Making Songs Never Felt So Write
By Alicia Coleman, MusicWorx Intern
For the completion of my internship, I wanted to develop a special project that focused on songwriting and recording… something that I was passionate about, something that got me excited, and something that I wouldn’t mind plugging away at for extra hours. As a coffeehouse songwriter and novice (but inspired) recording producer who adamantly wants to improve in both areas, I thought, what better time to combine my goals with the needs of my clients? I was able to recruit participants from Resounding Joy’s Semper Sound program, a music therapy service for military members and veterans. With members eager to create music of their own, my goals for the workshop aligned with their vision and gave the potential to use these songs in the Semper Sound Band.
My Own Experience
My inspiration to pilot this songwriting workshop came from my first guitar teacher in high school, who one day pulled me aside and told me she thought I would be a good candidate to join her songwriting workshop. I met with a small group of her other students, and she introduced us to songwriting with an assignment to go home and write one.
When I completed my first song at that time, I had no idea what the chords were named. I just figured out a pattern high up on the neck that sounded interesting and improvised a melody over it that sounded good. But it was catchy, and it was my song. I had always enjoyed writing and journaling, so finally putting some of my thoughts into lyrics that actually made sense was meaningful.
I had a few years where I chugged out a handful of songs that I consider…well, pretty good actually. I held onto those songs for a number of years but have since made excuse after excuse not to expand my library of original songs. In short, I wasn’t following the advice I would later give in my own songwriting workshop, which is to let go of your fear of creating.
Still, I wanted to embrace songwriting and help others find their voice in their own art, even if I was experiencing a dry spell in my own. I didn’t know how I would do this, but I knew I wanted to. So one night after rummaging through my piles of music binders, stacks of lead sheets, and songbooks – anything to kick start ideas – I came across the outline that my guitar teacher provided during her workshop. I finally had a starting point for my workshop!
Workshop Part I: Songwriting
I planned the weekly workshop to last six weeks, including: three weeks of workshop time and three weeks of individual recording sessions. The inevitable, of course, in my workshop, was to teach at least some basics of songwriting. Prior to taking theory courses, I probably couldn’t have explained songwriting basics to anyone. My method for writing up until that point was simply: learn to play an instrument, sing a melody, and find what sounds good.
With the combination of the theory I’ve learned in school, my own personal practice and study, an abundance of resources on the internet, and my own intuition, I put together a brief overview of essentially, “how to write a song”… and how to GET INSPIRED TO DO IT!
While the “nuts and bolts” of songwriting are important, I wanted to stress the creative process. Still, we needed a starting point and understanding of how to craft a listenable chord progression and a melody that fits over it (still, reminder: music has no rules).
Fundamentals I touched on:
- Basic writing exercises that stimulate a lyrical writing flow – songwriting is, after all, writing. Examples: Object writing, or free writing – write whatever comes to mind without stopping!
- Harmony: Common chord progressions used in each genre. Examples:
- I – V – I: Found in children’s songs, folk music, etc.
- I – V – vi – IV – I: Found in many pop songs
- Melody: How to build a melody line over your chord progressions.
- As a basic explanation, the notes you sing should be included in the notes of the chord played simultaneously
- To understand this concept, as well as other basic songwriting techniques, watch this helpful video!
- Form: Common song structure forms. Examples:
- Verse/Chorus (AB): Often heard in popular music
- 12- bar blues
- Through-composed: Rare in popular music, no musical ideas repeated
- Rhythm: How to choose one – try using a metronome, or electronic beat loop from garage band to see what tempo/rhythm inspires you.
- There is no correct order in building a song!
All of that being said…I wanted to teach my participants that if they find what sounds good to them…use it!
The main points of this workshop emphasized that this was an exploratory exercise, and not a time to achieve perfection…and a time to be held accountable.
The Creative Process
I have a good friend who pumps out songs like nobody’s business. He constantly pesters me about how my songwriting is coming and if I’ve written anything lately, and I always give him the same answer, “I’ve been too busy.” But the real reason is that I fear writing something that isn’t exactly what I want to say – that isn’t perfect – so I just don’t do it. That’s when he encourages me to just begin. SOMETHING is better than nothing.
A few ways to get those songs out:
- Prepare your environment – have a quiet place to go
- Keep a writing utensil or phone/tablet on hand
- Habit – Creativity as a muscle!
- When you practice your creativity on a daily basis, you will train your brain to return to that place easier
- Practice your creativity for a short time each day rather than all at once, because you won’t be motivated to come back if you flesh out all that energy at once!
- Be open – Write for yourself, not to fit another mold
- Study great songwriters
- Not always your favorite music or artist
- Why are they great songwriters to you?
- Stop caring what other people will think about your art!
Workshop Part II: Recording
The last three weeks consisted of meeting with each individual member to produce a recording of their song. I wanted this experience to end with something they could take home… something tangible they could work toward, something to keep to empower them, something to show the work they put in.
I knew this project might be a challenge for me, but I’ve wanted to try producing for a long time and I knew the responsibility of doing it for a client would motivate me. The extent of my recording experience took place either in my apartment with my USB mic on Garage Band, or in my brother’s garage studio watching him work on Audacity, casually using unfamiliar jargon. Yet I still had a spark to pursue my recording skills. I set out to learn Logic Pro X. I spent many nights deciphering YouTube videos of the “basics” (so they say…) and other nights in the recording studio, troubleshooting and making sure I knew how to independently hook everything up. God forbid I’d have to send a participant home because I couldn’t even pick up a sound.
At times, the Band members actually had more to teach me than I could teach them. I got through with few issues, but now better understand the complexity that goes into producing on professional audio production software.
Why Did I Choose This Project?
In music school, I had an inspiring friend whose album blew me away, and when I approached him to let him know how I felt about his work, he told me something I won’t forget: “There are a lot of people out there with songs on the shelf. The difference between them and someone who puts out a record is perseverance.”
Persevering alone is not always easy. Sometimes you just need someone to push you along the way and hold you accountable. With that being said, the point wasn’t to craft the perfect masterpiece, or even close to it. The point was to open up the space, create an exploratory environment, or to spark potential ideas to use down the road.
My hope as you read this blog is not to just be informed of this project I did as a requirement for graduation. My hope is that you learn songwriting tips for yourself, learn to find your own writing style, learn that gaining new skills isn’t as daunting as it may seem, and maybe even help spark some ideas that you might be able to use down the road.