Monday, August 4, 2008

Singing A New Song

Here in the last few weeks of my summer break, I've been spending a lot of creative time, the time usually spent blogging, reading, or writing poetry, on a new passion: Songwriting. I used to think that all the songs that could be written HAD been written. I held this shallow belief back in high school, in 1991. At this time, most of the big hit songs were sampled, and in some cases STOLEN, from other hit songs, specifically "U Can't Touch This" and "Ice, Ice, Baby," respectively. I figured that all the catchy tunes had been taken, and that any new song would be nothing more than a slight respinning of a previous tune, something that previously had only been seen in the kids' nursery rhyme market (see: "The ABC song," "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," and "Baa Baa Black Sheep.")

But Lo and Behold, new songs DID come out, some with original melodies and lyrics to boot. Some were even so big at the time, they launched a future generation of original progeny rock, as was the case with Billy Ray Cyrus' huge hit "Achey Breaky Heart," and his daughter's current success as Hannah Montana. Even flipping through the digital dial on any radio these days, you'll hear all kinds of music, and most of it sounds different, which is good for those wanted to carve a niche for themselves in an otherwise flooded industry, but bad for copyright infringement lawyers.

Granted, some songs out there seem to draw melodic inspiration from other successful songs, but still manage to maintain a flair of originality. Songs that come to mind are the Offspring's "Why don't you get a job" and the Beatles "Ob-la-di Ob-la-da" (not a bad group to mimick) and Toby Keith's "A Little Less Talk and A Lot More Action" and the Georgia Satellite's "Keep Your Hands to YOurself." Then their are bands like Nickelback, "3-chord" George Thorogood, and the Ramones who have several songs that sound sound similar to many of their OWN songs. Then there are entire genres than sound the same, such as Emo Music, classical music (can you tell it from Renaissance, True Classical, Romantic, or Baroque?) and old-time classic country (which typically had three chords and were all recorded in "mono" which meant that Hank Williams Sr. sounded pretty much like Bob Wills.)

But just because something sounds like something else, doesn't mean it's bad. If fact, I love classical music, and I could listen to classic country all day. Which brings me back to writing my songs. I am no accomplished musician. I can strum chords on a guitar, and I can play chords on the piano, I know a bit about music theory, key and time signatures, chord progressions, and I can play the trumpet by ear. Since I'm not interested in writing solo pieces for the trumpet (who IS besides Chuck Mangione? and he already wrote the only good one!) I've been trying my had I writing simple country songs.

So far I have managed to get two complete songs under my belt, and another with lyrics only. I've played them for some friends who enjoyed them, and also to my wife, who didn't run out holding her ears. Whether or not they'll ever make it as a "filler" track on some aspiring artists album I'm destined only to sing them in the shower the rest of my life, the songs are something that I will always have (even if one of them sounds a teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy bit like Gary Stewart's "She's actin' Single, I'm drinkin' double.)

So how are most songs written? Does the songwriter first have an idea of a topic, then write the words around it, ultimately fitting a tune around the structure of the lyrics? OR does a song start with a catchy tune than one finds himself humming, that grows into something more, a chorus, a bridge, etc only to have the lyrics "dropped in" at the end? I think most songwriters will tell you there is no wrong way, only different ways to be inspired.

Surprisingly, each of the two complete songs were pretty easy to write. I completed each within one hour of sitting down to write them, starting with a key and some easy chords. I had an idea of the topic, but I definitely got the tune first. My first effort was one I have yet to complete: it's just a page of lyrics, a poem for now. I have found it difficult to fit a tune around the lyrics. I once read that it took Elton John only 7 minutes to write a song, 53 minutes faster than each of my two complete inaugural efforts. I guess he's one of the few that can do both lyrics and melody simultaneously, with little revision. That's why he rich and knighted and I'm not, but, at least for now, I'm going to keep writing, because the reward is in the process AND the product for me. Perhaps as I continue this pursuit, I get faster. Perhaps I'll get better. Or Perhaps I'll start wearing giant sunglasses.

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