Tips of the Trade: Songwriting

Thursday, 06 Aug 2015

How can we tame the mystical beast of songwriting? Composer, performer, studio gun for-hire, teacher and author of The Songwriting Labyrinth, Clive Harrison, helps unravel the mystery.

Getting started

The first and possibly most insidious hurdle for songwriters is how to get started. Almost all music we hear comes fully formed – sometimes we forget that the act of writing is a deliberate, cumulative process.

Harrison admits that many artists get bogged down in old-school notions that they must wait for the muse to strike. Or take a romantic perspective that only worthy geniuses are bestowed with musical gifts.

“I subscribe to a rationalist view,” he says, “Everyone is capable of being creative in some way. Sure, some are more creative than others. But basically we can all study, practice and become better at it.”

Organise your musical ideas

During his time as a commercial songwriter, Harrison never had the luxury to wait. While there are deadlines, he thinks inspiration is a constant stream.

Noting down lyrics, emotions, moods and melodies when they strike is critical. “Quite often that creative flood happens in a matter of thirty seconds or five minutes. But it propels you for the next two days as you explore this idea and get it down as a kind of song artifact,” he says. “I quarantine that explosion of ideas from the production of the song demo – that’s a separate exercise.” 

While Harrison recalls the ragged notebooks of the artists he’s worked alongside, he’s currently most comfortable delivering ideas into the voice recorder on his phone – whether they be titles, lyrics, emotional streams-of-consciousness, chord structures, or motifs. These are then catalogued for a time when they can be stitched together or expanded.

Listening is research    

Another crucial element of songwriting – research – is an unconscious, ongoing process, often beginning long before an instrument is picked up. “What’s vital to songwriters is to deeply immerse themselves in the styles, songs, songwriters and nuances of the genres they love,” asserts Harrison.

“By the time they sit down with an idea, they are referencing those songs that affected them, those melodies and chords that sounded nice. They cherry-pick and emerge with a bunch of ideas where a scholar of these things can see the lineage of what they’ve listened to, but have also come up with a new hybrid that is unique and expresses those ideas which are relevant to their stylistic preferences.” 

This works whether you have an acoustic guitar on the knee or a wall of sequencers at your fingertips. Common structures emerge regardless of genre.

Shake up your songwriting

“We like to hear repetition and we like to be able to predict certain things are going to happen,” Harrison explains. “But we don’t want to hear repetition so much that it becomes boring or overly predictable.”

Harrison points to punk and grunge as examples of genres whose songwriters would, “come up with chords that would annoy the crap out of people and shake up the system.” While many strive to construct the ‘perfect’ pop song, it is the rule-breakers that make history. “I think that’s really healthy for the music industry,” Harrison says.

Even pop-centric artists like Daniel Johns will marry six-bar and five-bar sections, or Crowded House will deliver a nine-bar organ solo. Ultimately, Harrison notes, “the blurring of the lines and abstraction of ideas becomes a desirable thing.”

Learn the rules to break them

A lack of music schooling can sometimes deliver unlikely surprises. “A huge amount of it can be unsuccessful,” Harrison readily admits. “But at the same time, it actually facilitates some odd combinations that are really interesting and appealing.”

Harrison sees value in learning your craft, if only to learn to spot the obvious clichés and strive to avoid them. “I think it’s very important to understand that there are rules, and it’s great to know what the rules are,” he says. “But the whole point of contemporary music is to test those paradigms and to break those rules and see what happens.”

Finishing your song

Finally, how do we ever know when a song is finished? Harrison advises that artists adhere to phases for each song. Whether it’s the initial ideas, writing, editing, recording – commit to dusting your hands at a set point. Songwriters must also accept that the recording is often just a snapshot of a particular phase. There’s nothing to prevent you tinkering with songs in live performances.

Besides, once a song leaves your mind and enters the public ear, it belongs to them.

APRA AMCOS members receive a 20% discount on Clive Harrison’s illuminating book The Songwriting Labyrinth through our member benefits program.

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