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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:

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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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One Word of Inspiration for the New Year 2017

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language; and next year’s words await another voice.”
T.S. Eliot, poet

If you were to choose one word as a guide in the new year, what would it be?

Share  it in the comment area.

 

 


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Goals for November/December 2016

“You need a little bit of insanity to do great things.” – Henry Rollins

winterWhat are some of your plans and objectives for the last two months of 2016? Statistics show that writing down goals increases the odds of achieving them! Big or small, it doesn’t matter what the goals are as long as we keep moving in the right direction.

Join us in goal-setting this month and post yours in the comment area. 

 


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Goals for October 2016

“Starting a new way is never easy so…keep starting until the start sticks.” – Tim Fargo, Author

Jump in! A new month, a new beginovember-3-finalnning!  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!

Join us in goal-setting this month and post yours in the comment area. 

 


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Standing On The Shoulders: A Tribute To My Mentors

“We are standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before us
They are saints and they are humans, they are angels, they are friends
We can see beyond the struggles and the troubles and the challenge
When we know that by our efforts things will be better in the end”

-Excerpt from “Standing on the Shoulders” written by Joyce Royce

The poignant song, “Standing on the Shoulders”, was written by a lovely songwriter friend of mine, Joyce Rouse, and recently sung in it’s entirety by another dear songwriter friend, Lisa Silver, at the unveiling celebration of the new Women’s Suffrage Monument in Centennial Park in Nashville, TN. The lyrics were such an appropriate tribute to those women who bravely stood up for women’s right to vote.

kaceyjonesportraitHowever, this lyric took on an even more personal meaning for me earlier this month when my former creative director and publisher at Zamalama Music, Kacey Jones, sadly lost her battle against cancer on September 1st. I felt heartbroken when I heard the news. Kacey was one of the women whose “shoulders  I stood on”, in other words, one of my mentors. She probably didn’t realize it, but she was my “fearlessness” coach. Watching her “go for” whatever she set her mind to, helped teach me to reach further and be braver. On her Facebook page, there are memories and tributes posted from those who knew and loved her from the 1970’s to the present. She was: Kacey, the recording artist, the comedian, the singer-songwriter, the Shameless Hussie, the Sweet Potato Queen, the business woman, publisher, and record promoter, and the list goes on. To me, she was Kacey, the first person to believe in me and my songs enough to hire me as a staff songwriter for the few years that she ran a small indie publishing company between 1999-2001. She guided me toward my first hit song and we celebrated that accomplishment together.

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At the 2000 ASCAP Awards. With Kacey Jones – a rare picture of her short-lived, short haircut – and Sharyn Lane, owner of Zamalama, and me second to the right, accepting an airplay award for “Home to You” recorded by John Michael Montgomery. (Excuse the poor picture quality, it’s been sitting on top of our piano for a long time).

After my stint at Zamalama ended and the company catalog was sold, Kacey and I stayed in touch mostly through emails and Facebook. What I’ve realized through my grieving was that on a day-to-day level, I played a very brief and relatively minor role in Kacey’s diverse and well-lived life, yet her direct impact on my life was enormous. Did she know that?

This led me to think of other women early in my music career who unwittingly have helped shape who I am. They are the ones who showed me (not told me!) how to conduct myself and move forward in this crazy music business. One of the first, Lisa Palas, who in the early 90’s was already a hit songwriter and signed with Reba McEntire’s publishing company, invited me to stay at her home while I was researching a possible move from New Jersey to Nashville, TN. She invited me to tag along with her to cool gatherings and let me know that I would have a friend if I moved here. This taught me that no matter how successful you become, it’s important to keep it real and be kind.

Around that same time, Debbie Hupp, who co-wrote the Kenny Rogers mega-hit song “You Decorated My Life” took the time out of her life to sort through the pros and cons of being a woman in the music business and without mincing words let me know that if I didn’t move to Nashville and try, I’d regret it. She showed me that despite the odds, it’s okay to follow your dreams.

When I actually did make the move to Nashville in 1992, I was quite timid about the whole songwriting thing. Then I was hired by the power-house then-Executive Director of the Nashville Songwriters Association, Pat Rogers, who taught me that being timid was a complete waste of time. She showed me that if you know something has to get done, make it happen even if it means being the tough one. What a great example of business moxie and fortitude which I needed to summon over and over again as I slugged away at the music industry beast.

In my nascent efforts to become a professional songwriter there was one publisher, Karen Conrad, who was running a very successful independent publishing company, BMG, who always returned my phone calls even though I didn’t write for her company or have anything she truly needed or wanted from me. She returned my calls because it was the respectful thing to do, regardless of whether I was on my way up or down the ladder. That show of respect is something I’ve never forgotten and try to emulate in my own business dealings.

To be fair, there have definitely been a few good men out there mentoring me and nudging me forward, not the least of which was my husband, Danny Arena. I’m not embarrassed to use the cliche that he is the wind beneath my wings. We formulated our songwriting dreams together. Moved to Nashville together. Every song I brought into my publishing deal with Kacey Jones had Danny’s name on it as a co-writer, and every songwriting and/or music business success I’ve had, has his mark on it, including our songs in “Urban Cowboy, the Musical” for which we were both nominated for Tonys. Danny taught me take it slow and to keep learning and growing along the way.

 

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Playbill from the 2003 Tony Awards. Danny and I were part of the composing team for Urban Cowboy, the Musical, nominated for Best Original Score. Danny was thrilled that among the nominees that year was one of his composer idols, Michel LeGrand.

Learning along the way was exactly what kept me going when the going got tough, and still does. Losing Kacey has given me a reason to pause and reflect on how much I appreciate all the people I learned from (and continue to) and the positive influences in my life. There are a multitude of other friends, teachers and mentors, both women and men, even serendipitous encounters with helpers whose shoulders were there for me, maybe not always to stand upon, but at least to lean my head on for awhile, and for all of them, I’m grateful.


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Goals for September 2016

 

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“A year from now you may wish you had started today.” –
Karen Lamb

 

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!

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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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