Monday, August 29, 2011

Music Theory: An Introduction

Hey SIX followers!

Hope you're doing well this week.

This week, we're going to start a basic theory series, hopefully, at the end of this series, we will understand how the Nashville Number System. In order to learn about the Number System, you are assumed to have a basic knowledge of the mechanics of music theory. If you already know this stuff, just bear with me this week, so we can have a common foundation from which to build. So let's start from the beginning, shall we?

The Staff

In order know about theory, we need to know about the way music has been written and thought about for about the last 400 years. Music is written on a staff of five lines and four spaces, usually with one of three clefs. Since I am a guitar player, I will speak about the "G" Clef, or "Treble Clef."

The G Clef is so called because the circular flourish at the end of the Clef Symbol surrounds the second line, which is where the note "G" is located. It looks like this:

If G is on the second line, the notes fall on the lines of the staff like this:

Usually people use some kind of mnemonic device to remember these when they are first using them, like "Every Good Boy Does Fine" or "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge."

If those are the lines on the treble clef, the spaces look like this:

It's pretty easy to remember these notes, as they spell "FACE" from bottom to top.

These are all the natural note names of all the positions on the staff. Usually, though, composers need to extend the staff to positions outside the range of the staff. For this, they use "Ledger Lines."

Here are some examples of ledger lines that are being used to place notes beyond the range of the staff:


Also, if you know much about music, you know that there are not only seven notes in any octave, there are twelve. The notes shown above represent "natural" notes, that is, notes that have no "accidentals" or sharps and flats in front of them.  A flat, which looks vaguely like a lower case "b," lowers a note by one half step, while  a sharp, which looks like a "pound" sign ( #)  raises a note one half step.

The Major Scale

Ok. Composers noticed that when you played the noted of the staff from low to high, it sounded a certain way. This is an arrangement called a "scale" and for about 400 years, this has been the basic building block of all western music. The scale used most in western music is called the major scale, and it is always arranged in a certain way. Here is a major scale built off of C:

When you play this scale, you should recognize the familiar " Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do"  sound. This scale sounds that way because of the arrangement of the whole and half steps between each note. When we examine the arrangement of the whole and half steps between each degree of the scale, here is what we get:

So: whole step between C and D, whole step between D and E, half step between E and F, whole step between F and G, whole step between G and A, whole step between A and B, and half step between B and C.

With this formula, we can build a major scale off of any note, like A-flat:

...and I think that may be enough for this week, Next time, we'll talk about intervals, and triads, most likely.

This Week:

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

The 4 Hour Work Week

Still working on the production project, got a cool new song in the works....

Remember,  you can still get her latest album, "A Brief Moment In Time" by downloading it from or, if you prefer a physical CD, and all of its inherent rights, you can email her at:

Have fun!

Write Something, will ya?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Random Thoughts

Hey all!

I hope the last week treated you well.

This week is just going to be a sort of clearing of my mind of  all the disparate thoughts about songwriting that have been accumulating as of late.

The first among them is this: are we at the beginning of an era in which songwriting becomes something like poetry. That is, something with which you can't really make a decent living. You remember my previous post about the Poetry Home Repair Manual, by Ted Kooser? Mr. Kooser made it absolutely clear that you need to write poetry to WRITE POETRY, with no expectation of being able to support yourself writing poems. I think we might be at that same place with songwriting.

The overwhelming majority of us are going to be writing songs for no reward other than the advancement of your own skill set.

That being said, unlike the majority of  poetry, songs do not exist in a vacuum.  For there to be a song, an audience is kind of a requirement. Writing songs for yourself is a sort of empty exercise. Unlike most poetry (obvious exceptions are poetry slams and their relatives), songwriting is expected to be a PERFORMANCE art. So, if you're a songwriter and reading this blog, you should be finding someplace to play. If there are no open mic nights where you live, MAKE ONE! Create your own community. Create your own opportunities. People need to hear your songs. New people. Not just your friends and family.

I guess that's the theme--make your opportunity. I've been reading, or rather, listening to The Four Hour Workweek, so I've been thinking about how I can make songwriting a viable and money making enterprise, so I've been thinking of ways to make my own community...ugh...that sounds like a Jim Jones kind of a thing...have no fear...I'm just trying to think of ways to get critiques without having to PAY some ORGANIZATION to do it.  The community I'm wanting to emulate is the Nashville Songwriting community of the early and middle 1970's.  In that community you had Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Townes VanZandt, Steve Earle, John Hiatt, Steve Young, and more. They would play songs for each other, and they would critique each other, and basically bring up the total quality of the aggregate. That's the kind of community I want to have. It seems like in recent years, NSAI, TSAI, and the Songwriter's Guild have taken the place of that kind of community. It's sad in a way, but I really want to cultivate a community that values good songs and camaraderie without having to pay dues, or pay for song critiques.....

Ok. That's enough ranting. I've noticed that I have been focusing on lyric writing lately, so I think I'll do a series in the coming weeks on basic music theory as it relates to songwriting, with a discussion somewhere in there about the Nashville Number System.

This Week:

This week I finished my song for this local contest, and it should be in the player in the upper right hand corner. It's called "On My Way Back." We'll see.

Also, I (sort of ) finished my super cheap telecaster body. It looks like this:

...more of an Esquire, really....but it sounds GOOD! (and that's the neck from my other Telecaster BTW, so it really needs one...and a pickguard...and a jack cup...donate please ;-)

Also, congrats to Jodi Ann for achieving her Sell-A-Band goal! WooHoo!

Remember,  you can still bet her latest album, "A Brief Moment In Time" by downloading it from or, if you prefer a physical CD, and all of its inherent rights, you can email her at:

Happy Birthday Mom. I love you!

Measuring is for children!

Have a good week! Write something, will ya?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Case For Imperfect Rhyme

Hey there 5 followers!

Hope all is well with you.

This week, I've been reading more of Jimmy Webb's book on songwriting, Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting. I'm reading it slowly and carefully, because I figure the guy who wrote "The Highwayman" has a lot of stuff to teach me. In my third week, I have reached chapter 3 (I told you I was reading slow).  Chapter 3 is titled "It's Only Words," and he walks us through the Jimmy Webb process for crafting a lyric.

He starts with how he decides on a title that's worth writing about. Then he moves to a discussion of  how he chooses a theme that best illustrates the sentiment of the title. In short order, he enters into a narrative about the different types of rhyming dictionaries and how to use them. Not long after that, in my opinion, he jumps the shark and starts into a section where he calls the imperfect rhyme a "mistake" and goes on to analyze some of the songs he has written, that in his estimation contain "mistakes." Apparently, Mr. Webb thinks imperfect rhymes are lazy and base, and he considers those that rigidly adhere to perfect rhymes to be  True Artists.

I disagree. I'd like to outline why I think imperfect rhymes are perfectly legitimate, and why Jimmy Webb should lighten up.

The Definition of Rhyme

While most dictionaries would define "rhyme" as words that share the same ending sounds, I would define rhyme a little less strictly. I'd say that two words rhyme if their final vowel sound is the same.
This is where we get into tricky territory. Mr. Webb contends that his rhyme
I love you more than want you
and I want you for all time
and  the Wichita Lineman
is still on the line a mistake, because he should have come up with a perfect rhyme for "line."

I would argue that it does rhyme, for the following reasons:

1. The words "time" and "line" share the long "i" vowel sound
2. The final consonant sound in each of these words belongs to the "Voiced Nasal Consonant" family of articulation.

I would say that because the vowel sound is the same, and that the ending consonant sound is closely related, they create the impression of a rhyme in the listener....and that's the POINT.  You want the words to have the FUNCTION of a rhyme, even if they do not strictly adhere to an archaic definition.

In the same chapter, Mr. Webb rightly tells us to avoid cliche rhymes like the plague, a sentiment I agree with. If we must adhere to his rigid rhyming guidelines, how are we ever going to rhyme "heart" without landing on a cliche?

According to Mr. Webb, this line from Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet would be frowned upon:
It’s amazing how you can speak right to my heart
Without saying a word you can light up the dark
So, I guess because the perfect rhymes for the word "heart" have been used so much,  "heart" is off-limits to serious songwriters for the duration of the life of the universe.

NO! I think most people writing songs today, and making money doing it, are using imperfect rhymes all the time to make their songs better and to avoid the dreaded cliche rhymes.

Rhyming As Cadence

There are other, more calculating reasons to use perfect and imperfect rhymes to advance an over arching feeling in your song.

Perfect rhymes can be used to emphasize a feeling stability, "landing on your feet," if you will.

But sometimes, at the end of a phrase, you don't want the feeling to be stable, you want instability to reign. This is the place for the imperfect rhyme. and the less perfect the rhyme, the more unstable the feeling.


The sky was rolling, turning black
you kept the driver from turning back


The sky was rolling, turning black
the waves were crashing on the deck

The perfect rhyme seems more stable to me...the imperfect rhyme seems to magnify the anxiety in the situation.

Try it, see if you can use perfect and imperfect rhyme with INTENT to give the right feelings of stability  and instability to your songs.

This Week:

Harry Nilsson
Jimmy Webb
David Wilcox

Also still in the midst of the new recording project!

You should really buy Jodi Ann's latest album, "A Brief Moment in Time." I co-produced, edited, arranged, mixed, and played all the instruments. You can download the digital version here:, or you can email her to purchase a physical cd:

....oh, and there's this: could donate so I can afford a neck! ;-)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Weirdness of DIY

Hey there 5 followers! Hopefully this post finds you well.

This week, I'm going to ramble on about what the DIY revolution means to music publishing and songwriting.

As traditional publishing gets weirder and tries to retain their "members only" mentality, the Do-It-Yourself path becomes a more and more viable option for the contemporary is not without its dark side, however.

What Traditional Gatekeepers Did

Before computer recording was ubiquitous, if the songwriter wanted to get a professional-sounding recording of their song, they needed to lay down a fairly sizable chunk of cash at their local recording studio. This was a rather high hourly rate that would pay for the tracking room, the audio engineer, the tape and the musicians. To ensure that they would not waste the studio's time or their money, the songwriter, ideally, would have thought about the arrangement, made accurate chord charts, and have attended a few rehearsals to run through the song with the musicians. If you were trying to do ANY of those things during the recording session, you were lighting money on fire.

So there were some barriers to entry for even being able to book the session: you needed to have the song written, arranged, charted and rehearsed, and you had to have the cash to book the session.

Usually, before it got to this point, you would have first played the song for your family and friends (who of course loved it, because they wanted to be supportive, while keeping their TRUE opinions to themselves) and hopefully, you would have played the song for complete strangers and had a good enough response to justify the studio expense.

If you were in one of the "Major Songwriting Markets," it was a little different. Normally you would try to get a meeting with a music publishing company to get some HONEST, professional feedback on the new "Hotel California" you've just written.

If you weren't that great, and you still needed to learn about the craft of writing songs that they might be interested in someday, they would tell you to join NSAI or the Songwriter's Guild, or some other organization that could help you to learn what publishers were actually looking for in songs.

If you showed a glimmer of hope, like maybe you understood how songwriting was supposed to work, but you hadn't written enough songs yet, they would refer you to a performing rights society like BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC, and tell you to go talk to the songwriting liaison there.

If you had written a song that was head and shoulders above everything they had heard in the last week or two, they would offer you a single-song contract and continue your relationship professionally. At this point, they would either record a demo to play for producers and artists, or start pitching the song directly.

So all of those are Gate Keepers. Their job is to weed out the people who aren't ready and only let the obviously talented through to the next step.

There are obvious benefits to doing things this way:

First, you eliminate the junk that is 95% of people trying to make music.

Second, you have a tiered, ladder-style system that can allow the untalented to develop their craft.

Third,  songwriters can focus on the thing they SHOULD be focusing on: SONGWRITING. They do not need to be concerned with recording equipment or techniques of mic placement and such. They are able to devote themselves with limited distraction to their craft, and become better by WRITING GOOD SONGS.

But there are also problems. Chief among them is that corporate executive-types become the arbiters of cultural taste. I don't really want business people deciding that "good" is equivalent to "sell-able."

Also, it is entirely possible to discourage those that need encouragement and encourage those that need to speak.

The Do-It-Yourself Revolution

Computers have changed everything about music publishing, except in the rarefied air of major-label recording contracts. Now you can buy recording software for about the same price as it used to cost us to record in a nice recording studio for a few hours. Instead of jumping through the hoops of trying to land a publishing deal or a recording contract, you can spend some time recording in your bedroom and immediately upload your song, EP or "Album" (for lack of a better word) to iTunes.

Legitimately talented artists that are a little too avant-garde  for the mainstream record labels can find an audience directly through small tours and nicely designed websites.

But has all this new found freedom come at a cost? While I admit, there has never been a time in the history of the world when it has been easier to self-publish your own music, I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. True, there is more music than ever available for us to consume, but at the same time, it also means that there has never before been as much terrible music to wade through.

And while in the former music business model, the artist was able to concentrate on being an artist, now the creative personality-type has to wear many more hats. Just to compete with the status quo, the independent musician must be the producer, engineer, manager, and booking agent all at the same time. Before, there were people whose job it was to be an Audio Engineer and that was their focus, to make instruments and voices sound good as an aggregate. Now those who can make their living as a dedicated Audio Engineer are becoming fewer and farther between. Same with producers, managers and agents.

In order to be successful, you are going to have to separate yourself from the chaff. So how are you going to rise above the 98% of the junk that is out there?

Here's what I propose: start a songwriting community in your area. get together once a week with other songwriters and critique each other's latest songs. Be nice, but don't pull your punches either. Then write and write and write.  Keep improving your craft...focus on writing. Learn what good songs are. Improve your understanding with every song.  After you've done that for a while, only record and distribute the ones that are GREAT.

This Week: 

I've been trying to figure out what to do with my positive song...I think I need to re-record it at a faster tempo and do a quick re-write to get it closer to what I actually mean...not much time, though, I've got to get it in by the 20th or something.

Kris Kristofferson
Guy Clark 
Darrell Scott
Jeff Black

I've also been producing, engineering and playing instruments on a new 5 song recording project!

Stay tuned!

...and if you don't have it yet, you should really buy Jodi Ann's latest album, "A Brief Moment in Time." I co-produced, edited, arranged, mixed, and played all the instruments. You can download the digital version, or you can email her to purchase a physical cd:

...Masonite Telecaster?