Songwriting - American Popular Songs

The Art of Songwriting


Tunes, lyrics, singing, dancing, sheet music, playing, recordings, radio ... to 'mp3s'!

Folk, story, popular, classical, work, church, love, patriotic, drinking, spirituals, gospel, celebration, parlour, dance, ragtime, blues, country, novelty, war, theatre, rhythm & blues, soul, rock 'n' roll, hip hop and humour ... songs, songs, songs ...

Melody, harmony and rhythms ... march, fox trot, quick step, shuffle, boogie, ragtime, cakewalk, polka, minuet, waltz, Charleston, jig, country, disco, tango, habanera, bolero, cha cha, conga, rhumba, beguine, mambo, samba, bossa nova, paso doble, reggae ... how many more ...

Distinctly American Popular Songs emerged with Minstrelsy (1840), Tin Pan Alley (1880), player pianos (1890), 78rpm records & radio (1920), movies (1920/30), TV (1950), LPs (1950s), cassette tapes (1960), CDs (1980) and continuously from 1921 musical theatre ...

Alec Wilder wrote authoritatively about American Popular and Jimmy Webb contributed a later book 'Tunesmith', which exposed some of the essential secrets of popular songs. Songs which every jazzmen must know inside out, upside down, and every which way if he was to play creative jazz.

 A doorway to the subconscious. The musician in us all is real, remembering, recognising and creating patterns which give us all dopamine kicks! Inspiration comes from the guts and is not well understood by creative folk. Technique on the other hand is a personal and private conceit. So communicating what it's all about is a contradiction!

In 1967 The Beatles recorded 'Sergeant Pepper' and the singer songwriter came of age ... Lennon & McCartney sang their own songs ... Bob Dylan also made his move ... then Elton John, a Rock 'n' Roller, turned song writer made it in America at The Troubadour, L A ...

What makes a great song?

Serious hard work! 'The harder I practice the luckier I get ...'. By trial and error in the woodshed. Read, listen and know history. All interesting problems are old ones. We are all dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.

Stephen Foster was perhaps the first to get to grips with modern popular songs and incorporate the new black sounds ... but he followed ... he was predated by a long long tradition of folk songs, 'seamless masterpieces worn smooth by millions of voices, entailing deep collaboration through time and space'. British folk songs were transplanted into the deep American south.

Songs are talking music. Words have a lyrical magic - metaphor (descriptive comparison), simile (literal relationship 'as' 'like'), imagery (mental visualisation), analogy (comparison to something different but with striking similarity), allegory (profound truths as fables and parables), alliteration, onomatopoeia, iambic meter ... Chords are powerful engines that carry words from one place to another ...

Learn from the past, 'the untrained take great delight in pointing out examples of musically illiterate geniuses ...' and 'thank Mama who made me practice for at least 30 minutes every afternoon ...' ... nothing comes ex nihilo ...

Creativity is blameless, there are no mistakes, nothing is 'banned', you have wings in your imagination, far beyond understanding or control. Just like synectics.

You must have a 'den'.

Record because there are subconscious thoughts travelling at the speed of light a few nanoseconds in front of the conscious mind ... it is impossible to remember how you got there because in the strictest sense I didn't get there ... all trial & error ... writes notes on the evolution step by step ... contemplate, review, mull your construction 'feel' the whole context ... silicon aids can't replace gray cells.

Almost everybody fancies themselves as amateur economists and songwriters, but few try amateur brain surgery ... I guess learning the trade is an inconvenience to all who haven't tried ... a bit like education ... why bother when you can be a parasite ... ?

Three minute stories.

A song is a magical marriage of lyric and melody. Ideas encapsulated in inseparable words and music. Chord structures direct melodies into areas of grace & favoured described by the lyrics. Rhyme in time with notes sublime. Lyrics all have a consistent rhythm just like the rappers! Singer / songwriters abound in minstrelsy and, of course, the blues, but the modern era was catalysed by The Beatles. Collaboration is very difficult and nearly always fraught ...

Love, unrequited love, sex, nostalgia, jealousy, tragedy, inspiration, humour, gospel, novelty, travel, places, protest ... anything that tickles fancies ...

Mystery, ambiguity, curiosity, anticipation, excitement, indulgence, resolution.

A song is a carefully crafted structure, built in a charmed space of shape and function. With a floor plan of rooms (verses, choruses, introductions, tags and bridges) added to and demolished until the place suits you. Chords are the foundations. Build the rooms, not too many, the form must not confuse. Your materials are words and melodies, ruthlessly discard what doesn't work and seize on the profitable trick, pruning the rapacious beast into meaning ... your exact destination.

Song Form.

Spans of meaning are lines, 4 bar or 2 bar sections to solve the real physical problem of breathing. The memory problem is helped with rhyme and repetition but uniformity creates monotony, fluidity and diversity are needed not 'nursery rhyme'  predictability.

Lyrics are be written in patterns or 'meter' with accents e.g. iambic with stress on the down beat. But excitement comes from detaching the lyric line from the music meter as in swing ... words as well as chords propel a song towards a resolution.

Since the 1960s 'conversational tone' has moved into lyric writing, with rhyme and grammar sacrificed, but musical melody and rhythm still demand order. More story telling less rhythmic drudge.

AA - two verse form. Emotion builds throughout to the 'payoff' at the end of the second verse. Ballads tell stories in multi verse form. Intros can set the scene.

AAB - and, of course. the blues ...

AABA - with the 'release' or 'bridge'.

AB - verse lead in to a chorus.

Popular songs must adhere to shapes that the public recognises and understands. It is as if the song form is somehow viscerally embedded in the human species ...

The toons.

What happened to those infectious melodies we used to hum? Louis Armstrong started deceiving us in 1925 and from 1950 rhythm took over as the engine of the songs ...

The classical tradition. Tonal centres define melodies of popular songs. Diatonic scales and harmony. Repetition familiarises. Melodies ascend, descend, repeat and change note durations. 'Blue Moon' and 'Heart and Soul' have exactly the same chord sequence.

The Golden Age of American Songwriting. Ragtime dance theatre and film music use all the black and blue notes - chromaticism. The Jewish/Blues music that spawned Tin Pan Alley. Pleasant and unexpected. No surprise in chromatic runs and melisma use them sparingly.

1950 - all change - more roughage - the electric guitar and adolescents, and loud small group music. Big sound with few people and low cost, rhythm music with harmony limited by the guitar. Singer /songwriters take over from the golden age collaborators. Melody turned to malady with those drums ... back to jazz versus sweet again ...

The British Invasion was a significant aftershock to rock 'n' roll which savaged the Golden Age and light sweet pop of Sinatra, Pat Boone, Connie Francis, Dionne Warwick ... speeding in came Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Elton John, Billy Joel ... all singer songwriters ...

and don't forget it was Rock 'n' Roll and Levi 501s that brought down the Berlin Wall ...

and then Burt Bacharach - minimalist pentatonic, not basic three chord Rock 'n' Roll, but 'skips' and 'variations'.

Diatonic scale. Chords on the roots. Sequences on roots. Voicings of the sequences. Resolve the sequences logically. Chords are built in 3rds  adding a 4th voice makes the chord 'buzz'. 'Close' harmony is soft and seductive.

The Principle of Violation - taking advantage of the ear's propensity to expect a logical result, give his ears a tingle and substitute an unexpected one!

The Principle of Substitution -  if 2 chords have a common tone they can be substituted. The substitute chord must contain the melody note!

Almost invariably from chords to melody. Sing along to the chords. Creating something original that sounds familiar! Find the 'hook', the memorable, repeatable word jingle that tickles fancies!

Remember the bass line. Momentum and pulling power all of their own, independent ... another melody ... a counter melody! But never double the 3rd? Not necessarily the tonic! Notes can be missed out! Parallel 4ths and 5ths can be used! Spreading out the voicings make dissonance more tolerable!

Substitute - chords, bass notes, chord notes, voicings AND keys! Chromatically? Circle of 5ths?

Disk jockeys, established singers who don't write, theatres, jingles, sing yourself, publishers, films and live in New York or Nashville or get another job!

Performing the Song.

The jazzman must know inside out, upside down, and every which way if he is to be creative.

Not only the rhythm, melody, harmony and lyrics but also -

context? - What style and instrument? Who wrote it or recorded it? When and where? Who was the paymaster or sponsor?

meaning? - not just the lyrics but the implications, the interpretation, the emotions?

quality? - what makes it good or frivolous? Why was it of wasn't it a hit or a flop?

Putting it together? A Journey Home.

Songs are a journey to a Home Base. Often a round trip. Short 12 bars or long 32 bars. Engine humming, were moving.

The base line is a foundation to drive on, moving smoothly, reliably, no bumps.

Interest comes in what you SEE and HEAR.

Chords are familiar landscapes that come and go.

Major chords are open country, rolling hills, swinging bye, easy, relaxed.

Minor chords are in shady woodland, a little dark, maybe menacing.

Seventh chords are signposts indicating something ahead, pay attention, a foreign note, something’s happening?

Diminished chords are serious alerts, wot’s that noise, is there a problem, do I have to turn off?

No, relax, it always resolves back to familiar rolling country. Look for the landmarks. Stay cool, the 'breaks' and the 'riffs' and the 'calls' and 'responses' all help, just relax ... you're on a good road, on cruise control.

Listen to what he's throwing to you, stick with it. Imitate, call, respond, sing into you're instrument, drum on your instrument and growl ,,, when you're going up hill.

You’re actively ‘driving’ now, making it swing.

Melodic trajectories are bends, you start from the reliable flat and drive though the bend to a secure interim destination.

You pass interesting woodland, built up areas, open vistas, rapidly changing scenes and often nice picnic spots but you don’t dwell for long, there’re places to go … you need to get home.

You use a map initially to find the way. Later you can do it with your eyes closed.

Familiar territory with voice leading constantly ‘telling’ you where you’re going.

And always in the end the final ‘run in’ and HOME ...

And then you realise it is the journey that is the destination when your swingin'...

Stomping the BluesBut often you can't write it down ... The Blues is ...

Start with the Blues. Always start with the Blues when you think about jazz. Because you know the Blues. You may not know anything about anything else, but if you are a jazz player, then you know about the Blues. Because if you didn't know the Blues, you ain't be a jazz player. Simple.
Well, then. The Blues start with a feeling. You feel the Blues. Not necessarily sad, but steady and level ... ‘I’s bin thinkin’ ‘bout things’.
Nothing is written out for you. There’s no user manual. Just a series of very familiar chord sounds and kinda loose. Don't really know which away this thing’s gonna go yet, just hangin' loose and lettin’ it happen till you catch onto it. Hear me talkin’ to ya … don't make me think 'bout it, I'm a comin' ...
The Blues don't have a melody supplied by some ‘composer’. Lyrics sometimes. But the playing is all you and your thinkin’.
Oh, sure, ‘St Louis Blues’ or the ‘Memphis Blues’ were written out. But the Blues is not anybody’s Blues, it’s your very own Blues. I’m a talkin’ to ya …
Think, folks, think about how you ‘improvise’ to nobody's  Blues. What do you invent? What exactly is ‘the Blues in Bb’?
If you are a Blues man, you’re tryin’ to create a feeling, tryin’ to entice a response from them others, some listening, some dancin’, some playing with you. You try to blow and talk to them, collectively by necessity, but really one on one, ‘me and you, here's what I'm thinkin', rightly feelin' right now, you hear this?’
Sometimes you whisper, other times you speak to them clearly. You may not even have thought of this yet, but you will. Yeah, you hear me now, hear what I'm sayin'! I’s a talking to you? Look at me!
Sometimes they hear and respond, other times not, and, at those times, are they are deaf or are you mute? Why aren't they dancin'?
I know one thing, if you am merely playin’ some variations on some old melody line, then you’re not sayin’ much worth listenin’ to. You must invent your own rhythm song from these chord sounds, right out of the way you feel. That itself is ‘improvisin’ the blues’. The greatest compliment you’re ever paid is when someone says, afterwards, ‘nice song Charlie, I hear ya’! ... then you've won, you got a reaction, someone joined your conversation ... maybe they just start twitchin', maybe stompin', maybe dancin'... but best of all when someone starts talkin' to ya!
‘Compositions’ are very different from ‘improvisin’ the Blues’. Beethoven was great; a creative genius. But Louis didn't play Beethoven, Louis played Louis. ‘Improvisin’ the Blues’ is instant demand, instant supply, no revision, no excuse, just the Blues spillin' out. 'Tis or 'tain't. Cheers or tears. So difficult you gotta pay your dues, you gotta learn those pretty sounds … no one said it was easy ... in fact jazz is very very difficult ... your foot starts tappin' those harmonies start a comin' at ya ... you don't think ... you just gotta start playin' the Blues ... it’s not you, it’s you & him.
Nobody really knows how this works; how it just happens, when it just happens, where it just happens, why it just happens. It's fun to speculate, but no one really knows. The music you invent comes from the infinite number of sounds embedded in your head, never exactly the same, never sequenced the same. Only 12 notes but my, even if you could explain one chorus, every other chorus would be different. The Blues is things that never even existed before ... how did that happen?
Not sure that any of this makes sense, supposin’ it depends if you’re a Bluesman. It’s not easy. But it is interesting … I love it!'Stomping the Blues' by Albert Murray, Da Carpo 1976.

 Burt Bacharach (-)

Stephen Joshua Sondheim (1930-) is an American composer and lyricist known for his immense contributions to musical theatre

Phil Spector (1939-), an American record producer & songwriter, 'the Wall of Sound', 'girl group sound', 25 hits from 1960-65, writing for the Ronettes, the Crystals & collaborations with John Lennon and the Ramones in the 1970s.



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