Of course, you can write a song with nothing but a creative mind and store it with nothing more than a good memory, but here’s a list of tools that might assist the songwriter.
Now, this list is my list, and by no means should it be thought of as definitive. I’m sure there’s something I missed. If any of you think of what it is, by all means post a comment on the blog and let your brethren know what I don’t.
When that idea comes to you for the greatest song of all time, it should be written down. Many great song ideas were given up to the gods while the poor bloke who had the moment of great inspiration was trying to flag down the bartender to get some sort of writing utensil to record the manifest destiny.
I also want to go on record here and say I believe in ink. I don’t like the idea of erasing ideas. Lining them out is okay; forever sending them away is not.
Plus, when I’m looking at the original lyric sheet of Hank Williams songs or Bob Dylan’s stuff, seeing what they decided not to go with, how much they were struggling in a song, their alternative verses or versions, where they took a road turn, where the liquor kicked it, when they decided they drank too much, when they felt that even they recognized they were too self-absorbed, sought advice, broke up with their girlfriend, got back together with their girlfriend, gave up, re-started, and/or came back to and reinstated lyrics…it gives me hope.
And, maybe it’s the romantic in me; But I hope that someday musicologists and English students seeking enlightenment will be sorting through my lyrics for their master thesis. Of course, this happens just before the lyrics (in their original form: written in ink on cocktail napkins) are entered into the Smithsonian Institute under the Gods of Rock section.
When you don’t have a pen this will do. Hell, writing with your finger in dust in the corner of the room will do. Write down those ideas when they come to you.
If you carry one of those little pads around with you like my father did in his later years, that rocks! The back of business cards will work too. The afore-mentioned cocktail napkins work in a pinch. The problem is that the advent of computers and wireless cell phones has actually started making us a paperless sociality. If you bring something to write on, it’s all the better.
These use to be the stand alone pocket cassette recorders, or those spy pen recorders. But now, everyone that has a cell phone has a device that not only can capture the lyrics that spring into their head, but the melody as well. How cool is that?
If locating the voice recorder feature on your phone is too labor intensive, you can call and leave yourself a voice mail. Or, send yourself a text.
You carry your phone with you; you should put it to use better use than just talking to people.
You can’t always carry it with you, but I try.
Once you sit down and strum a few chords, melodies start coming to mind: sometimes they’re original and the foundation to a song is born (which you can capture on your cell phone or voice recorder).
If you have the musical wherewithal, you can use the guitar to pick out and notate the melody. (Actually, you can do it without the guitar if you really have the musical wherewithal! I’m not at that place yet.)
At this point I might add…
…because, getting hung up trying to tune your guitar so you can record or cement your idea is akin to kissing your inspiration good-bye until they next time the muse decides to pay you a visit.
I realize that we’re not all guitar players, but it’s hard to take a piano with you. Luckily, there are piano’s almost everywhere. The bad news is usually the keyboard is locked up, and on those that aren’t, they are usually horribly out of tune.
Still, an out of tune instrument or any instrument at all can be the catalyst of an idea, an inspiration, or the centerpiece of a new song. I’m sure there was more than one song born when a guitarist picked up a ukulele or a piano player picked an accordion for the first time. Lack of familiarity of an instrument to lead to fortunate mistakes!
The eighties gave birth to the portable battery powered keyboard (thank you Casio), so now keyboardist can travel with more than a melodic. I guess the point is: Have an instrument on hand whenever you can.
This one should cause some motion on the blog. I do have my own personal believe about them and their use. But, for now I’ll keep it quiet.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be in every songwriter’s tool box, but a drum machine can help you get your groove on. The pre-programmed rhythms can get you in the proper mindset, especially when dealing genre’s that less familiar to you.
An added benefit is that these machines also work as rhythm trainers. Playing with these units will tighten up your timing, and they are much more fun to play with than a metronome.
And, once you get into programming your own rhythms, you’ll more likely than not be able to communicate your ideas more clearly to the drummer and percussionist at your next demo session using their terminology.
This is a little different than the voice recorder as it gives you the option to add to your original recording without erasing it. So you can add that integral second voice (think of the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside), an Everly Brother’s style harmony, or a guitar lick: something that might make the song pop.
Plus the recorder can be used to make a full-production work tape, a demo tape or an actual master recording if one has the engineering and musical skills.
Note: Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” record is actually the work tapes he made at home to introduce the songs to the E Street Band. You got to love the production cost to a platinum record being the cost of a home multi-track machine and a couple of cassettes.
I prefer to scratch it out on paper, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I used the computer’s word processing to write a song a time or three. Cut and paste is a great way to move verses around, as is being able to copy and paste the chorus each time it appears. Being able to read what you wrote is also an asset. (I have tossed songs where I couldn’t make out the genius that went into them. It’s not because I was drinking, it was because the spilt beer smudged the ink).
Being able to instantly print the lyrics for your co-writer(s) or demo singer and/or emailing them to your publisher is good, too. And your publisher will love that there’s a time/date stamp when it was created.
You can have Rhyming Dictionary software loaded into your computer (and no one would know you had one!), or have access to it online if that’s your thing.
Computers also have recording capability, so it may not only be your voice recorder but your whole demo studio as a multi-track recorder mentioned above.
I have actually seen songwriting software (I swear to God). I haven’t used it so I’ll keep my thoughts in reserve, but it does exist. While the software in of itself may or may not be a viable tool, it doesn’t make the computer any less so.
None of these tools are needed to write a song, so don’t let this list be an excuse not to write. And, don’t think that any of these tools make up for creativity, originality or musicianship. But they certain can help in capturing that moment of inspiration and preserve it till it can be completed, developed and/or finessed into its final form.
Jake Kelly is a man on the constant search for enlightenment, if anyone finds it let him know so he can get some. For more of this hombre’s ramblings and the rest of L2P check out L2Pbandspace and L2Pnet.com.
Originally posted 2010-08-24 20:25:18.