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Song Writing

Hey, personally, I couldn't compose my way out of a paper bag... But I still find the creative process to be fascinating, and have greatly enjoyed the chances I've had to ask a few artists whose work I admire how they translate their inspiration into stuff that inspires the rest of us. Here are a few books that speak intelligently to the whole question of meeting one's Muse.

Recommended Reading

"How To Write Songs On The Guitar"
By Rikky Rooksby
(Balafon/Miller Freeman Books, 2000)

Originally I had thought I would write a review of this book by using its techniques and suggestions to actually work up arrangements to some of those songs that have been kicking around in my head for years. I mean, I can hear how they should sound, perfectly arranged in my little noggin, so maybe all I need are a few good, concrete technical tips and I'd be on my way. Of course it turns out that I just plain suck as musician, and should stick to doing radio and record reviews instead... so no luck on the book-review-as-personal-journey gimmick. Still, it's no fault of the author. This is a pretty cool, pretty practical manual for anyone interested in unlocking the secrets of songwriting. There is a lot of chord theory, with plenty a REALLY BIG fingering charts, and tips on how to work out and perfect your grasp on the basics: chord progressions, rhythm, melody, and even some advice on how to record a home demo tape. The footing is a little shakier on topics such writing the actual lyrics -- this is where the Muse comes into play, and even though Rooksby tries to explain how one might write a great song, the fact of the matter is, some people have it, and most people don't. Similarly, its a little slippery when he analyzes a few favorite songs in an appendix at the back -- it's hard to put one's finger on what works (and what doesn't) in songcraft. Rooksby makes a gallant effort, though, which sometimes reads like a cross between an English Lit class and an Engineering course... If, like me, you cut class on the music theory lecture, that part might not work either. But overall, this is a pretty handy book -- not too dry or overly technical, and pretty effective at addressing itself to a lay audience. If songwriting is something that beckons to you, this could be a great tool for you to use.

"Tunesmith: Inside The Art Of Songwriting"
By Jimmy Webb
(Hyperion, 1998)

I'll confess, I'm not the world's biggest Jimmy Webb fan -- his early hits, "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" and "Wichita Lineman", don't really rock my world (although I have to admit a certain soft spot for "MacArthur Park" and "Up, Up And Away"...) Still, this is one of the most fascinating, articulate books on songwriting that you're likely to find. The tone of Webb's prose is unfalteringly didactic and Olympian -- as one of the pop world's most successful songwriters, he does have a certain right to look down from on high and dispense wisdom as he sees fit. And while the opening chapter is a bit rambling in it's enthusiasm and fervor, Webb is incisive and full of provocative insights. Webb is an old-fashioned craftsman, intent on demonstrating how the Muse is often best served through hard work and the dedicated application of specific techniques. He illustrates this viewpoint with dozens of structural analyses -- many are strictly musical in character; others are more literary and poetic; most fascinating of all, though, is when Webb combines the two, explaining why a diminished seventh with a double beat would not be the correct arrangement for that lyric about the flower in the window sill. Postpunk DIY diehards may find Webb's approach to be a little rigid, but serious songwriters will find his advice invaluable.

"The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin"
By Irving Berlin, with Robert Kimball and Linda Emmett (editors)
(Knopf, 2001)

Speaking of timeless pop songwriters, how about this gorgeous collection of the complete lyrics of one of America'a greatest songsmiths? Arranged chronologically according to the shows, revues and movies each song was composed for, this gives an exhaustive (yet exhiliarating) overview of Berlin's career, and a sense of how his sublime touch for the memorable was often paired with mere functionality... Not everything he wrote was an immortal classic... But, boy seeing it all together in one place really makes you realize what an impressive body of work he had. The layout is fabulous, and the accompanying essays are also very useful. Cool.

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