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image showing the circle of 5ths

How to use the Circle of Fifths to write songs

I know many of you don’t care for music theory. It’s clinical, it’s boring, and it sucks the soul out of songwriting. Well, news flash: you’re using music theory whether or not you intend to. For myself, I know my theory pretty well, as I learned it at young age. I couldn’t tell you if I’m playing in a Mixolydian or Phrygian mode, though, except that it’s fun to throw “Phrygian” into normal conversation.

Case in point: the Circle of Fifths (the Circle). Download a hi-res copy here. I’ve been asked before if a certain chord progression is an example of the Circle of Fifths. The question is missing the point. The Circle of Fifths isn’t a technique like modulation or chord substitution. It’s a way of understanding the essential elements of western music: the notes, the intervals, the chords, and the relationships between them.

It’s the relationships between chords that make a chord progression. Referring to the Circle of Fifths can help you discover interesting chord progressions, particularly when you’re stuck for what the next chord wants to be.

Just like clockwork

The Circle looks much like a clock. Just like there are 12 hours on a clock, there are 12 notes on the Circle. (If you haven’t downloaded a copy yet, you’ll want to so you can refer to it as you read the rest of this article.)

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electric guitar, headphones, and notebook on the floor with the caption 7 ways to bring variety to your songs

7 ways to bring variety to your collection of songs

When writing a collection of songs, whether for a album release or in general, we sometimes end up playing it safe and resorting to tried and true motifs and ideas for every song.

For myself, when I become a fan of an artist or band, I like to hear a variety of songs. Sometimes the differences are obvious, like a ballad vs. a rockin’ out song. And sometimes, the variety comes in more subtle ways – ways that only looking closer reveals. Your audience will know something feels different and unique, but only the more discerning listeners will know the how and the why.

More than likely, you’re already doing some of these “7 ways” – they are by no means truly unique ideas, as my examples of popular songs will show. Some of them may not work for you, and this list is by no means exhaustive. Hopefully, looking at these will spur on some more ideas. So let’s get into it.

One: Play with the structure

The typical verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus structure is a go-to for many songwriters. But you don’t have to look any further than the Beatles for excellent examples of structural inventiveness. In I Feel Fine, for example, the title occurs at the end of each verse. Then there’s a “B” section that almost sounds like a bridge, until it repeats later, and then maybe you can call it the chorus. Who knows? And more importantly, who cares? It’s all catchy, the title is clear, and the changes are frequent, regular, and interesting. They did something similar with A Hard Day’s Night, and we argued about it on an episode of Song Talk Radio.

When you play around with structure, the parts of the songs sometimes defy conventional nomenclature. Call it a bridge or a chorus, it doesn’t matter; it’s merely semantics. Sometimes it’s more effective to use terms like “A section”, “B section”, and “tag.”

Sometimes the narrative you establish can inspire an unconventional structure. For my song, Depend on Me, I established a narrative with three distinct parts: the easy going afternoon drive, a car accident, and the aftermath. This structure inspired me to begin the song with a simple verse chorus, verse chorus, then a bridge (for the accident) and a completely new section for the aftermath. Read more

Creating Lyric Sheets that Don’t Suck

I hope you’re not like me and just keeping all your songs just in your head, It’s a bad habit I’ve developed over the years and one I’m still working against.

I’m especially bad at writing my lyrics down, which is surprising considering how bad I am at writing lyrics. You’d think I would want to capture anything that comes out after many hours of frustrating work.

We get to see a lot of lyrics here at Song Talk Radio. Every guest submits lyrics to us before they appear on the show and we use them as a way of notating what we like, etc. And although everyone seems to have a different approach, they almost all have some critical omissions.

They won’t make you famous if they can’t contact you

The biggest mistake we see is the lack of any kind of contact information on lyric sheets. You never know where you lyrics will wind up (perhaps someone will come across your amazing words in a year or two and want to give you truck-loads of cash, which would suck it they can’t get in touch with you), so you want to make sure that you have all your contact info on the sheet visible – it will also make legal ownership of the song a bit easier to confirm in the future. (Here’s a bit of trivia for you: at one time in the US, if you published a song without a copyright notice, it was considered to be in the Public Domain.)

You’ll obviously want to include your name and/or your band name, a phone number and an email address as everything is done vie email these days (even scheduling phone calls!).

Also, include your website if you have one. If you only have a Soundcloud page, simply purchase a cheap domain name from one of our favourite domain sellers, and just point your new domain name to your Soundcloud page. If, in the future, you want to use a different service to showcase your work — perhaps you’ll have your own website by then or just offer you music on iTunes — you can change where the domain points to – all your old lyric sheets will remain accurate.

AND, since you now have your own domain name, use your domain’ed email on your lyric sheets (so if you have the “MaryMarksRocks.com” domain, create an “info” or “[email protected]” and auto-forward it to your Gmail or present email service. If, in the future, you change from Gmail to some other mail service, just change where your “marymarksrocks.com” email forwards to.

Getting your own domain is super simple and stupid cheap. The company I use for such a thing is easyDNS.com. They’re based in Toronto, the president is a great songwriter himself,  they are an all around dependable company and have been around since the 90s’.

Ensuring you get paid

If you’re in Canada, you might as well register your songs with SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada – no, I can’t figure out how they came up with SOCAN either ). Registering your songs is free and is always a good habit to get into, This brings in the next most important part. Read more

Making an Emotional Impact as a Performer: Part 2

 

If you read Part 1 of this three-part series, you’ll also have listened to three different performances of the song “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

What you may have learned is that the way you interpret a song makes a difference in the way people will react to your performance.  This means the way you choose to sing each phrase, emphasize key words, and bring in dynamics and emotional expression are important in making an emotional impact.

So, now I want to get into the Song Interpretation Exercise that I mentioned, which can help you think more intentionally about all of these elements.

Just a note: I’d like to think I’m brilliant, but I didn’t make this all up. A huge thanks goes to my former vocal teacher, Véronik Fournier (a.k.a. V), who passed on this incredibly helpful exercise to me.

First things first, choose a song you want to work on. Then download the Song Interpretation Exercise template here and get going with Step 1!

Step 1: Character, Objective, Moment Before, Win or Loss?

My Character

It may seem obvious that the “Character” in question – i.e. the person singing the song – is, well, you.

Technically, yes. However, is every story that you communicate through the songs you perform actually about you?

Maybe you are singing a song that you wrote completely based on your own personal life story. In that case, when you do the rest of this exercise, you’ll probably be drawing from the exact events and emotions you experienced.

However, sometimes we perform songs that aren’t based on our real life history. For example, one of my songwriting collaborations involved me having to sing about how my now-ex-lover just ran off to Havana. Well, I assure you that this has never happened – but I needed to convince everyone that it had!

So, I created a character in my mind who I could embody when singing Havana”: a young woman who had gotten in deep with her Cuban lover and brought him back to her homeland. Yet, after a tumultuous time together, he packed up and left her high and dry.

Although creating this made-up character may have seemed a bit disingenuous at first, I was able to own the performance by drawing from my own, very real experiences of having felt the emotions of longing, bitterness and despair that are expressed in the song.

Singing To

If you are performing at a show, you will, of course, be singing to your audience.  But, again, let’s get to the heart of the story behind the song.

Who are you, as the character of the song, singing to? Are you singing to your cheating, ex-boyfriend who is now trying to win you back? A group of angry protestors who are demanding change? Your first, newborn baby?

There’s something kind of freeing about approaching a performance in this way. Rather than getting the jitters about singing to a sea of faces watching you from their seats, you are simply communicating a story that is really about, and being directed at, someone else.

Objective

What is your objective, or reason, for singing these words to the person (or people) you are singing to? Is it to assure them that they are going to make it through their challenging situation? To convince yourself to take the leap into a new romance?

Clarifying this for yourself from the outset can help in shaping the rest of the exercise. Read more

Making an Emotional Impact as a Performer: Part 1

Having been immersed in the wonderful world of singer-songwriters during my time at Song Talk Radio, I’ve attended quite a number of gigs and open mics over the past year.

Everyone I’ve seen perform has great talent in singing, playing an instrument and writing music.

However, I find there’s a lot of variation in a performer’s ability to make an emotional impact on me as an audience member.

A singer may have an amazing voice, but if every song in their set (or even a single song) is delivered in the exact same way and with little variation in emotional expression, I might leave thinking: “That was a good show”, but not feeling that my mind was blown or heart inspired.

So, I’d like to share an exercise – the Song Interpretation Exercise, to be exact – that may help in taking your performance up a notch in the mind-blowing, heart-inspiring department.

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How to get noticed: Promotional Artist Tips: Photography

We don’t usually talk about Artist promotion in the Song Talk Radio Newsletter. You can find lots of places on the web that cover that.

But we do see a lot of submissions so we see all the different levels of “promotional” abilities in artists – and some could really use a few pointers.

Don't do this...
Um … don’t do this…

Understanding your target

The people you want to reach in the music or news industries are pretty busy folk. They’re constantly bombarded with random pitches of varying quality. They’re not going to spend 15 mins trying to decipher a vague description or your artist photo to figure out what you do. You need to be clear and grab them quickly – otherwise it’ll just be the circular file cabinet with your submission. They have a ton of other things on their desks.

1) Building your Arsenal

The first step is to spend a bit of time getting some basic marketing pieces together. Once you have it all ready to go, it’s easy to jump on any opportunities that pass your way. Meet a reporter for a local newspaper? Get his email and send them your description and photo when you get home.

These pieces would be

  1. Artist Promotional Photos
  2. Artist Description
  3. Marketing Materials (so printed junk)

Today, we’ll cover Artist photos.

So, where do I get off telling you all this stuff?

I’ve been working in advertising and design for far longer than I’d like to admit, and have worked with countless photographers on countless projects. Some successful, others less than fully, um, “satisfying” lets say. So you’ll get to learn from my mistakes.

It’s the person behind the camera that counts

Technology these days is incredible. The difference between a consumer level camera, pro-sumer and professional camera is less now than its ever been in the past. Ironically, this makes the actual person behind the camera more important now than ever.

Back in the day, there were quite a few photographers that were in fact not very good. But they were cheap, and had some high-end equipment so there was a good-sized market for them: customers needing photography but couldn’t really tell if what they were getting was good or not. I know – I spent countless hours trying to take their out-of-focus, poorly framed work and make it into something usable.

These days, the person behind the camera is key, and believe me, the ones who are great are truly, truly magic.

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How Song Talk’s Tweeting Songbird Landed in the Studio

Listening to the Tickle

I learned a really important lesson in 2015 that I’m taking with me as we charge ahead into the New Year.

Sometimes an opportunity presents itself to try something completely new – something you’d never expect to be interested in or be able to predict all the doors it would open for you down the road.

When that opportunity arises and you feel your curiosity pique, a buzz of excitement tickle you inside, don’t let fear or doubt dissuade you from what could be the beginning of a fun, life-changing journey!

For me, that unexpected opportunity was diving into the unknown world of radio.

Three weeks into 2015, my Facebook status declared in revelation:

2015 is all about getting out there and exploring unchartered territory! And so far January has been off to an amazing start, from checking out my first songwriters’ circle that motivated me to compose a new tune … to doing something totally unexpected but surprisingly interesting today – a volunteer workshop for Ryerson’s radio programming hub “The Scope”!

I had learned about The Scope at Ryerson from attending my first songwriters’ circle – a Meetup group organized by Bruce Harrott, Neel Modi and Phil Emery – where I discovered that this fab trio are also co-hosts of a show called Song Talk Radio at The Scope.

After returning home from the meetup, I started curiously browsing around The Scope’s website. Lo and behold, there was an announcement that they would be holding a volunteer boot camp in just a couple of days.

Was I in? I had no idea what to expect or what I wanted to come out of it. But I felt the tickle inside and suddenly found myself filling out the registration form and clicking “Submit.”

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Do you write songs from the heart or from the head?

Often on Song Talk Radio, this question arises.  Sometimes, it’s fun for the hosts to try and guess.  “Your song sounds very cerebral,” or “Your song sounds very intuitive.”  The guests themselves tell us how well considered every decision in their songwriting process is, or tell us “It just came to me.”  This question of process in creative endeavour is as old as the creative endeavours themselves. On Blair Packham’s show, he talked about his own journey on both the intuitive and the cerebral roads.

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Why I write songs

Millions of songs have been written and I imagine millions more are written every day. So why do I think it’s a good idea to add a few of mine to the mix?

Most importantly, it’s a way for me to be creative; like air, water or food – it is essential to my happiness. And all I need is my guitar, a piece of paper and a pen. In fact, I don’t really need my guitar. So it’s something I can do anywhere at any time; portable creative expression. It’s also a way for me to be more in touch with my feelings and, if I have a place to share my songs, express those feelings with others. That saves me hundreds of dollars in therapy sessions; which can be very helpful too.

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The Strange, Strange World of “Sound Alike” Songs

Is extrememusic.com providing a needed service while exploring songwriting challenges or is it doing something more insidious? Perhaps taking credit for an established artist’s work? You decide…


A couple of weeks ago, I attended a great conference hosted by the folks at HHB Canada where three top-notch TV and film composers talked about their industry. However, the most interesting take-away for me was my introduction to a service that film and TV folks use, known as “Production Music”.

In my day job as a marketing and advertising guy, I’ve used many a stock music track for videos and presentations when the client doesn’t have the budget for a composer to provide a custom score.

The main difference with this service is that it provides “Sound-Alikes” of popular and recognizable songs and artists, among its more generic offerings.

https://www.extrememusic.com/

The service provides music reflecting an “era” or a “mood” or to “sound like” an established artist, when the original TV or film production company doesn’t have the budget to license a track by the original artist. Sometimes the tracks are in the background of a scene.

Take for instance, their version of Queen’s Somebody to love:

The Original:

 

The Sound Alike: Just Belive

 

And this could be an unreleased Queen track: Runaway Train on Extrememusic

They really nailed it. The voice, Freddy Mercury’s approach to melody and chord structure. Wow.

Apparently, after production each track is sent down to a Music PhD fellow in LA who gives an opinion on whether or not the track is “too close” to the original. If it is, he provides recommendations and they go back, make the changes and then publish it. The tracks are even registered with CAPAC.

Initially, it’s fascinating. Going through the catalog one can’t help but admire the care and attention that the creators of the tracks go through to match the mood, sound, production styles, arrangements, playing styles, vocal style and even the lyrical approach of the original artists, while using different chords and melodies.

I would imagine it’s a blast to create these tracks, and a great way to really understand how these brilliant writers and performers did what they did.

But after a while, it gets kinda creepy… Read more