Avoiding common songwriting obstacles

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Songwriting tips from Ben Camp

Ben Camp is a successful songwriter whose song “Gold” was a hit for Victoria Justice, tallying more than 14 million YouTube views. In Part I of this interview, “The road to becoming a successful songwriter,” Ben spoke about his journey as a songwriter and the importance of building a team as “today’s music industry is very fragmented, so the more angles you can come at a project with, the more likely you are to be successful.”

In this post, Ben shares his perspectives on the art and craft of songwriting, including methods he uses to develop compelling song ideas. He expands on his thoughts about the importance of co-writing and why he believes it’s essential to build a network of talented collaborators while pointing out some of the common mistakes aspiring songwriters often make.

Let’s dive into the craft of pop songwriting. You mentioned there are rules and conventions, so when you are working with someone who excites you with their raw talent, what types of issues come up that you help them understand and improve?

Singers with fantastic voices provide an interesting problem. Most great singers know exactly what range makes their voice sound spectacular. As a result, a lot of them tend to write the entire melody of their song in that one little sweet spot, within the range of fifth or a sixth, which robs them of the ability to use a melody to affect the listener’s emotions. Instead, they rely solely on the strength of their voice to influence the listener.

When you cut the range down and only allow yourself a handful of notes, your melodic contour can’t take the listener on a journey. Even if you do something as simple as take the chorus and move it up an octave, you can really set off some great fireworks and draw the listener in.

One of my favorite examples of that technique is the song “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty. The verse and the chorus are centered primarily around the same scale notes, but when the chorus uses those notes an octave higher, the song hits almost everybody that listens to it like a ton of bricks. Even if you’re going to use the same pitch set from verse to chorus, just taking it up an octave and hearing the change in the voice is such a powerful tool.

Songwriting tips

What about lyrics? What problems pop up most often?

A lot of young artists fall into a few common traps, the first of which is rhyme scheme abuse.

Much like we just discussed the pitches being the same in every section, they will have the same rhyme scheme in every section. The verse will be A-B-A-B, the pre-chorus will be A-B-A-B, the chorus will be A-B-A-B and maybe even their line lengths will be identical. Repetition and variation are the keys to songwriting success. You want to repeat things enough to give the listener something to hang on to, but you want enough variation to make it exciting and fresh. Repeat too much and they get bored, if you vary too much, they get disinterested. That applies in use of rhyme scheme, as much as it does in melody and length of lines.

Another trap a lot of young writers fall into is clichés. Since they feel it’s really nice to sing an “I” sound at the end of a line, they go with “fire,” and the next line they go with the first thing out of their mouth, which happens to be “desire.” This is one of those craft versus instinct battles, where I would encourage people to let their craft have a fighting chance.

Your instinct is going to tell you what vowel sounds best – I believe it was Keith Richards who once called his writing process a “vowel movement.” Which is to say he is simply singing vowel sounds over the melody to try things out. And if you get a rhyming dictionary, or even just spend five minutes going through that vowel sound exercise, you’ll be able to drastically increase the amount of your personal flavor that’s going to be in the track. Because I guarantee you, anybody with a firm grasp of the English language and a basic knowledge of pop music of the last 50 years is going to instinctively come up with “desire” to rhyme with “fire.”

So when you’re working on your lyrics, take a minute and really look at your rhyme sounds and the words that you’re choosing and ask yourself if something else hits you harder. And the only way to tell that is to sing it, which is another mistake a lot of young writers make. They’ll literally write lyrics and never sing them, so they never have any idea how good they are.

Frequently in a writing session, I’ll have what I think is the dumbest idea down on paper and something I think is pretty good, and when we actually sing them, they get completely reversed! As a result, I’ve made a rule in my writing sessions that if somebody writes something down, you gotta sing it, just to hear how it sounds. The number of untapped gems that we’ve found that way has made a lot of songs stand out.

In addition, for some listeners, the lyric is going to be the most identifiable element of how they remember that song. And how does that artist wear that lyric? I sometimes use the analogy that the artist is the actor, and the lyric is the script, and the song is the movie. You wouldn’t want to cast an action hero in the role of a damsel in distress. So you want to make sure your lyric is always putting your best foot as an artist forward so the listener connects with the feeling you are trying to portray.

Can you talk a little bit about collaboration? It seems on nearly every hit song today, if you look at the writer’s credits, you’ll see quite a few collaborators.

The aspect of [songwriting] specialization is something that has become less and less practiced these days. I think that is because for nearly every label or project, it seems the budgets are shrinking from what they used to be – and the timetables, too. Everybody wants better results and faster turnarounds. So to keep up, you have to collaborate. You either need to have someone on your team who can do what needs to be done, or you need to learn how to do it yourself.

The frequency and type of co writing that happens today as opposed to that which happened 50 years ago (Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards) is a reflection of that. Today, a publisher or A&R rep emails you and says we need this song for project A, another for project B, and this song for this particular movie; and you have a week to hand in three songs, fully finished.

We’re not talking about, “Write the song and send in a voice memo from your cell phone.” They need the song, they need the beat, the vocal arrangement, and the mix; meaning they can send it to the movie and have it ready to place, or they can submit it to an artist and just swap out the lead vocal and go.

Putting together a specific team of people for each project is pretty helpful to be able to deliver the results they are asking for: quick turnaround and a high level of quality. With a team, you are able to stylistically broaden the horizons of what you can deliver. One day I’m writing an urban song, the next day I’m writing a dance a capella, and the following day I’m working with somebody who wants an indie-electronic sound. I will bring in different co-writers for each of those.

If it’s a rock artist, I will bring in a buddy of mine who has great rock instincts. I don’t come primarily from a rock background. So there will be the artist, myself, the rock guy, and perhaps a fourth person if we need another producer. There are also the business elements as I said before. The more people you have working together on a project, the more avenues you have to get that project placed.

Also a lot of times, labels will not want to release something if it doesn’t have one of their guys on it. Their producer, their writer, their vocalist, and so on. If you want to get the next Cee-Lo single, chances are you’re going to be working on that track with one the label’s in house producers, because of course, the labels want to get a cut of the publishing income and keep as big a share as possible.

Any closing thoughts on what it takes to be successful as a songwriter?

You had brought up the etiquette of co-writing earlier and a couple of things come to mind. First of all, one of the best ways I’ve heard it described is as a “no-free” zone, which I have to credit to my teacher at Berklee, Pat Pattison. The idea being that you should never just flat out say “no” to any idea. You should either not say anything and just keep generating ideas, or take the idea and find something you do like and add to it.

When you are co-writing, keeping a great emotional vibe in the room and keeping everybody’s spirits up is just as important to getting a quality product out. When people are excited they turn out more and better work. So your job is not only to come up with great melodic, lyrical, and production ideas, but also to keep people engaged and excited about what’s going on.

A second co-writing tip is something that I learned over time that I have found very useful to remember.

The first two years out of Berklee that I spent writing, we would get a pitch sheet and it would show everyone who was looking for a particular type of song and when they needed it. The writing sessions would be, “Today, we are going to write a Kelly Clarkson song.” And we would spend all day listening to every song that Kelly had recorded and we would find a singer with about the same vocal range and every decision in the writing room was made trying to decide, “Does that sounds like something Kelly would sing?” Is that something the label is looking for?

That led to a lot of turning off of the instincts of the people in the room instead of trusting our gut feeling to what was a great song. As a result, we got a lot of garbage songs that nobody was interested in, and we didn’t understand why.

The approach that I use now is to treat someone in the writing room as an artist. And trust my instincts on what sounds good in their voice. At every melody or lyric choice, I ask that somebody in the room in a co-writing situation is going to be able to sing, and we treat that singer as the artist. Whether or not that person wants to sing the song for themselves, of whether or not their style of music is totally different than the style of music we are writing that day, my question is, “Am I moved emotionally when I hear that voice singing that melody with that lyric?”

If I had a different singer in the co-writing session that day, I would probably write a different song, and unless the voice on the demo captures the emotion you want, the chances are less and less in today’s music industry that an A&R or music publisher will be able to project a fantastic voice onto that song later and really nail it.

So I really just try to find the emotional truth that is in that singer’s voice [in the writing session] and put that down on the recording and trust that somebody will hear it and have an emotional response to it.

Later they can decide where it needs to go – “as is” directly to a film or TV show, or will they say, “Yeah, I feel sad when I listen to this song and Leona Lewis is looking for a sad ballad, so let’s send it to her.”

So it all comes down to the honesty of what the song is communicating. In a way, nothing else really matters.

Correct, at least that’s how it works for me. I recommend that aspiring songwriters at least give this approach a try and see how it works for them.

Image of piano player via ShutterStock.com.

Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Disc Makers Echoes blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He’s also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.

Story links
Songwriting Without Borders by Pat Pattison
An excellent book for all levels of songwriters with a great many ideas to tap into your creativity

The Complete Rhyming Dictionary by Clement Wood and Ron Bogus

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16 thoughts on “Avoiding common songwriting obstacles

  1. I wrote many hit tunes but I never got my name on the song as songwriter. The copywrite office would reject my songs. I picked and choosed who would sing my songs. That gave the song a better chance of hitting high on the charts. None of the singers would give me credit for the song I wrote and almost always didn’t pay me. The exception was Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. Jackson paid me well as I did many songs for him.

  2. When making a song, consider previous songs and how listeners perceived them. Another important thing is to get feedback early on from “beta listeners” – it not only applies to software startups but anyone carving their own path in the world, musician or not…You must let your users be heard & you need a place for it. Only then you can figure out if your venture is worth pursuing and tho make a decision of when/where to pivot.

  3. Ben- I appreciate your tips here and some of them are new to me, so I will try them in a new tune. I also think the example of a singer writing for their voice is really spot on as I have fallen into that trap as well at times. It is nice to be reminded to explore octaves, etc. I also find that some of my best songs are definitely more conversational and less contrived as Randy Hansen has mentioned- you don’t want to “see the writing”.

  4. I have only one rule for budding songwriters: You get to rhyme “fire” and “desire” one time in your songwriting existence. After that no more, so use it well. 🙂

    As for pitfalls: Avoid the “list” song. You know where the chorus presents a general theme and you use the verses to offer examples in the form of a “list”. In other words if you had a song called, say “Overcoming” and the chorus referred to overcoming life’s obstacles and struggles, and then in each verse consisted of characters/circumstances that serve as examples that you check off a “list” (I.e. verse one a person with disabilities, verse two an abused women, verse three a poor person). These songs always come across as contrived because they are. One of the best (or worst I guess) examples of this is Poison’s “Something To Believe In”, especially the cliched line about the “suicidal Vietnam Vet” (not that Poison had any good songs anyway).

    What took me years to understand is that what people like about songs, is the same thing they like about books and movies, they want to be in the moment and not be taken out of it. You take people out of the moment in a song, when you show the writing process. People want to get lost in a song and they can’t do this when they can see you writing it. They need to be thinking about the characters in the song and the sadness, happiness, whatever going on in their circumstance within your tune. Once you have a bad rhyme or a cliched line it breaks the spell, because now they are not lost in the story, they are aware that someone tried to create a moment and did not. They are now aware of the writing process.

  5. The above compilation of lyric writing information is really informative. I have read books on how to write
    lyrics, and passed them along to my daughter ( Master Degree in Music ) who teachers piano and voice. I found the
    books were “Old school”sticking to “versification, Rhythm, Stanza Patterns” etc. I attended some classes at Austin Songwriters put on by Pat Patterson’s staffers. They all want “normal conversations” without cliche. I have written
    and copyrighted close to 300 songs with about 40 % I wrote lyrics. My work in the real world was in Counseling and have found that is a great help. A couple of Rhyming Dictionaries have been very helpful, too. I agree that singing grammar with rhyming needs attention. Check out my vocals on cdbaby. Click on my sailboats for a free listen.. My DBA is: Sousa – T Music, but most of my copyrights will be found under my name. ( Last name first,then first name.) Some of my songs are on a second page under ” Sousa-T Music “. Ted

    1. Ted, though books on the study of music and music theory are valuable, I don’t think that a book on how to write lyrics would be of any value whatsoever. Good lyrics come from the heart and soul and are developed from living life. Life teaches you how to write lyrics. If you have to buy a book to figure it out you’re not going to ever be much of a lyricist I’m sorry to say.

  6. Hi!

    I come from a Christian Songwriting background and what I see even outside Christian Music there is a lot of mono-tone, go nowhere and content in lyrics are just gone. A lot of what I hear has a “Paint By The Numbers” feel to the songs.

    Music Theory is needed and some Good Mentoring. Just because you can gather some Loop Tracks and cut & paste them on a computer in a fashion does not mean you are a musician or songwriter. It seems many think so and sorry to say music has gone to an all new low that I have heard some call this period the Music Dark Ages or something on that order of phrasing.

    It seems that many want instant gratification without the study of Music Theory, Music Lessons on an/on Instrument/s that takes many years to perfect. Any good Painter knows that one must learn from those who came before them and then develop their own style of Painting or other disciplines in the Arts, but those in Music seem to think that Painting By The Numbers is good enough; BUT IT IS NOT and now that it has been out there long enough people do not discern the difference between quality and a novice, at best.

    When I was a Student of Photography I had a good instructor who said, “Most people do not know a quality Print until there is a comparison.” He proved this and when I had my own studio I would throw a bad print away and someone would say, “Don’t throw that away; it’s really good!” Then I would show them the “Final Print” and then they would say, “Oh! I guess you were right.”

    A lot of this non-sense ins continuing due to Exploitation of Youth, for they can be manipulated easier than someone of experience who has lived some life, but I could go on and on about all of this to the point of boring everyone to death. (lol)

    To have Quality Music you must first have the knowledge of what Quality is and is not. Mentoring an beginning Artist is a Must, but that would require people to Not Be Greedy and take time with others and I don’t see that happening due to the lack of being personable to each other dealing face to face, but that, again, is another subject in itself.

    Charles of “Higher Call” Music

    1. Great post! I’m a Christian musician with forty-plus years of experience, but, they ask me to run the sound-board at church! They want to show -off what THEY can do, instead of working as a team for God’s glory.

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