This post is both one that’s near and dear to my heart and a topic I just never hear anyone talking about. It’s just so hugely important and yet equally baffling that I don’t see more people incorporating the following into their music and songwriting process.
And it’s simply this - increasing your songwriting vocabulary.
In my opinion, it doesn’t matter what level of songwriter you are, a novice or the Grammy-winning songwriter of the year, it’s supremely vital to keep learning and keep expanding your musicality. In this case, your “song vocabulary.” Let me put this into a metaphor.
The best book writers and authors in the world are also usually the most well-read. They’ve read and studied the classics, either on their own (like Bukowski notoriously and practically “living” in public Los Angeles libraries), or being schooled through upper levels of university. In other words … they know their tradition … they’ve read Shakespeare, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, etc. You see, they’re continually feeding their passion and expertise for writing by expanding their vocabulary.
Here’s another way to look at this. Imagine a 10-year-old. If that 10-year-old just hangs out with 10-year-olds for the rest of their life and interacts with 10-year-old based material...they will only have a limited 10-year-old vocabulary as far as what is accessible in their vocabulary. This isn’t just how they speak and their choice of words but also their life experiences and their overall schema. They won’t be able to know the broad spectrum of possibilities and they’ll just converse and have ideas on a 2nd-grade level.
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Let me put this one other way, and really start putting this into practical terms as far as how it relates to the best songwriters and musicians in the world.
How do you get better if you want to be the best jazz guitar player out there? All the jazz musicians out there, instantly know the answer to this. It’s a simple answer but a lifelong pursuit.
When it comes to music, you need to learn from all the greats that have come before you, most specifically, all their famous guitar solos, voicings, compositions, and then memorize them by heart, transpose them into different keys, study the hell out of them, and then once you’ve digested them … then … surprise, surprise … they start showing up in your own “guitar” vocabulary.
Guess what... you can learn songwriting techniques in the exact same way. Like what makes that chorus tick, what are the secrets behind writing a great verse, etc.
But here’s my thing. You just never, ever, ever hear songwriters talking about expanding their own vocabulary and thus their available knowledge of chord progressions, melody, production studies, lyrical analyzation, and the overall possibilities that are immediately available to them to expand their own vocabulary. It’s just not in their routine.
If I was back in the writing game, this is what I’d be doing every day, studying a piece of songwriting that I admire.
It could be a standard from the 30s or the biggest hip-hop smash on the charts.
Like really ...ask yourself this question. Do you want to have a songwriting lesson - like RIGHT NOW! … with Prince, Carole King, Mike Will, Max Martin, Stevie Wonder, Trent Reznor of NIN, __________ (insert your hero here), you can do that immediately by simply learning, analyzing, digesting, and starting to incorporate their “moves” into your own writing. This is inclusive of all things about the song – the chords, the melody, the harmony, the melodic rhythm (the #1 secret to hit songwriting), the contract, the lyrics, the production – all of that!
Is it work? Of course! But what happens if you don’t do this?
You guessed it. You’re going to be trapped within your own vocabulary. You might want to write a song like Stevie Wonder, but you can’t even begin to do that if you don’t know how Stevie Wonder even talks. In my opinion this is the #1 thing to incorporate as tools and techniques to increase your level of songwriting.
It’s also why I think most music today - let’s be honest … today’s songs just pretty much suck donkey. In fact I wrote a whole post on that here called “10 Reason Why Music Sucks so Hard Right Now.” People’s musical and song vocabulary today is non-existent. My frank opinion is, where there is usually very limited study, you get a very limited output of breakthrough exciting songwriting.
So … what’s a poor boy or girl to do? How can I break out of my limited vocabulary world?
Well, you can start now.
And that’s why I came up with this really cool PDF that you can download here called the “Songwriting Vocabulary Expander.”
Did you download it? OK. Awesome. Here’s a little snapshot of what it looks like.
Now … you’ll see the center of this universe in the circle. That’s you, brah. Put your name in that circle.
In the other circles I want you to think … “Whose mad music and songwriting skillz do I wish I could have - right now?”
If it was me personally, I’d fill those six circles with these names. Barry Gibb, Stevie Wonder, Burt Bacharach/Hal David, Pharell and hmm … maybe one circle for the Top 10 songs of Motown … why not.
That’s some vocabulary I don’t really have right now...and I wish I did. So voila...Imma gonna go to my own classroom.
Did you do yours? Great. Now. Guess what? That’s your songwriting curriculum for the year! However much you can do. That’s 6 songwriters, meaning you could spend 2 months on each writer. Some of those tunes might be more difficult to learn than others, but plan it out. And then…
Learn, Study, Transcribe (ideally this is where the magic happens in writing out the music and seeing the relationship between everything … more on this in the next paragraph), put the songs in different keys, notice your “a ha” moments (i.e. “oh snap, that’s so cool how they threw in that diminished chord there, ’m going to use that in my next song”), document those, take notes, emulate, and yes … borrow and steal.
That’s right. If you want to write a Bee Gees type of song, try to write one like Barry Gibb would have using those flavors of chords, melody, lyrics chord progressions, falsetto voice singing, lyrical topics etc. You see … you’re starting to get that vocabulary of music in you.
By the end of the year you’ll have taken your little bubble, your little small world of accessible vocabulary, and expanded it 3-5x. Maybe 10x! NOW you have access to the vocabulary of your heroes. Which I think is A M A Z I N G.
If you reference the image again (here it is below once more), you’ll notice that outer circle intersecting all of your heroes. That outer circle a year later after you start this is your NEW universe of vocabulary. And you guessed it. It doesn’t stop there. You’ll be doing this every year and forever expanding.
Let me tell you a cool story of a superstar that put this to use. I can’t tell you the name of the artist … but I can tell you that he’s played at least one Superbowl half-time show. This artist’s mentor told me a story of when he signed the young budding artist.
There was so much raw talent, however, the jams that were coming in were just “pretty good.” After working with this soon to be superstar for 6 months, the songs were still coming in “meh.” So what was the advice / demand of the mentor to his student? Surprisingly, it was this … STOP WRITING.
The mentor (who was this artist’s publisher), told him...look. Just. Stop. He had him take the next 6 months off and just learn all the hits of Motown … not just learn them but digest them - note for note, stone cold from the melody, lyrics, harmony, production, etc. Together, they studied week after week. Song epiphany after epiphany and song vocabulary upon vocabulary. This new music and songwriting intelligence became part of this artist's vocabulary.
After 6 months of new vocabulary building, the publisher gave him a new task. “NOW..Start writing.” Guess what? The hits showed up!!! The key hits of that artist came through and he conquered the charts of the world and is still killing it to this day. I’m sure the daily practice of learning is still part of this artist’s daily practice as he continues to dominate.
You see, you need to learn the greats that have come before you. You need to stand on the shoulders of greatness to become great yourself.
Once you start doing this consistently, you’ll get the moves of those experts under your belt. And you can tap in on your heroes for creativity, for inspiration, for when you’re stuck, etc. at any time!
Imagine you’re in a session or writing on your own … ”Damn … I’m stuck. Hmmm, what would Brian Boitano do here.” Sorry, that’s an inside joke. But sure, maybe you tap into that internal tool box you’ve learned from, I don’t know, maybe the pop songwriting great, Diane Warren. “Diane … what would you do here?” Hmm … Ahh … cool … yeah, that hybrid F major chord over G root. That’s some tasty music. Thanks, Lady D! (BTW Diane’s writing is pretty sophisticated especially harmonically, lots of hybrid chords, sometimes complex but the copyrights sound so pop and simple, sometimes you wouldn’t even realize it).
This brings the post to an interesting question – Can you learn songwriting?
To this day or even when I was at Berklee College of Music – I found there’s generally two different “clubs” or personalities of musicians. One is the “Hey man – songwriting comes from the heart – I don’t want to know about rules or learn other people’s music or learn more harmony, etc…it comes from inside -dude.” In my opinion – good luck with that!
Of course, there’s the other side of the fence too. Songwriters (and a lot of professors) who were writing tooooo much from the rule book instead of listening to their gut and their feeling and emotions.
I think at the end of the day, the most successful use a healthy mix of both parts of the creation process. In fact I remember a quote from Billy Sheehan (amazing bassist extraordinaire) who said, “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” And I think that applies, no doubt to songwriting, melody, lyric, harmony, production etc.
But to answer that question about making the best songs and hits – and can you learn how to do that? I ABSOLUTELY think you can. If you give me two songwriters – one that’s passionate about learning and digging deep into the greats before them and expanding their vocabulary – and the other songwriter who is just going to cycle through their own vocabulary – I’ll take the first songwriter every day of the week. As I mentioned previously – that’s how you become one of the best.
Now, while many of the most talented musicians are indeed born with special gifts and talents, it comes back to that saying, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” In other words – more often than not – even the greatest – have to sweat for the fruits of their labor. As example, even in the limited amount of time I was able to spend with Prince – I just saw him relentlessly pursuing his craft. And thus, he’s an icon. The other artist or songwriting who’s learning and writing when “inspiration” and “the feeling” strikes – um, not so much.
Now, I mentioned earlier about transcribing songs and how that’s important, noticing the relationships there on paper, between harmony, melody, lyric, etc. I realize most of the people reading this might be like “Well, I can’t read and write music. that’s not for me.” Guess what?
That’s just a lame excuse.
How bad do you want this? In my book, it’s not an excuse. It’s just limiting beliefs.
If you really want to learn the magic you really ideally need to learn how to read the magic book.
So it’s important to start now. There are many online courses, local teachers, correspondence courses with Berklee or M.I. professors, etc. where you can learn songwriting 101. It’s going to take time, but I really recommend you to get started on this path of music theory, learning to read and write music, etc.
But look, I get it … it’s not the coolest thing to dive into, it’s daunting, so if you’re really not into it … no worries … you’ll still get maybe (in my opinion) 75% of the value from what I just discussed, by doing things by ear.
OK, but by this time, when it comes to expanding your songwriting vocabulary ...if you’re still not convinced, I have one of my favorite music stories to tell you. “Gather round and let me tell you the tale … no, not you naan bread!”
Two well musicians enter a bar. No seriously...this isn’t a joke : ) One of them a Grammy winning producer, the other was a major session player. They were hanging out at Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica, CA. The location is not really that important but if you know the place, it’s semi posh, upscale hotel right on the ocean. They were there having drinks in the large open space, sitting not far from the bar.
Around the corner there was an expanded part of the restaurant/bar, and there was a live piano player entertaining the crowd.
These two musicians couldn’t see the piano player, but in the course of their conversation and drinks they noticed this piano player. “Damn...this guy is REALLY, REALLY good.” “Yeah his technical chops are crazy!” They listened some more and then got back into their conversation.
Well, more time goes by and they noticed that the style of the piano player has changed somewhat. “Hey, I think this is a totally different piano player.” “Yeah you’re right, you know … this guy isn’t as technically good as the other player, but damn, this guy...this guy really knows his stuff!”
And through the next 20 minutes or so, this piano player went through song standard after song standard and also gathering a crowd. If it was a Chuck Berry song, it was performed PERFECTLY on the piano. If it was an Elton John song, it was note for note perfect.
Finally after a few more tunes, it was time for the two musicians to leave. They were paying their bill but not before the one guy said to the other. “You know, this piano player is soooo good and I’m really impressed by the breadth of songs. He knows his tradition and songs. I’m going to go around the corner and give him a tip.”
So they both walked around the corner … and there, around the piano was a crowd of patrons singing along with the piano player. At the piano … the guy behind these perfect songbook of songs was none other than Billy Joel.
Whoa. And you know what? To me, that makes perfect sense. Billy Joel is one of the known biggest students of songwriting. And it shows up in his music and writing.
To me, it makes sense that maybe one of the best living songwriters in the world today happens to be also one of the best songwriting students.
It also can come down to always having a beginner’s mindset. In other words – be open, curious, have a lack of preconceptions and openness.
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And there’s no doubt to me, that if you choose to become one of the best students for yourself in regards to songwriting, writing the best melody or lyrics, life, whatever craft, or whatever goals you want to accomplish, you’ll ultimately expand that vocabulary to the point where you’ll be the expert and maybe … just maybe … someone out there might be putting your name in one of those vocabulary expander circles.
Get started now.
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