is now called “The Book of You and Me

Overall, it was a great experience this week and it’s encouraged me to start thinking more seriously about the possibilities of doing more co-write experiments.

 

 

SAC 2016 Songwriting Challenge Week 2

Okay, we’re into week 2 and the Challenge has been issued by Northern Pikes member Bryan Potvin to write a song that tells a story.  He says that in addition to a compelling storyline it “should be a song with memorable melody, chord structure and rhythm that speaks to the ideas within the story.”  Make the story drive the lyric and the music, he says.

He includes some great sample tracks as points of reference, including “Cats in the Cradle” (Harry Chapin) and “She Ain’t Pretty” (Northern Pikes).  Of course there are many others, including Gordon Lightfoot’s epic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and Towne Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.”

It’s a difficult challenge on several levels, not the least of which is to grapple with the question “what exactly qualifies as a story, anyway?”

Merriam Webster has a few ways to define it but I like “an account of incidents or events” or “the intrigue or plot of a narrative or dramatic work.”

In its essence, however, a story has characters, a setting, and some kind of action unfolding in time.  I suppose this can be contrasted with a lyric that is either impressionistic (“Where the Streets Have No Name“) or one that expresses a set of emotional statements in relation to a chorus (“Walking on Sunshine“).


The Process

Fortunately I had a story idea for a song that had been sitting idle for some time.  The challenge gave me a good excuse to develop it.

I assume the characters and the dramatic element of the story will be obvious to listeners but the timeline is a bit different because it works backward from the recent past to the distant past through the three verses.

This is what I wrote on my worksheet when planning out the song structure:

Verse 1: minutes before
Verse 2: hours before
Verse 3: years before

I’m not sure it’s a narrative as much as the singer recollecting a set of related moments in second-person POV.  Does that count as a story?  If we accept the first of Meriam Webster’s definitions I noted above (“an account of incidents or events”) then it does.

I really like singing the melody in the chorus and feel it ties the elements together with compelling hook but that is ultimately for listeners to decide.

The performance and recording could both be improved but I’ve decided that we’re all friends here and so I’m not going to overwork the demo this week.


The Result

Can’t Take it Back

An empty bottle beside the bed-
the darkness clings to the things you said
Like shattered glass on a broken mirror-
These lines of force are now crystal clear

The fever broke about 2am-
You were sick from drinking, soaked in sin
You raised your voice then you raised your hand-
out came that demon you could never understand

You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back
You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back

A set of keys beside the door-
she pleaded so many times before
trying to save you from yourself-
a gesture of love that you ignored

You slammed the door when you left that night-
at the sight of tears in the fury of another fight
And you knew where the road was gonna lead-
with those warning signs you never chose to heed

You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back
You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back

Time ticks away-
time ticks away
time ticks away-
then it’s gone

A lover’s note inside your coat-
twenty years ago it gave you hope
she said “I do” when you took her hand-
but you burned it to ash-
in the flames of a foolish man

You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back
You can’t take it back now-
You can’t take it back

Copyright 2016 Gordon Gow

Song Forms Part 1: Verse/Chorus

Modernist designers introduced the notion that form follows function to suggest that the intended purpose or function of any object should dictate its shape or appearance.

For songwriters, this is an important idea because it draws attention to the musical form that we use to provide a structure for our compositions.  If we assume that the hook is the heart of a song (it doesn’t seem right to call it the ‘function’) then the form should follow in such a way that best supports that hook.

There are always exceptions to the rule, but Sheila Davis in The Songwriters Idea Book offers a helpful overview of the three major song forms that have tended to dominate in the field.  This is changing with genres like rap and EDM but let’s ignore that for now.
music in the late afternoon sun

The three major forms are the verse/chorus, the AABA, and the AAA.  Each has several variations, but basic idea is that these forms support different kinds of hooks.  Let’s focus on the verse/chorus form for now and I’ll discuss the others in future posts.

The verse/chorus form is very common and well suited to songs that have a strong hook that can stand on its own with a lyric and melody that bears repeating.  The verses support the hook by using a variety of approaches including plots based on time, place, point of view, etc.  The sections are usually very distinctive, with most listeners able to easily identify the difference between a verse and a chorus.  Very often the title of the song is the first line of the chorus in this form.

A good contemporary example of this form is found in “Beautiful Day” by Charlie Robison.  The song includes a lengthy 16-bar instrumental break after the second chorus before continuing to a third verse/chorus.  (Amazingly, however, the song still comes in under 3 minutes, ensuring it is radio friendly.)

A common variation of the verse/chorus form is to include a bridge after the second chorus that provides musical contrast to both the verses and the chorus.  The song form looks like this:  Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus.  Sometimes there is a short instrumental break after the second chorus and before the bridge.

A good classic example of this form is Bryan Adam’s “Cuts Like a Knife“.  The 8-bar bridge is placed after the guitar solo and with the lyric starting “Another night/another lesson learned”.  The chorus then follows and ends the song.

A second common variation is the verse/climb/chorus, which adds a pre-chorus or ‘climb’ in between the verse and the chorus.  This form is used to build up energy for the release of the hook, or sometimes to provide an important lyric line that helps to set up the chorus.

A good contemporary example of this form is JP Hoe’s “Save You“.  The climb after the first verse begins with the lyric “so tell me where did it go wrong..” with the chorus starting on the line “You tried to own the sun …”.  The climb in this case is essential to a plot twist in the lyric (listen for it).  It’s interesting to note that the title is buried in the chorus, but in my opinion the musical hook is so strong that it doesn’t matter all that much.  It’s also worth mentioning that the song has a bridge-type section based on the both the music and lyrics of the climb section.

Form follows function, and for songs with strong, repeatable standalone hooks, the verse/chorus structure is both effective and often anticipated by listeners.  In the next part I’ll talk about the slightly more elusive AABA form.

 

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Preproduction Session 3: Steel sings and fat gets trimmed

Everett and I met on Sunday for our third preproduction session.  This time we set up some mics and did some initial tracking with vocals and acoustic guitar.  Everett has recently acquired a Gretsch lap steel, and we used this opportunity to explore ideas for the song “Longest Night of the Year”.

When he first tried out the slide guitar during the bridge of the song, it was almost a transcendent moment for me.  Not having heard much beyond acoustic guitar versions of the song so far, even this small contribution to the arrangements was amazing.  It was like putting butter on the bread.  The trick now will be to figure out how much of that slide guitar will be just right without overdoing it.

Everett with lap steel annotated

While we spent a good part of the session exploring possibilities for the lap steel, I also began to take a hard look at the structure of this song and what might be trimmed to tighten it up.  The initial version was coming in at over 6 minutes, which is too much to keep a listener interested–at least for this kind of folky acoustic song.  So, we’ve started to trim and clip some of the excess.  It is always remarkable to see how much better a song can be when the fat is cut from it.  And while the length of a song should not always be a determining factor, it is an important consideration especially when a first draft of the song exceeds five minutes.

In this case, the song structure revolved around a Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Verse/Bridge/Verse/Chorus, which when you look at it written out does seem kind of excessive.  And that isn’t taking into the account that the verses are structured around 3 stanzas as opposed to the usual 2 stanzas.  Anyway, we can often write a lot when a song is in its early stages and we’re not sure what is really important to the lyric or the flow of the song.  That’s not bad inasmuch as it gives us lots of material to work with.

However, having some distance from it now (I wrote the original song in March/April), it has become easier for me to take a critical view and cut out a stanza in the second verse, remove the verse before the bridge, and drop the chorus at the end altogether.  (I realize that dropping the last chorus might seem unusual but it works because the last verse is a repeat of the opening stanza, creating a cyclical effect with a sense of instability in the ending, which corresponds with the mood I want).  The net result has been to bring the length to under 5 minutes and arrive at a song structure that will be more likely to hold the listener’s attention.

I’m learning that the songwriting continues well into the preproduction phase, as lyrics get revised and song structure gets reworked.  I’m also realizing that it’s a lot easier to do some of this when I have some critical distance from the song, which suggests the value in coming into the studio with material that maybe isn’t too freshly minted.

Working the Body Language of a Song (Part 3)

This is the third in a series of postings about the body language of a song.  I first heard that term from songwriting consultant Pat Pattison, who uses it in reference to lyric setting.  In my previous post I described Pattison’s concepts of front and back heavy lines in relation to creating stability or instability in a song.

A key lesson in all this is to ensure that the lyrics are set against the music in a way that delivers maximum intended impact.  As Pattison correctly observes, what we say is often less important than how we way it.  Setting a lyric to music is about how we deliver the words.

I’ve started to use a worksheet method to help me analyze my own writing and, hopefully, to improve the setting of my lyrics by paying attention to front and back heavy emphasis.

IMG_0348 IMG_0346 

The worksheets use a single stave drum clef divided into 2 measure per row, each with slashes representing each downbeat in the bar.  When working with my DAW, I also note the measure number of the lines to help me locate it on the recording.   After I’ve recorded a performance of the song I go back and analyze it, transcribing the lyrics using the worksheet.

In the example above, the version on the left is the lyric as originally set in the demo recording.  I wasn’t happy with it and felt that it wasn’t well set with the music.  When I transcribed it using the worksheet I realized that the phrasing was predominantly back heavy (in the margin I wrote ‘f’ and ‘b’ to mark front and back heavy).

The song lyric is about letting something good slip through your hands and the importance of taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. The verse begins with words that paint a picture of thrill and excitement so it lends itself to front heavy emphasis because the first part of the verse is really a series of assertive, stable statements.

However, the mood becomes unstable in the last two lines as the opportunity slips away.  So, for the last two lines I opted for back-heavy to contrast with the front-heavy lines and to help better convey that sense of instability that is inherent in the words.

The worksheet on the right shows the lyrics after I made some changes to the way the lines are set.  You will notice that all the lines are now set front-heavy except the last four measures of the verse, which adds contrast and instability leading into the chorus.

Incidentally, these changes also required me to rewrite some of the lyrics (the revisions never end!) but that actually helped me to improve some weak spots that had been nagging at me.  (However, you will note also the pink Post-it Note identifying what I think is still a weak line that needs more work).

The worksheet is one technique but the main point is to think about the body language of the song and to use front and back heavy setting as a method to better align the ‘what’ you sing with the ‘how’ you sing it.

Working the Body Language of a Song (Part 2)

My last post introduced Pat Pattison’s songwriting theory of stability/instability and I compared it to consonance/dissonance in music composition.  Good writing, I suggested, is when we intentionally design both stable and unstable elements into a song to convey an intended emotion to our listeners.

Pat Pattison’s songwriting method offers an interesting way to apply the concept of stability/instability when we set words to music.  He refers to this as the ‘body language’ of a song and, rightly, points out that most of our communication is non-verbal in nature.  In other words, how we say or sing something is probably more important than the actual words we are saying or singing.

Pattison uses the terms ‘front heavy’ and ‘back heavy’ when he talks about stability/instability with the setting of lyrics to music with this fundamental distinction:

  • Front heavy phrasing is stable
  • Back heavy phrasing is unstable

So what does he mean?  Front heavy phrasing emphasizes key words on strong beats.  In 4/4 time, that means the first and third beats of a measure.  Back heavy phrasing places key words on weak beats.  In 4/4 time, that means the second and fourth beats.  In practice when we sing, the placement might not be exactly on a beat but the idea here is a rough guideline.

Front heavy phrasing is called for when we want to convey a sense of being assertive, confident, factual.  Back heavy phrasing is called for when we want to convey a sense of uncertainty, loss, trepidation.  Used in combination, the two techniques can be subtle but powerful when aligning the body language of you song with with the content of the lyric.  Pattison’s demonstration of it in action (see link above) is quite revealing.

I’ve applied it to my own writing and I am becoming convinced that there is definitely something to this approach that improves my songs.  Not only that but it gives me a helpful tool for analyzing my lyric setting especially when something just doesn’t sound right to my ears.  By examining the placement of my lyrics in relation to front/back heavy emphasis, I find I can make more informed decisions when I want to make changes to the song.

In the next post I’ll share a worksheet technique that I’ve developed for analyzing the body language of my songs.

Working the Body Language of a Song (Part 1)

Pat Pattison is a professor at the Berklee College of Music and a widely respected songwriting coach and mentor.  I’ve written about his approach to songwriting before and find it a helpful way to approach the process most especially during the revising and polishing stage of writing.

If I were to identify two key ideas that inform his approach to writing better songs they would be these:

  1. prosody
  2. stability/instability

I’ll talk more about Pattison’s notion of prosody in a future post but for now I want to focus on his second idea of stability/instability.  The idea is closely related to the notion or consonance/dissonance in music (or tension/release in other forms of writing).  Depending on the intended emotional effect of a piece of music, as writers we want to be aware at all times whether the idea or expression has the quality of assertiveness (stable) or uncertainty (unstable). 

More importantly, we want to be able to use techniques that help our writing to convey these qualities in effective combinations.  In other words, we want to design both stable and unstable elements into our songwriting.

The simple I-IV-V formula for blues progressions is an example of these two elements in a time-honored combination.  It begins with the tonic (I) chord, moves to the subdominant (IV) chord creating a sense of movement (slightly unstable), then back to the dominant (stable), then to the subdominant briefly before heading to the dominant (V) chord (unstable).  With the dominant (V) chord, instability/tension is at its maximum and it resolves satisfyingly back to the stable tonic (I) chord.  It’s like a journey that takes us away and brings us back home.

Many songwriters already understand this aspect of music composition but some like me hadn’t thought about applying it when we set words to music.  And that’s where Pat Pattison’s notion of ‘body language’ in lyrical phrasing comes into play.

More about that in the next posting.

More on simplicity and songwriting

The Glenn Morrison/Islove song “Goodbye” is a current example of success through simplicity.  It contains a strong melodic hook with a compelling visual image as the centrepiece: “…and it starts to snow in the streets of Mexico.”

It’s one of those lines that I can imagine a songwriter just blurting out as they play through the chord progression and then realizing they are on to something interesting.  The winning element here is that Morrison didn’t bury that line in complexity but chose to showcase it with a catchy and infinitely repeatable melody.

The song itself is a common chord progression (Am/F/G/Am) with only the addition of the C (Am/F/C/G) to create contrast between the opening verse and the lead up into the chorus.

From a production standpoint, however, there is quite a bit going in this song.  I suppose that’s the caveat to Gary Ewer’s comments about simplicity and success.  Dressing a song up for contemporary hit radio is perhaps the producer’s art form.  The right tempo, the right drum track, the sound textures (including Morrison’s use of a sample from “Every Breath You Take”), the perfect vocal performance, etc.

Simplicity is one thing.  Making the most of the song for the intended audience, especially contemporary hit radio, can be a very complicated and delicate undertaking indeed.

Good Man Down (Take 2)

I’ve taken a break from SAC Challenge 2015 this week because of other commitments but today I took a shot at revising how the lyrics are set to “Good Man Down.”

Over the past few weeks I’ve also been taking Pat Pattison’s course on songwriting.  Among other things, he talks about “body language” and setting lyrics front-heavy or back-heavy.  Front-heavy is on the first beat of the bar, back-heavy is set back in the bar.  Pattison says that front-heavy lends itself to “stability” and back-heavy to “unstable”.

Following the general principle of prosody in songwriting, his approach is to think about and apply front/back heavy to lyric setting as a way to reinforce key ideas and themes in a unified way.  There’s more to it than I can describe here but it is a helpful set of guidelines.

This morning I re-recorded Good Man Down with a vocal performance that sets the lyrics quite a bit different from the original recording.  The verses are now more front-heavy, with selective back-heavy lines in various spots to give emphasis where it is needed.  It’s subtle but it makes a difference (at least I think so).

Here’s GMD, take 2:

The original recording of the song is available here.