Compose Yourself: On The Road

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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My great granddad is buried on the island of Amrum, off the coast of Denmark. He was a fisherman who sailed the North Sea in a twin-masted schooner, and carved on his headstone is a sailing ship with sails unfurled. This is something of a point of pride on Amrum, since it means he died at sea. But that’s not exactly true. He was on foot, crossing the mudflats between the island and the coast on a two-kilometer-long land bridge when the tide came in and swept him away. Had he been drinking? I don’t know, but I have my suspicions. You don’t want to mess with the tide in that part of the world, and no one should know that better than a sailor.

My granddad Arthur was also a sailor. When he decided to drive the family from Ohio to Florida during the Great Depression, he didn’t think he needed a map as long as he had the sun and the stars to guide him. Needless to say, he got lost. Over and over.

These stories, which I heard many a time when I was a kid, made quite an impression on me. Among other things, they made me realize that setting sail or hitting the road without a map or an awareness of where you are and where you’re going can have dire consequences. And that brings me to the subject of this month’s blog.

At the moment, we’re knee-deep in a sight-reading lesson in the YouTube videos coordinated with Excerpt 1 from my book, Compose Yourself (look up the SongwritingABCs channel), and I’m afraid that this might have distracted your attention from where we’re going. I don’t want anyone to get the feeling that we’ve lost our way, so please allow me to map out the whole course for you.

First of all, sight-reading music is only a small part of what we’re doing. I just want to make sure that no one is left staring at the notes and scratching their head as we get deeper into the lessons. So we will handle all the sight-reading problems immediately as soon as they come up. If you’re already a sight-reader, please be patient; I’m turning out the videos as fast as I can. If you do not know how to read notes, this is your chance to lick this problem once and for all.

The subject of Songwriting ABCs is really songwriting, of course. Now every song is a seamless blend of two languages: your natural, spoken language, and the musical language. Good songwriters have such a mastery of both languages that words and music flow from their imagination in one ornately woven fabric. But that’s not true for most of us. While most of us have been practicing with spoken and written words all of our lives, the musical language remains a bit of a mystery, and that’s why we’re focusing our efforts there in this course.

A lot of teachers will tell you that “music is a language,” and leave it at that. But one of our most basic expectations of a language is that it should mean something. Intuitively, we know that music has meaning, but while teachers can talk all day about theory, very few of them have anything to say about meaning at all. When I was studying music in college, this was a major disappointment to me, because, once again, it gave me the feeling that I didn’t have a map—I didn’t know where I was going.

In Songwriting ABCs, however, we do have a lot to say on this subject, and that’s what makes this course fundamentally different. By the end, you should have attained fluency in the musical language. That is, you should have a pretty good idea of how to translate your feelings into musical “words,” “phrases,” and “rhymes.” If you can build these, the words will come, to paraphrase Field of Dreams.

Since we take this “music is a language” metaphor seriously, that’s how we teach rhythm, harmony, and melody: like a language. To that end, we use dialog games (I prefer the word “games” to “drills”). Dialog games have a tremendous advantage over other ways of learning music: they allow you to be creative from the beginning.

There are four games that we’ll play throughout the course:

  • The Parrot Game (“listen and repeat”). Example: “Polly want a cracker?” – “Polly want a cracker?”
  • The Q & A Game (“listen and reply”). Example: “Polly want a cracker?” – “No, Polly want a donut.”
  • The “As If” Game, in which you conjure up an emotion and use whatever musical element we’re working on to express it. Example: You recall a time when you were happy and express that happiness in two-measure rhythms.
  • The Word Game: Here you take a simple phrase, such as “I love you,” and use whatever musical element you are working with to express it. You can also improvise with the musical element and just add words or nonsense syllables as you go. This completely bypasses the awkwardness of an assignment such as, “Write a song.” If Keith Richards says, “I never sit down and say, ‘Now I’m going to write a song.’ That would be fatal,” then we shouldn’t do that either. So we treat songwriting as a game and go at it playfully, without self-consciousness.

Right now, we’re in “Lesson 1 – Juggling Rhythm.” The goal of this lesson is to learn to freely improvise two-measure rhythms, with some idea of what you’re going to “say” (that is, the rhythm you’re going to play) before you say it. All four dialog games can be played with these two-measure rhythmic units, which are called “sections.” Most pop songs are made up of sections.

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