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How to Write a Song and Other Mysteries
March 31, 2008 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Measure for Measure - How to Write a Song and Other Mysteries. Blog from The New York Times: "In the coming weeks, the contributors to this blog - all accomplished songwriters - will pull back the curtain on the creative process as they write about their work on a song in the making." Contributors: Andrew Bird, Darrell Brown, Rosanne Cash and Suzanne Vega (only the Andrew Bird one is up right now).
posted by Ira.metafilter (21 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
As an apiring musician I'm constantly trying to figure out artist's inspiration for their songs. This blog sounds great! While I've never heard of some of these people, I'm sure I will get more involved as I learn about their creative processes.
posted by saxamo at 7:28 AM on March 31, 2008


In the salsify mains of what was thought but unsaid
the calcified charismatists were doing the math
It would take a calculated blow to the head
to light the eyes of all the harmless sociopaths


That's one way to do it.
posted by three blind mice at 7:44 AM on March 31, 2008


In Soviet Russia, song write you.
posted by not_on_display at 7:46 AM on March 31, 2008


Here's NPR All Songs Considered: Project Song exploring the creative process with Stephin Merritt (Magnetic Fields, Gothic Archies, writing and recording a song in two days (video).
posted by February28 at 8:07 AM on March 31, 2008


I like Andrew Bird's songwriting a hell of a lot more than I like his writing about his songwriting. His music tends to be pithy and catchy; his blogging is not.
posted by lumensimus at 8:21 AM on March 31, 2008


I like Andrew Bird's music and I thought his first entry was a fascinating read. But I do not think he is a good lyricist.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:34 AM on March 31, 2008


I mean, couldn't they have gotten John Vanderslice or John Darnielle or something? Although at least it's not Colin Meloy.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:36 AM on March 31, 2008


Beware of getting into song writing:

I really can't enjoy music any more the way I used to. First I learned how to DJ, so instead of hearing songs, I have this clock in my head, going 1,2,3,4,2,2,3,4,3,2,3,4,4,2,3,4 I hear the BPM and the tempo changes, I hear the snares, the hi hats, the kicks, think of all the ways I could mix the song with some other song, whether it would work on the dance floor, what if I took the vocal out? I listen to songs for how I could use them first, and whether I personally enjoy them second.

Then I started learning how to produce, so I started hearing things like reverb, delays, pitch correction, what synth patches people are using, what kind of bassline, what key the song is in.. Music to me now is all a collection of pieces instead of a whole. It's really lost some magic for me. I can see all the seams. I hear some great bassline, and all I can think is 'oh, sidechain compression.. how cliche.'

I guess on some level, it's kind of like 'seeing the matrix' where suddenly things that are mysterious become clear, but sometimes I like a nice juicy steak and I don't want to know the reality behind it.
posted by empath at 9:21 AM on March 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


Eh, I've done all that stuff and I still like music. But maybe that's why I need to have good lyrics -- you can't get jaded to them in the same way.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:29 AM on March 31, 2008


The song in question is called (for now) “Oh No.” It began, as do most of my songs, with a sound. It could be a creaking door or a delivery truck or the sound of multiple stereos wafting out of bedroom windows.

I'm fascinated by this and have been following a blog for a few months now which gives me, as a complete neophyte in music making, an insight into the creative process:-

The Freshman Experiment is an interesting project on creating music from student blogs. A group of people who are trying in real time to create a musical from scratch about the experience of going to College.

Seeing the video clips of how people create songs on some of the blogs from these new students is really interesting.

(Disclaimer: at least one Mefite is behind this experiment, not me, natch as I don't have the vision. But I've been following from the beginning and I find watching the process fascinating.)
posted by Wilder at 10:46 AM on March 31, 2008


I hear some great bassline, and all I can think is 'oh, sidechain compression

I submit that if this is your experience, it's not a great bass line.
posted by Greenie at 11:12 AM on March 31, 2008


Well, reading that helps clarify yet again why I start with lyrics if I am writing something that has them.

The neat thing about doing that is that, especially if I let them say what I really want to say, and don't chain them down too specifically with a verbal rhythm (altho you gotta HAVE a verbal rhythm) the melodies seem to write themselves. PLUS I say what I want to say, no more, no less.

Altho I do confess that to get my lyrics to begin with, lots of times they come when I am listening to someone else's song.

I do like mysterious lyrics but in the market I write for, they don't go for that very much. So those lyrics wind up being for just ME.
posted by konolia at 12:28 PM on March 31, 2008


I like Andrew Bird's music and I thought his first entry was a fascinating read. But I do not think he is a good lyricist.

Huh. I like his lyrics. I like that he matches his words to his sounds to his personality and it all seems to hang precariously together in context.
posted by desuetude at 1:58 PM on March 31, 2008


I'm no songwriting genius, but are the words really the hard part for most folks, and do people find lyrics in the absence of music to be useful? I mean, I write my share of crap and my share of gems, but I feel like the music and lyrics have to be a cohesive whole, and simply cannot be generated independently; I always write them simultaneously. I assumed everyone did this, but now I'm not so sure.
posted by davejay at 5:14 PM on March 31, 2008


These are the best "accomplished" songwriters in America? Down, down, down we go....
posted by MetaMan at 5:56 PM on March 31, 2008


These are the best "accomplished" songwriters in America? Down, down, down we go....

I didn't see "best" claimed anywhere on the site. These are some accomplished songwriters who are articulate enough and willing to participate in what is essentially a freelance assignment for the NYT.
posted by desuetude at 6:36 PM on March 31, 2008


I like that he matches his words to his sounds to his personality and it all seems to hang precariously together in context.

Well I don't feel I can really comment on his personality, although he certainly seems to have a distinctive aesthetic and his lyrics work in service of that. But I think he writes a lot of stuff that only seems meaningful until you listen closely, and I'm not a fan of that. I think this article is a perfect example.

His words usually sound to me like they're grafted on top of his tunes. I think the best songs have words and music that seem inextricably fused, like they were born at the same time, whether or not that's the case.

I feel the same way about AC Newman's lyrics, and a lot of people's lyrics. Don't get me started on Band of Horses. I forget who it was that said this originally, but I think it's much easier to lean on weirdness and obscurity than it is to be straightforward and commit to what you're saying. I think people like Leonard Cohen and John Darnielle do the latter and I love them for it.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:06 PM on March 31, 2008


ludwig_van, I certainly think that that's a fair criticism. I also feel that unless you're a DAMN good storyteller, (i.e. Cohen et al) I'd almost rather not hear heartfelt hamfisted attempts to be straightforward and, like, honest.
posted by desuetude at 7:15 PM on March 31, 2008


These are the best "accomplished" songwriters in America? Down, down, down we go....

I also think there's better work out there, but if you can casually dismiss Rosanne Cash or Susan Vega as signs of a global decline of the art, then you've as much disqualified yourself as provided any kind of valuable commentary.
posted by weston at 7:31 PM on March 31, 2008


I think the best songs have words and music that seem inextricably fused, like they were born at the same time, whether or not that's the case.

This is so true, but I'm going to go even farther and say that the only really worthwhile songs have words and music that are inextricably fused. Only when that's the case is the medium actually accomplishing something unique to itself. Otherwise, I'd much rather read a poem or listen to an instrumental work, because the mixing of the two arts in song form requires that a lot of restrictions be placed on both the music and the lyrics. If the song in question doesn't use those limitations to its advantage...well, why bother?

Songwriting is an interesting craft. Maybe ironically, studying "art" music has given me a lot more of an appreciation for songwriting. In contrast to the great pieces of that world, works whose value derives from clever manipulation of systems, songwriting is all about perspective, using a fairly standard vocabulary that is made charming by the writer's personal charm and his/her insight into an experience. I think it's great that it has been so democratized, because I there are few other mediums that are so capable of celebrating the individual. "Art" is too concerned with the process to be very good at that.
posted by invitapriore at 10:08 PM on March 31, 2008


Point well taken. btw, who's dismissing them- not me. Having a bad day?
posted by MetaMan at 10:24 PM on March 31, 2008


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