How do Pearl Jam, ELO, Yes and Journey measure up songwriting-wise?

(Posted by Mark Caro)

So Pearl Jam, Electric Light Orchestra, Tupac Shakur, Yes, Journey and Joan Baez are the latest Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, with Nile Rodgers receiving the Award for Musical Excellence, whatever that is, after his band Chic failed to get in on its 11th nomination.

What does this have to do with songwriting?

Well, all of these artists are responsible for songs, though Tupac’s hip-hop is a completely different beast from what folks strumming on guitars come up with. I don’t really view Baez as being in the rock world as much as the folk world, and she’s better known for her interpretations than her own original songs anyway.

Journey…um…can I admit that I always had a soft spot for “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’”? Otherwise, these guys were never my thing; there’s any number of straight-up, slickly produced commercial rock bands that I prefer, including Foreigner and Boston, and it’s not like I love those two either. (“Hot Blooded” though…) Heck, if we’re talking about durable commercial bands, the Cars should be in the RRHOF, no?

At any rate, I blame David Chase for ending “The Sopranos” on “Don’t Stop Believin’” and getting the whole Journey journey rolling again.

I can live with Yes being in there; they really were a huge deal back in the day, and they managed to produce some indelible pop records (“I’ve Seen All Good People”; “Roundabout,” with those mountains that come out of the sky and stand there; “Going for the One” and, yes, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”) amid all that prog virtuosity.

In the words of Randy Newman, I love that ELO, though the lesson here is one of craft rather than personal expression. Jeff Lynne is a master of constructing pop songs, and he has created so many catchy, memorable ones. I’d put “Livin’ Thing” atop that list, and you can’t argue with “Evil Woman” or “Tightrope” for that matter, and as Newman sang, “I love that ‘Mr. Blue Sky.’ Almost my favorite is ‘Turn to Stone.’ And how ‘bout ‘Telephone Line’….”

None of these songs have any deep, meaningful resonance with me. But I sure enjoy hearing them. “Write an ELO Song” would be an excellent songwriting assignment — Steve?

Then there’s Pearl Jam. You know Pearl Jam. I like some of their songs, Eddie Vedder seems like a cool guy, and I believe him. I mean, I never make a point of seeking out, say, “Jeremy,” “Even Flow” or “Alive,” but I don’t turn them off when they come on. I do enjoy “Daughter,” “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” “Better Man” and “The Fixer,” and there are so few durable rock bands around these days that I don’t begrudge them.

For what it’s worth, Nirvana was better than Pearl Jam, but I’d take Pearl Jam over Foo Fighters.

You can argue that Chic’s “Good Times” had the most impact of any of these artists’ songs. Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” probably don’t sound the way they do otherwise — and forget about those Rodgers-featuring Daft Punk smashes such as “Get Lucky.”

How about you? Which of these artists' songs have inspired you the most?

Does Pink Floyd need no verses or chorus?

(Posted by Mark Caro)

OK, it's time to play Identify the Song Parts again.

Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2" is one of the most structurally simple hit singles ever.

Does it consist of a chorus that's sung twice, followed by a guitar solo?

Or is the "We don't need no education..." part actually a verse that recurs, with "All in all it's just another brick in the wall" serving as the refrain?

Please solve this mystery -- because if you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding.

When the chorus mirrors the verse

Posted by Mark Caro

I heard “Sweet Home Alabama” the other day, and it got me thinking about songs in which the chorus is basically the same chords/music as the verses. “Free Fallin’” is another one.

When I’m writing songs, I’m generally of the mindset that the chorus, if the song has one, should be set off musically from the verses. I’ll often try to have key chorus chords not appear elsewhere in the song to increase the impact.

Yet I don’t think anyone would argue that Lynryd Skynyrd and Tom Petty didn’t know what they were doing with those songs musically. They work.

What are your favorite songs in which the chorus is basically an extension of the verse? Do you write this way?

Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.


Take it to your favorite Bridges

Posted by Mark Caro:

Our book’s title is a James Brown reference (or Justin Timberlake if you prefer) to that part of a song that veers from the established verse-chorus pattern. (Actually, I think Brown says, “Take ‘em to the bridge,” but we’ll live with “it.”)

I’m a big fan of bridges, and I often feel a song is incomplete unless I write one, yet not all songs need bridges. As we write in the book, the Beatles were bridge masters and regularly incorporated them into what we call “Beatles Form”:

Verse 1 + refrain

Verse 2 + refrain


Verse 3 + refrain Repeat


Repeat Verse 3 or 1

Many Beatles songs follow this pattern, from “I Saw Her Standing There” to “The Long and Winding Road.”

Other bands excel at bridges as well, such as XTC...

...and R.E.M. 

Which are your favorite bridges? Which are the weirdest? Here’s one of my favorite weird ones: 

Do earworms make you happy or drive you crazy?

Posted by Mark Caro:

One fascinating, mysterious aspect of songwriting is how some hooks embed themselves in your head. There are endless combinations of notes and rhythms, yet a select few become earworms, sometimes in ways that make you happy (maybe that “rah rah…” chant of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” or the bass line of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” ) or not so happy:

So it’s no surprise that earworms have become the subject of an academic study— published Thursday in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts from Britain’s Durham University. The New York Times reports that the professors studied earworms’ structural patterns and found that:

Earworm songs tended to be fast, with a common, simple melodic structure that generally went up and down and repeated, like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” But the earworm songs also had surprising, unusual intervals, like the chorus in “Bad Romance” or the opening riff of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.”

The researchers also found that 98 percent of people experience earworms at some point and that they can have positive effects (spurring creativity) or negative (leading down dark obsessive paths). The profs hope understanding earworms might yield insights into the way memories and the brain work.

Just don’t share those insights with the folks responsible for this: 

Which are your most loved or despised earworms? Have you ever tried to write one yourself? Steve, does this make you want to record “Air Dry”?

Costello's Imperial Honeymoon

The first time I saw Elvis Costello, he and the Attractions were touring behind “Imperial Bedroom,” a 1982 album considered such a great leap forward that Columbia’s ad campaign featured Barney Bubbles’ Picasso-derived cover with the word “Masterpiece?” beneath it. Costello was playing at Alpine Valley Music Theatre to a much larger audience than had been populating his prior theater and club dates. 

The show was a big deal to me too. I loved “Imperial Bedroom” and had grown rabid in my Costello fandom, and I hadn’t gone to many concerts in those pre-college days, certainly not ones for which I piled my friends into my parents’ Buick Century wagon and drove up to East Troy, Wis. Costello and band stormed through something like 35 songs, almost all great, and I felt thrilled by my proximity to such vitality.

There’s something magical about catching an artist on the rise as he creates music that later will be considered his classic period. “Imperial Bedroom” was Costello’s sixth album of new original material since 1977, and each one broadened his palette. “Imperial Bedroom” may have its fussy moments and lack the full-on punch of its predecessors, but its breadth of styles, soul-probing subjects, innovative arrangements and brilliant musicality indicated this was a guy experiencing breathtaking year-by-year growth.

So when Costello’s “Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers” tour was announced over the summer, I was excited.

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I started teaching Songwriting 1 at the Old Town School of Folk Music in 2005. I was making it up as I went along and learning as much as the students in the process. In one of the first classes there was a woman from Guatemala who didn't play an instrument.

She loved music and was invested in the idea of songwriting. She said she made up melodies all the time and would sing them to herself and work on them through the day and as she drifted off to sleep. In class she'd sing them a cappella and they were lovely.

One of the first assignments I gave (and I still give) is to find a photograph that has some emotional tug and use that as inspiration for a song. She came back with a photo of her son as a baby, when he was first born. The lyrics to her song (I'm paraphrasing) were "You are my angel from heaven," "My life is blessed because of you," "I love you with all my heart and soul." I mean, it was just beautiful, and the class was very moved and gave her a big round of applause.

Her song was also what you and I might call "cheesy." It led to a discussion in the class about what "cheesy" means. In her opinion and experience (and culture), she said songs are, by definition, emotional and dramatic --what we in the USA often recoil from as "cheesy." That made me think…maybe it's all a matter of opinion and maybe we've been shamed and trained to judge songs through some kind of cynical, cooler-than-thou viewpoint.

The subject comes up in every single class when someone says, "I don't want to be cheesy." What if there's no such thing as "cheesy?" What if It's all in the ear of the beholder?

Let's back up for a second because here's another thought: Americans are terrified of vulnerability, tenderness, sadness and expressions of love. The only time we allow ourselves to make public expressions of feelings is at weddings and funerals. We feel fine tearing up and telling people how much we love them at these big life events, but otherwise we keep our feelings to ourselves.

One way we DO share all these feelings and vulnerabilities is through songs. Songs have become the accepted means of communications of the heart. And, as I thought about it, I realized how wonderful that is. And if that is the POINT, then the whole idea of being afraid of being cheesy is just ridiculous. So, the fear of being "cheesy" is really a fear of being vulnerable and uncool.

Think about it: the entire idea of making up a song and singing it is cheesy. So you can just let go of that worry. Yes, you're being cheesy. You are uncool. Embrace it, live it, love it. Dig in and stop worrying about it. Write about what you really think and feel - be vulnerable and let your cheese flag fly.  

What do YOU think about this?

posted by Steve Dawson


Can you work it out?

While Steve and I were writing the book, we started a sort of game that I’ll call Identify The Song Parts. It works like this: One of us would ask something like, “Is the ‘We can work it out’ part of ‘We Can Work It Out’ a chorus or a refrain?” And then the other one would take a stab at it.

Steve asked the “We Can Work It Out” one, thinking the phrase functions as a refrain (i.e. a line repeated at the end or beginning of each verse, such as “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” or “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”), but because it’s sung twice, it also could be considered a short chorus.

I countered by asking what is the chorus of “Paperback Writer”? Is it the overlapping, multi-vocal “Paperback writer” part that opens the song and recurs later, or is it “’Cause I wanna be a paperback writer/Paperback writer!” Does the phrase “Paperback writer” serve as a chorus and a refrain? 

What do you think? Which are the choruses and refrains? And which other song parts confound you?

This will not be the last time we play Identify the Song Parts.


Where do your songs come from?

Hey, it's Mark, and one of the topics that Steve and I discuss in TAKE IT TO THE BRIDGE is that inspiration/perspiration divide. Sometimes it feels like songs just come to you, like they've flown through the air and zoomed into your head whether you were expecting them or not. Other times you might be playing chords, notes, whatever on a guitar or piano, and you hit upon something that makes you think: Ah, that could work.

My process is all over the place. Sometimes I'll think of a hook while riding my bike, I'll sing it into my phone's Voice Memo app, and when I'm back home I'll figure out what the guitar chords are and try to attach some words to the music. Other times a phrase will pop into my head, and as I explore the idea, with or without an instrument, a song will grow around it. And other times I'll be playing around with different chords and rhythms on my guitar just hoping to land on something that sticks. I know I'm getting there when what I'm playing suggests a memorable melody and maybe some useful phrases.

I've also dreamt the occasional melody, though nothing as indelible as Paul McCartney's "Scrambled Eggs."

How does it go with you? Do you write your best songs when you're actively trying to write? Or do they arrive when you've somehow made yourself open to them? (And how do you do that anyway?) Or maybe it's some combination?

Do tell.