Notes on Napkins

musings for songwriters


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My Coach Rocks!

In addition to our live audio/video feedback courses, SongU members have the opportunity to forge a creative relationship with any of award-winning coaches who offer individual written feedback on songs in progress and sometimes award them with “Best of SongU”! Emphasis is given to constructive comments on lyrics, music, originality, and commercial potential.

Today’s spotlight is on Coach #1683 (aka Lisa Palas)!

“Thank you for the terrific, inspiring feedback. It felt good to hear that coming from you. I will address the tweaks you pointed out and kick it out of the nest. Thanks ever so much again.” -Mark M. IN

“Your advice is just what I what I’m looking for.Thanks so much…I’ll be back!”Grahame M., FL

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Lisa Palas

About: Lisa is an award-winning songwriter with several number one hits to her credit including Alabama’s “You’ve Got the Touch” and “There’s No Way”. Her songs have been recorded by the renowned country stars Alabama, Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, Kris Kristofferson, Chris LeDoux, Conway Twitty and The Oak Ridge Boys as well as included in the soundtracks of feature films. She has also scored musicals on the stage, most recently “Jack” for Louisville’s Walden Theater. A featured soloist at Unity churches, Lisa recently recorded a CD of original songs included in her performances. As an actress, Lisa has appeared in numerous short films, industrials, TV commercials and episodic television such as the Pax Network’s “It’s a Miracle”, hosted by Richard Thomas. She has also performed in various productions on the Nashville stage including the world premiere of “A Stoop on Orchard Street.”

Coaching Philosophy: “I try to coach you as if you were a staff writer for my company.”

Thank you, Coach, for offering professional advice and songwriting education to literally hundreds of SongU writers since 2006! You rock!


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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My Coach Rocks!

Here are a few of our recent thank you notes to our incredible coaching staff comprised of professional songwriters, producers, artists, and music publishers, who provide individual written song feedback to our members.

Coach #6732 (Vip): “I especially appreciate the fact that you didn’t just tell me what to change but rather you challenged me to ask the right questions so I will learn to do it myself. You got me thinking which will make my song will be better – thanks again!”

Ray K. , FL on 3/11/2020

Coach #3002 (Barry): “Thank you for the positive grades, review and encouragement to continue to record ourselves. Agree that the chorus is more like a bridge. Pleased that you feel it doesn’t matter so much for this composition not to have a strong hooky chorus. May therefore just leave this one as it is. Thanks again.”

Jane H., Scotland on 3/11/2020

Coach #4146 (Marcia): “Great feedback! So helpful, as always. We will tighten up the lyric and speed up the track. See you next time! Thank you, Susan”

Susan S., NY on 3/11/2020

Coach #6732 (Vip): “Wow, in these trying times it was such a joy to read your enthusiastic evaluation of my song! Thank you thank you thank you for giving me a “best of songu” award!!”

Zeke, IL on 3/20/2020

Coach #2245 (Michele): “Thank you so much, good to know we’re getting there. I will work on the ‘meat’ to make it stronger. I am glad the chorus will work if we strengthen the verses as it really is so easy and singable and that’s all I wanted. Will resend when I can! Please stay well and safe out there okay! :)”

Rhonda P. , Canada on 3/20/2020

Coach #814 (Tom): “Hey, great that you like the rewrite. Thanks you so much. Yeah, lock down, isolate, run/jog, write, rewrite, record, read, email, scotch, wine, smile:-) “

Carol C., KS on 3/22/2020

Coach #6732 (Vip): “Hi coach, thank you for your critique! Once again I feel you are right on target! I will work on this and send in a re-write. Thanks again for your time and well wishes! Take care of yourself and family!”

Charles H., TN on 3/23/2020

Coach #2245 (Michele): “Yay! So glad you liked this one, we can definitely spice up the verse lyric. I’m feeling much better, too, started working on a few new ideas already. Thank you so much for the pep talk :). Stay safe!”

Susan S. , NY on 3/25/2020

Coach #3762 (Alan): “I wanted to let you know how great your inputs are. This is exactly what I was looking for. Many thanks!”

Alina V., FL on 3/25/2020

Coach #2245 (Michele): “I love your notes! They ALWAYS make a song better!”

Alina V., FL on 3/28/2020

Coach: #1104 (Helen): “I am taking all of your feedback into consideration. Working on a way to better portray the back story without losing the poetic style. Removed the chorus ramp up, and rewriting verse 1. Thanks again.”

Budden B., Canada on 3/31/2020

Coach #3762 (Alan): “Just wanted to say thank you for all your advice on shaping up this song!Hope that you are doing well!”

Jason S., TN on 4/7/2020

Coach #6732 (Vip): “I am so thankful for your encouraging words and feedback. I am learning a lot thanks to the amazing staff at Song U. Thank YOU!”

Robbi A., TX on 4/8/2020

Coach #3762 (Alan): THANKS SO MUCH COACH ALAN!! That had to be the most encouraging, beautiful, caring, empowering eval ever!!! Thank you for being a huge part of my musical journey n helping me2 be the best songwriter I can be! It’s not by chance that you’re my mentor. GOD bless you! Happy Easter and thank you!

newdaymusic, MI on 4/12/2020

 


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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.