The Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog – Gary Ewer
Pop Music’s Classical and Romantic Eras
Early next week I will have the pleasure of conducting what is arguably one of classical music’s most powerful works: Mozart’s “Requiem.” It was the last piece Mozart composed, and in fact it was left unfinished, completed by one of his former students, Franz Xaver Süssmayr.
By the time the Requiem was composed (1791), the music world was moving in a new direction. At that point, Beethoven was 21 years old, and beginning to create a musical style that would eventually become what we call 19th Century Romanticism.
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Entire books have been written about the main differences between “Classical era” music (roughly 1740-1800), with composers like Haydn and Mozart, and “Romantic era” music (the 19th century), with composers like Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss. If you were to listen to a Mozart symphony (Symphony No. 40), and then, let’s say, a Strauss tone poem (“Also Sprach Zarathustra“), you’d hear the orderly structure of Mozart, and then the emotional flamboyance of Strauss. Classical and Romantic music are very different when you listen to them side by side.
In the pop music world, there has been a similar transition from smaller, structured songs (1950s pop) to songs that are more elaborate, more emotional and more flamboyant (1960s-70s):
- “Lucille” – Albert Collins, Little Richard (Little Richard)
- “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” – Kal Mann, Bernie Lowe (Elvis Presley)
- “Peggy Sue” – Jerry Allison, Norman Petty, Buddy Holly (Buddy Holly)
- “The Great Pretender” – Buck Ram (The Platters)
- “All I Have to Do Is Dream” – Boudleaux Bryant (The Everly Brothers)
- “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – Jagger/Richards (The Rolling Stones)
- “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” George Harrison (The Beatles)
- “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – Paul Simon (Simon & Garfunkel)
- “You’re So Vain” – Carly Simon
- “Philadelphia Freedom” – Elton John, Bernie Taupin (Elton John)
In the musicology world, you’ll hear the experts say that while Classical era music favoured form over content, the Romantic era favoured content over form. So a Classical symphony, if it started in the key of C major, would typically make a transition to G major part way through the first movement, because that was an important part of the form of classical music.
But a Romantic era composer had far more interest in melodies and how they interacted with chords, all in a bid to make the audience feel some powerful emotions. So Strauss’ “Zarathustra” is about a philosophical journey, but that classical symphony I mentioned? That’s about C major!
You can hear that kind of change in pop music as well. In early pop, the topics were simple, and usually about simple, uncomplicated love, as we hear in “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” But “You’re So Vain”? That’s a much more complex story, with far more complex emotions.
Because the Classical and Romantic eras took place at a time when the world was very different, both sociologically and technologically, it took close to a century to make the transition from music that was all about form, to music that was all about content. But in the pop music world, the equivalent transition took only ten to fifteen years, such was the power of media.
It wouldn’t be true to say that early pop songs didn’t have an important emotional element; they did. But music at that time was certainly less complicated, more structured, and more predictable.
Music historians will say that the issue of form and content is what music is about, no matter what genre you’re talking about. You’re either living in an era where content is more important than form, or where form is more important than content.
When I look at music right now, I find myself thinking that the structure of pop songs is simple and clear, and the emotions today’s songs generate don’t seem to be very complex ones. In mainstream pop, do we have the equivalent of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” being written today? Perhaps in the indie world, but less so in mainstream pop.
So if you find yourself bemoaning the fact that music today seems a bit uninspired and derivative, you might console yourself with the possibility that in a short while songwriting will move back to something a little less predictable and more inspiring.
Do you have thoughts on this topic? I’d love to know what you think. Please leave a comment below.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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Sometimes, an Inability to Write Isn’t Writer’s Block
When you sit down with your guitar but can’t come up with anything creative, you’re likely to think that you’re going through a bout of writer’s block. And then it’s a matter of waiting it out until the creative juices start flowing again.
But there’s a problem with this quick analysis: creativity in humans is something that naturally ebbs and flows. It’s normal to have days when nothing seems to be working, when your creative senses just seem to be lacking.
Getting melodies and chords working well together is vital knowledge for any songwriter. “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you, step by step, how that works, and gives you sound samples to follow.
And when you immediately label your difficult writing day as being the start of writer’s block, that label has a way of cementing your difficulties, making it a challenge to solve the problem and become more creative again.
If it’s not writer’s block, what do you call it? Personally, I don’t call it anything; a day where it’s difficult to create music is just simply “one of those days” to me, and I put the pencil down and turn my creative attention to a different kind of activity.
That different activity might be something as simple as working on a different piece of music, practicing my instrument, or perhaps reading what other songwriters are saying about music. All of these things have the benefit of keeping my musical brain engaged and working without requiring me to generate song ideas.
The Problem with Labels
So a lack of creativity on any given day, then, is a normal circumstance that we should expect from time to time. It doesn’t require us to label it.
Once you put a label on something, it becomes a problem to solve, and because an occasional inability to create is something we should anticipate, we only make things more difficult when we label it.
So instead of calling your current difficulties writer’s block, what should you do?
The best solution is always to turn your attention to some other creative activity that releases you from the duty of writing songs. There are other ways to engage your creative side, ways that, in the long run, will allow you to still feel creative.
All I’m suggesting is that labeling your difficulties as a creative block tends to cement those difficulties, and make the solutions less effective.
No Matter What You Call It…
In the recent research paper “An Analysis of Writer’s Block: Causes and Solutions” (Sarah J. Ahmed and C. Dominik Güss), the authors interviewed 146 writers, and asked for their most popular solutions to bouts of writer’s block. The top four:
- taking a break from writing;
- working on a different writing project;
- forcing themselves to keep writing, and
- discussing ideas with others.
Those are four great solutions for those days when you find writing to be difficult. Several of those solutions can and should be done by songwriters as a daily practice anyway. (Forcing yourself to write is a solution that might work, and might not; you’ll know if it’s a viable solution.)
So the next day that you find songwriting to be difficult, don’t be so quick to label it as “writer’s block.” It may simply be one of those expected downturns in creativity that needs no other solution than to put your pencil down.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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The Business End of Songwriting
Spending your days writing songs might be your dream job, but if it really is a job, you’re going to have to put your guitar down once in a while and deal with the business end of songwriting.
But all the words we associate with songwriting business — royalties, copyright, splits, points, etc. — can be confusing if you don’t deal with it very often.
If you hope to make songwriting at least part of your future earnings, I found a video that does a pretty good job of breaking it all down and letting you know what to do, and what to expect from a career in songwriting, particularly if you’re partnering up with other songwriters, producers and other industry people.
It’s called “How Do Producer and Songwriter Splits Work?” from the “Ari’s Take” YouTube channel. It’s short — about 8 minutes — but it’s quite informative. And if you check out other videos from Ari Herstand’s “Ari’s Take” channel, you’ll find other music-business-related videos that might be helpful.
As with anything on the internet, it’s best to check out several different sources, and a simple YouTube search will give you lots of options for videos that will give you good advice.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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Using Other Songs for Musical Ideas (Without Crossing the Line)
It appears to me that issues around plagiarism are becoming more numerous, and also more complex. In pre-internet days, it seemed that whether that new song you’d written had crossed the line into being plagiarism was a bit more obvious.
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But today, and especially in light of the 2014 decision that Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” was in fact too close to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” for comfort, the point at which a song might include plagiarized material is more difficult to discern.
I know this mainly because in the past year or so, up to half of the emails and blog comments I’ve been getting come from people wanting to know how much of an already-existing song they’re allowed to use without being accused of plagiarism.
If the purpose of your songwriting is to sing your tunes to your family and friends at home or sitting around the campfire, you probably don’t have a legal worry. But if you hope to stream your songs, or get them on the radio or perform them in a public venue, it becomes a more important issue, one with more serious legal implications.
If your concerns come about because you hear a similarity between your song and another one that’s out there, written by someone else, here are some things to think about:
- Officially, melody and lyrics are the two elements of a song that are protected by copyright.
- You can use another song’s chord progressions, but only the chords. If you find yourself borrowing other elements (and yes, this often happens subconsciously), you’ve got problems.
- The general feel of a song is, apparently, protected by copyright. This is what the “Blurred Lines” case has taught us. No melodies or lyrics were copied, but “Blurred Lines” just sounded too similar to “Got to Give It Up.”
- Taking a melody from an existing song and radically changing the tempo still (usually) amounts to plagiarism. In other words, though the original songwriter wrote something as a slow ballad, it’s not going to be possible to go twice as fast, use an entirely different instrumentation, or to change anything else about it in such a way as to put you in the clear.
- Changing the key of an idea you’re hoping to borrow from another song doesn’t change the fact that you’re using someone else’s idea.
Are there things you can do to, or borrow from, an already-existing song that don’t amount to plagiarism? Yes:
- You can take a song’s melody and reverse it, to see if anything about it is usable in your own song. If it bears no resemblance to the original song, you should be fine. (Remember, this works if you take just the melody. If you start borrowing the beat, the rhythms, the general feel, etc., you’re back in trouble!)
- You can take ideas from old songs (folk songs, for example), ones which are in the public domain, and you should be OK.
If you’re genuinely concerned that the song you’ve written sounds too much like some other song, or even if you suspect it but can’t think of where you’ve heard your song ideas before, the best first step is to play your song for a friend and ask them if they recognize it.
Trying to determine if you’ve accidentally plagiarized is stressful, to be sure. Regarding melodies, there are some excellent ideas in this article: 9 Ways to Know if Your Melody Has Already Been Used in Another Song.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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Pulling Your New Song Apart as a Troubleshooting Process
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Every song is a partnership of various elements. Practically every song you hear will be a joining together of melodies, lyrics, and chords, with instrumentation acting as a kind of musical glue.
I think it’s fair to say that most good songs are greater than the sum of their parts: they may have good melodies, lyrics and chords, but then when you hear them all working together, you could make a case for saying that they sound even better than they do separately.
And that’s the ideal. A particular song’s lyric, for example, might be its strongest asset, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to have a weak melody or weak chordal structure. You need them all working well.
One way to troubleshoot a song that you think you should be sounding better than it actually does is to take the time to think about each separate component and considering them on their own. This allows you to put your full attention on that one component without it being cluttered by the others.
So if you’ve written a song, but you feel it’s not sounding as great as you thought it might, try these ideas:
- Recite the lyric. Try this different ways. First, simply read it as either prose or poetry, depending on the nature of what you’ve written. Then try reading it by slightly exaggerating the rhythms: make the long words longer, and the short words shorter. Think about the meaning of what you’ve written, and be mindful of problematic words and phrases, like overused clichés or forced rhymes.
- Sing the melody unaccompanied. A good melody should work even without its chordal backing. A good melody typically moves generally by stepwise motion (up or down by step), with occasional melodic leaps. And even in this barebones rendition, your melody should be able to be described as interesting or even captivating.
- Play through the chord progressions. In the pop genres, most progressions use the tonic chord (the one representing the song’s key) as a kind of musical anchor, where each progression seems to get pulled back to that tonic chord.
By separating the various elements like this, you can concentrate on a single component at a time, and there’s a lot of good troubleshooting that can come from that.
Once you’ve considered each element on its own, you can add in one other one. For example, once you’re sure you have the melodies the way you want them, add in the chord progressions and hum your melody without the lyric.
Once that’s working, you’re ready to try everything back together again, and see what the changes have done. This kind of dissecting songs and then reassembling them will go a long way to ensuring that your song has the best chance for success.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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I’m Gary Ewer. For years I’ve been helping songwriters understand the basic fundamentals of good songwriting. I do that mainly through the free articles on this blog, and also through my 10-eBook bundle. If you lack consistency in your songwriting, and you want to take your abilities to the next level, everything you need to know is in that bundle package, so please take a look at those ebooks. And if you want to browse through the more than 2300 posts in the blog archive, scroll to the bottom of this page.
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