Songwriting Tips:
Book Review:


   Maybe you could use some songwriting tips.  If so, I've come across an interesting resource:

   I've been delving into this "encyclopedia" entitled: "HOW MUSIC REALLY WORKS", a 990-page reference.  It's directed mainly at songwriters, not necessarily to the "serious" music composer.  It contains a huge amount of info on scales, melody, harmony, construction of lyrics against music, rhythmic patterns, emotional aspects of music, relative popularity of styles, the history of the American music industry, and more.

   It's available on Amazon for about $150, hardcopy.  BUT, you can get it from the publisher's website as a PDF for $19, which I think you will find to be more practical, as you can jump to pages and mark it up, etc.  [NOTE:  I am not "monetizing" this book, nor have I any affiliation of any kind with the publisher.]
   My overall impression of this book is that it REALLY needed a good, professional EDITOR to clean and tighten it up.  But that obviously never happened.  For all the valid and relevant data the book has, there are also many "unfunny" attempts at humor, as well as outdated & irrelevant info, and even misinformation in its' pages.

   But rather than go on about what's wrong with this book, I'll put all my negative impressions on another page, in the future.

   So, here are what I think are some interesting and useful "take-away's" from the book:

Songwriting Tips - General:


    * "A work of art must in some way model or demonstrate a possible human situation or experience. Otherwise it will not evoke a response."

    * "Great works of art provide society with benefits every bit as useful as the benefits derived from scientific research." - How Music Really Works


    "Artists working with language manipulate words [...] to create works of art such as novels, plays, and song lyrics. Successful artists who use language innovate with words and grammar.

    "But, they preserve enough of the language's commonly-used vocabulary and observe enough of its grammatical rules to ensure reasonable audience accessibility.

    "If an artist working with language employs too much [uncommon] grammar and too many twists of vocabulary, the novel or play or song lyric becomes incomprehensible.

    "Without adequate adherence to convention, audiences find the work inaccessible and simply turn away from it, confused and irritated." - How Music Really Works

    And on this point, the author has LEONARD BERNSTEIN weigh in:

    "All music—whether folk, pop, symphonic, modal, tonal, atonal, polytonal, microtonal, well-tempered, ill-tempered, music from the distant past or imminent future—all of it has a common origin in the universal phenomenon of the Harmonic Series."

     [see diagram of how all strings vibrate, below - this is the "origin" of the Harmonic Series]

     ["Side trip": Since the book cited Mr. Bernstein, I decided to go to straight the source:  I've started listening to his Harvard Lectures, and, wow!  Are they intriguing and compelling!   I recommend you do the same:  Even if you are not an "academic", you CAN get some great insights from them, if you carefully get all the unfamiliar words defined as they come up.  This isn't hard, just keep one or more dictionaries open on a separate tab, or whatever.]


Songwriting Tips: Scales, Melody, Harmony, etc:

   Now, back to the book:

   On, THE "UNIVERSALITY" of the DIATONIC [Western Music] SCALE:

    "Substantial research findings show that, if you try to create music using scales that have no tones in relationships of simple frequency ratios, [you] stop recognizing “musical” sound and hear chaos." - How Music Really Works

   At this point, HOW MUSIC REALLY WORKS gives you the "math".  Lots and lots and LOTS of math!  [see the "harmonic series" above.]

   Well, you may know that if you double the frequency of a note, you get a note one octave higher, and if you halve that frequency, you get a note one octave lower.  OK.

   And, EVERY note on the "Western" musical scale arrangement has a rather simple relationship to every other note [as shown above].

   It's the relationships which give the coherence to the music we are used to hearing as music.  All these "cross-relationships" are covered abundantly in the book.

   However, if you are a songwriter, rather than a mathematician, you can bypass this section without damaging your craft, I think.


   Here are more songwriting tips covered in the book:

     *a "breakdown" of the various relationships among notes in a scale,

     *how these points affect the 'tension' and interest of the melody,

     *how the melody works with the chords,

     *how the chords work with each other,

     *how this all works against the meter, or "pulse" of a song,

     *how this all adds up to "song structure",

     and so on.

   [If you are not familiar with using 'numbers' rather than 'letters' to designate notes on a scale, hop on over to my page where I explain this, then come back.]

   Take a look at the following diagram, from the book:

   I've not seen "tonal gravity" shown in this way before, and it IS quite fascinating.

   The above diagram shows the weak and strong "forces" which "push" [or"pull"] a song back to it's starting point: The 'one', or 'tonal center' or 'root' of the scale the song is written in.

   [Say you are writing a song in "C".  You've gone to "A minor".  Well, you can go from A minor to G [moderately strong] to C [relatively weak]. OR.. etc.

  I thought of the 4-chord pattern of "DON'T STOP BELIEVIN' as a tremendously powerful demonstration of these "forces" which lie "dormant" in the chords, waiting to be unleashed! :) ]

   The book expands these ideas into another arrangement: THE "CHASE CHART" [below]:

  It's called a "Chase Chart" because you can "chase" around the circle, clockwise, either in single or multiple "jumps", so as to compose &/or analyze a song.  I do like this.

  And, I think it might be more accessible to someone just starting out, then something like THIS:

Songwriting Tips:  What About Lyrics?

   So much for the music.  Now, how about LYRICS?

   Here's a further interesting example of a "rule of thumb" in songwriting, from "HOW MUSIC REALLY WORKS":

   ["Rule" one] "For song lyrics to sound “natural,” the normal pitch accents of spoken words do NOT need to match the pitch accents of the melody. [They need to match the rhythm]. - [< my rephrasing]]

  And with this, the author introduces his coined term,


   ["Rule" two] "Words with music, unlike words without music, do not (or should not) go on continuously. Instead, pauses (rests) break up the flow of musical notes and their accompanying words into vocal-melodic phrases, each consisting of a handful of “note-syllables”— syllables or words (or one-syllable words) sung to individual notes."

   Here are my own examples of the book's ideas -- Rule 'one' and 'two', in action:

      "SomeWHERE* O-ver the RAIN-BOW,
      BLUE -- BIRDS -- FLY." ...
   *Note that the syllable "-where", is emphasized by the beat and by the melody.  However, in normal conversation we would say: "SOME-where." - This "follows" the book's 'rule'.

   A further example:

      "Some DAY I'll WISH upON a STAR,
      And WAKE up WHERE the CLOUDS are FAR Be-HIND me."   [pause]
      ["Over The Rainbow" - Harold Arlen]

   But now, this "rule" does get violated with the word: "be-HIND".  Because that's where the accent actually occurs in natural speech.  Hm..

   Useful and interesting?  Sure.  but for almost every example to a presumed "rule" that the author poses, I could envision a COUNTER-example - like so:

    "PEACE and QUI-et and O-pen AIR,
    WAIT for US -- SOME-where."
    ["Somewhere" - West Side Story - Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim]

   In the above example, the sung/musical accent of most every word coincides with the way they are naturally spoken.  This is one of STEPHEN SONDHEIM'S principles of lyric writing.  And his track record isn't too bad, hm?

   My opinion is that the book's rules are "useful generalizations", rather than "natural law".  Still, you can use these songwriting tips to analyze material.  Where applicable, they can help uncover where and why weak points in a song exist, and how to fix them.  But they for sure are nowhere near absolute.

Songwriting Tips:  The Wrap-Up:

   Toward the end of the book, the author offers some good general advice:

    "Audiences crave valuable currency—Lennon-McCartney currency, Eminem currency, Bjork currency, Loreena McKennitt currency.

    "If you don’t care to put in the time and effort it takes to become a skilled songwriter, then you will write mediocre songs, and few people will want to trade in your currency, no matter how much of it you crank out.

    "Fortunately, there’s a market for every style and genre of popular music, providing the value of the currency is high. If you make the effort to create your own high-value currency, you can make a nice living trading in it."

   Bottom line: This book must be used with judgement.  Test the book's working ideas out in your mind and on your instrument and with your voice.  There are a lot of songwriting tips in this book which I think you could use to improve your craft, despite the pedantic "clutter" surrounding them.

   However, this book, sitting on a shelf or even sitting in your head, won't do much.  It's YOU who will make these tips work.

   Here's to Great Songwriting!!

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