Songwriting basics and tips 6: Tuning in …

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Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist

Scrambled Eggs – One of the World’s Biggest Hits!scram.gif

First off, if you’re the kind of songwriter who starts with a melodic idea, before the lyrics are written, then I’d be willing to bet that it takes you a relatively long time to finish a song. That’s because your initial focus is on the sound not the meaning of the song.

Music has the advantage that it can be a completely abstract phenomenon with no necessarily obvious ties to any other concept.

But lyrics have to be about something – walrus.gifeven if it’s something surreal like walruses and eggmen.

So it can be a pretty tough call to fit a lyric to a melody if you need to

a) find a reasonably original theme to write about,

and

b) are trying to do so in a way which avoids cliché.

It’s also absolutely necessary to get your tune recorded/written down asap, because you don’t have a lyric attached to help jog your memory.

So, if you have a great tune, and the final lyric is proving hard to generate, think about a holding lyric that you can hook the rhythm and melody up to and so keep it feeling like a viable song possibility.

The holding lyric might actually contain some elements that will find their way into the final song, but, more often than not, it goes straight in the bin as soon as lyrical inspiration strikes.

This isn’t just a tactic for beginner songwriters. Paul McCartney – no slouch in the writing department – went round for months with an absolutely absurd set of words in his head for what became one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music
egg.gif
Scrambled eggs
Oh my baby how I love your legs
Not as much as I love scrambled eggs

Yes, that was the original holding lyric for Yesterday!

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“Wanted: someone to write great lyrics for my songs!”writer.gif

Now there are very gifted composers in the popular idiom out there who rarely if ever write their own lyrics – Elton John is a great example (Bernie Taupin writes all his lyrics), but he’s hardly the first.

Operas and musicals come into being, more often than not, through the interaction between a composer, e.g. Leonard Bernstein, and a librettist (posh word meaning “lyric-writer”), e.g. Stephen Sondheim.

Together, those two guys came up with this:

America – Bernstein & Sondheim

You can’t fault that as a song! [And the choreography is just stunning]

It is, in fact, often easier to write songs with a partner – either sharing all aspects or dividing the melody and lyrics tasks.

If you’re REALLY stuck for a lyric, think about asking anypoet.gif talented wordsmiths you know to help out – or even advertise for a poet on digital media! After all, here are a couple of absolutely CLASSIC bands who have divided the functions of composer/lyricist:

 

Grateful Dead – Jerry García & Robert Hunter/ Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow

Friend of the Devil – García & Hunter.
I kinda like Lyle Lovett’s version of this Grateful Dead song!

Cassidy – Weir & Barlow

Rolling Stones – Keith Richards & Mick Jagger

Brown Sugar – Richards & Jagger

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“I Gotta Lyric!”

If you write songs the other way around, i.e. someone from another dimension shouts a lyric into your ear (that’s exactly what it feels like sometimes!) and you have to fit a tune to it, what do you do?

Well, there’s always the reverse ploy to what we talked about above: tune.gifgo find yourself a tunesmith!

If you’re your own tunesmith, all the better – if you’ve written a good lyric, your subconscious was probably humming something that would go with it.

That’s the way I write. Almost without exception, some kind of tune is suggested by the rhythms either as I write, or just afterwards when I read them over.

It’s not always the best tune though. About 20% of the time, I think of it as a holding melody – much on the same lines as the holding lyric we discussed above.

So, what do we look for in a tune, and how do we find it?

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Hooks, Lines, and Singers

Remember we talked about hooklines and choruses in previous blog posts? worm.gifThose are really important parts of a song’s melody as well as its lyrics.

They’re the parts that you want everyone to remember, the earworms that they just can’t get out of their heads. But they don’t always come tied to the lyrics.

If you can get a really memorable instrumental hookline or riff (a repeated rhythmic and melodic pattern running through a song) going, as well as a vocal hook, then you’re doubling the chances of your song being remembered.

Here are a couple of the world’s best examples of doing this:

Satisfaction – The Rolling Stones

Baker Street – Gerry Rafferty

So, once you’ve got all the rest worked out, go back to your song and try to lead.gifcome up with an extra bit of tune that is at least as memorable as the vocal hook.

This sometimes involves the difficult task of begging favours from the already over-inflated ego of that most difficult band member: the lead guitarist.

You know, that guy who’s always late for rehearsals,  turns up too loud, and always forgets when he’s supposed to sing harmonies .
(Bitter? Me? Pish and tush!)

Actually (yeah, this is hard to believe!), I’ve known some very professional lead players who are also great band members (Hi, Jim K.  & Pete P. – you know who you are!).

If you’re looking for a riff/instrumental hook, and you can’t think of one yourself, ask the best melodic musicians in the band – be they sax, guitar, or keyboard players – it’s their job after all!

That’s exactly what Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan did when they felt their track Reelin’ In the Years needed a little extra.

They asked leadplayer Elliot Randall to come up with something. Not only did he write a great instrumental hook, but he also came up with one of the world’s best and most memorable solos!

Reelin’ In the Years – Steely Dan

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Right! We’ve established a few basic principles of how to get your tune moving in the right direction as a song. But how to come up with an original tune in the first place?

Yes, there are gifted types who just spill out melodies at the slightest provocation, but most songwriters need a little bag of stratagems to apply to give their masterworks a bit of a lift.

We’ll look at some of those next week!

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

 

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