Introducing The Compose Yourself Songwriting Course


Videos by American Songwriter

“This is the day, your life will surely change.”

— The The (Matt Johnson) 1983

For close to two years now, I’ve been writing a column for American Songwriter called “Measure for Measure,” all about the inner workings of great songs, particularly songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Since this is a blog about putting those ideas into practice, some readers might think it’s about how to write songs like The Beatles.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s all about something much more important: discovering and developing your most valuable musical asset, your musical imagination. Even more briefly, we might say it’s all about elevating your Musical I.Q. (“Musical Imagination Quotient”).

Why The Beatles

Before we go into the course itself, however, I want to thank The Beatles, particularly John and Paul, for all they’ve given me, not only in musical enjoyment, but in the way of things to write about. When American Songwriter first offered to let me write a bimonthly column, I confess that I was scared to death I would run out of ideas or disappear in a hail of rotten tomatoes after a couple of issues. Well, that didn’t happen, and I owe that to John and Paul more than anyone else.

This gives me a rare opportunity to briefly explain why so many of the songs I’ve discussed have been Beatles’ songs.

Before the column began, my editor dropped a bombshell: there would be no room for musical notation, no notes at all. How was that supposed to work in a column about music?

That night I couldn’t sleep, but around two in the morning it hit me: I didn’t need notes—in fact, I was better off without them! Most people, especially readers of American Songwriter, carry around a huge library of songs in their heads. All I had to do was quote the lyrics that went with the music I wanted to discuss, and everyone would instantly know what I was talking about if I referred to the harmony, melody, or rhythm. If they didn’t know the song, they could listen to it on YouTube. Problem solved.

But I also knew that people hate to look up references. So in order to keep folks from turning the page prematurely, I had to use songs that would be known and loved by the broadest cross-section of readers. The Beatles fit that description better than any other band. What’s more, Hal Leonard published a widely available, inexpensive book filled with scores and lyrics from their songs (The Beatles, Paperback Songs). This would ensure that everyone was literally on the same page when I referred to something in the music.

Thus was born the concept for “Measure for Measure.”

I had always liked The Beatles, but what I didn’t expect was the endless cornucopia of brilliant ideas I discovered in their music. That wealth of ideas has allowed me to improvise topics as I go, reflecting the things I have discovered while researching each column. Most of the topics that have appeared in the columns are new even to me, things I never dreamed existed even a couple of years ago, and in that sense, John, Paul, George, and Ringo have been my teachers.

 “Compose Yourself”

However, there is a method to my madness—the Compose Yourself method—and that is what you’re going to meet up with here.

The blog will be a nuts and bolts songwriting course that will slowly and surely build your skills over time. Other courses might make similar claims, but this one is different. It’s different because it owes its existence to two gifted teachers, Jef Raskin and Howard Roberts. Both Jef and Howard were musical geniuses who loved teaching as much as they did making music.

Jef is better known to history as the creator of the Macintosh project at Apple, but before his career as a computer guru he was a music professor at UC San Diego, and he was certainly one of the best musicians I have ever heard. He played multiple instruments, but keyboard was his specialty. Could he write songs? On demand—in any one of seven centuries’ worth of styles. Jef was also my boss in Silicon Valley for many years, and it was through lessons in composition with him that he changed my thinking about music forever. These lessons, as well as a two-year-long research project into the “most memorable” parts of more than 2,000 hit songs, inspired the book Compose Yourself.

Jef is described extensively in the excerpt from Compose Yourself that goes with this blog, so I don’t need to add much more here. Suffice it to say that with his unique approach, Jef did for musical composition what he had done for computing: he made it easy and accessible. The way he did it, however, was unlike anything I encountered in college or in private lessons.

Jef would give me limited materials to work with—a small range of notes or rhythms or chords, say—but I could do whatever I wanted with them. I call this unique and effective approach “Limited materials, unlimited freedom.” Another unique feature of his teaching was its similarity to a foreign language class. The dialog games we played resembled the dialog games I knew from classes in French and Spanish and German. In the years after my lessons with him, I applied these teaching techniques to songwriting, and this became the Compose Yourself method.

Howard Roberts was the Downbeat Poll award-winning jazz guitarist who founded G.I.T. in Hollywood in the 1970s. G.I.T. eventually matured into Musicians Institute, one of the best professional music schools in the country. Howard, or “HR,” as his friends called him, was a phenomenally creative, gifted player and one of the most recorded guitarists in history. For many years, I helped him with his Guitar Player magazine column on jazz improvisation. HR didn’t like to write, so he’d call me on the phone or he’d meet with me when he was passing through the San Francisco Bay Area, and we’d talk about the subjects that interested him. Later, I would transcribe these conversations and lectures, dividing them up into columns.

Besides his talent for making difficult things understandable, HR had a unique gift for inspiring confidence in his students, many of whom went on to become professional jazz guitarists themselves. I hope that both of these features of his teaching come through in the Compose Yourself course. But even more important, HR taught me the value of musical imagination, and that it was possible and worthwhile to cultivate one’s musical imagination quite apart from playing an instrument.


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