End Writer’s Block: 20 Songwriting Tips from Andrea Stolpe

Handout

Notes

Contrast with Melody

Pitch

one way that we might look at the tools
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that I’m going to talk about is teaching
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to yourself to be your own collaborator
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so that’s how I like to think about
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tools is they give me options when I
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can’t see the options so I have 30
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minutes to talk about 20 tools so that’s
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actually I emailed Mike my title my
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thought yeah thank you and and I thought
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after I settled on that title I thought
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oh no how am I going to do so forgive
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the rather perhaps a preschool ish way
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of thinking about these tools but I
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decided I need a mechanism an image that
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allows me to make sense of these tools
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so I used hands and the sub the groups
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that we’re going to talk about in terms
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of these tools today has to do with
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contrast contrast with melody
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we have contrast with harmony and
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contrast with lyric those are the pages
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that that have given here and so let me
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just start again by kind of recapping
01:20
some of the troubles that we all face we
01:23
feel inspired that’s a beautiful thing
01:26
we sit down grab our instrument grab our
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pen and paper or whatever it is or we
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just start beatboxing and come up with
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something on the fly and sing it into
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our phone and what happens then is we
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get really excited about these great
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ideas I’m going to call that initial
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great idea your motif you come up with a
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rhythmic bit that repeats it’s that
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rhythm that kind of is the fingerprint
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of the song or you have a hook right
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like a title or a melodic theme that
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keeps recurring in the song but whatever
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it is you thought it was pretty good
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your instant assessment was on a school
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I should write that down
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so step one don’t doubt what you thought
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initially you thought it was good it is
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good stick with it for me the trouble is
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then the writing of the song all God it
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takes so long and there’s so many
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opportunities to do it wrong you know
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what I’m saying and so the next step in
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my mind and again this is where
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professional writers are where you know
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you get there by writing a lot of songs
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and they are fast and so the next thing
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that I would encourage you to do to
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really apply these steps and start to
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feel yourself moving out of writer’s
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block and into a more constant creative
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current would be to write faster in
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order to write faster you are going to
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need to accept mediocrity at times and
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so that inner judge is going to be
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saying I cannot say things like writing
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on the wall or I can’t talk about rain
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in a pop song again you know all those
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things that are cliche they’re going to
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come and you’re going to say that’s nice
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of you to come let’s move on you know
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fine stay on my page let’s let’s move
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past those things because it’s not that
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cliches or those ideas that are familiar
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are bad they’re not good they’re not bad
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there’s simply ideas that in context of
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the song are going to have a place or
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not have a place but you’re going to try
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to allow yourself to write faster okay
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so let me tell you the the main idea
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with today in my 27 minutes is I’m going
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to focus on this idea of knowing what
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you do so that you can determine how to
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contrast with that and that’s where this
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unique understanding what you do that is
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uniquely you comes
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so I mentioned the idea of a motif first
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because if you don’t have a repeating
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melodic motif or a hook a rhythmic idea
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and and so your song is just sort of a
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random litany of different rhythms
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different pitches different lyrical
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ideas that go on and on and on you have
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got more like preformed you know poetry
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or music that doesn’t make sense you
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know what I’m saying okay so the idea
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with not going to say so much commercial
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music as that carries a lot of baggage I
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think just memorable songs you know the
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idea is that we need to be more concise
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precise with what we’re trying to get
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the listener to understand and so that
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hook that in really commercial and
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memorable instantly memorable music you
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probably know it’s repeated a lot right
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say what you want to say say what you
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need to say say what you need to say say
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what you need to say right oh and and
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over and over and over again the verse
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of that John Mayer song is similarly
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repetitive it’s basically one melodic
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line that repeats and repeats and
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repeats sometimes there’s a little
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variation a little ending but with
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highly commercialized songs you need and
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I’m on video saying this two or three
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motifs and that’s it later on in the
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song you can take variations on those
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motifs you know and and and and give the
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listener a little something new to think
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about but I think a lot of us try way
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too hard right we have to write
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something that’s really interesting
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melody and a great hook and use you know
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every borrowed chord we know and try to
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get it all the fit together
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I’m saying don’t make yourself work too
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hard alright so I’m going to start with
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melody and so like I said know where
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you’ve been
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to know where you’re going to go the big
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idea with memorable songs is first of
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all we get a motif that after a verse
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after the first three lines you can sing
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it right it has a rhythm and it has a
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pitch that’s what melody is a rhythm
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assigned to a pitch how long am I going
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to hold it and when am I going to sing
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it okay
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so I’ve separated it into these two
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hands along the five fingers of pitch
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there are five ways that you could
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describe where you’ve been so let’s say
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you start with verses or choruses when
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you’re writing you’re going to look at
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that and you’re going to say how would I
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describe that and I think the music
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theory in us says okay well as GD e flat
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d al I don’t know what this is anymore
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so let’s use normal language and it’s
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okay if you don’t know music theory I’ve
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written with a lot of people who don’t
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read music and their hit song writers
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you don’t need it to feel it so just
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feel it and allow yourself to describe
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what you feel what you hear and to
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simplify this and and all the tools I’m
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talking about today are from the Berklee
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courses and and and so they really
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really work and I find that I’ve used
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this throughout my career and been able
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now to kind of boil it down into these
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things that are important one of the
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biggest tools that memorable songs use
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to know where we’ve been and where we’re
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Lower/Raise Pitch

going to go is pitch so on this pinky
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finger we have lower or raise the pitch
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so when you’re at the end of your verse
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and you have a motif that you have
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repeated you can say well what if I take
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the pitch up in the next
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section most songs at least in our
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popular genre use this device to create
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a new sounding section in the chorus for
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example is that ring a bell right easy
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technique very natural feeling to do if
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you continue again along the same lines
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of pitch level in your new section you
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will not be creating contrast with pitch
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which is okay it does mean however that
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you might want to use some of these
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other devices to create this interest
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again for the listener in your song
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Follow/Avoid Chord Roots

alright so the next tool you can follow
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the roots of the chords that you’ve been
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playing or you can avoid the roots of
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the chords that you’ve been playing I
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don’t know if you again again these are
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notice what you do if you look at that
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finger and you say gosh does my verse
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tend to sing the root is the melody the
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roots of the chords if you do that
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throughout the whole song you’re going
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to get kind of a blocky Nursery Rhyme II
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kind of heavy simple feeling and it
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might not be that satisfying to you
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maybe you didn’t know why assess that
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see if that’s going on it can be a cool
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Change Shape: Ascend/Descend; Arc up/Arc down; Counter Bass Movement

tool if you mean to do it though third
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thing would be change the shape of your
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melody so that means you can ascend or
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descend so let’s say your melody was duh
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duh duh duh duh duh it’s very much going
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down duh duh duh duh duh that was line
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two duh duh duh duh duh duh I was line
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three dad that at the that was line four
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verses over now we’ve got the
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opportunity to ascend da da da da so
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that’ll be my first notes of the new
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section sounds very different than it
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did before I used you know tones of the
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scale a diatonic scale you don’t have to
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do that doesn’t have to be so strict
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like that but those counterpoint kind of
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move
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events are really helpful to notice if
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that’s something you do often arcing up
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or arcing down same idea might kind of
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go like that so in your chorus you might
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start high and go low
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very easy contrasting tool counter the
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base movement the base is doing
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something that’s walking up maybe your
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melody is going to do something that
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walks down
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so again just tools for thinking about
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how can I describe what I did so that I
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can do something different
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Passing/Chord Tones

passing or chord tones if in your verse
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you really dwelled a lot on non chord
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tones maybe in your chorus you’re going
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to settle right in on a chord tone you
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know what I’m saying
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and that’ll help to give those two
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sections contrast alright and then is it
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Intervalic/Clustered

intervallic or clustered is on this
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thumb right here
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so again intervals would be the space
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between the notes right and you
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determine how big that spaces are how
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small with clustered melodies is very
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little space or no space at all in a
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very intervallic melody there’s a lot of
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space between your melodies so if you
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listen to your favorite 10 songs through
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some of these lenses you will find all
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or at least some of these tools are
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going on
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the more tools you use at the same time
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the more different your new section will
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sound so it’s up to you how different
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you want that to be cool all right so
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Rhythm

moving over to rhythm
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Syncopated/Straight

I’ve got syncopated or straight ever
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wondered what he’s doing right duh duh
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duh duh duh duh super super straight
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melody goes way up I’m not going to try
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to sing like pink does but it stays
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actually quite straight in that song
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that melody goes up and it’s this huge
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interval thing that would be this one
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more but syncopated would be da da da da
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da da
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odda like off the beats
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da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da
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so it’s catching anticipations and
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things that can be a really cool tool
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again those are kind of opposites of
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each other so you can use those to
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Lengthen/Shorten Notes

generate ideas making your notes longer
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or a shorter huge popular technique for
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singers especially in the chorus you’re
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going to show off your voice long note
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long high note any of a pop song right
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you have a single short notes in the
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verse kind of understated you know you
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can get more lyric story across that way
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long high notes you can shine the light
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on this is the big message right all
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right
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and if you’re writing for a singer who
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can’t sing well you might avoid that
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alright for all of you want to write for
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Phrase Position: Before/On/After

other people phrasing position before on
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or after that means before the downbeat
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of the measure after the downbeat of the
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measure or on the downbeat of the
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measure
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there’s a really great song at least
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from from my past Desiree Desiree has a
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song listen as your day unfolds right
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now and so it’s on the downbeat in the
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verse and that’s that is the song good
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at that that’s how the verse goes just
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repeat repeat repeat and then in the
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chorus you got to be you got to be
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strong
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you got attenti utica so there’s two
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things happening there the melody starts
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kind of you gotta be it’s a pickup so it
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kind of gets this energy into the chorus
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where the verse was that I thought that
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that was very solid and stable and just
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just there now this song is a good
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example of this because it doesn’t do
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anything like raise the pitch just keeps
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it all in the same area for the verse
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and the chorus but in the chorus the
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phrases the melodic phrases get half as
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long so they’re two beats long whereas
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in the verse it was a measure let me
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show you listen
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day unfolds that was one measure of four
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counts and that was one melodic motif in
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the chorus it’s he got to be he got a
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dent de dah duh duh duh duh duh duh duh
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duh duh
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so she repeats faster this is such a
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cool tool works beautifully so if you’re
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going to rely on rhythm to create your
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contrast and not pitch that one is a
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great one to do is this is this landing
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with y’all I feel I have to go very fast
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ok alright uh so that was actually I did
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Long/Short Phrases

long and short phrases I worked right
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into that from phrase position long and
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More/Less Rest Space

short phrases we did more or less rest
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space that’s a big one again we don’t
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have to work so hard you know you don’t
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have to talk and talk and talk and talk
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and have these really heavy lyric lyric
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heavy sections so if you notice that
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your verse has rather long lines and
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users are singing quite constantly allow
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yourself some rest space and you can do
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that by shortening your phrases and then
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not singing for the pure you know for a
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bar sing a short line or sing a long
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note long notes can do the same thing as
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rest space so you’re giving your
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listener time to take in what you’ve
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said and rest space is such a great tool
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for that that in my mind that is melody
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and that’s all there is you can look at
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it from all of these different vantage
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points but I hope that this is helpful
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for you to then glance back at and say
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where have I been
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if you can’t figure out where you’ve
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been then I think the question to ask is
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do I have too many different hooks going
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on that it’s not it’s simply not very
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memorable yeah ok cool so let’s move on

Contrast with Harmony

17:00
to the next page contrast with harmony
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all right so I tried to make this into
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five so the first thing that we can do
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and I have to list it here though it’s
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Use Exact Repetition

not really contrast is using exact
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repetition of the Harmony progression
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that you use in the verse use it again
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in the chorus right we hear this a lot
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in songs that does mean that your
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harmonic progression your chords are not
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helping to make your chorus sound
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different than your verse songs that do
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this can rely on production techniques
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arrangement ideas to bring the chorus
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out but if we’re talking about just
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purely a song bones skeleton of the song
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you know really working you could
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perform it acoustically you know full
17:53
band whatever and it still works then I
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think there’s there’s something else
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going on and it would be maybe a melodic
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thing that would be happening or a
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rhythmic change something going on okay
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so we can do that that’s an option but
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you have to look somewhere else for
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contrast the other thing we can do is
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Add New Chords

add a new chord or chords in the new
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section and I play guitar like a
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songwriter so forgive me for that but
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it’s good sometimes I think not playing
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well it forces me to write better you
18:31
know and and so if you’re going to if
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you’re going to add a new chord if you
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do it early in this section then we know
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okay this is the start of that section
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if you do it late we don’t know that
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that section began until that new chord
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comes so
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this is the verse
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you
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now I got to go somewhere new
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you
19:13
right
19:14
so that was the new section okay allow
19:18
yourself to go somewhere new the other
19:21

Change Chords More Frequently

thing that we can do is change chords
19:24
more frequently and so again you have to
19:27
know where you’ve been and if you a
19:29
great thing to do would be to transcribe
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some of your favorite songs and just see
19:34
where they go if you don’t know the
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names of the chords then mark put a mark
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next to how long those chords that stay
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you know here where the chord changes
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because that’s a really big harmonic
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tool you don’t have to rely on what
19:54
chord you know there’s so much emphasis
19:56
on that play a great chord but it’s it’s
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how often many times so
20:05
I actually did that by accident four
20:08
five six one two
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the first court
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as though is a whole measure of 16
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so in the new section I’m going to
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change
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see it’s changed faster
20:34
that I could do it faster
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then I don’t have to stay in that place
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right I can take it down again and back
20:45
to the verse
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yeah so you can think about movement
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like that in terms of how frequently am
20:53
i changing I didn’t play any crazy Gore
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I don’t I don’t even know crazy cords I
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use a lot of some borrowed cords and
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things like that
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flat 3 flat 6 flat 7 s are really cool
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if you’re into music theory cool
21:06
Cadence’s but that again that would be
21:09
what chords you’re going to if you’re
21:13
interested in knowing more about that
21:15
kind of from a songwriting perspective I
21:17
have a chapter in this book that’s on
21:19
theory for songwriters and I thought
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that was important because I feel like
21:24
music theory is sometimes more difficult
21:28
challenging intricate than it needs to
21:30
be if you’re going to learn theory sort
21:33
of as you write and learn to apply it to
21:36
your writing and so there’s a list of
21:38
common Cadence’s that we hear in songs
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and common borrowed chords like a major
21:44
two chord in place of a minor two chord
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you know things like that that you can
21:50
start to involve just one at a time in a
21:52
song you write and then and then you can
21:54
train your ear to get used to hearing
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those substitutions okay so more
22:01

Change Chords Less Frequently

frequently and then I had changing less
22:04
frequently which really you know it’s
22:06
just the opposite if you move a lot in
22:09
your verse section try letting your
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chorus chord changes draw out maybe
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you’re going to change half as
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frequently as you did yeah simple
22:21

Rearrange the Chords

technique and then rearrange the chords
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very cool technique so if you play G to
22:27
G to C then start on D and go to C and
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go to G so try rearranging them and
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again it’s just a little contrast goes a
22:37
very very long way okay all right um
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then I’d like to talk about the last one
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Contrast with Lyric

which is contrasting with lyric this was
22:49
a hard one for me because there’s so
22:52
much to talk about here that I feel
22:54
needs more explanation but
22:58
I will try okay so some of these things
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when we write lyric first we actually
23:08
are implying many times what the melody
23:12
is doing because we are ascribing
23:14
rhythms to the melody right or it’s a
23:17
pain because sometimes the lyric just
23:20
does not want to fit in that melodic
23:22
position or we find ourselves
23:24
constricted but it’s a good thing to
23:29
remember that you’re implying a melodic
23:32
rhythm because you can control those
23:34
things when you’re writing lyric all
23:36
right so we can do things like make our
23:38

Longer/Shorter Lines

lines longer or shorter and when it
23:41
comes to what does that look like on the
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page when you’re writing a song it could
23:47
mean that in the verse you know you have
23:50
a very long line like sitting at the bus
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stop staring at the ground
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maybe that’s the first long line and and
24:00
then you’ve got lines too to match that
24:03
that are similarly long in the chorus if
24:06
I continue that my melody has to
24:09
continue to involve short notes probably
24:12
if I’m going to keep you know getting
24:16
the song to go forward and that can be
24:20
kind of you can kind of shoot yourself
24:22
in the foot that way then it’s hard
24:24
you’re making it harder to create
24:26
contrast so you can think about these
24:28
things if you write lyric first you can
24:30
say okay now I need some short lines and
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I wait rest rest rest and I wait rest
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rest rest for you to come home home home
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and I wait and I wait you know now I’ve
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got I have all the opportunity in the
24:45
world to use long notes to start later
24:49
in the measure if I want to start the
24:51
course after the downbeat now to use
24:53
rest space so you’re giving yourself
24:56
more opportunity to use melodic contrast
24:59
and that’s what’s really valuable with
25:01
thinking about those things with lyric
25:03
first okay so another one is to use
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exact or internal
25:11
petition I just did that when I said and
25:14
I wait and I wait so it’s exact
25:18

Exact and/or Internal Repetition

repetition you know internal repetition
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is when we repeat the inside of a line
25:26
you’ll hear choruses even verses do this
25:28
a lot but you know and I’m free free
25:31
fallin yeah I’m free free fallin so if
25:35
you don’t use a lot of exact repetition
25:37
or internal repetition particularly in
25:40
your chorus ask yourself why you know
25:44
maybe that’s just not your style and
25:47
that’s okay however keep in mind that
25:50
you’re asking your listener to listen to
25:53
more and more and more information and a
25:57
song is different than a conversation
26:00
you know or a book where we’re just
26:02
delivering and delivering we need to
26:04
allow the listener to hear the main
26:06
message so there again when you get to
26:09
the chorus we’re expecting you to tell
26:11
us what the main message is one of the
26:13
things that I often do when I write is I
26:15
when I feel stuck I go online and I read
26:19
lyrics to some of my favorite songs the
26:21
first thing I realize is oh that wasn’t
26:24
all that good second thing i reaiiy mean
26:26
good as in that wasn’t that difficult
26:29
why am i making this so hard the second
26:31
thing is oh my gosh that lyric is so
26:33
much repetition or that lyric is really
26:36
short it’s condensed I my song is
26:40
already twice as long as that and I’m
26:41
halfway through you know so you don’t
26:44
need to deliver so much so you go in and
26:48
you say okay if I had to cut half of
26:50
this chorus or half of this first what’s
26:53
really important for me to say what
26:56
phrase can I repeat instead just by
26:59
saying I’m going to give this a try for
27:01
the next 30 seconds so I’m going to use
27:03
repetition and I cut 50% and just see
27:05
what happens and I can throw it away no
27:08
one will ever see it if I hate it but
27:10
many times just by saying it out loud
27:12
with repetition you’ll think oh gosh
27:15
that’s so much more powerful I have
27:17
narrowed it down to the meats
27:20
and at least taking a stab at it right
27:22
and the repetition shines all the light
27:25
on that one idea all right very helpful
27:28
technique the next one I said was
27:31

Abstract Metaphorical/Direct Conversational

abstract metaphorical or a direct
27:34
conversational I’ll talk about this a
27:37
lot in my course on Berkeley online
27:40
called commercial songwriting techniques
27:41
there’s two kinds of language that I
27:44
like to look at there’s degrees to which
27:46
language or lyric lines fit into these
27:49
types but in a sense I like to look at
27:53
it as these two there’s direct
27:55
conversational which is literal and it’s
27:57
concrete and it often provokes an image
28:02
so it would be a line like sitting at
28:06
the bus stop you know it’s it is what it
28:10
is there’s no other way to interpret
28:12
that then there’s a this other kind of
28:15
language which is abstract metaphorical
28:17
or it is kind of abstract and so the
28:23
idea is that this language summarizes
28:26
its big thought language and typically
28:28
found in choruses so you’re more a
28:33
language that is seen or image provoking
28:36
is going to fall into the verses
28:38
typically language that is more abstract
28:40
metaphorical generally falls in the
28:43
chorus so you can use some of these
28:45
these ideas and that’s also the topic of
28:49
this book is using learning to use those
28:52
two types of language effectively all
28:55

Past/Present/Future Tense

right so the last two past present or
29:03
future tense it might be helpful to look
29:06
at songs that you really enjoy and look
29:09
in and see how do they use when the song
29:12
is happening whether it’s going on in
29:15
the moment right now or
29:19
and setting a scene or is it kind of
29:23
happening anytime anywhere and again
29:26
that’s kind of wrapped into this
29:28
abstract metaphorical versus image
29:30
provoking kind of lyric but both are
29:33
needed oftentimes for effective songs
29:35
but checking out your tense making sure
29:38
it stays consistent basically that the
29:40
lyric reads like a story like a
29:43
conversation would and that you’re not
29:46
just giving us fragments of phrases
29:48
without conjunctions and prepositions or
29:50
pronouns to connect the lines sometimes
29:53
it’s difficult to digest a lyric meaning
29:56
if it’s just bits and pieces and we
29:58
can’t really make sense of it and then
30:00

Point of View: I, You, He, She, We

the last thing would be points of view
30:02
using I you he she and we sometimes you
30:06
can move between those in a verse and a
30:08
chorus in different sections of the song
30:11
to make that more powerful and for
30:14
contrast
30:22
you

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