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Michael-Anderson

Michael Anderson is a songwriter, artist, producer, and author who has written songs for John Fogerty, Juice Newton, Pam Tillis, Phil Seymour, Rebecca St. James, and others in rock, pop, country, and CCM. 

His songs have been featured in films and television, including recent season finales of “American Idol” and “The Voice”.

He has been a staff writer for EMI and BMG Publishing in Nashville, as well as MCA /Universal and Criterion Music in Los Angeles. 

He wrote the #1 country single, “Maybe It Was Memphis”, several #1 CCM singles, and won a Dove Award for “Hard Rock Song of the Year.”

As a solo artist he has released seven albums, including two on A&M Records, two on EMI / Forefront, and three independent releases. 

At the Musicians Institute in Hollywood he teaches professional songwriting and artist development, and wrote the songwriting curriculum for the Independent Artist and Vocal programs. He also teaches private lessons on professional songwriting at Westwood Music in Los Angeles, Ca.

He is a member of the Greater Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in South Central Los Angeles and sings in the Mens Chorus.

Educational Offerings

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Learn from one of the "true" masters as Michael interviews music producer/songwriter/executive Michael Lloyd

Learn how to start the song writing process

Learn how to break out of song writing patterns

Learn where to put your focus

 

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Child, Pre-teen, Teen, Adult

I had the honor of having producer / songwriter / music executive Michael Lloyd come into my songwriting interview class at MI and I thought I would pass along some of the things he had to say.

I have known Michael for a few years now but I didn’t know how extensive his resume was – you can search him on the internet for the full list, but for me the most surprising thing I found was he has over 100 gold and platinum records – that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 100 (or more) million records.

So this article may bounce around a bit (like an interview) – but I am sure you can take away some vital information.

On listening: He said that as a producer he was the captain in the studio – someone had to make decisions – he may not always be right – but somebody has to keep the sessions going and get the project finished.

He mentioned he has always been impatient – but he has been working on listening and letting other people go with their opinion –

How to start writing a song: Michael says he generally starts with the title – and he finds it more difficult to write a lyric to a melody he has written – in that case he likes to work with someone else on the lyric. Needless to say, he is a great believer in collaboration and everyone working to their strengths –

One gem of an idea Michael gave to the class was a tip on writing the way Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote. Michael said Oscar Hammerstein would write the lyric to another popular song’s melody – and then give the lyric to Richard Rodgers, but not tell him what melody he wrote it to – that way Richard Rodgers would write a melody that was fresh – and no one but Oscar Hammerstein would know the original melody that the lyric was patterned on.

That way the lyric is written to a form – a concept that is sometimes difficult for new writers. It can also help writers keep from writing similar songs and break out of patterns.

That approach would work very well for many people who have come to me saying they would like to collaborate, but don’t know how to start. Might even be a good way to try people out. I would imaging it would work both ways – for lyric or melody.

Focus: Michael says what is very important is focus – what are you writing for – what is your market – look at Radio and Records – online or get the paper – and focus where you are pitching. Michael mentions that if you can’t describe what style you are – chances are other music business professionals won’t know either.

He mentions you have to focus and work every part of your song – every element has to be right. He says that is not to be discouraging – it is a tough business – but everything is tough. That’s not a big deal – you just have to stay concerned with what you are doing – you have to stay passionate – involved – and not self satisfy easily.

You have to be able to sacrifice your time, energy, patience, and emotions to get good stuff. It’s hard, but you gotta do it. Music touches people in a way that nothing else does – it touches people emotionally in a unique way – you need to remember that when crafting your songs –

He said you work till you drop – he says he is obsessive about his work.

He also mentions that everyday you have to try and learn more to make it in this business – with all the success he and Mike Curb have had, it is still an evolving process –

Marketing: Michael says today it is all about entrepreneurship, creating your market – promoting yourself – doing what the record company did under the old paradigm, which doesn’t exist anymore – your promotion is up to you. The people at the labels are “morons – they are clueless – they are a marketing and bank thing” – that’s all they are.

But the bottom line seemed to be when he said this business is fun – it’s not like other businesses. It is a dream based business – dream big – everyone is an individual and they will be judged individually at different stages of their careers – do what you can, do the best you can, and respect the other people that you are around.

He also said he needed people like the students in the class to provide the songs and be the artists and producers to supply him with the hits for the future.

I really appreciate the technical knowledge he brought to the class, but probably the biggest thing I learned form him is his attitude of giving – he took the time from his very busy schedule to come to the class at MI to share with students his wisdom and knowledge gained from his years of experience. He did it with a demeanor of calm, helpfulness, and giving back  – an openness and friendliness the students appreciated.

And that is a lesson for more than just songwriting.

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Learn the Basics of Song Writing

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Teen, Adult

Most people I meet in my business have a dream. They want to write a hit song.

Sometimes they’ve pursued that dream with no compromise with a full time career in the music business. Sometimes they’ve pursued it on the side while they went to school, held other jobs, or even had another career. 

But they hear songs on the radio and wonder, why is that a hit? Why couldn’t my song be a hit? 

Well, maybe it could. It’s a long shot. But it happens. Somebody wrote every song you hear on the radio. And I’ll guarantee you, each and every one of them wrote a lot of bad songs before they wrote that hit. 

But each one of them had two other things going for them--the drive to keep making mistakes and learning, and eventually, an understanding of the elements of a well-crafted song. 

A hit song can be a matter of luck; but before you even get to roll the dice on that, you need to be able to write a good song.

I have been in the music business a long time. Because of my experience people ask me for advice. 

The following email is an interesting example.

Hi Michael,

Dean and I were thinking that as long as we were going to be in 

 Nashville in April, we could check into having 2-3 of my best songs recorded down there. It would have a truer country sound than my originals.  Maybe with a better demo I might have a chance of getting published? 

Isn't this the next logical step? I don't know. I work on my writing craft, to improve it, and as you know based on my demos, I'm not the greatest arranger on the keyboard, and my vocals are O.K., but not country sounding. I know what my strengths are as well as my weaknesses. That's what's going through my mind. I'm walking blind through this process. You've been down this road before. I haven't. I really need your advice.

I really do appreciate your mentoring me. You have given me hope that maybe I am getting better as a writer.  Lisa.

Lisa:

I understand your frustration in trying to "crack the code" for success in this business. I have also sensed your willingness to set aside your personal feelings toward your songs and really listen to constructive criticism in order to get better. That is why I take the time with you to help when I can.

In my opinion it all depends on the song itself. A clear vocal and guitar (or piano) demo of a great song is still a great song. 

A full production of a song with structural flaws is still just a song with structural flaws. That’s a lesson I have learned over and over again in this business.  You can build a mansion or cottage on an unstable foundation and it will never be right. I have seen many people waste ridiculous amounts of time and money making great demos of songs that had structural problems the production couldn’t hide. 

If you want to hear what your songs sound like with a full production, then the process you are considering in Nashville should give you that experience. It will be a learning experience, and that is usually a good thing.

But personally, I would make sure the songs are as structurally sound as possible before you take that major step.

Songwriting As Art

Songwriting is an art form, not a formula. Good songwriting is a delicate balance between talent and skill. I’m defining talent as a natural ability and as the essential ingredient in creating artistically satisfying results. But when it comes to translating talent into success in the music business, the key is determination. Stubbornness.

If you have no talent for songwriting, nothing will change that. 

If you have no determination, forget the music business.

I have seen people with very little talent go a long way in this business, and I’ve known very talented people who couldn’t survive the ride. 

People are talented or gifted in different ways. Some have the knack for drawing or painting; some can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. Some people are great dancers; some aren’t. Some people are good at becoming another character and acting, or directing. Everybody seems to have something.

If you have some natural ability for songwriting, you can focus and maximize your gift, and craft better songs on a more intuitive level.

Like all living art, songwriting is a form of action that is impossible to codify and force to conform to strict rules and conventions. That’s why it is art, not science.

For every basic elemental guideline of songwriting presented, many exceptions surely apply. You should listen to observations and suggestions, opinions and perspectives, defined through the lens of personal experience. Take or leave anything you like. 

But songwriting, like any art form, is also an individual path. Reading about it, studying it, going to seminars, listening to others speak about it can all be encouraging, enlightening and even inspiring. But ultimately it is actually doing the work yourself—writing songs--that teaches you the most about the art form. 

This article is excerpted from “Michael Anderson’s Little Black Book of Songwriting” available at  michaelanderson.com

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Find the fun in your song writing. Learn how in this learning post

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Pre-teen, Teen, Adult

One aspect of songwriting that cannot be over emphasized is that it should be fun. You should enjoy writing songs – if you don’t enjoy the writing process how can the listener enjoy the final product? You can’t transmit something that isn’t there.

 Sometimes we can forget that - business pressures, outside criticism, and even our own ego can get in my way. But to a true songwriter, writing a song is how you feel right with the world.

Find your joy in the process. You may write some very gratifying songs. You may enjoy the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction when they are finished. But it is the process, the excitement of doing it, that you can enjoy the most. When you enjoy what you are doing it shows in the finished work. 

Appreciate your gift. Concentrate on where you are and the next step, and your final destination will be getting closer. You may never get there. You may get there and not like it, you may get there and it will be everything you dreamed of. Or you may be there now.

Art is an expression of that part of our nature that seeks to rise above the mundane, the physical, to reach for something more - the understanding of life, love and purpose. Everyone has within them talents and gifts to express their own unique perspective on life.

An analogy I have heard is we are like different prisms taking in the source of life, one white light, and putting out different colors and patterns. I like that.

The music business exists to remind us that temptation, corruption, and evil exist also. I’m kidding of course. Sort of.

Now we are social creatures too. Our nature is to seek answers to the big questions of life, death, and love, as well as to live, work, interact, and help each other through this difficult journey of life holding each other up, encouraging each other, contributing to the betterment of our community and the common quality of life. 

Everybody has a natural, healthy desire for self-expression, an entirely individual way of communicating a personal vision of the world. 

C.S. Lewis said we read in order to know we are not alone. 

We create in order to communicate on that level. 

Songwriting is one way of fulfilling that need. Writing a song is an expression by the writer, and hopefully an appreciation by the audience, of an otherwise inexpressible feeling. Great songs express that feeling in a way that nothing else can. Through your song, others see and hear things through your perspective.

Life is hard. But it can be fun.

 

Structure as fun 

 

Part of the fun in songwriting is working within a structure. You may wonder how a restriction like structure can be fun.

I am not referring to formulaic music that uses paint-by-numbers processes in order to achieve a predetermined reaction. However, there is a vital distinction between a formula and a structure.

There are fundamental song forms that represent the essentials of song structure. I encourage your experience with form to be liberating in possibility, and not limiting in imitation.

The basic pop song form is similar in discipline to haiku poetry, three chord blues, or the sonnet. These are all seemingly rigid forms that have endless variation and possibilities within the structure. A structure of possibilities rather than limits. 

Within those structures are substructures and forms, conventions, and expectations for the trained or untrained ear.

The beauty of a great song is bringing all of the elements, consciously or unconsciously, to fruition through the process of writing and crafting; to deliver an emotionally satisfying experience to the listener the way a great film, book, short story, painting, or performance does. Unlike those art forms, a pop song does it in about three minutes. That takes focus, structure, and a plan.

Form is a very involved topic, and many good books and courses go into far greater of detail on its intricacies than I can here. This article is intended as a very basic guideline on one of the elements of songwriting.

No one can teach you how to write a song. You either already do that or you don’t. It is your gift or it is not. If it is, then others can give you guidelines that will help you write songs in ways that more effectively communicate your inspired ideas.

My purpose in these articles is to lay down a basic foundation and perhaps a philosophy about the art of songwriting so that when you express “what is in you that has to come out,” the results are clear and compelling.  

I don’t write how to “get rich quick writing songs for fun and profit” articles. I write “how to recognize essential song elements and use them more effectively to craft your ideas in a way that other people will understand them within the structure of a song” articles. That was too long for a title though. And probably not as interesting as having fun.

Many books speak in depth about the business and craftsmanship side of this equation. My recommendation on that score is John Braheny’s “The Craft and Business of Songwriting”. 

This article is excerpted from “Michael Anderson’s Little Black Book of Songwriting” available at michaelanderson.com

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Learn how to write a good title and the importance of taking the title seriously when writing a song

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ti-tle n.

A name or descriptive heading that identifies a composition. 

A word or phrase or sentence that is used to designate a work and thus distinguish it from other works and often indicate the nature of it’s content.

Most non-professional songwriters do not understand the importance of the song’s title. It is a gradual learning process to appreciate just how necessary an effective title is.

I remember when I first started dealing with industry types; I was always a little surprised and even somewhat irritated when they would ask, “What’s the title?” 

At that time I didn’t understand what that could possibly have to do with the quality or viability of the song. I was used to audience reaction to the song. I didn’t quite understand that circumstances had changed. 

In the case of industry professionals, time is valuable. They are still deciding whether or not the song is worth listening to in the first place. And they get a lot of information about the song from the title.

I sensed somehow that the title was some kind of code that told them how good the song was going to be. Many years later, through my own experience in A&R, I found they were right.

Title Code

Back when I started writing a title would organically flow from the idea of the song at some point. A good song idea may or may not be good title. But what an industry professional knows is that a good title usually means a good song idea.

When I first started listening to other people’s songs for evaluation it dawned on me as I listened to other people’s songs what my publishers were seeing and hearing in the title years before.

An experienced song professional can discern a song’s depth by the title the way a psychic can tell fortunes by reading tea leaves.  

A song is an idea, and a title describes the idea. A well thought out, clever idea can usually be hinted at in the title to pique the interest of the listener and give some indication or preview of what is to come.

Qualities of a Good Title

Identifies 

The first thing a title does is identify your song. It names your song in the way a name identifies a person.

Many songs have very similar titles. They become hard to identify and keep track of on a business level. (Imagine the categorizing headache of a common title to BMI, ASCAP, or Sony Publishing). But more importantly, to the listener, common titles are not memorable or unique. 

Song titles like “I Love You”, or “I Miss You”, or “Don’t Leave Me” or other generic, nondescriptive titles don’t give your song a unique identity. Even more important, to an industry professional, a lackluster title will also indicate a lack of imagination that will more than likely be a characteristic of other elements of the song--no need to waste much time on that one.

The title is the first impression that industry professionals have of your song - and you only get to make one first impression. 

The title names your song. It distinguishes your song from all the other songs the listener hears. And, if it is sitting on an industry professional’s desk waiting to be listened to, ideally the title should imply something interesting about the character, attitude, or feel of the song that makes that person want to hear it. 

Designate and Distinguish

One of the most overlooked aspects of a title is the ability to convey in one small phrase an element of the song that gives it a distinguishing characteristic.

 Does the title say something about the song that is unique or special to that song? For instance, “Yesterday” conveys a sense of longing in one word. “I Love You” shows a lack of imagination and will probably be developed in an obvious way. “I Miss You” also seems very obvious, but with a slight twist, “I’m Not Missing You At All” (in which the lyric actually shows the singer is missing her very much) tells the same basic story in a fresh, interesting and memorable way. (Well, it did when it was new anyway).

Many titles however do not do that. Picture yourself as an industry professional with a desk piled with demos bearing titles such as “I Love You”, “You Broke My Heart”, “Please Come Back To Me”, and “Take Your Tongue Out Of My Mouth (I Was Kissing You Goodbye).” 

Which would you listen to first? Which piqued your curiosity and jumped out of the pack? 

There are a lot of songs out there. Sometimes the title may be your song’s selling point. It should say as much as possible, on every level, about your song. 

But the bottom line: Does your title make someone want to hear the song?

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Get your groove. It's the heartbeat of a song.  Find out how to find it in this post.

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Groove

1. a strong beat or rhythm in music (slang)

2. to play jazz or dance music with a strong beat (slang)

Feel

1. to touch somebody or a part of somebody’s body for the purpose of sexual gratification

2. to experience or cause an emotion or physical sensation

3. to be instinctively aware of something, usually an emotion that is not visible or apparent

It’s hard to image now, but a lot of the uproar over rock and roll music in the fifties was the beat: that infectious R&B influenced groove that inspired an entire group of poets, writers, artists and performers to be called the Beat Generation, and led a teenaged John Lennon to call his new band the Beat-les. 

White parents thought the primal beat of rock and roll would put their impressionable, hormonally excited teenagers into a catatonic, euphoric, trance-like state, and influence them to experiment with drugs, become sexually aroused, reject the cultural values of their society, and become more like Negroes. 

They were right.

The Heartbeat of Your Song

The groove has been the heartbeat of music since the first pre-historic man (I’d bet it was a man) started pounding out rhythms on hollow logs for people to dance to for religious ceremony or fun (these are very similar pursuits outside of puritanical societies). 

It is no coincidence that for years the basic criterion that the teen audience on American Bandstand used when judging a song was if it had a good beat and they could dance to it.

Groove and Spirit

It is also no coincidence that religious rituals, ranging from those of Southern Baptists to various pagan sects, begin with music or chanting or singing of some kind. The beat or drone opens the spirit, bypasses the reasoning faculties and turns off the turmoil in the consciousness. The individual soul unites with the collective consciousness and forms a spiritual connection in the ritual. 

Church services, rock concerts, wedding bands that get guests dancing, and even local bars with a band in the corner have that same ritualistic aspect in common. Music is an integral part of the ritual of the spirit that unites people, and the groove is the element that connects the body and the spirit. It is soul music.

Genre Feel

Every style of American pop music has its own particular accent or stylistic groove--an identity stamped into the feel--that sets it apart. 

If you’re planning on pitching your song to a particular musical genre, and you’re not already a member of a community--whether ethnic, racial, religious, or regional—that is closely identified with that type of music, it’s a good idea to immerse yourself in the elemental grooves and feels, the beats of the style of that genre. You have to connect on that primal, nearly unconscious level to be authentic to the audience that has that type of music already in its blood. 

Your Groove

Listening to a song without a groove is like listening to a speech by somebody without an opinion--what’s the point? 

Listen to your groove. Listen to the beat. Do you move your head or feet, sway or jump to the movement in your song? Does it engage your heart? A focused groove can show up problems in meter, timing, phrasing and structure.

One easy way to make sure your groove is at least average is by using any of the currently available myriad of looping programs and/or CDs with digital samples of various rhythms along with a sequencer. Even an inexpensive drum machine can be helpful in creating a solid groove; although getting a human “feel” from that type of device might be a challenge. Another way to get a song started or focused is to play it to a strong groove you like from a song in the style or genre that you intend to pitch. 

Remember, your groove allows the listener to get into your music and bypass the intellectual critical faculties. It should move into the heart and spirit elements of the music.

I have found the most common missed opportunity in a song in terms of groove is a soft, unfocused, generalized feel with no discernible identity. The wrong groove identity in an otherwise good song can be changed, but a lack of identity can rarely be fixed.

Is Your Mojo Working?

The best test I’ve found of whether or not your groove or feel is working is watching as other people listen to your song. 

  1. Did they smile as the beat started? 
  2. Are they moving? 
  3. Are they swaying to the beat? 
  4. Are they into the song before the first lyric is delivered? 
  5. If not, you have lost a prime opportunity to connect with your listener on a primal, unconscious level and set the listener up for hearing your song with one defense down.

This article is excerpted from “Michael Anderson’s Little Black Book of Songwriting” available at michaelanderson.com

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Learn what makes a good melody and how to find the melody in your song writing

Learn how to create a "singable" melody

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mel·o·dy n

1.  a succession of single notes of a different pitch arranged in a way that it is a recognizable entity – the principle part of a piece of harmonized music

2.  the primary and most recognizable part in a harmonic piece of music

Definition

The melody of a song is what people used to call the tune; the series of notes that you recognize when playing the notes of a song on one hand on a piano or keyboard, as single notes on a guitar, or that familiar, distinctive phrase of a song you hum.

It is also the musical phrase your lyric uses as its foundation for delivering your song. A sense of melody is one of the most difficult aspects of song writing to teach. It seems more than any other element; a sense of melody is the most innate and natural.

Melody is a simple concept. Without getting into musical theory, the main point is that from Beethoven to rappers, composers and songwriters have been using the same system of scales for centuries. From Cole Porter to Neil Young, Robert Johnson to Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday to Yoko Ono (well, maybe not Yoko, there’s always an exception). 

Yet it seems that beginning songwriters often overlook melody as an essential aspect of contemporary pop songwriting. 

A strong melody is one of the most distinctive elements of a memorable, successful, and long lasting pop song. Think of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett’s hits, the Beatles’ songbook, Disney movie ballads and Christmas carols. They all have recognizable and singable melodies.

Singers and Melody

A good singable melody shows off a singer’s talent in a way no other element of a song can. Singers like melodies that give them a chance to showcase their special gift--their voice. For this reason, it’s a usually a good idea to craft your songs’ melodic lines in a way that will appeal to singers to whom you might be attempting to pitch your material.  

If your song has the elements that take advantage of the singer’s strengths, and really shows off his or her abilities, your song might have a better shot at getting recorded over one that may have a stronger lyric, better structure, a connection in the publishing company, or even a co-write with the artist. Artists need hits and they want to look good doing them.

Singing Melodies Live

You learn a lot about songwriting in general, and melody in particular, by singing on stage. There is a range in the human voice that carries and delivers emotionally in front of people. If your melody is below that, it stays under a singer’s ability to get the feel across, and if your melody is unsingable the emotion will be lost. Singing your songs live to an audience will teach you what those vocal feels are so that you can incorporate them in your melodies.

It is important to remember in this age of multitrack recording studios, Pro Tools, microphones, loud electronic music and P.A. systems, that the natural elements of vocalizing have been developed over thousands of years, and people like good singing. It resonates in our hearts and in our spirits. 

It is also an important lesson to understand the natural range of the voice and use it to advantage in the melody of your songs.

One of the most effective ways of writing a song is just singing out loud to yourself, for instance in the car. That method has a lot of things going for it. You can sing out uninhibited (assuming you are alone – ignore the stares from other drivers – you may be rehearsing for an opera for all they know); you are doing something else (hopefully concentrating on the road) so sometimes it flows more naturally than when you are concentrating or forcing it, and you can feel a natural flow and get a sense of the obvious sing-along quality of your melody and song.

I sometimes take a small cassette recorder in the car with me for working out melodies and harmonies on songs I am still in the process of writing or recording. You’d be surprised at how much time you spend in a car (especially in Los Angeles) and how concentrated your time working on a melody or harmony can be.

Good Melody

A good melody has a flow. It delivers smoothly and effortlessly. Nothing gets in the way to hinder it. You can hum it easily. 

A good melodic sense in a song is a big indication to an industry professional hearing your song that you know what you are doing on a craft and artistic level.

This article is excerpted from “Michael Anderson’s Little Black Book of Songwriting” available at michaelanderson.com

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Learn the foundations of good lyrics

Learn how to combine lyrics with your music

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Pre-teen, Teen, Adult

Lyric n.  

1. Intense, personal poetry– lyrical – passionate, enthusiastic

 2. the words of a song, especially a popular song (often used in the plural)

3.  a short poem expressing personal feelings or thoughts

Definition

Lyrics are the words to your song. They can seem similar to a short poem but they serve a definite function within the pop song form. Lyrics tell the song’s story. But within that simple definition are conventions as well as countless variations on telling your story effectively. 

The word “lyric” originally comes from the Greek idea of personal poetry accompanied by the lyre, a stringed instrument. From the Greeks, to David in the Bible composing songs (Psalms) with lyrics on a stringed instrument, the romantic troubadours of the middle ages, the lone cowboy on the range with his guitar, the itinerant Mississippi bluesman jumping trains in the 30’s, through Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, to MTV unplugged, the singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar derives from a long tradition. And technically, even though it is “plucked” with hammers activated by a keyboard, a piano is a stringed instrument.

These archetypes are the ancestors to our contemporary idea of singer/songwriters and their acoustic guitar or piano writing songs. That image is very much alive today, especially in Nashville

Basic Writing Suggestions

Books and Screenplays

I have learned a lot about song structure in writing screenplays and books. All three expressions work within the conventions of their respective forms. For any songwriter, I recommend reading a book on the structure of screenwriting. You’ll find a world of information and good advice for getting to the point in dialogue, which is essentially what a song lyric is.

Writing in long form for stories or books is also good practice for the songwriter. It feels good to be able to stretch out and not be limited by a timed form like a screenplay or song. And it can also help you appreciate the economy of the song form, the focus of expression, the nuance--similar in focus to haiku poetry, the three chord blues, or a Shakespearean sonnet.

Notepads

Some people recommend keeping a note pad with you at all times for writing down ideas. I won’t discourage you from doing that. But I should let you know that I’ve read through some of those notepads and I’ve found very little of any interest in them. 

I have found that if I get a really good idea, one of two things happens. The idea is good enough to remember until I get to where I can write it down, or I decide it is so good it is worth the effort to find something I can use to write it down with right then and there.

When I lived in Nashville you could go anywhere in town any afternoon and find songwriters sitting at tables alone, over coffee, seriously writing in their notebooks. 

I remember meeting Harlan Howard (look him up) one afternoon at the Sunset Grill in Nashville. He and I were alone in the bar. We talked about songs. He knew the history of country music; he wrote most of it. He’d had a hit song every year since 1958 (and he also coined the phrase “three chords and the truth” in describing country music). He knew more about the sales and chart positions of my hit “Maybe It Was Memphis” than I did. 

I had read an interview once where he discussed all the lyric ideas he got from waitresses and women in bars, and how he had scraps of paper--restaurant and bar napkins, backs of envelopes, and so on--with ideas on them. With all his hits I found myself thinking he could have had an official notepad if he thought it important. He didn’t have a notepad in his hand. He had a drink. It wasn’t coffee either.

There is nothing wrong with keeping notes and files, and organizing your ideas and songs. But I don’t think notepads are necessarily a key to the process. 

On the other hand, when I am actually working on lyrics, in the process, I like to use one of those extra long yellow legal pads – give myself a lot of room to write down a lot of stuff and edit it down later. 

Theoretically a computer word processor should work the same way. I’ve been fine tuning that process for a few years now—but it still not quite the same. It has been said that in theory, theory and practice are the same thing, however, in practice, they are not. 

Songwriting is like that.

This article is excerpted from “Michael Anderson’s Little Black Book of Songwriting” available at michaelanderson.com

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Learn the key lyrical structure of modern songs

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Teen, Adult

All art forms have a language and a structure that is used for the communication of ideas within that form. 

Whether it is painting, film, poetry, dance, cooking, or music, the language of an art form is a means of both self-expression and communication. For the intended audience, there are expectations that provide the basis for the communication between the artist and audience. 

The contemporary pop song structure is tight, focused and consists of sections. Those sections are verse, chorus, bridge, perhaps an intro and usually an ending. They will be dealt with later in an article about structure – but here, I am referring internally to the actual lyric structure.

Once the form (structure and language) is understood and accepted by artists and audience alike, the audience can relax a bit and judge and/or appreciate the artists’ expression and the artists can focus on telling their story.

Verse

The verses of your song are where you tell the story and set up your chorus. There are many ways to do that. A couple of basic ways are the story form, the obvious chronological order, or finding another internal sequence that is artistically and emotionally satisfying.

All the elements of linearity, focus, clarity, and a foundational idea should be in place and considered when you get to structuring your verses. The verses should set up your chorus; they should relate directly to it in a poetic way. The verses should also build chronologically, emotionally, or in some other way so there is an actual reason why the first verse is first, the second is second, and so on. Ideally, there should be an internal structure that tells the story and supports the chorus. 

If a verse later in the song veers off a bit too much story-wise, or if you sense you are trying to bring in other elements that are not quite in the flow of the other verses but which tell an important aspect of the story, consider making those bits into a bridge. 

Chorus

The chorus is your song’s emotional high point. It is the part people should sing along to, and remember. The chorus is the articulation of the point; it is what the song is about. 

A song structure has dynamics that have an internal flow and sensibility; they flow to and from the chorus. As a general rule I have found structurally that having the chorus hit at about the one minute mark of a song feels about right. 

Starting the song with the chorus can be effective also. As they say in Nashville, “don’t bore us, get to the chorus”. If you want to hook your audience with the idea, the chorus is the place to do it.

There are many forms for structuring a chorus, but one effective structure is starting and ending the chorus with the title/hook of your song. You want to get the idea cross, but you don’t want to beat the listener up with meaningless repetition. Another form is ending with the title/hook in the last line. This device doesn’t give you the repetition but it does offer the chance to build to your lyrical (and hopefully emotional) climax.

Title

There is a whole section of this book on the title, but here in the lyric chapter I’ll mention that the title ideally should be an integral part of the your chorus. It should be the focus, the idea, the distillation of the song in a phrase. The title should be the bedrock, the bones your chorus is structured on. It should be the centerpiece. 

Hook

The “hook” can be many things in a song. It can be a catch phrase in the lyric (usually the title), a musical phrase, a melodic phrase, or even something like the “Whooo” in the Beatles “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, or “Yea Yea Yea” in “She Loves You”, the dance in “The Macarena”, or Jimmy Page’s guitar solo in any number of Led Zeppelin songs.

A memorable song has something that sticks with the listener and distinguishes it from every other song. That identity is a key to your song becoming unforgettable.

Bridge

The bridge lyric serves a slightly different function than the verse or chorus. Ideally a bridge lyric should take a look at the theme and idea of a song and give it a different POV or provide perhaps the “moral” of the story from the perspective of an outsider looking in. 

This article is excerpted from “Michael Anderson’s Little Black Book of Songwriting” available at michaelanderson.com

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We ask you a few questions about your lyrics to help you determine if you have a good idea or need to go back to the drawing board

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Pre-teen, Adult

Does your song have a good idea? 

Can you tell the idea to someone else like a film idea pitch? Are they interested in it? Or is it another version of the same thing that has been written over and over? 

What about the subject matter? Is the song about something a lot of people would care about? There is nothing wrong with writing for yourself alone or a specialty market, but be aware you are doing that and don’t get frustrated or disappointed when no one cares about your song.

Love songs are prevalent because in the prime music buying time of life that is the biggest emotional crisis facing the audience. Falling in love, falling out of love, getting hurt--all of these emotional experiences are interesting to people who buy records. 

Is what you are saying interesting and relevant to your target audience? Tastes can vary considerably from person to person. Life is full of variety. But there are general areas where you can be relatively sure someone may or may not be interested in the topic of your song, and which target audience may or may not find it interesting. For example, a country audience isn’t usually interested in a song that’s set in Minnesota. You might want to change the locale to Tennessee, or Texas, or a similar place.

Can you state the theme? 

Not necessarily what it says – but what it means. 

Does it have a fresh twist, a new observation; say the same thing in a new or different way? 

A song can have a subject and theme. They are not necessarily one and the same. For instance, the subject of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” is a woman named Eleanor Rigby, but the theme of that song is loneliness. The subject of Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” is his car, but the theme is sex.

Does your song have a story? 

Does your story actually say something? To paraphrase an old screenwriter adage, “the king was walking with a pretty girl” is an observation, but “the king was walking with a pretty girl as the queen came around the corner” is a story.

As good as it is to have a strong idea, the idea needs to be set up and delivered for maximum effect; that is the art of story telling. You can tell a narrative factually for instance--just giving a sequence of events--or you can build it like a ghost story around the fire at a campout when the woods echo with mysterious sounds, the moon is full and everyone is edgy anyway. That is what makes the difference between a reporter and a storyteller.

Does your lyric story have a beginning, middle, and an end? In other words, does it develop in a linear (or any other) way? If your song is saying basically the same thing in each verse, from beginning to end, why should the listener be interested after the first verse and chorus? 

Structural patterns--internal forms that lend a coherency to the whole--are very important in lyric development. For instance, if your song is about colors, each verse could deal with a different hue: blue, red, and yellow. 

The last verse is usually where everything comes together somehow--where there can be a “ twist” (a rainbow, for instance in the case of the color song)--a turn of phrase or word that carries a meaning other than what was obvious and that deepens the emotional feel. 

Can the listener understand it? 

A lyric shouldn’t be simplistic, but simple is good. A song serves no artistic purpose if it is not understood. My classic reference is the Zen of Hank Williams, Sr. You know and understand every word of a Hank Williams record. And so did every country listener. And yet there is an emotional depth and truth in nearly every line. That is genius.

Does your song say what it means clearly, in a simple, easy to understand way? Could you read it to others and have them know not only what you are talking about, but also what you are trying to say about it? 

You might have someone read the lyric out loud to you and explain what it means to him or her; how do they perceive the idea?

Having people outside of your writing process read your lyric can provide valuable insight. They are usually more dispassionate and less emotionally attached to the material and can see it more for what it is than what you want it to be.

This article is excerpted from “Michael Anderson’s Little Black Book of Songwriting” available at michaelanderson.com

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Learn how to identify problems with your song lyrics, and how to fix them.

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Pre-teen, Teen, Adult

Is the lyric narrative focused? 

Does your lyric stay with the story line and develop the idea gradually line by line, and section by section, to a coherent, whole?

Sometimes a lyric is like a conversation when someone talks and talks and you kind of know what they mean but you don’t really understand exactly what they are saying. Or they speak with a strong accent and you can’t quite get what they are saying. It gets frustrating. A listener won’t stick with that type of expression.

A song lyric is emotional and connects with both the head and the heart. You don’t want anything that breaks that flow and connection.

Imagery Focus

 There should be a logic and pattern to your imagery. Imagery is an expression that uses a mental picture or concept. Make sure your metaphors and images work together to build the theme of the song and connect with any imagery and metaphors used within the chorus itself.

Imagery and details that don’t serve to keep the story moving forward only confuse or throw the listener off track in trying to understand your story line. Try to keep every word, every idea, and every verse flowing forward and supporting the main idea of your title/hook/chorus. Be ruthless in editing. A great line may sound good on its own, but does it help tell the story of your theme and make a point? 

Does your lyric have a linear flow? 

As has been apparent, I like telling a story from beginning to end, and I think the listener appreciates that form. But sometimes just putting your most interesting verse first can keep the listener’s attention.

Sometimes the idea is more or less apparent, but the way it is expressed feels indirect and vague. Can your listener follow along, line by line, with the developing idea, to an interesting resolution and satisfying artistic statement that speaks to the heart? People like artistic pieces of a puzzle being skillfully put together to create a whole picture. 

So many songs I hear meander. They go in one direction, change gears, turn a corner, and then come around the block to say something. It’s more difficult for the writer to intentionally say something clearer, but much easier for the listener to understand. 

Does each verse build toward and add relevant information to the theme? (Not just saying the same thing in a different way as the verse before and after it, but also adding something to the story). It doesn’t have to be a novel; in fact it shouldn’t be a novel. But it should strive toward haiku (or the Zen of “White Christmas”). 

Perspective

This may seem basic but I run into it: does your speaking perspective, the POV (point of view) of the lyric, stay the same? In other words, if you speak to a “you” in your lyric, is it the same “you” in the last verse as in the first? People sometimes change the perspective, for instance by speaking to a “you” that is the girl (or guy) in the song, and then addressing the listener as a “you” later in the song. It tends to confuse the perspective for the listener. 

Metaphoric Continuity

Be careful also of metaphoric continuity. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a name or quality is attributed to something else that isn’t literally the same. 

For instance, she can have snow white skin and fiery eyes. You can roll down the highway and probably even fly down the tracks, but if you head out on the highway to keep that train a rollin’ till your ship comes in you might be mixing more metaphors than the listener can keep up with logically. You might want to go through your lyrics and pick one aspect of your metaphoric imagery and stay with it through your song.

Laundry list

Another flow breaker is the laundry list lyric in which each verse and line is just a list element to fill space and doesn’t move the story forward but treads water beating the idea to death (speaking of mixed metaphors).  

For instance, a typical list song could be one about loving someone everywhere, with each verse filled with the names of states. A laundry list form can be effective, though, if there is an internal reasoning to the order of the list or a build of the emotional or relevant content.

Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” is a clever send up of the form where he actually makes the laundry list itself compelling with distinctive phrasing and interesting rhyming scheme and delivery. 

For the most part though, songs that employ the laundry list form become very repetitious and predictable very quickly.

This article is excerpted from “Michael Anderson’s Little Black Book of Songwriting” available at michaelanderson.com

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