Jason Blume is a successful songwriter with huge hits in pop and country in the 1990s and 2000s. I recently picked up his book, Inside Songwriting: Getting To The Heart Of Creativity, and I found it a quality read. Whether you’re into songwriting from the “artistic” perspective or trying to make it in the music business, Blume shares some great ideas and anecdotes here. He emphasizes creativity, craft, and professional poise, explaining that being a successful songwriter is more than finding the secret shortcut or learning the magic formulas. The book gets a bit repetitive with the anecdotes, but overall it offers some great practical advice.
Blume gives some good homework exercises to break down your assumptions and dogmas. One exercise is to listen to CHR (contemporary hits radio), current country hits, or other formats of new hits on the radio. Most songwriters I know don’t listen to this stuff because a) you’re working in a non-commercial style, or b) you’re old enough to have “retro” or “classic” tastes. blume instructs you to listen to see how the current hits are constructed. Is there a key change from verse to chorus, or into the bridge? What is the range and contour of the melody? What interesting rhythms, rhymes, and phrasings can you find? How do the lyrics connect the writer with the audience? As Blume points out, the radio is a huge, free course in new songwriting ideas.
I tried this out on a new country station for an hour, and I noticed some real interesting stuff. I was surprised that there was almost no fiddle present. I expected fiddle to be there because it was pretty big in the Garth Brooks ’90s country, which is the most recent country period that I’m familiar with. I also heard , a lot of lyrics that were more sensitive and reflective, but not in a whiny or crying-at-the-bar kind. And I heard a lot of fun ’70s rock influence. Yeah, I also heard a lot of disposable stuff that made me shake my head and say, “Ugh!”
Here’s another exercise from this book: Take one of your recent “finished” compositions and rewrite it with five new melodies. I decided to try this on a song that I have finished and felt was totally solid work by me. I thought, “It’s just an exercise, but this song has already been through a dozen melodic revisions and doesn’t need to change.” I picked up my guitar and started singing the first new melody that came to mind, something a little more driving and contemporary-sounding. And poof, that melody was actually an improvement over the “finished” one. All in a few seconds.
That instant new melody–just add water–was a surprise, and usually you won’t get that quick of a result when you try five new melodies. But blume teaches us something important here. When you think you’re done, try putting out another 500% on that song. It might not change at all, but you need to have a ridiculous level of diligence and effort if you want to finish songs at a higher quality.
Blume tells us songwriters to get rid of our excuses, you’re not too talented or not talented enough or too old or too young. He spends a little time breaking down the biggest excuse of them all: “The odds are a million to one. Why should I think that I’m so special?”
His answer is this: Each person is special and unique. No one can write the way you can. You just have to do the ridiculous huge amount of hard work to be the best you that you can be. Maybe it’s all been done before, but no one can do it the way you can.
You ever find yourself saying to someone, “I know in my head what I want to say, but I’m having trouble putting it into words”? I do this a lot sometimes, which means that my brain, my mouth, the other person’s ear, and the other person’s brain are all working at different speeds. I have to slow down my brain or my mouth to get all these parts understanding each other clearly.
Blume’s book talks about how communication works in songwriting. You write a great song, something that feels so urgent, intense, fun, or deep for you. But when you play it for others, they seem to say, “What does the broken clock mean? And why was there a dog barking on the mountain?” Time to think about synchronizing your feelings, your song, and your audience’s feelings.
Blume points out the big difference between what you feel from your song and what others feel when they hear it. That’s why your upbeat love song might need to be done as a slow heartbreaking ballad. Subjective versus objective. Try getting into other people’s heads a bit to get that communication flowing a little more clearly.
Blume writes that there is no magic shortcut or secret to successful songwriting–just hard work and always trying to get better. You can’t get enough feedback. You can’t rewrite enough and improve enough.
You’ll have friends and peers who scoff at the idea of honing your skills. My deal is this – Learning techniques doesn’t mean you follow formulas slavishly. A technique is just another tool in your toolbox, so use it when it is needed.
Most of us have very specific, well-developed daydreams about what our success would look like. So what would successful songwriting work look like? Lunch with awesome musicians, glamorous parties with glamorous people or what? This book focuses on the songs themselves as career success. A successful songwriter would be a busy person, working hard at music, having frequent collab sessions with other writers, working out details with singers, getting feedback from publishers. Late nights, rushing to meet deadlines. And of course taking lots of verbal and written rejection.
To wrap it up, here’s one of my own exercises: How would you explain to someone the work of writing a great melody? If you’re like me, you stumble and stall at that question. Give your mind a try at that, and leave a comment to let folks know what you come up with.