Tag Archives: songwriting

Music vs. Writing

If my grandfather were alive, he would look at this and ask me, "So who took your picture?"

If my grandfather were alive, he would look at this and ask me, “So who took your picture?”

This post is going to degenerate into another “I hate writing rules” rant. I can feel it in me bones!

[Who knew old bones were sensitive to not just to changing weather but also to one’s own bad attitude? Old bones make excellent bludgeons by the way (especially femurs), though I believe I’m drifting off topic.]

I’ve been playing in bands or at least engaged in some kind of music project on and off for almost three decades. I’ve recorded in professional studios and performed on many stages before all kinds of audiences. The only “rules” I remember hearing are: 1.) Practice a lot, and 2.) Listen to different kinds of music, not just the style you play. Granted, I don’t read musician blogs (are there any?), but that seems like a stark contrast to the massive volume of writing advice and rules heaped upon us daily. It’s alarming how many ways I am failing as a writer.

I’m particularly negligent when it comes to “reading in my genre.” Partly because I don’t know what genre I’m in (is Twilight Zonish a genre?), and partly because, beyond my desire to be entertained and moved by good storytelling, I don’t care what other writers are writing. I’m a bad student, I know.

“Listen to all different kinds of music” is fantastic advice… much better than, “Listen to all the bands that play the same style of music you do.” Absorbing the tones, rhythms, and textures of jazz, metal, soul, reggae, classical, disco, punk, and blues music has made me so much better of a rock musician than if I’d been admonished to listen to the other rock bands to see what they‘re doing! Writing songs comes from the heart and soul, not from carefully tracking trends, as should writing prose.

Sure, no one said only read in your genre. But I’d go as far as to say, “Deliberately read outside your genre. Bring something unique when you come back.”

[Before you hurl some “apples and oranges” comment toward the stage (I’m specifically addressing Mr. Frutman in the aisle seat on the left, row 7), I don’t like apples or oranges and am therefore impervious to your cliché. Arguments about illogical thinking, on the other hand, might carry some weight.]

Look at that! I made my point in under 400 words. Who loves you?

hamster band

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I’ve been podcast again! To relive the excitement of my post on cringe-inducing books, this time with a professional voiceover specialist, click here.

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Can Song Lyrics be Poetry?

I don’t know jack squat about poetry.

Hey, poets don’t smile!

Yeah, I can knock out some funny limericks or comical haiku, but I don’t have the understanding, experience, or insight to identify good poetry, much less create it. I liked Auden in college, but that’s because the professor assigned it and we talked about it in class. I’d probably like a different poet if he’d picked that one.

On the other hand, I am a songwriter who puts lyrics to his music. And I suppose I do grasp one thing about poetry: Like most art, it is meant to elicit emotion. In a similar vein, my aim is to compose lyrics that suit the emotional vibe of the music. But I still don’t think I’m writing poetry.

Lots of writing can be poetic without being poetry. Dickens’ opening paragraph to A Tale of Two Cities has a poetic rhythm, but it’s still prose. Same deal with music lyrics.

Bruce Springsteen is a genius at capturing the essence of American culture, with its yin and yang of hope and cynicism, through a simple reference to an intersection in New Jersey or a waitress named Juanita refilling his coffee. Johnny Cash made us feel sympathy for drunks and thieves by distancing himself, lyrically, from a judgmental society with no forgiveness for people’s mistakes. The rapper Nas transports listeners to a ghetto few of them will ever experience when he laments the short-sighted, ultimately fatal choices young, urban poor men sometimes make.

But without Springsteen’s raspy vocals over rousing keyboards and guitars, does the line “Tramps like us… baby we were born to run” come across as poetic? Are Johnny Cash’s born losers as likeable without minor-key arpeggios to prop them up?

That’s more like it.

A critical distinction between poetry and song: Lyrics are beholden to the music. A poet can break meter if she feels like it. She might find the expression more powerful that way. But songwriters don’t have that freedom. When we get to the end of the measure, we’d better have our lyric beats in, because the next measure ain’t waiting around for the singer to catch up. I’ve written plenty of lyrics that worked in my head but didn’t fit when sung, and I had to rephrase them for the sake of the melody. Phrasing is the most important element of pop, rock, or soul aside from the melody, because your hook doesn’t work if people can’t sing along.

Here is a set of lyrics for a song I wrote last year. It’s a fully composed tune with vocal melody, guitar, and drum arrangements. Does this piece qualify as poetry, as lyrics with poetic elements, or just plain old dumb words to a rock song? Don’t worry, you won’t hurt my feelings. I wasn’t trying to write poetry, and the words fit the beat perfectly when sung.

(This song is about living in the moment, something I’m not always good at):

BUGS

Bugs circling ‘round and ‘round the streetlight

Down below, she takes my hand in hers

She twirls around, catching air

Her dress flares

I want to put my hands on her

Is she the one?

I don’t care; I’m just having fun now

No life stories tonight

Forget yesterday

What does it matter?

Let’s try not to think of tomorrow

We walk hand in hand, don’t want it to end

I just need an hour to borrow

We pass the lights, drinkers laughing

The waves crashing in the darkness somewhere out there

She sinks into me

No one bothers to see

I hold her and I don’t want to share

I don’t need to know

Where we’ve been or where we might be going

Maybe we can be here, now

Forget yesterday

What does it matter?

Let’s try not to think of tomorrow

We walk hand in hand, don’t want it to end

For just one more hour

I plead to the sky but all I see is

Bugs circling ‘round and ‘round

(© 2011 Eric John Baker)

So do you think song lyrics are a form of poetry? I don’t, but I’m open to being proven wrong.

My geeter. Well, it’s a photo of one exactly like it.

While we’re talking music, my friend and fellow blogger Bryan Edmonson did a quick piece on his blog about The Hives, who are from Sweden but, somehow, sound nothing at all like ABBA. Go figure. You can read (and listen) by clicking on this discolored word.

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I’m in a link-dishing mood today, I guess. Here’s my review for Skyfall, the new James Bond film, elsewhere on the web.

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No elephants were harmed in the writing of this post

Music Journal Entry #5

Warning: The photograph accompanying this blog post depicts simulated scenes of ivory being tickled. The deranged human seen indulging in such attempted perversion is Tony, my songwriting partner.

Once we realized that these keys are made of plastic (which is not ticklish), we got down to the business of recording the synth parts for our album. If you haven’t read my previous entries, here’s where we stand so far: I recorded the drum tracks, Tony played bass (and acoustic guitar on one song), I added lead and rhythm electric guitars, and now it’s Tony’s turn on the keys.

Our recording adventure is taking an interesting turn here. When we wrote these songs, we used guitars and basses and drums. We knew all these parts and arrangements, so it was just a matter of getting them from our brains onto the hard drive. But no keyboard parts were written. Thus, we find that these tunes are taking on a mood and a flavor we did not anticipate as we layer in piano and organ sections, which is fun and exciting. I already thought we didn’t sound like anyone else, and now to an even greater degree, if that even makes sense. Perhaps the listener will have fun picking out our subtle influences, which run the gamut from late ’50s improv jazz to neoclassic speed metal.

Some of these songs don’t call for keyboards, so I expect we’ll wrap it up shortly and move onto recording the vocals. (Cough cough)… a hem… Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti-

Hey, where are you going?

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