Because this is filler, filler night…

Take this SongExpresso verse:

“My tired eyes
Were looking forward to your bed
But now they’re getting used to the idea
That they’ll be closing all alone instead”

The idea here is not to promote SongExpresso’s works, but real life examples are always helpful, right? (But does the world seriously need yet another breakup song? – Ed.) 

It was just “OK”. First draft. Some “synecdoche” going on. But the third line was supposed to have eight syllables. And scan. Ugh. Paralysis? No! Do the work…

“But now they’re coming to the conclusion” ?

Still sounds off. Work harder. What are we looking for? Eight syllables, scans in a singable way. Possibly something that works with the eyes reference. Next try:

“But it looks as if from now on
That they’ll be closing all alone instead”

Well at least it scans. And contains the word “looks”. But what new information does this give us? Nada. That line has no purpose whatsoever but to take us to the next line. And it’s boring. Do you know what you created? Yeah, filler. Good enough? Not for SongExpresso. 

“Considering the prospect?” (Jason Isbell already took that one in a much classier way). “Now they’re realising?” Hmmm. SongExpresso is frustrated. Seriously considering junking the whole verse. Take dog for a walk.

SongExpresso (and his dog) cannot rest until this is perfected. So where did it end up?

“But the realisation’s dawning
That they’ll be closing all alone instead.”

SongExpresso won’t say “nailed it”, but it’s a huge improvement – proper length, a tinge of personal insight, and slightly more interesting vocabulary – “dawning”, to fit into that night-time theme.

What’s the moral? Do the work. If you care about your listeners. Or if you just care. Please care.

And you know what? That verse never made it into the finished song. SongExpresso decided that it needed to be “Guilty eyes” and the whole thing needed to go in a different direction. More work. But the song turned out as good as it could be, with no stone (or rhyming dictionary or thesaurus) unturned. That’s what we’re here for. (If curious, a dodgily recorded demo of the song can be listened to here.)

Sometimes it’s hard: “You start to freeze as horror looks you right between the eyes. You’re paralysed…”

No you’re not, unless you want to. Get a shot of SongExpresso and do the work.

I wrote a blues. I wrote a rap. I wrote International English.

“Hey, I wrote a blues!” “Seriously?” “Yeah, I quite like it.” “Are you a blues player?” “Umm, well I do a bit and this one just seemed to, like, come out.”

“Hey, I wrote a rap!” “Seriously?” “Yes – good flow, nice rhymes.” “Are you a rapper?” “Umm, well not really but I had these lyrics, and it just seemed to fit, you know.”

Now, SongExpresso likes a good blues. But the blues has somehow turned into an international language enabling guitarists (and others) of all abilities the world over to jam instantly. Yeah, hear my scale tones! 

And, as regular readers also know by now, SongExpresso likes some good hip-hop. But, again, hip-hop has turned into a some sort of worldwide thing where anyone can participate. Yay, hear my rebelliousness!

It’s cool. Let’s make music and have a good time. Are there any rules? Who cares?

SongExpresso thinks this can sometimes be a little bit like international English. International English is an amazing thing that allows people from all over the world to communicate using words. However, if you ask an actual English-speaking person, then probably this is a bit like the language they speak if it had been abducted by aliens and replaced with a near replica. Like SongInstantCoffee… (TM waived).

Please don’t stop writing blues or rap. If it is your intention to write blues or rap. But can they sometimes be a tempting refuge for lyrics or music that don’t have anywhere else to go? Can they sometimes be a lazy way out if we are not struck by melodic inspiration? No! Collaborate, leave in the freezer, do over in the style of another artist. Do the work…

Writing original melodies is one of the hardest things. Anyone else sometimes tempted to fit into pre-existing styles that aren’t really our own? How do you get over melodic blocks? As always, SongExpresso would love to hear… 

Are you sure it’s a song?

The other day, SongExpresso presented a songwriting collaborator with a steaming pile of lyrics without a melody. Only to be asked “Is this some kind of spoken word thing?” Ouch. I had written prose.

I loved the concept and some of the detail. But I was having endless difficulties with it. Melody, like an upside-down magnet, was refusing to attach to the lyrics. Chords would scatter bird-like away from my lyrical dogs.

Maybe there was no “prosody”. Or maybe I was relying too much on prosody to do the work, expecting melody to flow naturally out of the words. Not to mention that there was a radical internal rhyme scheme where the rhyme would appear in different places in each verse, but this ultimately only went to add confusion and subtract satisfaction.

In retrospect all this is normal. SongExpresso thinks you can tell where a set of lyrics have been written at a desk and then later put to music (all Squeeze and Elton John songs probably excepted). As they say, a desk is a dangerous place

A lyrical idea can happen in isolation at any time. But then it isn’t a song, just an idea. If it doesn’t have rhythm and feeling it may just be prose. You can impose some structure and develop ideas on paper or a computer and possibly hear instruments in your head (if you are Beethoven). Otherwise, your idea needs to be put in a taxi, taken to a party, and sat next to a musical instrument (or made to dance flirtatiously with lots of musical instruments until it finds one it likes). Then they need to spend time together so that their bits crystallize into a song.

You can – and should – go back to the desk and work more. But doing that is much more likely to produce a song after magnetic melody has adhered to your words, and chords of grouse have settled around your lyrical corn.

SongExpresso’s collaborator in this case was a “get a demo done” type of person, a fresh approach that really helped. What do you do when you get lyrics without a melody? How do you take it to the next stage? As always, SongExpresso wants to hear your ideas and experiences.
 

What’s a songwriter?

Songwriter /’sɒŋˌraɪtə/ (n): A normal person who (1) observes details in the world; (2) hears and connects them in a musical way; and (3) writes them down.

An abandoned object, a dog barking at a bird, a faded book, a new school, a conversation on a train, a misheard lyric, a new take on an old phrase. It depends if you pass them by, or pick them up and remember to take them somewhere.

Anyone can do this. Most people do (1) and even (2) from time to time, but not (3). If we work at all of them, all the time, and go back and squeeze the potential out of – and squeeze our feeling into – what we find, then that’s when the magic can happen.

The Song Funnel

Welcome to the world, my unbearably adorable, squishy, little coochie-baby song idea. Come with me immediately to the SongKindergarten(TM).

Actually, you are allowed to stay here forever. It’s a free kind of school. No curriculum. No teachers. Play with other little darlings if you like. There are dozens of them! Go crazy. Let things happen. No worries.

Sometimes a SongExpresso inspector will arrive unannounced. Don’t be afraid. Unless you are more or less identical to one of the other little i-dears, you’ll never be ejected. Possibly you will be made to play with other similar ideas. Possibly you will get to come and dine with me, and get fattened up to make you bigger and stronger and more developed. Maybe even grafted together with one of your fellow little ones to form a bigger idea (child metaphor starting to run out of steam).

If SongExpresso sees that you are nearing adolescence, you may be thrust into the SongCollege(TM). This is good for you. You want this. The SongKindergarten is a great place to be but you should really be moving up in life and seeing something new. Here you will get my full attention. There are probably not more than 10 or 15 other spotty young things in this class. You may even get introduced to a collaborator and move in a different direction. Certainly here you’ll get lots of instrument time and this is where you really grow into your full potential. Unlike mammals, it’s not at birth but here where the “labour” really happens (child metaphor starting to get quite weird now).

You’re an adolescent. You’re unruly. You have some bits that are messy and some that no-one really understands. You have some bad rhymes still and some outlandish images. You have 4 and a half verses, which is about 50% too many but no-one is sure which are the good ones. You lack a break or a solo or an intro. But you’re the future. You’ll work your way into my brain and during the night or the shower or a book or being out in the park, a little bit more of you will be finished off.

Until the day where we all smile. You’re good to go. You’re a SongGraduate(TM) – you can now officially use the title “Song” (or any of its translations in any official language of your choosing). You can go out into the world and see whether someone other than your proud parent will love you. It doesn’t matter, because I always will.

Maybe you’re an ant-idea and will progress through all stages in a day. Or maybe you’re more of a diplodocus-idea and will have the longest adolescence of any living thing ever (please do not write in to tell me that this is not a scientific fact and it should be e.g. the Royal or Wandering Albatross). The important thing is to keep moving. Because there are lots more cute little coochie babies being born every day.

A broody SongExpresso is off to re-name his “Song Ideas”, “Songs in Progress” and “Songs Finished” Evernote notebooks. What do you call yours?

Three Pillars of Fantastic – Part 3. Lyrics: Always Be Diving for Pearls

A post on lyric writing. But everything on these pages is about lyric writing. There are books and lives and a whole universe out there of different lyrics and different reactions. 

All we can really do is listen critically and try to absorb something into our own worlds. Most songs have something if we know where to look, that we can add to our portfolio of techniques.

Where to start? SongExpresso is going for a personal favorite, which I think few would disagree with: “Shipbuilding”. It may have been written quickly but we can feel thought, preparation, feeling and rigour. We won’t ever write this. But can we learn something that might help us tie together the circumstances that we see in something of a similar way?

The entire lyrics are at the end.

If you don’t know it please go and listen to it now – the Robert Wyatt version of course. Or Elvis’s own. Often copied, never bettered. Yes, it’s a political song but that’s not what we are interested in. Actually it’s a really human song about compromise, responsibility, and obligation.

It’s a little bit rooted in time: the Falklands “conflict” (one of the last “old school” wars without Internet or 24 news coverage – I’m sure they still did use telegrams to notify the next of kin. And the British government found out about the invasion of the Falklands by telex). This is a pre-digital time of Walkmen, VCRs. Rumours not Facebook. Heavy industry in decline, strikes, riots, unemployment. Change, class consciousness, political polarism – those days it was quite normal to hear people describe themselves as Marxists. Thirty years have changed a lot of things.

Another interesting thing – Ellis Costello later wrote a response to this song (in true SongExpresso style), from the Argentinean point of view (“Cinco Minutos con Vos”) – also an interesting song portraying normal Argentineans living under an oppressive military regime. All in all plenty of material for writing….

What makes “Shipbuilding” so great? The following things struck SongExpresso:

1. Start Strong

“Is it worth it?” This line sums up the entire song. And even better, does so using an everyday phrase. And even, even, better the melody perfectly matches the music of the phrase. Whenever I or someone else says this, I think of this song. Possible other contenders: “I Should Have Known Better” – The Beatles. “Hold on” (from “Stop Crying Your Heart Out”) – Oasis.

If got right, these types of day-to-day expressions are fertile ground for leading listeners back into the song – “well, I ask you”, “it’s just a rumour” or “with all the will in the world” work in a similar way – this is very spoken language.

2. Match tone/feeling to subject matter

It’s interesting to consider that: (i) the melody was written first and the lyrics added later – so the jazzy, downbeat atmosphere was probably already there; and (ii) it was specifically intended for Robert Wyatt to sing. So we imagine in Elvis’s mind the ghostly, beaten-down, Englishness of Robert’s voice (and I wouldn’t disregard either the evocative combination of sea-dog beard, beret and wheelchair that we later see in the music video). A direction to follow can unlock great ideas.

3. Contrasts 

  • Diving for dear life vs. diving for pearls
  • Telegram vs. picture postcard
  • The boy (wanting the bike) vs. the boy (taken to task)
  • Re-opening the shipyards vs. notifying the next of kin

In one of his first jobs, SongExpresso was described as the “however man”. Perhaps I did like juxtaposing opposing ideas a little too much for business memos. But here these are great for showing conflicts of the time: faith against reality, aspiration against realism.

4. Just clever enough

There’s “clever original” and “clever annoying”. Take the line “someone got filled in”. It sits on that dangerous borderline which could become annoying. Yes, it’s there because of the rhyme – but on the other hand is something that the people in the story could easily say. SongExpresso wonders whether and how much Elvis had to wrestle with it. Somehow I hope so. If he was in two minds then it paid off to go with the bold choice: the musicality and “vernacular” of it swings it over to the good side; it does seem right.

This also goes for “take me to task”. This is only real reference to the precise time period (the British navy/air contingent sent to the Falkland Islands was the ‘Task Force’). It’s brilliant in some ways as anyone who was around in Britain at the time will know that this means ‘war’. But as it’s both a play on words and a euphemism, Elvis relies on us to get it or the significance is lost. It’s one of those things that works perfectly locally but is potentially lost in translation to a wider audience. Take the example of “I took my Chevy to the levee”. A levee may be normal parlance in let’s say Louisiana (I’m speculating), but for non-Americans potentially meaningless. These localisms add realism to our characters but we always need to think whether our audience will understand, and how much they’ll lose if they don’t. Elvis needed to get a reference to the war in, and this is a brilliantly subtle way to do that. Just clever enough. The skill we need is to see these amber lights and then consciously decide how to handle them.

5. Verse Structure

You don’t have to have verse–pre-chorus–chorus–break etc.! We don’t know whether the melody already had this slightly off-balance progression that plays with different verse lengths, sometimes circles back on itself and repeats different sections. Maybe it did or maybe the more informal flow fitted the lyrics. Parameters can help, but can and should be disregarded if they get in the way of what feels right.

6. Show don’t tell

“Diving for dear life”. I always see the sailor/airman trying to extricate themselves from sinking wreckage. With some thought that they might have been somewhere else living a full life and not absurdly dying in the freezing South Atlantic. Of course, this is also the thought of the working man back home, making a living from whatever work available, no time for ideals or dreams. Works fantastically for both situations.

7. Is there anything we don’t like?

If this was a SongExpresso song, I would lie awake at night going over and over the line “Diving for Pearls”. It’s the right image. It’s the right rhyme. It’s the right lyric. But – with all the will in world – it really does not scan with the melody. The emphasis falls on the “ving” and not the “di”. It’s just unnatural. Some of the covers try to correct this. That destabilizes the melody and sounds equally jarring. This has been described as “sublime phrasing … of which Stan Getz would have been mighty proud”. I’m going to call that pretentious rubbish and say this was just a compromise. Of course we hope that all options were explored. It’s imperfect: but the good things about it outweigh the slight problem. If we fixed it we would lose more than we gain.

 

More than ever this article makes me ask – who am I to critique. I’m a fan, yes. And grew up with this song. So I feel some pressure to do justice – this is my one shot at this. But if SongExpresso has a goal then it’s to improve the lyrics gene pool. All I can do is pick out some things that I appreciate. And maybe convince some others to listen. What do you think?

 

This is Part 3 of SongExpresso’s Three Pillars of Fantastic:
Part 1: Bring Your Own Feeling
Part 2: Melody (coming soon)

 

Shipbuilding
COSTELLO, ELVIS / LANGER, CLIVE WILLIAM
© Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Is it worth it?
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday
It’s just a rumor that was spread around town
By the women and children
Soon we’ll be shipbuilding…

Well I ask you
The boy said “Dad they’re going to take me to task,
but I’ll be back by Christmas”
It’s just a rumor that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of this shipbuilding

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls

It’s just a rumor that was spread around town
A telegram or a picture postcard
Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin
Once again

It’s all we’re skilled in
We will be shipbuilding…

With all the will in the world
Diving for dear life
When we could be diving for pearls.

Don’t bore us – with your tedious chorus

Is it possible to write a chorus using just one word? Hmmm. Is is possible to write a GOOD chorus using just one word? Double Hmmm. Probably not as easy as writing a samba using just one note… 

We know repetition can be effective for creating a hook. Repetition = memorable, ey, Jude? And it can be effective at any time for cementing an idea. Yes, a couple of times. Not necessarily consecutively. But three, four, potato, more? Can we pull it off?

But let’s always consider why we would want to pull it off: do we have good artistic reasons, or could it be … (speaking very quietly) that we just don’t have any better idea?

Remember, if you go this way, then you are giving up the opportunity of getting the listeners’ attention with an interesting lyric. Lyrics are – naturally – one of SongExpresso’s 3 pillars of fantastic. If you minimise them, then you’d better be sure that the other two pillars – Melody and Feeling – are rock solid and super-interesting.

Feeling is feeling and is a combination of various things – but definitely within the composer’s power and not just a question of style, instrumentation or performance. If it feels good to you then probably it is good. All we are saying is do it consciously: Does it work in real life? Is there any alternative? Can we vary it next time? Where we don’t have lyrical interest then for sure we need melodic interest, direction and variety.

Warning: unfair comparison ahead!

1. Let’s start with “Sing” (Travis)

Here’s the operative part:

But if you sing, sing, sing, sing, sing, sing
For the love you bring
Won’t mean a thing
Unless you sing, sing, sing, sing

It’s simple but definitely melodic enough to hold our interest. Each “sing” is a litle different so it doesn’t really sound repetitive and still enjoys all the advantages of memorabiliy. On “thing” we are held for a while on the 2nd before satisfyingly being brought back to the root. Taking the song as a whole we have a very cute feeling and tempo, and a wide melodic range. SongExpresso one-word-lyric score: 8!

2. Moving on to “Come On” (The Hives)

We don’t actually need to extract the operative part as in this one minute song the entire lyrics are:

(One! Two! One, two, one, two, three!)
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on! (come on!)
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on!
Come on…
Everybody come on! (repeat from top)

It’s a fun song. A rare thing, a song with more chords than words! (Though is it really a song? Or just a riff? Or a chorus? Or a chant?) In any event, the energetic feeling and building instrumental intensity are parts of the mix. The other is the variation, including the call and response. SongExpresso one-word-lyric score: a cheeky 7! 

3. Finally, what about “Inhaler” by Miles Kane?

it’s a short song too, so here’s the entire thing: 

I’ve been looking forward to lifting up the veil
Yes is the answer, you know that for sure
The night time, is the right time
Oh, don’t you know girl
You’ve heard it before
Hey

Inhaler, inhaler
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Inhaler, inhaler
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Yeah, yeah, yeah

Cold is the shoulder, you’ll give me for sure
Dance with your hips, and grind on the floor
The night time, is the right time
Oh, don’t you know girl
You’ve heard it before
Hey

Inhaler etc.

It’s a riffy song – in fact the riff is the main entertainment. That’s fine – the Feeling is good. Melody – in the verse, it matches the riff nicely and gets us moving. We really like the “lifting up the veil” lyric, suggestive and original. “Night time is the right time” is a bit of a cliche but in tune with the “up for it” theme. “Cold is the shoulder” is quite nice too. Some great lyrical potential going on here.

But for SongExpresso, when we get to the chorus it loses its way a bit. The feeling seems a bit flat; the melody lacks interest; and the lyrics seem like a missed opportunity. And the inhaler idea is actually great – it suggests breathlessness, wanting to absorb the night, drinks disappearing, as well as the potential for some other substances… It’s cool – perhaps envisaged as an anthem – simple to remember and sing at festivals. But where does it really go? Couldn’t we have something a bit more evocative? The above ideas could already give us a start…

Perhaps another unfair comparison – think about “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga – another nightclub song but, for SongExpresso’s taste, scores higher for interesting lyrical content and for combining all three pillars.

SongExpresso one-word-lyric score: 5.5!

So what’s our conclusion? There is a not altogether unfounded rumour that – in pop at least – lyrics may be dispensable. But we say “always be interesting”. And the lyrics are a major opportunity for doing that. So the one word chorus is to be applied sparingly and not as a first resort. If we have looked at the alternatives and are still really taken with the idea, then the feeling, melody, variation and direction had better be good.

What are your favourite minimal lyrics? Including lalalas. Perhaps lalalas deserve their own post, what do you reckon, Jude?

I’ve looked at nuns from both sides now…

Gone Girl. A writer’s dream really – let’s write a chapter from one point of view and then write the same events again from the other person’s point of view to show how things are taken wrongly or interpreted differently. It reminds SongExpresso of that Woody Allen film (the one with the giant lobsters?) where subtitles tell us what the character really means to say. Because we are all trapped in our own language and true communication is impossible and SongExpresso is feeling Sartrean. Excuse me a moment.

Feeling better now. Where this is going is that almost all songs are written from one person’s point of view and we never get to hear the other side. Notable exceptions: “Just give me a reason” (P!nk), “Don’t you want me, baby” (Human League), “You’re the one that I want” (half kidding).

So just recently SongExpresso was looking at Billy Joel’s “Innocent Man” (remember: I know you’re only protecting yourself/I know you’re thinking of somebody else/Someone who hurt you/But I’m not above/Making up for the love/You’ve been denying you could ever feel) and got to thinking – what does the girl think about all this? Billy is showing a lot of understanding. Empathy. Patience! 

Bingo! The girl is thinking this:

“Cause I … need time
My heart is numb, has no feeling
So while I’m still healing
Just try … and have a little patience

Aha! (or Take That!) – there are two sides to every story. If we can’t find material here, then we’re probably a pot-noodle

We can do this big or small. The smallest method is using reported speech (“you say”, “he said” etc.) to bring the other person’s point of view into the song. Check out SongExpresso’s own lyrics from the future classic “Snakeskin”:

“You say the tree to grow has to be cut
That it’s normal for horses to fall
But to me it doesn’t seem natural at all”

Told you it was small. The masterclass in this style would be “Cat’s in the Cradle” (Harry Chapin, Ugly Kid Joe).

Next size up is a duet: “You were / I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar”. As a style, it might come over a little bit too ‘storyish’ for SongExpresso’s taste: it’s definitely telling not showing. But for nominations in this category you can’t argue with “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens (I know, a duet that’s not a duet). Also some powerful stuff came out of a recent Reddit “A wife kills her husband. Make me symphathize with both characters.”

But being SongExpresso, we want to go for the top. So what we aim to do is the Innocent Man-Patience trick. So pick a song, any song. Pick a song you really like. Or one from a random jukebox. Best would be a song ABOUT or TO a person. Then write the other side. Simples.

See what I chose here.

In my case, bad show tunes that would never make it into any show (and certainly do not claim to stand next to Rodgers and Hammerstein) are fun to do and not hard to start (major key! melodrama! perfect cadences!). In minutes I had a couple of pages of ideas – and SongExpresso would always prefer to prune than to be scraping around for material. It’s a little rough and to be a real song would need plenty of honing, but as a basis I’m quite pleased and it reflects what I think she’d say.

For anyone these should be some of the easiest lyrics to start – you have a heap of material from the original song and a character with a ready-made backstory. Aha, again! So you can answer any “allegations” or simply hold up a mirror to the original lyrics. There may be a choice to make – do you somehow refer to the original in order to ensure that your point of view has a context? Usually this shouldn’t be necessary – in Maria‘s case we do have to understand that she is a struggling nun, but in the Billy-Gary example, the songs stand by themselves. 

So go for it. And tell SongExpresso your favorite “two points of view” songs or, even better still, your results.

3 pillars of fantastic – part 1: BYOF – Bring Your Own Feeling

Why do we like songs? What attracts us and what keeps us there? What’s important? 

SongExpresso would of course like to say “everything”, but that may not be realistic (or even always true).

SongExpresso believes that there are three pillars of fantastic. If you don’t have at least one of these that is fantastic, then your song will not be fantastic. But, predictably, SongExpresso just has to ask – is one enough? Why not strive for two? And why be happy until we have all three?

The first is what SongExpresso calls “feeling”. We could call it “soul”, “swing”, “vibe” or anything else: it’s the non-verbal thing that gets you going inside. It’s probably the most important of all and probably the hardest to find. On the other hand, if you get this element right, then people can often happily forget the others. Some artists bring it and add this to whatever good or bad material they’re given. If you’re the songwriter and the artist then you have to bring it yourself (“BYOF”). But even if not, songwriters of course can and should sow the seeds of feeling and design it into the fabric of the song. It’s the performance, the style, the energy that we hear in our minds when writing.

It comes from many places. SongExpresso doesn’t have the secret recipe. But SongExpresso is convinced that, while some are born with more or less natural feeling, is not just about talent. If we know how to experiment and keep learning then we can find the right feeling for any song. Here are just a few SongExpresso techniques. The object here is not to write a text book but to get your imagination flowing. As Tom Waits said – “your hands are like dogs” – they always like to go back to the same familiar places. So here are a few ideas of some different places to go to find the one where your half-written song feels at home.

Let’s kick off with time signature. Take a progression in straight eighth notes 4/4 time (here’s one for free: G-Bm-C-D7) – we might have rock, country, maybe pop. But without changing anything, now play the same in triplets – you now have a different driving, dramatic mood, straddling waltz-time and common time (check out “Home” by Lisa Hannigan). Think also about strumming patterns (or equivalent if not on guitar): down-up-down-up is a really different (jolly?) feel from down-down-down-down (more rocky already). What about double time? Classic example: “All My Loving” by The Beatles. Something of a physical challenge (at least to SongExpresso) but a great weapon to have. Not really about time signatures, but now play “All My Loving” in shuffle feel. Now bossa-nova (great!). Now… you get the picture. 

And now for something completely different (jazz lovers please look away now). Try taking our same major key progression (G-Bm-C-D7) and build the 7th onto each chord so we get GM7-Bm7-CM7-D7 (D7 stays a 7 – or does it? Let’s go crazy and make it a 9 – and the next time round a 13! Jazzers may reenter the room). Instant jazz. Or maybe folk. Try this new progression with some of the timing techniques we just mentioned – probably suits the tripleted/shuffle feel, or just some chunk-chunking. Your melody might not work the same now – but mix and match – try going back to the straight major progression and using the m7 – different more complex feeling already for the same melody?

Obviously, we have to talk about tempo. Most songs have a natural beat, but they need to find it (that means YOU need to find it). Remember what you start as a rock song might be a ballad or a dance number, or whatever. Check out “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” by Oasis – sounds like it’s deliberately been held back a bit, which matches the theme and lyrics. If speeded up it could sound like a happy ditty – totally not appropriate. Leona Lewis’s version is even more deliberate. Now try this – play “New Year’s Day” as an accoustic slow ballad using arpeggios – still sounds good? Admittedly we are listening with familiar ears. Could be a winner at weddings. But would it have been a hit? Probably not.

We haven’t even started on different instrumentation yet – most of us have just one that we know well and habitually compose on – but we all have a whole orchestra in our heads and maybe even bandmembers or friends to experiment with (if your friends happen to be a string quartet or horn section then hang onto them, and never let them go).

The trick is to match the feeling with the theme. The more of these techniques you have, the more likely you are to steer the song towards its correct destiny. Get the music theory you need. Listen to all styles of music with a critical ear. Steal widely and imitate often. Play with others. Ask around. You’ll know the feeling when you feel it. Send us your own favorites. Or your experiences with the ones above.

A few different “feeling” examples to get us going:

  • Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – “You get me High” 
  • Barry Ryan (or The Damned) – “Eloise”
  • Badly Drawn Boy – “Something to talk about”

These aren’t that interesting lyrically (“Eloise” is even on SongExpresso’s Rhyme Crime wanted list) or, with the possible exception of “Something to Talk About”, musically. And of course styles and tastes are very personal. But doesn’t each of them have something of that indefinable feeling that really suits the song and that we’re all looking for as composers and listeners? As always, send in your favorites – we’re particularly interested in songs that have “the feeling” but not much else to recommend them…

But don’t forget the other two pillars and to strive for all three together…

Part 2: Melody (coming soon)
Part 3: Lyrics: Always Be Diving For Pearls

The Rhyme Crime post

As a young performer, I had a song which contained the not very remarkable verse:

“You say it could all be the same

If I would only let it;

But I don’t want to play this game,

When we both want something better.”

It was a kind of anguished indie-folk-jazz thing with a trumpet section that actually sounded pretty good. But I will always remember our bass player saying “trying to rhyme ‘let it’ and ‘better’ really grates – you need to change that”. I think I took it on board but never quite got round to doing the work. It didn’t grate to me – and it actually caught the meaning I was looking for. And in the scale of things, it’s not that bad, right?

SongExpresso is now all about doing the work. There are two parts to this – the emotional one: you strive to be the most professional and the best you can be (I think Taylor Hawkins said something like that), and the practical one: as Barbara Cloyd said, producers are “looking for any reason to say no.” As soon as they hear one thing they don’t like, they pass and go on to the next song.

What would I do with this now? Maybe something like this:

“You say that we can turn back time

And it wouldn’t hurt to try;

But going back seems like a crime 

When we both deserve to fly.”

Hmm. Swapped a bad rhyme for a cliché? And lots of “i” sounds. Have another delve:

“You’re tempting me to stay

But I can’t justify 

Accepting yesterday

When we both deserve to fly.”

That took quite a few minutes, one bike ride and two sleeps. It’s getting there. It was worth it already. Bass-guy was right… I had committed SongGBH. But was it rhyme crime? Not really – I had gone with a bad rhyme and not been sufficiently bothered to look and find all means of escape (slightly ironic given the theme of the song). True first-degree rhyme crime is saying something no-one would ever normally say (or worse still something that you don’t really mean) just in order to make a rhyme.

So here’s the thing. There are loads of music professionals who commit this all the time. And I never like to criticise professionals (after all they are professionals and I am sitting writing this). But some of them seriously need a bass-player to make a citizen’s arrest. Or a shot of SongExpresso. OK, so now they (and their fans) will all hate me. But here we go with some examples that we don’t ever want to follow:

1. Rhyme Misdemeanours – no-one really notices or cares 

OK, some songs aren’t intended to be taken seriously (or apparently even listened to – and certainly not ever written down and scrutinized). And it’s all about the hook. But why settle for less? Why not be the best we can be? SongExpresso wants you (us) to feel great – and never apologetic – about every line.

The way you move me / Everything is groovy  (“Drive By” – Train)

Maybe this has to go down as attempted rhyme crime as it actually fails to do so. And groovy? Was that word sent back from the 60s in a rhyme-crime-time-machine? Also contains “I’m just a shy guy looking for a two-ply” among other – um – unique lyrics.

So open up your morning light / And say a little prayer for I.  (“I Don’t Wanna Wait” – Paula Cole)

Boom, she shot the rhyme (and the English language) into the air, and missed. Unless she is really saying “for right”? (as if that would make it better).

My Eloisa, I long to please her…  (“Eloise” – Barry Ryan, as faithfully reproduced by The Damned)

That’s taking poetic licence pretty far – to actually change the lady’s name in order to make the (awful) rhyme.

2. Rhyme Felony – some people notice – most just find it amusing

Somehow a few classic radio songs have been allowed to go down in music history with their rhyme crime intact. Light entertainment, not art you say? This does matter. Even a burger bar doesn’t leave garbage on the floor…

Yes, there’s love if you want it / Don’t sound like no sonnet  (“Sonnet” – The Verve) – Agree with that…

Abra, abra-cadabra / I want to reach out and grab ya  (“Abracadabra” – Steve Miller Band) – Yeah, ‘like Cleopatra’…

Nobody calling on the phone / ‘Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome  (“What if God was one of us” – Joan Osborne) – no comment.

Gotta write a classic… I can’t bring myself even to go on with that one.

3. Rhyme Homicide – take them away

These are just inexcusable lapses from people that should know better.  

Never opened myself this way / Life is ours, we live it our way / All these words I don’t just say  (“Nothing Else Matters” – Metallica)

Pardon? Was this written with Google Translate?

Piano keyboard, oh lord  (“Ebony and Ivory” – Paul and Stevie)

Piano keys, oh please?

Even if you cannot hear / My voice / I’ll be right beside you, dear  (“Run” – Snow Patrol)

Everyone loves this epic indie anthem. But I can’t get past the “dear”… Pass the indie sherry and my anthemic zimmer frame, dear?

 

My view? Rhyme crime is never necessary. Sorry, Sir Paul and company, there is always an alternative. But – at least in my case – it takes wrestling and wringing and wrenching, a convoy of JCBs to dig into your inner imagination and dusty dictionaries. This is not simply about calling people out when they do this – we’re constructive and always asking “how could this be better?” or “could we perfect this?”. Usually we could do a bit better. And it’s a worthy process. As always, send me your favourites – but also say what you would do instead… (but don’t bother with the classic in the attic – that ship has sailed and even a cafetiere of SongExpresso couldn’t bring that one back…).