Thursday, August 17, 2006

On The Sunny Side of the Street

Hiya Monty!

Well, you see, I have written quite a few songs but they all seem to be very sad and my music teacher keeps telling me that I need to write about happy things. However, I find it very difficult to find happy inspiration. Please could you give me some 'happy' ideas to write about.


Hiya Natasha,

First of all, sorry it took me so long to write back - I haven't had a chance to do any blogging stuff over the summer.

I'm not sure if I agree with your music teacher, without knowing more about you.

Your teacher might just be worried for you. If your songs are all sad, does it mean you're always sad? Could it mean you're depressed? Depression can be a serious problem, so she would be justified to worry about it.

If you are clinically depressed, forcing yourself to write happier songs won't help. But help is available. If you think you might be depressed, take an online screening test. (Here is a typical one.) If it suggests you may need help, talk to a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult about what you should do.

My personal favorite most helpful book about depression (and I'm no expert) is Learned Optimism by Dr. Martin Seligman. The book is written for adults, with information for parents. The exercises work for kids.

Most likely though, your songwriting is just something that helps you process your normal sad moments. Everyone feels sad sometimes, and we all have different ways of dealing with it. Maybe you tend to write when you're feeling down, and you just don't feel the need to write when you're happy.

Now if you write songs for your own satisfaction, there's nothing wrong with writing a bunch of sad ones. But if you hope to make a career out of songwriting, your music teacher may be right - your songs will need to appeal to a wider audience than just yourself.

True there are plenty of bands out there that do dark, down, negative stuff, and they have plenty of fans. But most hit songs are hits because they make people feel good. The one thing I hear over and over about the early Beatle's music is that it made people feel happy, and that fact is the key to why they were so insanely popular.

And even if you don't care about writing popular music, it can't hurt to push yourself to write something different whenever you're stuck in any kind of a rut. Attempting a new type of song is always a great way to learn and grow as a writer, and as a person.

So, here are some thoughts that will hopefully help you get started at writing a happy song. I'll try to include lots of different approaches, so maybe at least one will work for you...

Write When You're Happy
Like I said, maybe you only feel motivated to write when you're sad. So pay attention to your moods, and next time you feel deliriously happy about something, sing! Put that happy energy into some music. You don't have to stop what you're doing and write, just use the moment to grab some inspiration. Jot down a word or two or record a bit of melody. You can always come back to it later to see if you can turn it into a song.

Keep a Journal
It is always good writing advice to write in a journal as often as you can. Keep track of your moods. Write about what made you happy today. Keep your songwriter's ear open for a phrase that might make a good song title.

Look Back
In your journal, write about a happy memory from when you were a little kid, or a happy dream you had once. Write down all the details, then see if you can capture that moment in a song.

Listen to lots of happy or joyful music. Ask your friends and family what music makes them happy and listen to their recommendations. Put some happy music in your head, mix it around, and see what comes out when you sit down to write. "I'm Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves must be about the happiest song I can think of.

Make a list of things that make you happy. A lot of upbeat songs you hear on the radio are about romantic love, but you can write about anything. Donovan once write a happy song about his favorite shirt!

Always Look On the Bright Side of Life (Be Ironic)
That's the title to a very funny song from the Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian. The characters are facing death, but they start singing this happy bouncy tune. If you're having trouble finding something positive to say, you can write a happy song using irony. Irony happens when attitudes seem the opposite of what you would expect. Pick a topic that really brings you down, but for humorous effect, write about it from the opposite perspective, as if it should make people happy.

Get Silly
If you can't come up with a sincere topic for a happy song, try getting ridiculous. Just write a nonsense song with noises instead of actual words. (Think "Crazy Frog" for example.) Or, come up with some absurd images, like a tree that grows lollipops, or a flying guitar - both of which have been made into actual happy songs, by the way. You can brainstorm by choosing words at random from a book. Put adjectives in one column, nouns in another, and verbs in another, etc. Then put together random combinations using one word from each column. Look for an image that makes you giggle, or a combination of sounds that go well together. Have fun with it.

Get Angry
There's a whole world of emotion other than sad or happy. If you are stuck in a rut with sad songs, and happy isn't doing it for you, writing an angry song might get you moving. To me, sad says "Why does it have to be this way?" While angry says, "I'm ready to do something about it!" So try taking a sad song you've already written as a point of inspiration. Ask yourself what the situation is that makes the singer sad, and what could she do about it? Write some ideas in your journal. Then write a song about taking action. Instead of "I'm down" your song can say, "I'm not gonna let you keep me down."

Get Hopeful
Hope is another emotion that can spring from sadness. Again, start with one of your sad songs, and ask yourself what hope there could be in the situation. See if you can focus on one ray of hope and spin it into a new song of its own.

I hope I've helped!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Creating Arrangements for Your Band

My name is Diggory (age 10) I am starting a band called the CrAzY ApEs. We have all the instruments and equitment but we don't have anything to play with the songs.

p.s. Please help

Hi Diggory,

They sure make it look easy on TV, don't they?

It sounds like you have songs you want to sing, but you don't know what to play on the instruments to go with the songs while you're singing. In other words, you need to know how to create an arrangement.

I'm going to ask you the tough questions first, and tell you what you need to do to become good at arranging in the long run. Then I have a couple of ideas that might help you start making music with your band right away, so keep on reading.

How well do you know your instruments? Have you taken lessons? Are you able to play some songs? Can you keep a beat? Do you know a lot of chords, and how to follow a chord chart?

The first thing you need to do if you haven't already is learn your instruments! The second thing is, keep learning! It takes time. So have some patience.

A drummer who knows how to keep a beat and knows lots of patterns and fills for different styles of music can hear a song, pick a pattern to go with it, and he'll pretty much know what to play.

A guitarist who can keep rhythm and knows different chords can read a chord chart. All she needs is the names of the chords - A E A E G etc. - and she'll know what to play. With some trial and error, she can probably even figure out for herself what chords will sound good with a particular melody.

A keyboard or piano player who can read music will be able to play an arrangement out of a book. A keyboardist who can improvise will be able to play an arrangement from just a chord chart, or figure it out "by ear."

So it isn't necessary for your band members to be able to read or write music on a page, but they do need to know how to play their instruments. They need a very strong foundation of basic skills and music theory.

When you sign up for lessons, let your teacher know that you want to be able to put together arrangements for your own songs. Some music teachers will focus on teaching you how to read music that's written out. That's a great skill to have, and you should learn it. But it takes an extra set of skills to make up your own arrangements. Make sure your teacher is willing to work with you on improvisation and music theory.

Once your musicians each have a basic feel for rhythm and everyone knows how to change chords, you'll be ready to start coming up with your own arrangements.

Start by writing out a chord chart for the song. When everyone is looking at the same chord chart you can all count along and change chords at the same time. There is no right or wrong way to do this, as long as all the band members know how to read your charts.

I usually write out the chord names and beats in rows of boxes. Each box represents one measure of music. I make a chart like this for each of my songs and refer to it often while I'm recording.

On the right is the chart for my song "A Pet Like That" so you can see what it looks like. You can listen along in my podcast of the same name (podcast links are to the left).

So, everybody has a chart? Now count off the tempo - 1, 2, 3, 4 - and let each player play what they think might work. Your fist attempt will probably sound like a mess. Just keep trying. Between takes, discuss which ideas are working and which are not. Try something different each time and pretty soon it will start to sound like a song.

In addition to taking lessons, just listening to your favorite bands will help. And I mean REALLY listening. Learn to hear each instrument separately in a recording. Pay close attention to what your instrument is playing. Learn to play those parts yourself. Learn as many songs as you can. If you pay attention, you'll start to get a feel for arranging and for knowing what you might play to accompany your own songs.

Diggory, I know you are dying to make music with your band right now, and you don't want to take 10 years of lessons first. I don't think you should skip the lessons, but you can get started having fun with your band at the same time. Don't try to sing a song right at first. Just see if you can all play along together and get a groove going. Let the drummer start a beat, then strum the guitar along with that, and just play. Don't worry if it doesn't sound like anything; just have fun.

See if you can find an adult musician willing to work you through a rehearsal. I'll bet if you ask around, someone will be curious enough about the "CrAzY ApEs" to come help you out for an hour or two. Ask your teachers and parents if they know anyone they could recommend. Let your adult guide show each of you what to play. Make sure that you honor their time with a serious rehearsal. Do what they ask you to, and keep the goofing around to a minimum. If you are able to make progress, your guide will probably be willing to help you out again.

It takes a lot of hard work to make music in a band. It's also a lot of fun when it comes together and starts sounding good! Keep practicing!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Use an Existing Melody to Write a New Melody

Hello Monty,
I DO perform at my local church and very often at least once a month we have Gospel Concerts. I have so many different beats.. and I am finding it so hard to get a melody to it! How do I go about that? I have tried all sorts of different melodies from other songs. It could just be me but can you suggest anything?
Many Thanks,

Hi Elsie,

It's not just you - coming up with a melody can be a challenge. Many people feel they can't do it. I remember as a kid, trying to invent a melody, but everything I hummed turned out to be an existing song. Once I broke through that barrier and actually sang my own melody, it became easier and easier to do. Now melodies flow out of me like water. However, it's still often a challenge to find a good melody to match a particular set of words. When I write words first, I almost never settle on a melody right away - I'll try many different ideas until one finally sticks.

It sounds like you have written some words and you want to find a melody to go with them. You've tried all sorts of melodies from other songs, but none of them fit. I'll give you something new to try in a minute. But first, a word or two about using existing melodies.

Using an existing melody from another song is sometimes appropriate. If you make a joke out of the original song, that's called a "parody." Weird Al Yankovic is the master of parody. He took Michael Jackson's song "Beat It" and changed it to "Eat It," making it all about food. More recently he changed the Kink's classic "Lola" to "Yoda!" These songs are funny because the new lyrics resemble the old lyrics, while totally changing the meaning of the song.

But I don't think you're trying to write a parody. Another case where new words get put to an existing melody is what educators call "piggy back" songs. New words can "piggy back" onto a familiar tune in order to help teach a lesson. These songs are easy to share, because all you have to do is say, "Sung to the tune of...", and anybody reading the words will also know how to sing it. Barney (the big purple dinosaur) did this a lot. "I love you, you love me..." is sung to the tune of "This Old Man," for example.

However, melodies are protected by copyright, which means somebody owns them! John Lennon and George Harrison were each famously sued for songs they wrote with melodies that resembled other songs. Copyright law allows for some exceptions, called "fair use." Both parodies and piggy back songs (if they are educational) CAN fall under fair use, although the law is somewhat tricky.

Some melodies are so old that their copyright has expired. Those melodies are in the public domain, which means you can use them. So, make sure that if you do use another song's melody, it's in the public domain. Here is a website that will help you identify which songs are in the public domain:

But, if you are writing an original song, what you really probably want is an original melody to go with it - one you can call your own!

I'm going to give you a crazy suggestion that I think will help you write a melody. I say it's crazy because it seems sort of the opposite of what you've been trying. I've written a song or two this way, and it's a fun exercise.

1. Find a song you really like. You're going to use it as a model. Better yet, have a friend choose a good song for you that you haven't heard. If you are unfamiliar with the melody, that will be an advantage.

2. Copy out the lyrics word for word on paper or on a computer. Make each line of words cover the same number of beats in the song, either four or eight beats per line. (Or three or six... depending on the time signature of the song.)

3. Now put a new piece of paper next to that (or a new window on the computer) and start writing your own song. Chose a totally different topic from your model song, so that you won't be using similar words and ideas.

4. As you write, copy certain things exactly from your model song. This is important! Give your song the same number of lines. In each line use the same number of syllables. Copy the same pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Copy the rhyme scheme.

Example: "Like a bridge over troubled water" --> change it to "I'm in love with a purple monkey"; that's fine. But don't change it to "I'm in love with a purple antelope" because the number of syllables is wrong (10 instead of 9). And don't change it to "I'm in love with a tangerine tree" because although it has 9 syllables, the stresses are wrong ("-ine/Tree" is unstressed/stressed, where "water" is stressed/unstressed). Make sense?

5. If you find yourself uninspired, then write nonsense. Just focus on the patterns of the syllables and use any words that fit. It's only an exercise after all, and it's really about the melody. You can always fix the words later if you want. But do this quickly now.

6. If you're using a song you know, put your paper away for a couple of weeks, and don't listen to the model song during that time. This way you can come back to the words with a fresh pair of ears.

7. Get your paper out, try to forget the song you copied, and write a new melody for your words. Use a piano, guitar, or just your voice. Sing the words all on one pitch if you have to at first. Try different combinations of long notes and short notes - which words sound better when you hold them out? Have the pitch go up at the end of a line; then try it going down. Just keep singing it until a great melody clicks into place.

I'm guessing that with your new set of words you'll find it much easier to write an original melody. Why? Because these words follow an established pattern that another songwriter has already used to write a melody. If that writer had success with this pattern, so can you.

Once you've enjoyed some success at writing melodies to existing word patterns, go back to the words you wrote that you were having trouble with. By then you'll have some new skills for smoothing out the words and arranging them into a pattern that can support a great melody.

Give it a try, have fun, and good luck!!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Music Lessons Can Help

Hi. My name is Amanda and I'm 19 years old. I like to sing and write songs, but the problem is that I can't seem to get my ideas on paper. I tried so many times to write a song and it never turns out right. Then when I try to play my guitar or keyboard, I can't hear the difference between one note and another note and I can't seem to get the rhythm. Can you help me? Thanks!!! -Amanda

Hi Amanda,

If you enjoy listening to music, then you aren't tone deaf, which means
you just need some musical training. I would suggest that you take
voice, guitar, or piano lessons. Once you have the basic musical skills
down, songwriting will seem a lot easier.

Thanks for your help! I will try getting into music classes when i get the money. I gotta get a job to pay for it, or I'll never be able to afford it. About how much do lessons cost?

I really hate to guess how much lessons might cost you. It would depend so much on where you live and who you hire. Also on whether you get individual lessons or sign on for a class.

There is a website,, where you can type in your area code and get a list of music teachers near you. Also if you Google "piano lessons", "guitar lessons", or "voice lessons" you'll find many resources online - some of them are free. These might be good places to start until you can afford to hire a teacher.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Tips For Young Songwriters FAQ

Howdy! Welcome to Tips For Young Songwriters!

This blog is more than the mere ravings of a mad songwriter. I rave in response to readers' questions. And without a question from YOU, this blog just won't live up to its full potential. So send me your question!

But first, please look over the most frequently asked questions listed below. If your question has already been answered, then we both just saved ourselves some time! I do try to answer everyone who writes, but new and interesting questions get answered first.

So, to get right down to it...

If your question is about one of the articles I've already written, then post it as a comment. Just click the link at the bottom of the article that says "comment" and go from there. (You don't have to be a member to post your comment.)

Otherwise, you can email your question to me with this link: Send Me a Question!

Now, here is the FAQ list...

Part I - Questions about TFYS
(OK, so these are made up questions, but it's stuff you might want to know.)

Q. Who should ask questions here?
A. Anybody who wants to. Even though this is "Tips for Young Songwriters," the answers can get pretty sophisticated. I figure anyone who's been writing songs for less than 100 years is a young songwriter. But since I work with elementary students on songwriting, I try to make my answers understandable on that level.

Q. How long will it take to get an answer?
A. Who knows? Sometimes I answer right away. Sometimes it takes months, to tell you the truth. It depends on how busy I am at the moment, and whether or not I know right away how to answer your question. It also depends on whether your question has been answered already. (See above.) If I'm too slow for you, you are welcome to pester me with another email.

Part II - Questions about Songwriting

Q. Can you give me some good advice? How do I write a song?
A. Yes, I have been asked these questions many times, in various forms. My answer is - please, read this whole blog. Or get a book on songwriting from the library. Try to write a song or two. Then ask me a specific question.

Q. How can I become famous?
A. Is that REALLY what you want? You have to devote your every waking moment to it. I can't help you much, either. As you can see, I'm not really famous myself. But for some advice on this topic, see this post: Becoming Famous

Q. My songs aren't very good. What can I do about it?
A. Many people tell me their songs aren't very good. This is only to be expected, since you are a beginning songwriter! Start by changing what you tell yourself and others: instead of "My songs aren't good," say "I'm still learning." Say it out loud. Right now. There you go. Now check out these encouraging posts: Learn by Doing, You Can Write a Song. Then read the rest of this blog and practice, practice, practice your writing!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

New Digs

It's been over a year since I posted a new "Tips for Young Songwriters" column to my website, although I have been answering questions by email and through my MontyNews newsletter.

So I'm finally getting organized and moving "Tips" over here to Blogger where I can easily keep it updated and invite more discussion. Old articles will appear rapidly, and I will date them with the original date they were written.

Please feel free to leave a comment or submit a question! Happy songwriting!