Notes on Napkins

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Featured SongU Coach: A Conversation with Michele Vice-Maslin.

Today, I have the pleasure of talking with one of SongU’s long-time mentors and coaches, two-time Emmy Award winning songwriter and producer, Michele Vice-Maslin.

Michele Vice-Maslin

Michele, I’ve got to start by asking what’s helping you cope during this time of Corona?

Well I am a complete hermit so besides my lack of a hot tub to slip into I’m doing just fine and feel blessed! Also I really aspire to be a “Happy Girl” as one of my songs is called. That always helps one c ope, finding and holding on to their “happy”. A little “hippy dippy” I know but it’s true!

…But first off what helps me cope are my amazing Students at SongU and in my FROM SONG TO SYNC course! I am so busy coaching, mentoring, teaching, guiding, hand holding and seeing “light bulb moments” go off!… It is beyond rewarding and fulfilling!

I’ve actually never been busier so I think I am too tired to have to cope. LOL. In addition I’ve been writing with my favorite artist smooth jazz R&B legend Jonathan Butler for his new album and writing /producing songs for my own little pet artist project (2 of the songs appear on the Mpath PHENOMENAL WOMEN album series), plus other productions so I’m busy with that. I’m busy guiding my new intern Jeremiah. I’m busy pitching. I’m busy participating in tons of webinars mostly about all things music biz like Neighboring Rights, The MLC, Music Licensing, and so forth. I’ve been speaking on a bunch of webinars too… and so on and so on. All a great distraction from the difficult “mess” at hand that we all share.

And to top it off, as you and I discussed a little while back Sara…all the cooking. OH MY! Right now it’s after midnight I’ve been up working since 7am and I still have dinner to cook. Hahaha No time to think of coping

How has the current state of the world affected your writing, production, and pitching?

It hasn’t much affected the producing and pitching and solo writing. I am still doing that. Yes there are much less specific projects in production but still I always have backlogs of new songs that need to be pitched and brought to the attention of the “powers that be”. It has however very much affected the co-writing for me. I don’t like to collaborate virtually at all!  In fact I usually have a strict policy of “in the same physical room at the same time from complete scratch”. The only person I write virtually with is my main collaborator Larry Treadwell whom I’ve worked with for 39 years and know so well. I’ve also made an exception with Jonathan whom I’ve worked with for 20 years.  

Actually I’m always impressed by the Songu members I coach and their ability to co-write virtually even before the pandemic.

What qualities do you look for in a co-writer?

Of course if they are what I consider a good writer, which is subjective any way but after that mostly I look for someone I like, who is a nice human, a good human, an honest human. 

As a coach and mentor, you inspire so many songwriters. What inspires you?

The songwriters I coach and mentor! They inspire me everyday!  Some of them are soooo talented they could be teaching the class!  In the last 2 weeks alone I have heard some really amazing songs from them!  Life itself as well has always inspired me! Paying attention to all that is going on. Listening, watching, participating.

Do you have a favorite story you can tell us about one of your song placements? 

I have so so many but probably it’s my first one. That is what is coming to mind. It was 1987 and I was the songwriter, producer, arranger, creator of a “performance art project”. I had films and slide shows and actors doing skits accompanying the songs. The songs themselves and the whole project made Bjork look “normal”. 🙂 The whole thing was beyond alternative and avant-garde. I had a friend who was directing his first feature film TAPEHEADS. It stars Tim Robbins, John Cusack and the R&B/Soul legends Sam Moore (Of Sam & Dave) and Junior Walker (Of Junior Walker And The All Stars) Sam & Junior were playing the fictitious duo “The Swanky Modes” in the film. The director(my friend) asked me if I had any friends that created R&B/Soul music and if so could they submit some tunes for the film. So I grabbed my writing partner Larry, whom I previously mentioned, and we wrote and produced up (after much careful research and listening) a song to submit. Now remember I am a weird “Performance Artist”  who writes very odd songs, so what to do what to do… how to submit…? The director (who actually directed the films and slide shows in my performance art project) would never have considered any R&B/Soul song I might come up with so…I submitted it under a pseudonym… and voila!! In the movie. With the legendary Sam Moore and Jr. Walker recording it. My first cut and placement at the same time. In a major big budget film…and then haha I became knows as an R&B writer. Crazy stuff! I think the moral of that story is just go for it!!! Give it a try! Ya never know…

What music have you been listening to lately?

I listen to so much music. I’ve been listening to a lot of hip hop as I am producing a really cool hip hop/rapper artist. Khalid, Kanye, Money Can’t Buy, A.J. Tracey, Troye Sivan, and others. Also a lot of pop music. Katy Perry, Halsey, Dua Lipa, Sean Mendez, Jonas Brothers, Charlie Puth, Kim Petrus, Tov Lo, Hayley Williams, Ellie Goulding… so so many and the songs of my friends, colleagues and students. Every day I listen to new music. I subscribe to some online newsletters that are always introducing me to new music.

Thank you, Michele, for offering professional advice and songwriting education to our SongU writers ! You rock!

Thank you for these really great questions Sara and thank you so much to you for having me. It’s really an honor. This is my 14th at Songu and it has enriched my life beyond measure. I’m so proud to be a part of the Songu family! I love my students!

I can’t believe it’s been 14 years already! Time flies when you’re having fun (and learning new things all the time). Thanks again for your time, Michele!

ABOUT COACHING AT SONGU.COM

In addition to our 20+ live audio/video small-group song feedback courses each month, our members have the opportunity to forge creative relationships with any of award-winning coaches in the form of individual written feedback with detailed song (or lyric-only) evaluations and constructive suggestions emphasizing lyrics, music/production, originality, commercial potential, and even a chance to be awarded “Best of SongU!”

HERE’S WHAT OUR MEMBERS ARE SAYING ABOUT COACH #2245 (aka Michele Vice-Maslin)!

“I am really thrilled with your Best of SongU recognition – you had awarded that for [my other song] ‘Marisol’ as well – and it means a lot. Both were probably more work than I would care to admit so it feels great to be recognized. I’m so happy that you liked it and found it relatable – THANKS!” -J.M., CT

“Thank you for the feedback. Once again you’ve opened my eyes through your insight. I definitely want to get away from cliche writing and hope to look get better at recognizing it when I write. Thx again!”D. Brown, GA

About Michele

About Michele: This coach is a two-time Emmy Award winning songwriter and producer who has written hit songs in multiple genres for artists all over the world, as well as having several thousand film/TV placements. This coach is also a music producer and music publisher who is well versed in song pitching and placing, and business issues pertaining to the music industry. Specializes in evaluating Pop, R&B, Hot AC, Top 40, Dance, Alternative, Urban, Country, Singer-Songwriter, Film/TV/Songs for Sync Licensing.

Michele’s Coaching Philosophy: “My coaching philosophy is one of empowerment and inspiration along with some real and straightforward honesty about what I believe is important in the way of crafting a great song – for personal satisfaction of course – but also for commercial success.”


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Kelly McKay, Winner of “Staff Writer for A Day,” Tells Us About Her Experience.

I was thrilled to speak with Kelly McKay, SongU member since 2013, and the winner of our Spring 2020 Special Event Pitch, “Staff Writer for a Day” with WinSongs Music Publishing! Kelly is clearly a talented songwriter, but she is also a role model for what it takes to succeed in this business:

  • the desire to keep growing and learning
  • the ability to network bravely yet humbly
  • the persistence to carry on in the face of daunting odds 
Songwriter, Kelly McKay

Kelly, I’m so excited to hear about your co-write session and listen to the song that you wrote. But first, tell me about the pitch. How did you decide which of your song(s) to submit to the “Staff Writer for a Day” Special Event Pitch with WinSongs’ Creative Director, Kirby Smith?

I submitted four songs. Kirby said she likes fun, uptempo songs and unique hooks that surprise her, so I kept that in mind. I submitted “Kissed the Hell Outta Me” mainly because it was brand new and I was excited about it and that was the one she picked. 

What were your first thoughts when you found out that you were the winner?

I was just excited. Little victories are a big deal to me (see what I did there?), so any time someone digs a song, it’s a great feeling. 

What was it like when you first contacted WinSongs’ Creative Director, Kirby Smith, after the event?

Kirby was really nice and got a date locked in really fast.  

Your co-write session was supposed to be with hit songwriter, Sandy Ramos, but Kirby added Winsongs’ staff songwriter, Chase Fouraker. Why?

She added Chase so that we could write to a track. 

How did you prepare yourself ahead of time for the co-write session, which was online, I assume?

Yes, it was over Zoom. I had a bunch of ideas ready to go, some deeper ones and some fun ones. I basically wanted to have all my bases covered so if they wanted to write a certain vibe, I had a hook that could fit. I also listened to Chase’s material that he’s released as an artist to get a feel for what he does. 

How long was your writing session? Can you walk us through the process a bit?

We finished in about 2 hours, 45 minutes. We talked a little when we first jumped on. Sandy and Chase hadn’t written before, so we all introduced ourselves and got to know each other a bit. Sandy said she wanted to write a fun uptempo and they both liked the first idea I threw out, so we were off and running pretty quickly.

What do you feel is your “strength” as a writer? In other words, are you more lyric-driven or music-driven, or something else? What did you feel your co-writer’s strengths seemed to be?

I can be more lyric-driven or more melody-driven depending on the team I’m writing with. I think that’s probably true for Sandy and Chase too. Just based on that session, Sandy focused mainly on lyrics while Chase focused more on melody and track. But I got the feeling they both probably play different roles in the writing room on any given day. 

Did you learn anything new about the craft of songwriting during the session?

I loved seeing how Sandy approaches a lyric and how she would go back and make little changes that made a big difference to the song. It reinforced not to settle for the first thing that sounds cool, but to make sure you nail it. And Chase was sharing his screen so we were able to watch him build the track along the way. That was actually really cool. I’ve written with a lot of different track guys and girls, but I’ve never really had the chance to watch that process that closely while the song is being written. 

When you say you watched Chase build the track along the way, how did that fit into the writing?

We started with a chord progression and a loose melodic direction and he started building the track from there. At times, he was focusing on the track while Sandy and I were working on lyrics. For the most part, it was all happening simultaneously.

Any other thoughts or feelings you’d like to share about these two pros and/or the writing session itself?

Sandy was the first person to critique one of my songs at NSAI years ago. I’ve learned a lot from her, so I was really excited to write with her. She’s an amazing writer and just made the whole session so easy. And Chase is a multi-tasking wizard. I had a starting melody for the chorus and he took it to another level while he was building the track and helping with lyrics. He’s got a killer voice too. I could listen to him sing all day. 

Your overall experience with the Staff Writer for a Day Special Event?

It was an awesome experience that I’m truly grateful for. The Big Reveal session itself was really helpful. Sara, you asked a lot of great questions and Kirby offered a lot of insight. I really appreciate the opportunity to learn from two pro writers, the chance to connect with Kirby and to add another song to my catalog all at the same time. I can’t say enough good things about it. Thank you Sara, Danny, Sandy, Kirby and Chase! 

Kelly, you’re so welcome! Thank YOU for sharing your experience so we can all learn from it.

And now, without further adieu, here is the work tape of the awesome song that came out of the session…

“Heart’s A Drunk” by Ramos/McKay/Fouraker

Great work, Kelly! I’m imagining myself on the dance floor right now with the one I love. I hope we will hear this on the radio soon!


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Featured Coach: A Conversation with Michele Vice-Maslin

Today, I have the pleasure of talking with one of SongU’s long-time mentors and coaches, two-time Emmy Award winning songwriter and producer, Michele Vice-Maslin.

Michele Vice-Maslin

Michele, I’ve got to start by asking what’s helping you cope during this time of Corona?

Well I am a complete hermit so besides my lack of a hot tub to slip into I’m doing just fine and feel blessed! Also I really aspire to be a “Happy Girl” as one of my songs is called. That always helps one c ope, finding and holding on to their “happy”. A little “hippy dippy” I know but it’s true!

…But first off what helps me cope are my amazing Students at SongU and in my FROM SONG TO SYNC course! I am so busy coaching, mentoring, teaching, guiding, hand holding and seeing “light bulb moments” go off!… It is beyond rewarding and fulfilling!

I’ve actually never been busier so I think I am too tired to have to cope. LOL. In addition I’ve been writing with my favorite artist smooth jazz R&B legend Jonathan Butler for his new album and writing /producing songs for my own little pet artist project (2 of the songs appear on the Mpath PHENOMENAL WOMEN album series), plus other productions so I’m busy with that. I’m busy guiding my new intern Jeremiah. I’m busy pitching. I’m busy participating in tons of webinars mostly about all things music biz like Neighboring Rights, The MLC, Music Licensing, and so forth. I’ve been speaking on a bunch of webinars too… and so on and so on. All a great distraction from the difficult “mess” at hand that we all share.

And to top it off, as you and I discussed a little while back Sara…all the cooking. OH MY! Right now it’s after midnight I’ve been up working since 7am and I still have dinner to cook. Hahaha No time to think of coping

How has the current state of the world affected your writing, production, and pitching?

It hasn’t much affected the producing and pitching and solo writing. I am still doing that. Yes there are much less specific projects in production but still I always have backlogs of new songs that need to be pitched and brought to the attention of the “powers that be”. It has however very much affected the co-writing for me. I don’t like to collaborate virtually at all!  In fact I usually have a strict policy of “in the same physical room at the same time from complete scratch”. The only person I write virtually with is my main collaborator Larry Treadwell whom I’ve worked with for 39 years and know so well. I’ve also made an exception with Jonathan whom I’ve worked with for 20 years.  

Actually I’m always impressed by the Songu members I coach and their ability to co-write virtually even before the pandemic.

What qualities do you look for in a co-writer?

Of course if they are what I consider a good writer, which is subjective any way but after that mostly I look for someone I like, who is a nice human, a good human, an honest human. 

As a coach and mentor, you inspire so many songwriters. What inspires you?

The songwriters I coach and mentor! They inspire me everyday!  Some of them are soooo talented they could be teaching the class!  In the last 2 weeks alone I have heard some really amazing songs from them!  Life itself as well has always inspired me! Paying attention to all that is going on. Listening, watching, participating.

Do you have a favorite story you can tell us about one of your song placements? 

I have so so many but probably it’s my first one. That is what is coming to mind. It was 1987 and I was the songwriter, producer, arranger, creator of a “performance art project”. I had films and slide shows and actors doing skits accompanying the songs. The songs themselves and the whole project made Bjork look “normal”. 🙂 The whole thing was beyond alternative and avant-garde. I had a friend who was directing his first feature film TAPEHEADS. It stars Tim Robbins, John Cusack and the R&B/Soul legends Sam Moore (Of Sam & Dave) and Junior Walker (Of Junior Walker And The All Stars) Sam & Junior were playing the fictitious duo “The Swanky Modes” in the film. The director(my friend) asked me if I had any friends that created R&B/Soul music and if so could they submit some tunes for the film. So I grabbed my writing partner Larry, whom I previously mentioned, and we wrote and produced up (after much careful research and listening) a song to submit. Now remember I am a weird “Performance Artist”  who writes very odd songs, so what to do what to do… how to submit…? The director (who actually directed the films and slide shows in my performance art project) would never have considered any R&B/Soul song I might come up with so…I submitted it under a pseudonym… and voila!! In the movie. With the legendary Sam Moore and Jr. Walker recording it. My first cut and placement at the same time. In a major big budget film…and then haha I became knows as an R&B writer. Crazy stuff! I think the moral of that story is just go for it!!! Give it a try! Ya never know…

What music have you been listening to lately?

I listen to so much music. I’ve been listening to a lot of hip hop as I am producing a really cool hip hop/rapper artist. Khalid, Kanye, Money Can’t Buy, A.J. Tracey, Troye Sivan, and others. Also a lot of pop music. Katy Perry, Halsey, Dua Lipa, Sean Mendez, Jonas Brothers, Charlie Puth, Kim Petrus, Tov Lo, Hayley Williams, Ellie Goulding… so so many and the songs of my friends, colleagues and students. Every day I listen to new music. I subscribe to some online newsletters that are always introducing me to new music.

Thank you, Michele, for offering professional advice and songwriting education to our SongU writers ! You rock!

Thank you for these really great questions Sara and thank you so much to you for having me. It’s really an honor. This is my 14th at Songu and it has enriched my life beyond measure. I’m so proud to be a part of the Songu family! I love my students!

I can’t believe it’s been 14 years already! Time flies when you’re having fun (and learning new things all the time). Thanks again for your time, Michele!

ABOUT COACHING AT SONGU.COM

In addition to our 20+ live audio/video small-group song feedback courses each month, our members have the opportunity to forge creative relationships with any of award-winning coaches in the form of individual written feedback with detailed song (or lyric-only) evaluations and constructive suggestions emphasizing lyrics, music/production, originality, commercial potential, and even a chance to be awarded “Best of SongU!”

HERE’S WHAT OUR MEMBERS ARE SAYING ABOUT COACH #2245 (aka Michele Vice-Maslin)!

“I am really thrilled with your Best of SongU recognition – you had awarded that for [my other song] ‘Marisol’ as well – and it means a lot. Both were probably more work than I would care to admit so it feels great to be recognized. I’m so happy that you liked it and found it relatable – THANKS!” -J.M., CT

“Thank you for the feedback. Once again you’ve opened my eyes through your insight. I definitely want to get away from cliche writing and hope to look get better at recognizing it when I write. Thx again!”D. Brown, GA

About Michele

About Michele: This coach is a two-time Emmy Award winning songwriter and producer who has written hit songs in multiple genres for artists all over the world, as well as having several thousand film/TV placements. This coach is also a music producer and music publisher who is well versed in song pitching and placing, and business issues pertaining to the music industry. Specializes in evaluating Pop, R&B, Hot AC, Top 40, Dance, Alternative, Urban, Country, Singer-Songwriter, Film/TV/Songs for Sync Licensing.

Michele’s Coaching Philosophy: “My coaching philosophy is one of empowerment and inspiration along with some real and straightforward honesty about what I believe is important in the way of crafting a great song – for personal satisfaction of course – but also for commercial success.”


Write Your Truth

Last week I watched an email exchange between Danny ArenaCo-Founder of SongU.com, and a fellow songwriter. The focus was not just about writing songs but about how we can listen to each other and have honest conversations about difficult subjects. I asked him if he could take a portion of that email and modify it into an article that might be of interest to our readers. Here it is:

One only needs to glance at any news organization’s social media page to see the current state of divisiveness in the world. We choose our sides. We engage in hostile micro-tweets. We post snarky memes and comebacks. As quickly as our fingers can type, we rattle off hurtful labels and insults like “libtard” and “trumptard,” “commie” and “nazi.” We cease listening to each other and stop talking to each other. We use our words as weapons to further drive a wedge between “us” and “them.”

While our choice of words can be used to divide us, they can also unite. As songwriters, this notion of unity should align with us. After all, at the very core of the craft of songwriting lies the principle of universality. Even the words unify, unity, universal all originate from the same Latin word, “uni,” meaning oneness. Who hasn’t been to a music industry seminar and heard some publisher or executive recite the mantra — a successful song must strike a universal chord? Part of our creative job is to find a way to express a single idea that resonates with an audience. This sounds much simpler to do in practice. Song after song by aspiring writers gets passed over because it fails to “ring true” to a broader audience.

At SongU.com, one of our courses teaches us that the most effective way to reach the universal is through the specific – a story that you can tell using your own truth. What does this mean? I know that I can never fully comprehend what it’s like to walk through this world as an African American male. No matter how “woke” I become, I will never know the enormous weight someone carries throughout life simply because of the color of their skin. This does not mean that I do not understand prejudice or hate. It means that for me to write about the subject in an honest way that resonates with others, I must find my own truth and then tell that story.

So what is my truth? I understand religious hate — my wife is Jewish, and I have lived with antisemitism and watched it through her eyes. This past weekend, the Holocaust Memorial at our local JCC was vandalized with nazi symbols and white supremacist threats. I also understand homophobia and hate — my sister is gay, and I have lived through times where “neighbors” put letters in her mailbox, telling her to move out of the neighborhood simply because of who she chooses to love. While I am not Black or Hispanic, I understand what it means to judge someone by the color of their skin. Sara and I adopted our daughter at birth from Guatemala. Every day, I see the world through her eyes. I know the pain it caused when her history teacher walked up to her desk while conducting a lesson on citizenship, asking her if she was born in the United States. Upon answering no, her teacher proceeded to tell her in front of the entire class that she better have a conversation with her parents that evening because she might be in this country illegally. I know the truth of what it feels like to have the police called on my daughter’s boyfriend for playing soccer at dusk with a few of his Latino friends because someone thought they “looked suspicious.”

How can I channel my truth into my creative process? If I’m inspired to write a song about Black Lives Matter because I am outraged by the injustice I see, I cannot write the same song as LL Cool J or Trey Songz. There is no possible way I can approach the topic of injustice from the same honest perspective they did because that is not my truth. No matter how much I admire or attempt to emulate their approach, it will not ring true or have the universal appeal of their messages.

I need to write my own truth. I can write an honest song about having a daughter who’s judged every day because of her skin color or how we worry she and her boyfriend could get pulled over at night when he’s driving. Or I can change direction and write an honest song about what it’s like to love someone who is hated simply because of which religion they follow or gender of who they choose to love. The point is that if I do my job well as a songwriter using my truth as a vehicle, I will wind up with a song that makes an impact and resonates. That means more listeners are likely to hear my song and identify with its core message.

Recognizing your truth and being able to tap into it creatively, in an honest way, will make your songs more universal. And it seems to me, the world could use a little more “uni” right now. So use your voice and speak your truth. Your songs and this world will be a much better place for it.

Stay the course and keep the faith.

-Danny


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Why Should I Get Feedback Before Pitching My Songs to Film and TV?

At SongU.com, we offer a variety of of small group feedback sessions that focus on different aspects of songwriting and the music business. Writing songs for synchronization with film, TV, and other media takes unique skills beyond crafting a great song. For example, do your vocals and instrumentation work to the benefit of your production? Is your hook relatable for certain situations? Do you know the specifics of the sync licensing market in order to submit your songs appropriately to music supervisors?

Today we’re shining the spotlight on “FDBK 330 – Song Feedback for Film-TV-Media.” Join us to learn from the pros and your peers.

About: This 1-hour advanced feedback session is geared toward analysis of how your demo recording will compete in Film, TV, and other media-related pitches. Focus is given to your songs’ production as it pertains to pitching successfully for sync licensing opportunities in TV, Film, and Media. Limit 5 participants.

Our Facilitators: Nancy Peacock, CEO and Owner of Washington Street Publishing which focuses on securing placements in Film, TV, and Media; and Creative Director for Washington Street Publishing, Queenie Mullinex.

“Queenie and Nancy are soooo good. They are encouraging and yet candid when they hear things that need improvement. I learn a lot from their feedback on my song and the feedback that they give others. Always very, very helpful.” -Becca B. , SC

Always a joy to learn from them.” –Ricki B. , WI

“Great insight for tailoring your songs for music supervisor pitches.” Shawn F. , NJ


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The Two Biggest Songwriting Mistakes and How to Fix Them

The first lyric I wrote was critiqued by master songwriter educator, Sheila Davis, in 1990 at the Songwriters Guild in NYC. From that moment on, I have enjoyed digging into the nitty-gritty how to make a song “work” and connect to the listener. As a songwriting mentor myself for the last twenty-plus years, I’ve critiqued several hundred original songs-in-progress in multiple styles and genres by songwriters from all over the world. I have even had the privilege of training other music industry professionals on how to successfully offer song feedback. I’ve observed that there are certain craft points that, if not executed correctly, get flagged over and over again by song coaches and mentors.  Here are the two most common:

Big Mistake #1: Trying to put too many ideas into one song.

In order connect emotionally to your audience, it is important for your song to have a “universal idea” such as falling in love, falling out of love, unrequited love, or just about any love-adjacent subject including family life, loss, escape and so on. But here’s the trick – you get to the universal through the SPECIFIC. In other words, the more you can whittle down your big idea into a concise moment or feeling in time or a very specific story that illustrates that idea, the more you will keep your listener engaged, and the more your own personality and “voice” as a writer will come through.

Your Fix

Make sure you can sum up your entire song in ONE simple sentence that starts with “This is a song about…”. If you cannot complete this in a sentence, you probably have too many ideas. It helps to know your title before you write the song. Then, make sure every line in that song leads the listener to the title in some way specifically and emotionally.

Hit Song Examples:

  • I Will Always Love You written by Dolly Parton
    • This is a song about a woman who is telling a man that although she knows they aren’t meant to stay together, she will always love him anyway.
Example of a single idea about the universal theme of love.
  • Blank Space written by Taylor Swift.
    • This is a song about a woman who thinks of love as a game and is seducing a new lover to play with her.
  • Love written by Kendrick Lamar.
    • This is a song about a man who is finally ready to commit to the woman he loves and is asking her if she loves him too.

Big Mistake #2: Not enough musical, lyrical, and/or production contrast.

Contrast is another way of saying “change it up.” While it’s true that you need a certain amount of repetition in a song to give the listener something to sing along with or dance to, too much repetition becomes boring and the listener will tune out. If the entire three-and-a-half-minute track basically sounds the same – boring. If the melody sits in the same pocket the entire time – boring. If the lyric says the same thing over and over without any new information along the way – what do you think? I know this seems obvious, but it’s very common for the first draft of a song to be a real snooze fest.

Your Fix

Shoot for having three distinct parts to your song for the listener to latch on to. Musically, the tools at your disposal are the melody, the chords, and the rhythm. Make sure at least one of those things changes between each distinct section such as the verse, chorus, and bridge. Lyrically, you can contrast the rhyme sounds, the rhyme scheme, the pronoun emphasis (I/You), the rhythm (e.g. long lines vs. short lines), and general or detailed images. In the production, you can create subtle and not-so-subtle transformations in the track with the instruments, the rhythms, the vocals, and so on.

Hit Song Examples:

  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg is one of the most covered songs of all time. Notice in particular the rhythmic contrast of the long lines in the verses that contrasts with the staccato rhythm of the bridge section.
  • Chandelier by Sia. Chandelier has it all when it comes to contrast. Notice in particular, the clear rhythmic changes between the verse, pre-chorus, chorus. Also, note the huge soaring melodic contrast in the chorus, as well as the harmonic (chord) contrast in the bridge. And of course, the way the production builds and breaks down and builds again throughout.
Example of musical and production contrast.

When you listen to songs from now on, see if you can pick out the universal theme as well as the more specific way that the theme is addressed by the songwriter. Ask yourself if the title or hook is clearly explained. Also, listen for musical, lyrical and production contrast throughout the song. Will every song you hear be a perfect example of all of these techniques? Definitely not. But my guess is you will hear them a lot more when you know what you are listening for.


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March into Metaphors

“March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.”  marchI actually remember the first time I heard this saying in Mrs. Harris’ third grade class. When she asked us to tell her what we thought it meant, my hand shot up.  It describes the weather perfectly in New Jersey where I grew up!  From that moment on, I was hooked on the wonder of metaphoric language. Metaphor – a  comparison of two disparate objects to suggest a similarity (e.g. “I am a rock, I am an island” Simon & Garfunkle);  and simile – a comparison using “like” or “as” (e.g. “I feel like a stone that’s been picked up and thrown to the hard rock bottom of your heart.” Shout out to songwriter Hugh Prestwood!).

Why do we use metaphor and simile all the time both in everyday speech and, of course, in song lyrics? The use of this kind of comparison enhances our sensory connection to the subject. And why is that so awesome? When our senses are heightened, our emotional connection is heightened as well. As songwriters, it’s our job to write lyrics that draw in our listeners emotionally. We want them to FEEL love, heartache, joy, or surprise when they hear our song. The music works on one level, the lyric on another.

Just for fun, since we’re in the month of March, what are some song lyrics that use ANIMALS in a metaphoric way? Use the comments area for your solutions, or join the Facebook discussion in  SongUNews .


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Writing About Current Events From a Different Perspective

“With history piling up so fast, almost every day is the anniversary of something awful.” – Writer & Artist, Joe Brainard

Recently, while cleaning out my closet, I happened upon a small book of Daily Meditations given to me by a friend a long time ago called The Promise of a New Day (copyright 1983). The book goes through each day of the year and offers a quote and a short spiritual reflection.  I hadn’t opened this book in well over a decade, but last week I found myself turning to the February 7th meditation which begins with the quote at the top of this page. 

At first I was surprised to read this quote from the 1980’s that felt so relevant for today’s world. But then I realized that in every decade, at every point in history change is inevitable, and with change comes discomfort, fear, anger, and as the quote says, “the anniversary of something awful.” Joe Brainard died in 1994 of AIDS. Can we take a moment of pause to reflect on how incredibly scary and sad that time in our history was until, thank goodness, we found a treatment for HIV?  Our amazing scientific and medical community created an antidote to something horrific.

Obviously, as writers and artists, we have a responsibility to reflect the trouble in the world around us as songwriters like Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan did in the 1960’s. But can’t we also create an antidote to the daily assault of awful news? If history is comprised of times of trouble, war, disease, hunger, and hate, isn’t it just as important to highlight the love, compassion, simple moments of trust, help, hope, and success?

As a songwriting exercise, try making a list of the little things that have kept you motivated, inspired, happy, or brought you peace of mind, during these difficult times. Kissing your loved one good night, scratching your dog’s tummy, taking a walk near a stream, sipping on a hot cup of coffee, holding open a door for a stranger and exchanging a smile. Keep a section in your “title book” or idea journal specifically for a daily dose of positivity. See if you can practice a heightened awareness for the the good things that we often take for granted like a compliment from a friend, being in the fast line at the grocery store, having enough gas in your car, birds chirping when you open your door, or a warm coat when it’s cold outside. Write it all down.  These specifics will inform your lyric with a universal theme of gratitude and  provide a different perspective on our current events. Bring this perspective into your next song.

 


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The Power of Simplicity by Danny Arena

On December 31st, when discussing what our guiding words would be for the new year, I chose the word “joy”, and Danny chose the word “simplify”. So with no further ado, it gives me great joy to offer up one of Danny’s timeless music related articles for songwriters. Read on to find out how to simplify your music. 

-Sara


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The Power of Simplicity – by Danny Arena

As the boundaries of popular forms of music continue to expand, it’s easy to get so caught up in modulations and syncopated rhythms that we can forget the power that a strong, simple melody can have. In my songwriting classes, after covering several new musical techniques, I always make a point of giving an assignment to write something simple musically. 

Simple Isn’t Easy
While a melody may be described as “simple,” the writing of it is usually far from easy. It involves achieving a perfectly natural balance between repetition and change so that the song is easily singable, but not boring. In this column, we’ll look at two of the components that make up a strong, simple melody. We have a tendency to think our own melodies may become dull when a musical phrase is repeated two or three times. As a songwriter full of musical ideas, it’s easy to end up with a song that has too many melodic ideas. In truth, some of the most well-known melodies like, “Yesterday” (Lennon/McCartney) and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” (Leigh) rely heavily on repetition. If one of our main goals as a songwriter is to write something that’s easily memorable, then by far the best technique available is the power of repetition.

Using Variation
The downside of repetition is that too much of it can bore the listener. I like to think of it this way:

Suppose you were eating spaghetti with red sauce for dinner four nights in a row. Probably by the time the third or fourth night rolled around, you’d be tired of eating the same exact meal. Now, imagine that you change the meal slightly each night: the first night – spaghetti with red sauce; the second night – Chinese sesame noodles; the third night – lasagna; the fourth night – penne pasta with garlic and olive oil. By making a few changes, the same meal can still be satisfying. It’s like that with your music – a little variation goes a long way

An Example
As an example of the power of repetition with change, let’s take a look at the John Michael Montgomery hit single, “Home To You” written by Arlos Smith and Sara Light (my lovely wife). The verse consists of a total of eight measures, but only two musical ideas, one of which is the following two-measure pattern that starts the song:

Home to You – Example 1a:

musicnotes1-powerofsimplicity

What makes the melody particularly memorable is the fact that this musical idea or motif is immediately repeated two more times (see example 1b below).

By the time the second verse rolls around, the melody is very familiar.

Example 1b:

musicnotes2-powerofsimplicity

From the song, “Home To You” written by Sara Light & Arlos Smith. © 1999 Mamalama Music (ASCAP)/Good Ol Delta Boy Music (SESAC). All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.

Although the initial musical idea (in example 1a) is repeated three times in a row, there are several subtle variations employed that help keep us tuned in to the music, allowing the repetition to work its magic without us becoming bored.

Notice the first time the musical idea appears, the chord pattern is a G chord followed by D (with an F# bass). But when the musical idea is repeated, the chord pattern changes and an Em7 chord is substituted for the G, which is then followed by C chord. This small harmonic variation in chord structure the second time allows us to return to the initial chord pattern again (G, D/F#) for the third time with fresh ears. Also, notice that each time the two measure musical pattern repeats, the melody begins the same, but ends a little differently. This is a type of variation commonly known as melodic variation and it is often due to the changing of the chords in the musical motif as in the case here. Finally, notice that rhythm of the melody changes slightly each time the musical phrase is repeated but is close enough to the original musical idea that it still reinforces it.

So the next time you hear one of your favorite songs on the radio, try to listen for some of those subtle variations in the music. They may be small, but they can make a big difference.

Hope to see you on the charts.

–Danny

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Danny Arena is a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, a Tony-nominated composer, and the co-founder of SongU.com.


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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.