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.