Bobby McFerrin, Dianne Warren, Eddie Van Halen, Guitar, Jason Blume, Joe Satriani, Oscar Peterson, Paul Gilbert, Peter Gabriel, Randy Bachman, Rush, songwriter, Songwriters, songwriting, Songwriting Software, The Police, Tony MacAlpine, Tori Amos, Vinnie Moore, XecretCode, Xsong

From Shredder to Writer

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Shredful Past
I picked up my first electric guitar in the middle of the neo-classical period of rock music. I spent all my free time practicing while listening to hot guitar players such as Joe Satriani, Tony MacAlpine and Vinnie Moore. Because of this, it took me years to learn that good songwriting was mostly about chords and lyrics, not guitar solos. Even after Kurt Cobain had declared guitar solos illegal, I still continued to fill cassettes with vein directionless solos.

The Player Paradox
There’s kind of an interesting paradox among musicians: being technically proficient on an instrument has nothing to do with good songwriting. In fact, it seems like a disadvantage. Kind of like being a PHd hired to flip burgers: you just can’t keep it simple. You want to show off your hard-earned skills on every song.

Band Of Songwriters
Peter Gabriel once said that what made Genesis and it’s spin-offs (Mike and the Mechanics, solo Gabriel, solo Phil Colins, GTR) so successful was that it was a band of songwriters. This obviously creates tensions as everyone tries to have their compositions on the albums (Steve Hacket quit over just that), but in the long term, it really paid off. Steve Miller once mentioned how hard it was to find the right musicians for his tour. The hot players he auditioned just couldn’t play Steve’s simple 4/4 meat-and-potato type of songs.

No Readin’ Required
Dianne Warren and Jason Blume have both mentioned that they do not read music notation. Neither did Lennon and McCartney before them. However, they all knew basic chord theory and in the case of the Beatles, came up with some very inventive chord changes.

Shredding Songwriters
Here’s a list of my favorite songwriters who can also shred:

  • Randy Bachman — Sure, “American Woman”, “Taking Care Of Business” and “You’ve Seen Nothing Yet” are simple rock songs. Yet they were written by a guy with considerable jazz guitar chops. In fact, Randy Bachman was a friend and student of the late Lenny Brau who basically owned jazz guitar for a while. It’s amazing to me how he can effortlessly switch from simple power chords to complex jazz “uptown” chords within the same song.
  • The Police — Did you know that the Police were formally a jazz band? Of course, this explains why both Sting and Stewart Copeland have ventured into jazz-flavored projects after the break up of The Police. Sting recorded the album “Dream Of a Blue Turtle” with Branford Marsilis and Omar Hakim while Copeland recorded his Animal Logic project with Stanley Clark. As for Andy Summer, he was an accomplished session guitarist with a huge vocabulary of jazz chords. The thing however is that Sting’s songwriting was way better than the others, which led to his success which caused their breakup.
  • Tori Amos — Being a classically trained pianist usually means that you can play Litz and Shopin in your sleep. What I like about Tori Amos is that she basically replaced the Blues with classical influences in her songs. Sure, Kate Bush did it before, but Tori can shred – and does.
  • Paul Gilbert — After finding one of his CD in Japan, I realized this guy could do a lot more than play at 3000 mph. He has a great singing voice, does incredible 3 parts harmonies and generally rocks. He is a huge star in Japan but North-America still won’t forgive him for is post-Malmsteen days.
  • Oscar Peterson — Everyone knows that the late Oscar Peterson was an incredible technician. What is less known is the extent to which he composed some timeless music like the “Canadiana Suite”. In this video of him with the great Ella Fidzerald, you can see how he was also a masterful accompanist; always supporting the singer, never overshadowing her. Now that’s good taste.
  • Rush — One thing that Rush always had over younger prog rock bands like Dream Theater and Symphony-X is the consistent songwriting. I still listen to Moving Pictures and cannot believe haw strong the songwriting is. My favorite phrase: “Everybody got to deviate from the north”.
  • Bobby McFerrin — Now, this guy took this to another level and wrote several album worth of songs with only his voice as instrument. In fact, when “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” first came out, it took me a while to realize that was “singing” all the parts. The song was good and could totally stand on its own without a solo instrument.
  • Eddie VanHalen — OK, I had to put him in the list. Initially, when he came out with his wild complex playing style, millions of young people started imitating him. What he had over everybody else however, was real songwriting and arranging skills earned playing classical piano as a teenager. In fact, the reason he accepted to play the guitar solo in “Beat It” was because he admired Quicy Jones and suggested they add a little break before the solo to allow tension build.

To Shred Or Not To Shred
There’s a distinct satisfaction in mastering an instrument, but I believe that it takes a lot of maturity to put this aside and concentrate on the song itself. Shredding is fun, but it doesn’t touch people as much as great songwriting.

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Jason Blume, songwriter, Songwriters, songwriting, TAXI, XecretCode, Xsong

Jason Blume At The 2007 Taxi Rally

Probably the most insightful five minutes you’ll ever listen to. Jason Blume manages to put forth the basic thesis from his book ”6 Steps to songwriting success” which is to concentrate on short vocal melodies. My Xsong software is based on that same principle. Nothing is more powerful than a vocal melody that you can’t get out of your head.

Read the comments too because you can clearly see that many people don’t understand that songwriting is structured. For some reason, everyone accepts that a book or a movie must be scripted and structured, yet the idea of doing the same for songwriting seem to go against the laws of nature. Then, the same people get frustrated when their song get rejected by everybody. Sight…

By the way, the yearly Taxi road rally sounds like a must go event. Posting these videos on YouTube is a great way to make you realize just what you missed on.

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Jason Blume, Meter, songwriter, songwriting

Check Your Meter!

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Metering (also called note counting or syllable counting) is very important in lyric writing. I often read lyrics online and I’m always amazed at how many people don’t take the time to balance their lines and make sure that the meter is consistent. The standard excuse is “Man, I only write lyrics! I leave the music to somebody else”. See, metering is part of your job! Here is why…

Not A Poem
The main problem is that many people confuse lyrics with poems. They are not the same. Here are a few basic differences:

  • Whereas a poem can be very intellectual and obscure, a song as to be clear and to the point.
  • Whereas a poem is meant to be read, lyrics are meant to be sung. This means that any word that is long, technical and/or difficult to pronounce will not be easy to sing. No tongue twisters!
  • Poems have no time constraints. Each line can be arbitrary long and the final poem can span several pages if required. A song is usually limited to 3 minutes and has to include many repetitions.

Poets like Leonard Cohen are known for turning poems into lyrics, but it’s usually done after many hors spent pruning away each lyric line until they can be sung comfortably.

An Example
Metering can be described broadly as “the number of notes in a line of lyrics”. The reason I don’t say the “number of syllables” is because syllables can be stretched or shorten depending on pronunciation, slang and “creative” diction. Also, this is the same number of notes that would be played in an instrumental monophonic melodic line. Imagine if you will a saxophone player playing the same notes than the ones being sung.

As an example, here is a verse from a song of mine called “Paper Flower Girl” (meters are in parenthesis):


(verse 2)
Standing on the corner (6)
Here you are (3)
Selling little flowers (6)
Packs of two (3)
Doesn’t really matter (6)
Who you are (3)
When you give love (4)
When you give love (4)

This example demonstrates that lyric lines are often symmetrical: see how line 1 and 3 not only rhyme: they have common meter. Lines 2 and 4 don’t rhyme, but they have the same meter. There is a sense of symmetry and balance where each line as a corresponding one with the same meter.

Also note the following points:

  • It’s easier for someone to write a melody if they know the meter for each verse, chorus, bridge, etc.
  • Each song section has a certain number of bars anyway, so even if you wanted to “break the rules”, you would run out of time.
  • It’s also better to break your lines into shorter meter counts. 4 to 9 notes is ideal and most flexible. Try not to get over 10 or 12.
  • Writing your lyrics in this way will show that you know your craft and it will be easier for others to fit music to it.
  • This is what Bernie Toupin did with Elton John: his lines were already metered and balanced. Elton would just sing them while trying different chords and melodies, and he knew he didn’t have to rewrite the lyrics. This allowed them to write together while communicating with a fax.

For more details (and much better examples), check Jason Blume’s “6 Steps to songwriting success”, pp107-109.

Standardized Sizes
Metering your lines can be seen like construction material for a house. Imagine for a moment that you are an artisan building beautiful ceramic tiles that comes in 6×6 and 12×12 inches. Knowing that, anyone can take your material and put it in their architectural plan knowing that it will fit the room perfectly. They would also be able to figure out the cost and buy from you in advance. That’s the powers of standardized sizes. And this takes nothing away from your artistry.

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Dianne Warren, Jason Blume, John Braheny, songwriter, songwriting

1987 Dianne Warren Interview

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Check out this awesome John Braheny interview with Dianne Warren. This interview is especially interesting because at the time, Warren had just experienced her first few hits after years of persistence. She started receiving song critiques at 15 in 1971. Do the math: that’s over 15 years spent honing her skills. Read this if you feel disappointed that you’re still “not there yet” after one year with Taxi. By the way, she is a very shy person who does her own song pitching and publishing. We have no excuse! I remember reading in Jason Blume’s book that he had a similar learning period.

Another very interesting fact is that she started on guitar before switching to keyboards. Personally, my own songwriting improved ten-fold once I switched to keyboards. It’s just a better instrument for writing and arranging songs. I can always go back to the guitar for actual recording, but for initial arrangement, nothing beats a keyboard.

Lastly, both Dianne Warren and Jason Blume are musically self-taught, which I find quite interesting. I mean, in all their years songwriting, they have not managed to learn to read or write music notation? Instead they focused on learning how to turn the ideas in their heads into finished songs. Very wise

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Jason Blume, music theory, songwriter, songwriting

Big Bad Music Theory Monster

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Songwriting comes from the heart. Most songwriters have no idea where inspiration comes from. I guess if we knew, we would bottle it and sell it on street corners. Generally, there’s no correlation between knowledge of music theory (which includes sight reading, harmony and chord theory) and the ability write a good song.

This is probably why I love Jason Blume’s book (6 Steps To Songwriting Success) so much. Blume admits that he doesn’t sight read and with that out of the way, proceeds to describe the most important elements of a good song. Clue: it does not include any music theory. He briefly goes on to mention all our songwriting heroes who don’t read music (Lennon/McCartney, Seal, and so on…). While I find this comforting, I know that *some* music knowledge is never bad.

This is in stark contrast with my other songwriting books (all from Berkley professors) that state from the start that music-reading abilities are a prerequisite for writing good songs. These books focus mainly on melody writing and arrangement, which is pretty hard to explain without any type of musical notation. I must admit that these books have all the allure of a math treatise and totally fail to keep my attention more than 30 minutes at-a-time. And, no, I’m not A.D.D.

I recently went back to reading those Berkley books, and I have to admit, knowing just a little helps in a big way. I find that the real value in music theory lies in the ability to be more efficient at finishing and arranging a song. Instead of being stuck with the few chords I know on guitar and keyboard, I find myself experimenting with new ideas early in the writing process.

There’s also an interesting by-product of practicing scales and chord theory: you fumble into some neat ideas that are outside of your comfort zone. For example, while practicing alternate chord voicings on the keyboard, I accidentally found an interesting combination that had a very sophisticated, yet simple sound to it. In a matter of minutes I was fleshing it out with lyrics and a great chorus.

Now, every time I’m out of ideas and don’t feel like noodling, I just open one of those boring book and try to learn something new. The way I see it, I ain’t got nothin’ to loose.

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