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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:

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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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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?