A songwriter writes

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated August 2, 2015 – 12:00am

I was recently interviewed by some college kids who are doing a thesis on the APO Hiking Society, and I was asked when I wrote my first song. I answered that I must have been about 14 or 15 years old.

I was actually stunned by my answer. Holy cow! That means I have been writing songs for almost 50 years now!

It seems not too long ago when I wrote my very first song. Looking back now, it was an amateurish, sophomoric song called Every Minute of the Day, which I wrote inside the family car on the way home from school. It felt like a great achievement at that time. And once I started, I just kept writing, up to this day.

Songs are very interesting creations. They seem to come from nowhere and create themselves by using songwriters to bring them to life. What do songwriters use? A mix of some 12 notes spread out in octaves, beats, and time signatures. They put words into them and voila! A song is born.

It is a magical process. It is astonishing that practically all songs are made this way but each one has different permutations and combinations.

Every week I receive mail from young songwriters asking me to listen to their stuff. I sometimes do, but most of the time, I don’t. It is tiring to listen to songs that are not made or recorded well. Besides, I never got free advice from songwriters I admired when I was starting and it was probably a good thing. I worked my own mojo.

But for those who aspire to be songwriters, here are some tips you may find useful.

1 Write as often as you can. Be determined. Do not wait to be inspired. Write because a songwriter writes songs. It is as simple as that. Look at what you do as both art and craft.

2 Follow three or four artists you like, and listen to everything they have recorded. It is important to know that the best ones have written songs that are good, bad, mediocre and brilliant. They also have songs that never became hits. Follow them initially as a fan and later as a critic.

3 Great songs have wonderful melodies, lyrics, arrangements and vocals. Mostly though, you will notice that many of the good ones are driven either by very recallable, haunting tunes, or lyrics that move you. Be able to take notice and understand why you like the songs you like. It will help you as you create your own stuff.

4 Most good songs climb melodically and make you feel like they are taking the listener somewhere. Imagine an airplane on a runway. Your compositions should not stay too long on the runway. These days, listeners have a shorter attention span than their parents did. So try to climb and take off within 15 seconds if you can so they don’t lose interest.

5 Probably 98 percent of pop songs are about love. Therefore, avoid clichéd melodic lines and lyrics. There are ways to express love that have not been explored yet. Discover them. Write from the heart.

6 Listen to old recordings from the ‘40s to the ‘70s. You will learn a lot of chords, progressions and great lyric writing. Listen to Jim Webb, Cole Porter, the Beatles, Michelle Legrand, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, to name a few. I learned to play all the Beatles songs and I credit them with about 70 percent of my musical education. It’s good to develop a wide reference in many genres.

7 Imagine your songs in different styles. You may have written it in a certain genre. Try to play it in different ways and styles and beats. You may discover that it sounds better when you play around with it.

8 Do not fall in love too much with your work. From its inception to final mix, think of every part of it as still a work in progress. You may have to rewrite a few lyrics, or alter the melody. You may even discover that you have written something better in the past that works better with your current project.

9 Learn to accept rejection. I have joined many songwriting contests only to be told that I did not make the grade. I have submitted songs to artists and record companies and have been turned down as well. That’s life.

But do not let rejection leaden your heart or kill your spirit. Some songs are made to be played in the future under new and different circumstances. My rejected songs eventually did become hits — as recordings with APO.

Lastly, do not judge your work too harshly. Don’t beat yourself up because of what you think is “bad” work. Remember that whatever you do, you are doing your best under whatever circumstances you are in. Just enjoy it.

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5 years ago

Great tips for upcoming songwriters.

You are right about people these days having a shorter attention span. I am guilty about that as well pero I have also noticed na iba na ang mga topics and themes ng kanta.

I prefer the old ones. May kwento… not just repeating phrases.

5 years ago

Thanks for sharing Jim! You’re an inspiration to budding musicians/songwriters.