In the previous post I outlined Five Virtues of Writing that have been kicking around for thousands of years.
These five virtues provide a much-needed yardstick for judging your progress with any given song you’ve been working on. As a quick review, they are:
- Correctness. Is your song free of distracting fumbles, sour notes, and other mistakes? And if your song breaks the conventions of its genre, does it do so with good results?
- Clarity. Is your song’s core idea focused and fascinating? Can your listeners understand what your song’s about?
- Feeling. Does your song stir up actual feeling in the audience? Are you moving them to tears? To laughter?
- Consistency. Are your choices of melody, harmony, and structure appropriate to the song’s topic?
- Cleverness. Are you wowing your listeners with beautiful metaphors, harmonies, personification, rhymes? Are you keeping them interested with musical twists and turns of phrase?
In this post we’ll start with the virtue that’s arguably the least fun, but crucial: Correctness.
Try not to fool yourself
It’s easy to just assume you’re hitting all the notes of a particular chord, or to assume your sense of timing and pitch are spot on. But are they really? Pay close attention to your own work. Listen for flaws.
This can be a challenge. Sometimes you don’t really want to hear your own missteps… but hearing problem spots is vital for improving your songwriting skills.
Relax—talent has nothing to do with it.
Many songwriters make the fatal mistake of thinking that a “talented” songwriter with potential should already know everything, perform flawlessly, and never make errors.
That’s an unreasonable amount of pressure for anybody to put on herself—and frankly, it’s delusional. There’s no such thing as a talent for songwriting. Nobody is born with effortless songwriting skills; every single one of us has to learn this craft one step at a time.
The songwriters who we think of as “brilliant” and “talented” are simply those who’ve put in the time to correct mistakes, fill knowledge gaps, and train hard. They weren’t born with musical ability—they learned the craft one day at a time, just like everybody else—and kept at it day after day.
Remember: mistakes and shortcomings are a normal part of the learning process. Writing songs and playing them is complicated and challenging, and you can’t avoid rough edges. Instead, you must embrace them.
Calmly notice problems, then work on them. You can and will build yourself up higher with patience and training.
Two ways to reveal imperfections
1. To get a more objective view of your own work, record yourself playing and listen critically to the recording. Take notes as you listen. It’s easier to judge your own work when you’re not actually performing it.
Focus deeply on the recording. Try to hear yourself as an impartial audience member, like you’re sitting in the front row of your own concert.
2. Another way to get helpful feedback is to ask someone knowledgeable (a teacher or a trained musician). This takes a certain humble spirit, but the insights you gain are more than worth it.
A few common flaws to listen for
At the most basic level, being “correct” just means using words correctly in your lyric; making sure all the notes ring out in whatever chord you’re playing; singing neither flat nor sharp but right on the pitch—basic concerns like that.
Simple things like this are the very foundation of songwriting: the ability to turn your ideas into reality without any glaring defects.
If you can’t clearly explain the meaning of a word with absolute certainty, take a few seconds to look it up in a dictionary before you use it in your lyric.
Avoid cramming too many syllables into a line. If you find yourself needing to awkwardly rush to deliver a line, edit the line down to a length that fits the melody. You’ll breathe easier while you perform the piece—and so will your audience.
Write believably. You want your lyric to be factually accurate, you want it to make sense, and you want it to be believable.
Memorize your lyric. For performance purposes, you’ll of course need to memorize every word of your lyric correctly so that you can easily recall it even in stressful, distracting situations like live performance or studio recording.
Instrumentally and vocally, you’ll want to avoid any mistakes that distract the listener or otherwise weaken the experience.
When you miss a note—clunk—or hit a sour note, focus on the problem and work on that passage of music for a while. Slow down and repeat the bothersome bit over and over until it sounds and feels totally clean and accurate.
Be patient with yourself throughout this process. It takes some time and certainly some energy. I’ll admit it’s not the most exciting thing you can do with your spare time.
But this kind of musical housekeeping is totally worth it. Nail down the basics really firmly—everything else depends on them.
Bear in mind there’s no single, universal standard for correctness. Songwriting is a very complex and flexible craft; what’s wrong for one song may be perfect for another.
This doesn’t mean that anything goes, though—it means you have to work to develop your artistic judgment. Once you’ve envisioned exactly what you want to do, the virtue of Correctness is all about executing that idea as well as you can.
Repeating a chorus chord progression over a hundred times until it’s smooth and effortless may not be the most fun you can have on a Saturday night, but it’s a necessary part of making sure your ideas really shine on stage and on record.
This is the spadework of songwriting, and it’s crucial for making your own grand ideas reality. Get your lyric memorized and the music correct—so that you can focus on higher concerns, like delivering your song with high emotional impact.
In the next post, we’ll talk about the second virtue of songwriting: clarity. Does your audience understand what you’re singing about? Are your best and most important ideas getting through to them?
Photo of piano by hsingy. Nice one, eh?