Songwriting Business

Push Yourself

mu•sic n
1. sounds, usually produced by instruments or voices, that are arranged or played in order to create a pleasing or stimulating effect

I am not going to get into a lot of music theory here. Musicians spend endless hours and entire lifetimes studying music theory. But music theory isn't songwriting.

In Pop songs there are three kinds of musical structures you need to know: Ballads are slow songs, up-tempo are fast songs, and mid-tempo are somewhere between the other two.

That's enough technical jargon for now.

Publishers love a great ballad but rarely want one because there are so many. Publishers are always looking for a good up-tempo song unless you are pitching them one, and mid tempo songs are like lukewarm water.

As far as a more specific analysis of why certain chord structures, harmonic progressions and melodic shapes are more likely to result in an effective song than others, a lot of dry, technical books get deep into those topics. I get very bored reading them. What I will recommend is using your ear and your heart. If those don't work well for you there isn't a lot anyone can teach you about music anyway.

Play Live

My fundamental advice in terms of learning music theory and developing your own musical language for your songwriting is to learn to play an instrument (that includes voice), and to use it live, in front of people as a performer.

Learn songs, learn styles and learn to play the songs you like, even if they're from one of those easy chord type songbooks.

Then steal like a politician with a government contract.

Find out what works for you.

Learn to play that instrument, perform live, get up in front of people and be lousy. Keep learning and get better. These are not only the most invaluable lessons for songwriting, but for life. The humiliation, embarrassment, and rejection will also prepare you for dealing with the music business; especially for pitching your songs.

Audiences that talk loudly over your performance, ignore you, or don't applaud (or fail to even materialize) are the milk of human kindness compared to what you will encounter in the music business. There, you'll be considered lucky to even land a brief meeting with a highly-connected, corporate checkbook-toting industry professional who says: "I'm not looking for a ballad/up-tempo/whatever your song is, right now."

You will be humbled in this business. You will be rejected. Diane Warren songs get passed over way more than they get cut. Beat the rush: start early dealing with rejection and get used to it. It's like dating. Everybody goes through it, there are no shortcuts. (Well, TAXI custom critiques are a shortcut, and one of the best bargains in the music business, but not enough people take advantage of that opportunity).

When you stand on stage and perform, anywhere, you get to know what people react to. You find where your strengths and weaknesses are, you feel how audiences react, and you know when you hit their monkey nerve. All of these lessons will show up in your songs.

One of the biggest lessons I had about music came when I played bass in bands, sometimes five sets a night, six nights a week in local bars.

There was one Country band in particular I remember. We mainly played small dive bars with postage stamp stages, tiny dance floors and the smell of stale beer, cigarettes, and adultery in the air.

I was young at the time, was really into Rock 'n' Roll, and played Country mainly just to perform and make some money. I was so embarrassed I didn't even tell my cool Rock 'n' Roll musician friends. But I couldn't have paid for better experience.

By playing Waylon and Willie, Elvis, Credence, George Jones, and Hank Sr. to drinking, dancing, cheatin' working class crowds who were loud and vocal about their likes and dislikes (especially after a beer or six), I learned quickly what moved them and what didn't. One night on stage in a place like that will teach you more about Country music than a lifetime of listening to the radio.

You never forget that feeling. That experience stayed with me, even much later when I finally went to a Nashville and wrote Country songs on purpose.

When trying to find your voice for telling your story in your songs, performing live and playing your songs for other people is where you will develop that sense of what's right and what isn't, what works and what doesn't. You will also gain confidence in what you are doing, because experience is the best teacher.

This article is excerpted from Michael Anderson's Little Black Book of Songwriting, available at


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