Notes on Napkins

musings for songwriters


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What You Really Need To Know To Be A Professional Songwriter

I’m making a little joke here. I found this in my computer files. I can’t recall how I originally got it and haven’t found the source (if you do, let me know). But it still makes me laugh and there’s definitely a grain of truth – or the entire loaf of bread of truth –  in this list. So without further ado, here’s what songwriters really need to know:

THE PROFESSIONAL SONGWRITER’S ABBREVIATED DICTIONARY

VERBS:
1. to schmooze = befriend scum
2. to pitch = grovel shamelessly
3. to brainstorm = feign preparedness
4. to research = procrastinate indefinitely
5. to network = spread misinformation
6. to collaborate = argue incessantly
7. to freelance = collect unemployment

NOUNS:
1. agent = frustrated lawyer
2. lawyer = frustrated producer
3. producer = frustrated writer
4. writer = frustrated artist
5. artist = frustrated human

COMMON TERMS AND PHRASES:
1. Entry-level = pays nothing
2. You can trust me = you must be new
3. Highly qualified = knows the producer
4. It needs some polishing = Change everything
5. It shows promise = It stinks rotten
6. It needs some fine tuning = Change everything
7. I’d like some input = I want total control
8. It needs some honing = Change everything
9. Call me back next week = Stay out of my life
10. It needs some tightening = Change everything
11. Try and punch it up = I have no idea what I want
12. It needs some streamlining = Change everything
13. It’s very close = You’re not even on the right planet
14. We want something different for this album = The last album didn’t sell
15. We’re looking for a new direction = see previous
16. I know someone at the label = I know the janitor
17. You’ll never work in this town again = I have no power whatsoever


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Goals for August 2016

 

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“Dare to dream! If you did not have the capability to make your wildest wishes come true, your mind would not have the capacity to conjure such ideas in the first place. There is no limitation on what you can potentially achieve, except for the limitation you choose to impose on your own imagination. What you believe to be possible will always come to pass – to the extent that you deem it possible. It really is as simple as that.”
 – Anthon St. Maarten

A new month, a new beginning!  Big or small, it doesn’t matter what the goal is as long as we keep moving in the right direction. What are some of your plans and objectives for this month? Statistics show that writing down goals increases the odds of achieving them! So join us in goal-setting for the month and post yours in the comment area. 

Photo credit: 3D Sand Piano Beach Art by Jamie Harkins#artpeople  @www.artpeople.net

 


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It’s Never Too Late to Write a Great Song

“I’m still learning.” – Michaelangelo, at age 87

Songwriting is a craft that you can begin working on at any stage in your life. Unlike recording artists, who often have pressure to look and dress a certain way or to be a certain age, songwriters never have to “look the partBluebird cafe.” Even in Nashville where it’s common for a songwriter to become “famous” among the locals, nobody cares how old they are, if their vocals are perfectly pitched, or what size dress they fit in.  They can show up to play a gig at the famous Bluebird Cafe in a t-shirt and old jeans (not even black ones) and their songs speak for themselves.

Great Nashville songwriters like Harlan Howard, Richard Leigh, Bobby Braddock, Tom Shapiro, Jeffrey Steele, Al Anderson and Gretchen Peters were, or still are, cranking out hits for young recording artists in their 50’s and 60’s (and that list is just off the top of my head). Singer songwriters like Elton John, Sting, Dylan, Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Cyndi Lauper all continue to write new material and reinvent themselves well into their prime. So, if you’re reading this and have a desire to write songs, nothing is stopping you. I would only add as a caveat that you have to be willing to continue to learn, to grow, and to be open to your surroundings…but that’s not rocket science.

For a little more inspiration, here’s a short list of diverse folks who accomplished great things at a more “mature” age. I culled this list from Goodreads.com and a couple of Google searches and admittedly haven’t fact-checked it, but it seems right to me!

  • J.K. Rowling was 30 years old when she finished the first manuscript of Harry Potter.
  • Mark Twain was 40 when he wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, and 49 years old when he wrote “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
  • Rosa Parks was 42 when she refused to obey the bus driver’s order to give up her seat to make room for a white passenger.
  • Suzanne Collins was 46 when she wrote “The Hunger Games.”
  • Charles Darwin was 50 years old when his book On the Origin of Species came out.
  • Leonardo Da Vinci was 51 years old when he painted the Mona Lisa.
  • Ray Kroc Was 53 when he bought the McDonalds franchise and took it to unprecedented levels.
  • Dr. Seuss was 54 when he wrote “The Cat in the Hat.”
  • Colonel Harland Sanders was 61 when he started the KFC Franchise.
  • Ronald Regan entered politics at age 55 and eventually became the oldest person to ever become President, at the age of 69.
  • Artist Paul Cézanne was 56 years old when he was given his first art exhibition.Grandma Moses
  • J.R.R Tolkien was 62 when the Lord of the Ring books came out.
  • Peter Roget invented the Thesaurus at age 73.
  • George R.R. Martin was 63 when HBO purchased the television rights for his A Song of Ice and Fire series and launched the mega-hit “Game of Thrones” for which Martin actively writes and produces.
  • Grandma Moses started painting at age 76. Three years later her art was hanging at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City! Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Write on, friends!

-Sara


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Goals for July 2016

successGirl“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”  – Ernest Hemingway

A new month, a new beginning!  Big or small, it doesn’t matter what the goal is as long as we keep moving in the right direction. What are some of your plans and objectives for this month? Statistics show that writing down goals increases the odds of achieving them! So join us in goal-setting for the month and post yours in the comment area. 


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Guest Post by Danny Arena – Sharpen Your Music With The Flat Seven

Although I studied violin from the time I was 9 years old, played in youth orchestras throughout my school days and all the way through college, the person who taught me most about music is the today’s guest writer (and my favorite collaborator in songs and in life), Danny Arena. While I memorized scales, key signatures, and fingerings, I missed the big picture. Danny taught me how to regard all the elements of music from the individual notes, to the chords and harmonies, to the rhythms and structures. He explained it all to me in a simple and logical way that made me enjoy listening to all kinds of popular music, and even made me want to try to write it. Here’s an example of the ease with which Danny takes you on a musical journey – Sara Light


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Guest Post by Danny Arena – Sharpen Your Music With The Flat Seven

There are actually seven standard chords that are part of every key in which you may be writing a song. However the seventh chord, in its standard form, is not often found in most songs. But there is a variation of this seven chord called the flat seven (or flatted seventh) chord which does turn up in many hit songs. 

Formation of the Flat Seven Chord 
The flat seven chord is formed by first determining the seventh note of the scale of the key in which you are writing your song. Lower this note by a half-step (also known as “flatting” the note) and you have the flat seven. For example, in the key of C, the flat seven would be a Bb chord. In the key of G, the flat seven chord would be an F major chord.

How It’s Used
The flat seven is generally used in one of two ways. First, the flat seven chord can also be used as a “surprise” chord, where you set the listener up to hear a certain chord, but give them the flat seven chord instead as a “surprise”. This is how Jimmy Webb first popularized the use of the flat seven chord (in fact, the flat seven chord is also known as the Jimmy Webb 7th). The bridge in the Grammy winning song “Beauty and the Beast” (songwriter – Menken/Ashman) uses the flat seven as a surprise chord, as does the classic Vanessa Williams/Brian McKnight #1 hit “Love Is” (songwriter – Tonio K/J. Keller).

Second, it can be used as part of the motif chord progression in a particular section of your song. The bridge in the hit Country song “Money In The Bank” (songwriter – J. Jarrard/M. Sanders/B. DePiero) starts on the flat seven chord and the Faith Hill hit “This Kiss” (songwriter – R. Lerner/B. Chapman/A. Roboff) uses the flat seven chord in the verse chord progression.

An Example
Let’s say you are writing a song in the key of C and have the following chord progression for the verse (1 chord per measure):

C       F     C     F

         Em   Am    F     G


One way to surprise the listener would be to play a flat seven chord (Bb) instead of the F chord in the seventh measure. Another way to surprise the listener would be to play the Bb chord in the 8th measure after the F chord, and use an extra measure for the G chord.

So the next time you’re looking for a little different twist on an old progression or just a different chord to start that chorus or bridge on, don’t overlook the flat seven chord – it’s really pretty sharp (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Hope to see you on the charts.

–Danny

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Danny Arena is a teacher, a Tony-nominated composer, and the co-founder of SongU.com.


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Goals for June 2016

successGirl“You will face your greatest opposition when you are closest to your biggest miracle.”  – Shannon L. Alder

A new month, a new beginning!  Big or small, it doesn’t matter what the goal is as long as we keep moving in the right direction. What are some of your plans and objectives for this month? Statistics show that writing down goals increases the odds of achieving them! So join us in goal-setting for the month and post yours in the comment area. 


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What’s Wrong With Being Number Two?

This story begins in Nashville, TN in the spring of 1998 in a little writer’s room with a big window overlooking 18th Avenue on Music Row. That room was one of my only perks of being a staff writer for a small independent publishing company. I had arrived there to meet my co-writer Arlos Smith for our weekly Tuesday morning writing session, a tradition we started after reading a best-selling book at the time called TuesMyFirstWritersRoomdays With Morrie, a true story about a teacher with Lou Gehrigs disease and his weekly Tuesday meetings with an old student. The life lessons in the book had made an impact on both of us, so we thought it would be a good tribute to Morrie to write on Tuesdays.

 

That particular Tuesday, I learned that my awesome writer’s room was going to be rented out as office space which meant that after that day I would no longer be able to write in that room. I had already been living in Nashville for six years and had been a full-time staff writer for over a year. Normally, I tried to keep a positive attitude amidst all the inevitable disappointments and setbacks of a tough industry. And even though I was reaching a lot of little songwriting goals, I often felt like I was simply treading water, not really getting anywhere, certainly not getting cuts! Losing my writers room left me feeling powerless and defeated. Admittedly, I was allowing myself a moment of self-pity.

By the time Arlos got there, I had worked myself up into a little tizzy. He let me vent about the loss of my room and about all the difficulties of breaking into the music business. Finally, I said, “well, if nothing else, at least at the end of the day I get to go home to Danny.” Arlos said, “Sara, that’s our song! Let’s forget about what THEY want and just write one for us today.” Before long we had written a heartfelt song about battling a tough day and going home to the person you love called “Home To You.”

Short-cutting through the next few months, we played the work tape for our publishers, demoed it, Arlos’ publisher played it for Al Cooley in the A&R department of Atlantic Records who sent it directly to John Michael Montgomery with a bunch of other songs (a little miracle in itself). Apparently, at the time, John Michael was out on the road missing his young daughter and pregnant wife, so when he heard “Home To You” he could directly relate to it. In December, we got a call that he was going record it!

Months went by as we sweated out the details: Recorded, yes – but would it make the album? If it makes the album, would it become a single? Sure enough, it became the title cut and the second single from the album. In the summer of 1999, over a year after we had written it, we heard it on the radio for the first time.

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We made a point of tipping our hat to Morrie for being instrumental in our writing on that Tuesday. As we watched the song go up the charts we were excited and nervous. Suddenly, our thoughts were not simply about writing a heartfelt song, or getting our first major cut, but about how high the song would climb and how much money that would translate into.

Several more months went by as we eagerly watched the song’s progress. Finally, it broke into the top ten. Slowly but surely each week it moved up one or two spots until it arrived at number two. Then one Thursday, we got the call we had been waiting for. As long as the promotion team at Atlantic Records could hold the position through Saturday, “Home To You” would be the number one song on the Billboard Country Charts for the following week!

But alas, it was not meant to be. Our “competition,” the RCA promotion team who had the number three song, Clint Black’s “When I Said I Do” were able to finish at the very last minute in the number one spot. So weImage-2-2015-BillboardChart got the call, instead, telling us that “Home To You” lost its bullet and would peak in Billboard at number two. It was hard not to feel disappointed. We lost the coveted number one spot, the ASCAP number one party and gifts, the fancy number one plaques, awards and number one banners hanging on Music Row.

 

In a strange twist of timing, that very same week a made-for-TV movie was airing based on the book “Tuesdays With Morrie”. Obviously, Danny and I sat down at home to watch it, as did Arlos and his wife. The movie’s opening scene is of Morrie and his student in the stands of a college basketball game. The crowd is in a frenzy screaming, “we’re number one, we’re number one…!” Morrie turns to his student and quietly asks, “what’s wrong with being number two?”

There it was – fate, timing, life, a higher power, good ole Morrie – stepping in to remind us what was really important. It is not getting to number one that makes us great or successful. It is not about standing on the top of the mountain, but the willingness to climb it. What makes any of us successful is to engage fully in life and in the things that we love.  As long as we are being true to ourselves and doing the best we can along the way –what’s wrong with being number two?

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