Songwriting Workshop Journal 2010

Entries in reverse ‘blog’ order



A reminder -- there is no class 12 February.  For class on 19 February, please come prepared with this assignment: set some words to a phrase or two of music.  The melody can and perhaps should be quite simple, and you may choose to use only one chord as an accompaniment.  An example of what I would like to see and hear is on this website link.  Use that link if this fantastic object does not load:


Your work may be handwritten, but it is also fun to check out how it sounds and printed with noteflight.  (See the tutorial videos listed under "help" on the noteflight website about how to use this free and easy tool.)


The primary purpose of this assignment is to discuss in class your combination of rhythm and words.  Anything else you do interesting with melody, harmony (your chord progression or choice of a color chord or two), will of course be of interest as well.  Developing the seed of what you have done and extending it into a bigger idea or creating companion ideas for it will also be up for class discussion.


The planned focus for the 19th is to discuss how to organize harmony (thinking about root movement), and also think about overall song form.  This will lead to a session on the 26th that will focus primarily on lyrics, and get everyone to have at least one solid draft of a lyric to set.  If the weather is nice on "Lyrics Day," I sure would like to have a working picnic lunch together outside.  To be discussed ...


Reading assignment for 19 February:

to be added.

HARMONY read/listen lessons 1-14

MELODY – READ/listen and really think through the notation & examples lesson 1-9.  Skim/listen 10-24; these are techniques and ideas that are not immediately critical, but may come in handy if you are stuck or are having problems extending an idea.



Class Notes for Friday (5 Feb):


More on the pentatonic scale –

“Blue Skies”  by Irving Berlin.  Great example of an AABA song from the first part of the 20th century.  The A part of the melody is memorable and easy to sing, in part due to its pentatonic content, but that simplicity is disguised by the sophisticated chord progression, especially with a chromatically descending bass line.  The B strain mixes major and minor, specifically a major I chord and a minor IV chord, emphasizing the halfstep between D and Eb, which is of course a contrast to the halfstep-free pentatonic materials that we heard twice before in the A strain.

The somewhat complicated chord symbols in the lead sheet were explained.


examples from a couple of U2 songs, "I Still Haven't Looked Found What I'm Looking for," and "Where the Streets Have No Name." (Both a re from the Joshua Tree album.)  One is strictly pentatonic in the portion that we looked at and the other is mostly pentatonic, , with one poignant exception really dwelling on a halfstep at the top of the melody.


A discussion of the "blues" pentatonic scale -- actually its the same as the most common pentatonic scale, but it is used in a different way in the context of harmony.


Considering the pentatonic scale in the context of common chords such as I, IV, V and ii shows why it works so well against harmony -- most of the notes in the scale either are chord tones or are those pleasant notes that add color to a chord, such as an added sixth or the add2/add9 flavor.


Don't get too hung up on the pentatonic scale, even though I have talked about it a lot in class.  It is helpful in understanding why some melodies work as well as they do.


Three assignments were completed in class (our first grades):

1.     writing out the five versions of the pentatonic scale that each contain the note F.

2.     writing out the different kind of chords catalogued on p. 25 in the Harmony book with the root E.

3.     creating a short fragment of text and setting it in contrasting two ways: one with speech like short notes and the other probably using longer notes.



29 Jan 2010

I intend to write up the songwriting workshop notes on Friday afternoon, but I instead I seem to like to sit at the piano and try to compose.  So here it is Monday afternoon and this is what I can remember about our second meeting on 29 January.


The class started with Bill presenting two excellent recordings he produced.  This discussion was about 40 minutes.  We then had some lyrics from Mary and some discussion of those.  Key points about lyrics in general that came up included appealing to the senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) to engage and involve the listener.  Clarity about pronouns is also an issue.  If you missed class, there was a simple one page handout from the Sheila Davis book.  Ask for it -- it is pretty self explanatory and I think quite insightful.


The next chunk of class was devoted to discussing the exercise from the first week, starting with a simple idea such as a phrase containing an interesting action verb and thinking about how that could be translated into music at the specific level (such as setting the verb in the melody), some larger scale idea and some overall trajectory for the song.  In that first session, the majority of the class seemed to say they had lyrics but didn't know exactly how to turn them into songs.  We have the ideas -- now it is time to work on some specific techniques.


I discussed the pentatonic scale and probably went on for too long about the multicultural and psychoacoustic aspects of that scale.  All the discussion was to set up a presentation about the Taylor Swift song, "You Belong with Me."  An hour and a half of lecture and analysis was devoted to the song, and I didn't even get to the lyrics or rhythmic ideas! 



“You Belong with Me” analysis


Melodic content strictly pentatonic except for the note "c" on the word "she" (as notated in the published sheet music – actual sounding pitch a half-step off)


"she" is loosely associated with the ii minor chord


Only 4 chords used: ii7, IV, V and I, in varied order




·         verse one and two

·         pre-chorus & chorus

·         verse three & four; each varied at the end of the phrase

·         pre-chorus & chorus; an extension of the chorus with additional lyrics ("standing by the back door")

·         brief instrumental break, overlapped by vocal line lead-in

·         bridge (melody is a free inversion of the opening of the verse)

·         the return not to the verse but an even more modified version of the chorus ("can't you see" – same rhythm, same contour, different pitches, G-E instead of B-A) with the accompaniment texture of the verse – clever fusion

·         chorus using the extended lyrics  ("standing by the back door")

·         closing tag of the chorus extended for the finale


99% conventional + 1% special = success



22 Jan 2010

Here is what I remember of our first class meeting, one day later:


I went over the syllabus and the class website.  Everybody in the class introduced themselves, describing their background and interests.


We did a quick inventory of some music theory knowledge and also some ear training examples.  I have yet to go over the results, but I do plan to review basics about chords, rhythms and so on, whatever the results, so that everybody is on board and feels comfortable in the class.


I did not start class with any particular plan, waiting to see what interests and issues people in the class had. Hearing that a majority of people in the class had some ideas for lyrics but wanted help in turning those lyrics into songs, I thought a good way to start would be to discuss “text painting" or "word painting."  Notes of about what I presented are on the web


Our first is class assignment was to come up with an action verb or a phrase with a verb in it, and think of three ways that that verb or action could be translated into music.  I am looking for

1.     something specific, such as a fall in the melody when somebody falls in love (you should be able to write this down with a short bit of music notation)

2.     something general such as an idea for a rhythm or texture that could be used in a section of the song (you could sketch this out with music notation warship to describe with words)

3.     something even more large-scale that governs the shape or direction of the song (this would be best described with words) -- this is hard!


Next I want to take a phrase that might be a possible title and work with it in a variety of rhythmic and pitch contour ways.  Once we have a variety of settings of that title phrase, it would make sense and it would possibly be creatively stimulating to think about where in the song the title should be.  Possible places:


1.     At the start of the chorus

2.     at the end of the chorus

3.     at the very beginning of the song in the opening words of the verse

4.     at the very end of the song at the end of the last verse

5.     at the end of the bridge


This last suggestion, by Jamie, is an interesting one.  One way of thinking about song form is that the verses are giving you specific information about the situation and the chorus generalizes that into how the singer feels about the situation.  (In fact, since the chorus is sometimes literally a chorus -- multiple singers -- the singer's situation has not just been generalized but universalized.) The bridge provides perspective on the whole situation; after the bridge we might return to the verse and chorus with a different point of view.  Putting the title at the end of the bridge suggests some sort of ironic twist or some insightful revelation.


I hoped to do two in-class assignments the first day, but we only did half of one.  I can run out of time even in a four-hour class!  I did spend more time demonstrating the Noteflight notation software than I had anticipated.


I would like to start next class with Bill playing one or two of the songs he has recorded.  Would anybody like to present a lyric they have written?  Then I would like to resume that first assignment.  I will present an analysis of a Taylor Swift song (I don't know which one yet) and maybe a song by U2.  I would then like to set on a pattern of exercises.  We will do something with the rhythm of words and melody, then something about melody and pitch, then chords and harmony, form, and then circle back and start the cycle again with rhythm and words.


David Meckler


Cañada College

Songwriting Workshop (MUS 120)