Great songwriting takes practice — and accidents
HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated February 12, 2017 – 12:00am
I am teaching songwriting this semester at the Ateneo de Manila University’s Communications Department, for the second year in a row.
I require certain conditions of the students who wish to join my class. I require that enrollees play at least one instrument. I also want a small class of no more than 15 students, although this semester, I ended up with 18. I gave way after I read the emails of some applicants who missed the deadline. I sensed that they really wanted to be in the class.
My approach to this subject is very hands-on. I ask the students to bring their guitars. There is a keyboard available in the classroom. I require them to write at least one song a week. It is quite a challenge but I really feel that you can’t learn songwriting without writing as many songs as you can. Writing continuously makes one write better. While there are theories and structures to learn, songwriting is not a subject that involves much intellectual pursuit.
One’s approach to songwriting is usually 90 percent intuitive and 10 percent intellectual. The only way to learn is to have an intimate knowledge, a passion and a feel, for music. And one must play it. If you approach this as a regular subject, you will not learn much. You must “love” it and feel it. Only then will you learn.
Of course, I teach chords and their relationships to one another. I also show how and why certain songs are great and some are not. I give them formulas to follow and play with. This gives the lessons some kind of structure. I always tell them that they must master the rules and only when they know them well can they break them like artists do.
I encourage my students to pay attention to one or two songwriters they like and to emulate them. Learn and play every song they have ever recorded. Know their style. Copy if you wish. And when you think you’ve learned a lot from them, can you explore on their own.
I encourage them to listen to the Beatles, who were the biggest influence in my songwriting. They taught me how to write simply and to be bold in my approach. I have a few students who love the Beatles, but sadly, the majority of kids today do not know their music.
In every class, I pass on practical tips that the students can adapt immediately. When I was learning to play the guitar, I would watch anyone who played it live or on TV. I paid attention to chords, beats, lyrics, genres, styles, etc.
As a young man, music was my life. The guitar saw me through teenage angst, heartaches, shyness, insecurity — all the feelings trapped inside me that were blocked by my inarticulateness. Music was a parallel language that I used to express myself. What I could not articulate, I could sing out loud. The melodies and lyrics were like conversations, while the chords were the context.
I learned music on my own. I never went to music school. I do not know how to read notes, but I know my chords, bars, measures. I can work with professional musicians and talk about flats, sharps, etc. I can follow music charts. I learned everything from experience and by being intensely interested. I try to pass on to my students this wonder and fascination I have for music and how to write their own songs.
I believe that their interest, if it is keen enough, will teach them what they need to know. My job as teacher is to guide and encourage them, accelerate the speed of knowledge, and nurture their passion.
In my last class, I taught my students a series of chords to increase their songwriting vocabulary. I could hear them sigh when they heard certain progressions I played. I remember being a young man rushing home because I had a song in my head and I wanted to play it on guitar for affirmation. It was such a great feeling.
I try to approach each student individually since they are not all starting from the same place. Some are newbies at guitar while a few have been at it for years. Some have written a few songs; others are literally just starting. I expect the more skilled ones to pull up the rest of the class.
I tell my students that they will write a lot of bad songs before they write a good one. At this point, quantity is more important than quality. A good song is almost always accidentally made. In my years of songwriting, I know that to be true. I have had many hits and most of them, I can honestly say, were accidental. If I knew the formula for writing hits, then every song I have written should have become hits.
And so I encourage quantity and prolific output. This also applies to every kind of artistic pursuit. The more you do, the better you get at your craft. And the better you get, the more chances for that happy accident to happen.
In the end, the aim is to become “accident-prone” and coming up with consistently excellent work.