Saturday, September 19, 2015

Writing A Song?

Are you writing a song?  Is it easy or is it hard?  If it's difficult, do you know why?  Have you ever tried to repair a computer or a car or a light fixture?  This has much to do about songwriting.  If you don't know enough about writing words and music, it can feel impossible.  The more you know, though, the easier it is.  Computers are more complex than cars or light fixtures.  A light fixture is easy to fix, by comparison.  Having a few tools around help immensely.  A voltage and ohm tester and tools for disassembly and assembly can help.  I fixed one a couple of weeks ago.  I found a burnt wire in it and rewired it. 

What about songs?  What's in a song?  Words and music.  They work together in a song.  There is some sort of form to it, unless you write it in such a way that it is confusing and disorganized, making it difficult to follow.  So, there's more to it than mere words and mere music.  If anyone is to like it, sing along, or remember it, it should make some sense.

The harmony in songs is more complex than the melody.  The way harmony is treated or used in a song could come down to chord selection, chord progression, chord voicing, and which instrument(s) play the chords.  Then there is rhythm.  There can be many variations to harmonic rhythm such as arpeggiated chords, chords in motion, "passing" chords and a myriad of other variations.  One thing that melody needs to do, is to rest briefly on a note within a chord, from time to time.  Otherwise, it might sound dissonant or even chaotic.

To write a song quickly, if it is to be a complete song (melody, words, and chords), a person might want to know what chords are available and what chords in a given key are available.  There are tendencies but no actual laws or rules governing this.  If you don't know chords, you won't know how they will sound or "work" in a song.  There is a fast way to learn this.  The first step is to familiarize yourself with tendencies in progressions.  The second is to hear what chords sound like, one after the other.  The third might be to hear them arranged with a bass line or with a bass line and some percussion as in a band.  What if you don't have a band or know a band?  Then what?  Want some advice on this?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Are You Stuck?

If you think you are stuck, you are.  For how long will you remain stuck?  You can determine that factor.  If you have gone for ice cream and were set on chocolate, have you changed your mind and got something else?  It's not a trick question.  It's not a question to test your resolve or your ability to follow through with an intention.  The question is, have you changed your mind and/or can you change your mind?

The best of the best of: athletes, artists, mathematicians, physicians, singers, composers would quite possibly agree that their activities are better than 90% mental.  I believe that they are 100% mental after having studied a thing called neuroplasticity, even though I studied it to a very small degree.  I am not putting forth that my hour spent on the subject makes me any kind of an expert but it has opened my eyes to possibilities, causes and effects, and ways of accelerating learning and training in multiple disciplines.

I always wondered why I had such diverse interests.  I was fascinated by: astronomy, music, architecture, art, mechanics, physics, chemistry, biology, electronics, sports, and multitudes of other subjects and activities.  The answer to 'why' has become inconsequential or unimportant to me.  The more important thing is that I have functioned at a professional level in the fields of architecture, music, electronics, mechanics, and also in technician-level activities of carpentry, electricity, plumbing and others.  From the aspect of this thing called neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change, to be programmed, to be re-programmed makes me see a result of multi-field functionality.  In other words, I can now grasp not the 'why', but instead the results of such diverse cross training, as it were.  I draw on all of my experience and knowledge and can see where the intersections are among and between them.  I believe anyone can do this, if they take the time.

Two things must occur in order to master a skill.  One, there has to be sufficient knowledge to function at all and two, there has to be assimilation and utilization of the knowledge in a mental and physical way.  Mental alone may make a change but the physical aspect of training seems to deepen and broaden a skill to such an extent as to make it appear phenomenal to a person lacking the same skill.  You see this in sports and in the arts.  You hear it in professional singers. What you are observing is the after effect of training.

What is training?  It is gathering knowledge, attaching it to prior knowledge, and following through with practical application iteratively or repetitively over time.  It doesn't matter if it is a sport, an art, or even if it is writing.  All of these require mental engagement and acuity, coupled with activity, resulting in an amount or level of acumen. 

On the surface, the act of singing well sounds and looks easy.  For some people it is easy.  Others have issues or problems or empty spaces of knowledge of some of the many aspects of great singers' knowledge and ability.  There are now available to me mirroring techniques and new ways of locating and obliterating the obstacles between where a singer is and where the singer wants to be.  The mental beliefs dictate everything a singer can do.  They connect to knowledge and skill also.  The good news is that control is possible of the mind and of the voice.  The computer upon which I am typing right now is a very basic version of the human mind.  It illustrates that change is possible.  When you install a new program, you get functions which were not possible prior to the installation.  The potential was in the computer all along but it had to be "shown" how and what to do in a sequential procedure in order to carry out the task.

The experience I bring as a vocal coach is unique.  The same could be said for any vocal coach.  There are differences in that: I have perfect pitch,  I hear melody and harmony so completely, that I can write down or state what I hear, I can write it down and hand it to musicians and it will sound the same as what I originally heard, as long as the musicians are skilled in their reading and playing.  What else?  I have a very good working knowledge in acoustics, recording engineering, composition, arranging and more.  I have a broader perspective but can also bring my focus to a precise point when necessary.  My acoustics knowledge has included drawing plans for the mixing room at NBC Burbank for the Tonight Show, back when Johnny Carson was the host.  I understand sound transmission control and live end-dead end concepts.  I have taken the time to consult with ENTs and have read the writings of ENTs so as to learn how to help singers avoid injury.  I independently have studied nutrition and can offer some useful advice to singers who may have issues of vocal "dryness" or other seemingly minor problems but are major to the singer.  My musical background spans a few decades and includes working professionally in Las Vegas.  Some of, if not the best musicians in the world have worked there at one time.  The exposure to them and working with some of them brought about concepts of true state of the arts industry standards. 

What I have learned, I can share.  Several of my relatives are also teachers.  Your success is directly proportional to your involvement and participation.  You can change.  You can get more out of training that you put in to it, or so it will seem when you find yourself on stage, bright lights in your eyes, and you look out upon the audience as you comfortably and confidently share your gifts and the results of your training.  It is all in your mind.  You can make it a reality or keep it a secret for a while longer.  Your life.  Your passion.  Your choice.

Saturday, September 05, 2015


Is what you hear in music the same as what I hear? It is much easier to test this than it is to test if the same color of blue looks exactly the same to both of us. A song is playing. It is a famous group. We both hear the same words and the same music. We may feel differently about what we hear but we both hear the same song, essentially. The words are the same and the music is the same, no matter how many times we hear the song. It is a recording and it is all set or fixed, unalterable.

If the articulation of the singer is good enough, we will hear the same identical words. We both might be able to sing the same melodic line that we hear. In your language, you can write down what you hear but can you write down the notes with the correct pitches, rhythms, and the correct duration of each note? Can you hear embellishments and also pitches being bent? Would you know how to notate that all on manuscript paper or in a music manuscript software program, such as Encore?

You may listen to a song linearly in sequential time. Do you also notice the structure of the song? You have to take it in its entirety to discover the structure and the form of the song. There are several song forms and not a right or wrong way to write a song.

Looking deeper into the song, we notice instruments we can hear. What are they? For the sake of discussion, we can call a singer or singers instruments. Do we hear drums, a bass, a guitar, keyboards an/or other instruments? Guitars, keyboards and basses can play linear (melodic lines) or chords, although chords are usually played less frequently using a bass. Harmonic intervals may be played on bass at times, such as thirds or fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths, or octaves but three note chords may sound muddy on the low notes of a bass.

The chords of the song are usually played by guitars, keyboards, and/or strings. How many chords are in the song and what are those chords? How are those chords voiced, meaning how are the chord notes spread out? Is it close or open voicing? Can you hear that? Could you correctly write down what you hear? Could you play it on a keyboard or a guitar from just hearing it? If I hear a chord, such as a Cmajor9 voiced a certain way, I might describe it as a G6 in the right hand, playing 2 G's and in the left hand there could be 2 C's, an octave apart lower on the keyboard. Could it be what looks like an Em7 in the right hand and the same C's in the left hand? Can you hear the difference and know immediately without having to think about or analyze it? From years of experience, some people can. We all hear the same thing, but do we also know precisely what was heard? You absolutely do not have to hear these things to appreciate music. You may want to be able to when arranging, composing, or orchestrating a piece.

If you have the job of transcribing music, you absolutely must hear and also analyze the music to accurately write it down. Your job will be much faster if you just “get it”, instead of having to think about it. Knowledge and experience can lead to rapid perfect transcription of music. Having great relative pitch helps. Having perfect pitch also helps but contained within perfect pitch, there is the function of relative pitch. Perfect pitch may or may not be taught. I was born with that or maybe it developed along the way. I'm not sure which. It has been put to the test, it was noticed by my college music theory teacher, Dr. Paul Whear, who is a famous composer of the 20th century. We did a lot of melodic and harmonic dictation in class, which I found to be very easy but it was because of having perfect pitch.

The placement test for music theory class was to write out The Star Spangled Banner. I got it all right. There were no musical instruments in the testing room. We were each given a pencil and a sheet of manuscript paper. That is what got me into Dr. Whear's class. It was the beginning of “hearing”.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Are You A Singer Songwriter?

There have been many singers who did not write their own songs, over the last few decades. Some would be considered superstars or famous. There also have been songwriters who were not good singers. Some sang their own music they had written but they never became known as great singers.
Then there are singer/songwriters. They are not necessarily better or worse than "mere" singers or "mere" songwriters. They are, however, throwbacks to yesteryear, decades or centuries ...ago. Way back when, folk-ish singers had to write their own music and there were no computers, radios, or concerts within their reach from which they could learn or copy another's music. They had an instrument, such as a guitar, lute, or other portable chord making thing and they played it as they sang. 

To be clear, even though singing and songwriting are related, they are multiple skill sets. Most songwriters play keyboard and/or guitar well. They play well enough so as to be able to write chords and rhythm patterns which make stylistic sense. There are patterns on piano and there are strum or pick patterns on guitar. In addition, there may be fills and embellishments used by songwriters to enhance a song. Further steps would be orchestration and/or arranging which are still other skill sets.

The melody of the song and melody writing is another separate skill set. Writing melody and chords are sometimes learned or enhanced by having the knowledge of music theory. There have been many good or great songs written by people who only play by ear, know what they hear, know what they like and it doesn't make the song suffer at all. What if...what if a person gets stuck in the process? A lack of knowledge can cause a person to get stuck because melody writing and harmonic technique will only be as good as experience plus knowledge in those areas.

Some songs have one chord or two and most have more, but there are tendencies of many progressions. A I-IV-V progression is found in thousands of songs but the interesting thing is none of the songs have the same melody lines at all. II-V7-I progressions are interesting and can completely change a song. So can II-V7-III-Vi. Then there are chords way beyond major and minor and these all can open up what feels like an entire universe of sound.

The more you know, the more you can do. How long does it take to learn chord formation? That would be a great first step. I once taught a non-musician all chords in every key in 3 hours. I could call out a chord and she would play it with little hesitation. Is it worth the time spent to be able to do this? What if it took 8 hours or a week? Is it worth spending the time to improve?

The same multi-faceted look at lyric writing could be addressed because it is, after all, writing. There is more to it than meets the eye--or ear.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Songwriting From The Ground Up

Your experience with songs may be that you have heard songs on radio, YouTube, iTunes, or other media. You have developed preferences in what you like. You may like one style more than others. You may like only one style. You may like all or most styles of music. Now, you want to write a song or songs and maybe you have already given it a try. Maybe your song didn't turn out like how you wanted it to. Maybe it did, but you're not sure where to go from here.

Without hearing your song or your song idea, there is no way to evaluate it, so let's explore songwriting from the ground up. Somewhere in the process, we will hit your level and move up from there. Perhaps there are also some blanks to fill in along the way. If you knew everything there is to know about cars and driving, except for where the brake is and what the brake does, you will run into a “problem” eventually. So it is important to find out what you know and what you don't know and fill in the blanks of your knowledge.

To listen to a song in its entirety can be overwhelming when you start to analyze it, if you haven't done that before. There is a lot going on at once and throughout the song. There can be singing of lyrics and the accompaniment. The words and the music are two components, but those have many sub-parts, so to speak. If we back up from what we hear and get a broader view of the song, we'll see some things we might not have noticed.

STRUCTURE AND FORM of songs is what makes the analysis a little easier. Song structure is very much like structure in poetry but not necessarily the same. The structure of a song is also called the form. In a song you usually have either a verse or a chorus to start the song. Most songs start with a verse but the song “Killing Me Softly” starts with a chorus. Within the chorus is also the title of that song. The title is repeated within the chorus, too. You might listen to the song and count how many times “killing me softly” is repeated. That part, the title and the line of that song is often referred to as the “hook”. It has the hypnotic effect of repetition to anchor itself in your mind after you have heard it a few times. It is common in popular, country, and jazz songs that there will be a hook. We're not looking for a formula at this point in time.

THE SONG FORM is the way it is put together in verses, choruses, bridges, and other interludes. There might be an instrumental solo or a rap section or a spoken section, but it may have none of those. That brings us to an aspect of music which may be one of the best features of music as an art. That aspect is freedom. How free we get with music can also determine our audience. Who will like the music? We don't want to necessarily write for one group or one style, or do we? There are no rules in music but there are tendencies and norms. There are styles. In Baroque style writing there are “rules” but they are part of what makes Baroque what it is. To go outside the rules would result in altering the style of Baroque music. It is not a bad thing to know or to learn just as ballet is not a bad thing for a hiphop or jazz dancer to know, however, one may not be essential as a prerequisite to the other. There are commonalities between ballet and other dance. There are also commonalities between Baroque music and modern music. We will investigate these soon.

A song made up of music and lyrics could be viewed as a composite entity, or a composition. Again, when we look at doing the whole thing, it can feel daunting. It doesn't have to be. If we look at the lyrics, we will see there is a message in them. The message is more often than not having to do with love between two people. Sometimes it is a subject other than love. Sometimes it is about a person, place, or thing, such as a condition, an animal, a situation or about religion. A song is almost always a message of some kind. The message is supposed to be heard by someone. Behind the message there is an intention for the listener to react or respond or feel a certain way, or in several ways. Sometimes the message is intended to make something known or change a person's mind. Sometimes it is to make someone feel something or to make the listener know how the songwriter feels. Sometimes it is simply to entertain or to be funny. There is always an intention behind the lyrics. What does the lyricist think or feel? It may be in the lyrics or may be implied or inferred.

Lyrics connect to a melody, usually. Otherwise, it is a poem or prose. The melody is where we connect words with music. Within the melody is rhythm, varying tones at differing pitches, and varying duration of sustained tones. The melody can rhythmically resemble the spoken word, or not, depending on the lyricist's or songwriter's artist prerogative. There aren't rules for melodic writing but there are tendencies. Some lines follow scale or modal patterns and may also have larger intervals or skips. Theses may be characteristic of a given style but again, there are no rules, as such. Additionally, there is nothing to stop a writer from experimenting or innovating something new to a style.

If you listen to a modern pop style song, you also here instruments in addition to the voice. The instruments used and the things they play fill out the song and may make it more interesting than if it is done a capella, which is with only the voice. A capella literally means “like a chapel” or as it would be done in a chapel having no musical instruments. Usually there will be a bass, keyboard(s), guitar(s), drums, and other instruments such as wind instruments or strings. This is the accompaniment. It is what is going along with, or accompanying, the voice singing the song.

A song starts with an idea or a concept. Some writers start with a melody and add words to it. Some start with words and “make up a melody” to the words. Some start with a feel or rhythm or a beat using drums or drums and bass. Some songwriters start with chords and then improvise a melody to the chords, not unlike jazz musicians. There is not a right way or a wrong way to write a song from the ground up. It may dependent upon your skill level with lyric writing or with music. You can collaborate with someone if you are a strong lyricist but a weak musician. You also can learn more about music and then go it alone, without needing a partner in your songwriting.

It's a good idea to look at some song lyrics to see the form and the structure. A verse can be four lines, for example. They usually rhyme at the ends of the lines and in specific patterns. Sometimes they have near-rhymes or no rhymes. No rules. Just write.

You start with where you are and what you know and go from there. You have to be willing and able to learn what you don't know or work with another person who already knows songwriting. At some point you may want to learn music theory or harmonic technique. There have been hit songs with only one chord. There also have been hit songs with two chords. That isn't what made them hit songs, but it didn't stop them from being hit songs. People loved them. Some songs have complex chord progressions with numerous chords and that approach worked for those songs. If you start from where you are, you can build on your knowledge and on your skill level. You might not want to start with trying to write a hit song. Or you may. There should be the objective of having something to say and getting the message across and received with the least resistance. The beauty of a song is what makes it irresistible. Some songs are not so pretty, but therefor can convey other emotions such as anger, fear, doubt, worry, etc.

As long as you are willing to learn as you go, the more you write, the more you will improve. If it's something you think you can love, start. You don't have to wait for inspiration, but inspiration helps. Get yourself inspired and go write a song.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Chest Voice, Middle Voice, Head Voice, what are they?

I was not born with a perfectly functioning singing voice. I had no problems in chest voice or in the lower part middle voice, just above chest voice. I had a very distinct and annoying crack, which kept me from singing opera, popular, Broadway and R&B songs until I was trained. I have helped singers to no longer crack and also to help prevent vocal nodules (callouses of the vocal folds). Most people need training to gain control over the voice. A very few are born with it, perhaps 1%. I am not ashamed to have studied, because the results opened up a whole new world to me, which includes having sung professionally in Las Vegas.

Let's clarify some terms to start on the road to understanding more about the singing voice.

Chest voice, middle voice, and head voice are vocal registers, or ranges. Many people think that chest voice is a type of sound and that head voice is a type of sound. Many people don't fully understand middle voice at all. It is a never-neverland or fantasy world. Middle voice is thought to be a place that is hard or impossible to get to. It is also called: mix or bridge or passaggio. Passaggio is an Italian word, meaning passage way.

What is chest voice? Chest voice is the range in which you can feel vibration in your chest when you sing in that range. The reason is that the sound waves are larger in chest voice and they resonate in your chest, the size of which approximates the sound waves, pitch-wise. Have you ever been in a hallway or room and found a tone which loudly resonates with your voice? There will be one specific tone which will do this. Your chest will vibrate when you are in chest voice and that is how it got its name. Unless you are singing with a breathy tone, chest voice will be a full sound, which can be produced loudly when needed. This is called full voice.

Full voice is often confused with chest voice. They are not the same thing. Full voice is achieved when the vibrating vocal folds are in close proximity, to the extent that the tone is full, rather than weak or breathy. When the vocal folds are not vibrating in close proximity, excess air escapes and can be heard mixed in with the tone. It is not necessarily wrong to sing with a breathy tone, for effect when stylistically or emotionally appropriate. The breathy tone production does have the potential of causing dryness to the vocal folds (vocal cords, as they used to be called). The “lubrication” of the vocal folds is done by mucous secreting glands. It can become irritating to the delicate tissue, if it dries out.

Head voice is called head voice because your head vibrates when you are in the higher notes of head voice. In a properly trained and developed voice, the tone can be full and powerful, just as in chest voice. It can be called full voice in head or full head voice. It is not a breathy sound. When working properly, a singer can sustain a high note and crescendo from very soft to very loud, without a change in the sound of the tone. If there is a sudden change in the sound of the tone, that is what singers call a break or a crack. Things do not actually crack or break in the sense of the vocal apparatus but instead, the singer and listener hear an abrupt distinct change in the tone quality.

The hardest thing for many singers, including some professional singers, is to smoothly execute the tones throughout the entire vocal range. Most untrained singers have difficulty singing passages which extend from chest voice to head voice. Singers whose voices crack or break when transitioning from chest voice to head voice (or vice-versa) are actually experiencing a brief and sudden loss of adduction of the vocal folds. They “pop” open and then close again. Some singers will yell or scream out high notes but over time that can and has caused injury. There must be a coordination of adduction in such a way as to not hyper-adduct the vocal folds. It is a balancing act. It is the correct amount of pressure sufficient to achieve the desired tone quality. Most people need training to gain control over the voice. A very few are born with it, perhaps 1%.

Sunday, May 17, 2015


I did some math today. Since November 1 of 2014, I have written 845 songs. How many did I write, prior to that? 468 from 1997 until Nov. 1, 2014. It adds up to 1313 since 1997. Before that? Maybe 20, maybe more. A famous songwriter said to "write for the waste basket". Does that sound crazy? Not if you think about it. If you set out for perfection or even to write a hit or a masterpiece, you set yourself up for self-criticism, self-judgement and maybe even self-loathing. "Perfection" is just a word. What is the opposite of perfection? That's a difficult thing to conceive. This is where we can become more aware by exploring the subjective qualities and the wide ranges of "imperfection". It lies in judgement. It is very subjective. 
So, have I been "writing for the waste basket"? No. I have been writing for the joy of writing. I've been exploring and experimenting with rhythms and chords and the rhythm of chords as they lie in a single measure and multiple measures of songs. My bottom line, I learned from Pat Pattison of Berklee School of Music. Prosody. It was a new word for me. I have distilled it for myself to where a song, the lyrics, the arrangement have to have the qualities of aesthetics and integrity, working together to make it work with the quality of making sense and having some level of beauty. The emotion can be any emotion but the aesthetics of the music are like a carrier wave in radio broadcasting. The aesthetics sit on top and float along. It has to stay on topic, make musical sense, and maybe take you to a place you haven't been before. Finding interesting twists and turns along the way and discovering new "sights" just make the adventure come to life. 
Even with my standards, they are not rules. The breakout occurred when I decided to just see if I could write a bad song. I failed. The first one on Nov. 1st wasn't bad. Some days I have written 20 songs in a single day. It is like a game. The oddest thing is no 2 songs of mine are alike. The chords are different, the melodic lines are different from each other. Many days after breakfast, I head for my studio and play. Notice I said play. Sometimes I start with the melody and sometimes I start with chords. Some days I write 4 bars of chords and then write the melody. I repeat it until I have a song that makes some sense. I do not listen to them. I do not tweak. that's for later. Write and save. 
If you are a singer and you know one song, how good will you be? If you are a singer and you know 2000 sings, might you be a little better than if it were just one? If you are a songwriter and you have written one song or 10 or 20, you could be great but would you learn more by doing more? Maybe.