Want to write really great songs, sell millions of records and discover that money can't buy you happiness? There are plenty of sites on the web that aim to help you be a better songwriter, but there's also a lot of worthless rubbish out there. Sam Inglis tries not to waste too much time...
Searching the web can be a frustrating experience. When you're desperately trying to track down a manual for that ancient drum machine, or the story behind an obscure record, the tiniest fragment of information can seem like gold dust. On other occasions, however, the problem can be one of too much information. Sometimes it seems as though everyone in the world has their own site devoted to your hobby, and sorting the accurate and useful from the pointless and incorrect can be a daunting task.
This is definitely the case when it comes to looking for advice on songwriting. A search on Google (www.google.com) using the keywords 'songwriting advice' returns over 14,000 results — and you don't have to be looking through them for long to realise that there's a lot of crap out there. The Internet is full of important‑sounding songwriting Guilds, Organisations and Associations, many of which seem to be populated entirely by illiterate hippies explaining how they drew inspiration from the deaths of their hamsters or the plight of the rainforests. Useful advice is a lot harder to come by than self‑congratulatory backscratching, and although there are plenty of self‑proclaimed 'experts' who boast of their 50 years' experience in songwriting, few of them are likely to have written a song you've actually heard. So is there anywhere on the Net where you can find useful, practical advice from people adequately qualified to dispense that advice?
Well... it depends. If you find this sort of thing valuable, then you're in luck: "Feeling and emotions remind me of the strings of a guitar. Once they are touched in one way or another they begin to resonate. Whenever I have felt touched by a performance of any kind was when the performer was totally immersed in his feeling experience. I could sit and have my own experience as the performers' emotions channeled themselves through his face, torso, voice and hands, every note becoming an echo." There's no end of material like this on the Internet; this particular gem comes from www.scoop‑net.com/iss/isstips.htm. If, on the other hand, you want to know how to resolve the chord sequence in your half‑finished verse, or whether that chord sequence can be arranged in a country style, or whether people will get your clever lyrical allusions, it's less easy to know where to look. Similarly, Alexis Boggs III of Illinois may be only too happy to tell the world how he wrote his epic 'Jesus Gave Us Dolphins', available exclusively over the Internet from Boggs Records, but finding genuine insight into the creative processes of successful songwriters is harder.
Here Is The Muse
An obvious starting point is The Muse's Muse web site (www.musesmuse.com). This is one of the most popular songwriting sites on the Internet, incorporating news, chat areas, bibliographies, links and a free, archived monthly newsletter. Indeed, so popular is the site that they have recently launched their own range of merchandising, but I'm afraid I won't be sending off for my Muse's Muse mouse mat just yet. While the site, and particularly the archived newsletter, do contain a vast amount of information, I found it much more useful on the business side of songwriting — where there is a lot of sound, albeit UScentric, advice on publishing, self‑promotion, getting your songs heard and so forth — than on the craft itself, where articles tend to bear titles such as 'Finding Your Mermaid'. The site also collects together a lot of interviews with songwriters, but warns "Interviews are just as likely to be with very talented indie musicians that you may never have heard of — but should." Hmmm.
Another site which very much doesn't subscribe to the 'less is more' ethos is Jeff Mallett's Songwriter Site at www.lyricist.com. The main feature of this site is a colossal list of links — which are, again, stronger on the business side of life as a songwriter than on the creative side. This, alas, is also true of The Lyrical Line (www.lyricalline.com), the slick design of which conceals various hokey articles such as 'Men Songwriters are from Mars, Women Songwriters are from Venus' and 'Step One: Touch Somebody' along with a truly pathetic selection of book/record plugs masquerading as interviews. Equally cheesy advice is available at many other sites, including www.senet.com.au/~scala/, while one more worth visiting than most is the Craft Of Songwriting site at www.craftofsongwriting.com/index..., which offers some basic but informative articles, a chat room and a discussion board.
Many of these sites are based around the practice of 'critiquing' songs, a process whereby people offer their lyrics or demo recordings for dissection by anyone who feels that they have something useful to say about them. Personally, I'd be a bit dubious about the lyrical judgements of anyone who can torture the English language to the extent of using the word 'critiquing', but I suppose that's Americans for you.
However, whether you want to subject your carefully honed material to the thoughtful criticism of other songwriters, search for like‑minded writing collaborators, or ask for practical advice on chords and scales, the best place to go is almost certainly not a web site but a news group, rec.music.makers.songwriting. To get a flavour of the discussions that take place on this busy newsgroup, browse the archive at groups.google.com/groups?q=rec.music.makers.songwriting&hl=en&lr=&safe=off&site=groups. With over 73,000 threads archived, there's a fair chance that whatever you want to ask has already been answered, so don't jump in without running your questions through the archive's search engine first. Like most songwriting web sites, rec.music.makers.songwriting produces a lot of rubbish, but it can also put you in touch with keen writers who are willing and able to offer detailed advice on anything, from specific choices of words for the second line of your chorus to hiring an orchestra. And while songwriting hints on web sites tend to consist of vague platitudes and statements of the blindingly obvious, here you'll be able to get responses which are at least specific to your own problems.
Even here, however, some songwriters will find more useful advice and like minds than do others. It's very easy to get the impression that every online songwriting community, be it a web site or a newsgroup, is either secretly affiliated to the Joni Mitchell fan club, dedicated to praising God, or premissed on the belief that there are only two kinds of music: country and western. Many seem to see rock music as a daring innovation, and electronic music as the height of experimentation. And despite a fairly extensive search, I couldn't find a single serious attempt to provide useful advice on writing rap or hip‑hop on the entire World Wide Web, although both have been best‑selling musical genres in America for several years.
If you look away from sites directly aimed at 'songwriters', there's a lot of useful material on writing in general and music theory to be found, much of which could be very valuable both in broadening your songwriting options and getting out of the dead ends that half‑finished songs often seem to present. In the former category, you could check out The Internet Writing Journal at www.writerswrite.com. This monthly online publication is archived on the site, and can be searched for relevant articles, which include advice on writing and publishing songs. Here too, however, the songwriting articles have an alarming tendency to contain material such as "It has been my experience that the great songwriters I have met and studied are people who passionately love Life for the sheer adventure of it and they let Life lead them into Truth."
On the music theory side, there's a lot of useful information at sites such as Marc Sabatella's Jazz Improvisation Primer at www.outsideshore.com/primer/prim.... This, as the name suggests, is primarily intended for musicians who want to learn how to play jazz, but it provides a very clear and thorough explanation of harmony, scales and modes. If, however, you want to learn from the undisputed masters of the pop song, or indeed if you just want some insight into the nature of obsession, there's much to be said for Alan W Pollack's detailed musicological analysis of every track the Beatles ever recorded. His 'Notes On' series can be found at rmb.simplenet.com/public/files/awp/awp.html, and makes scarily compelling reading.
One of the most widely respected American institutions teaching the theory and practice of contemporary pop and jazz music is Berklee College in Boston, which can boast an impressive list of alumni, including Quincy Jones, Melissa Etheridge, Donald Fagen and Branford Marsalis. Most of us couldn't afford the time or the fees required to actually attend their courses, even if we could meet the entrance requirements, but the next best thing is a visit to their web site. Their regular magazine, Berklee Today, is archived online at www.berklee.edu/bt/, and includes both technical articles about composition, arranging and songwriting, and interviews with prominent ex‑students, including successful songwriters.
No matter how much help you get from the Internet, there will always be times when inspiration fails to flow, creative juices dry up, and your muse locks herself in the bathroom and refuses to come out. At this point you have two choices. You can either go and write Westlife songs, or you can get your computer to write your songs for you... in which case you need the Alanis Morissette Lyric Generator at www.brunching.com/toys/toy‑alanislyrics.html.
Wordly Goods: Free Online Dictionaries
The web is often at its strongest in areas with obvious connections to the world of education, and the field of technical resources for those writing or studying poetry (and song lyrics) is well stocked with good sites. If you're looking for an online rhyming dictionary, for instance, you're spoiled for choice. Lycos' Rhymezone, duplicated at www.rhymezone.com and rhyme.lycos.com/, offers a sophisticated range of options and acts as a thesaurus and a standard dictionary as well, allowing you to search not only for rhymes but definitions, synonyms, antonyms, and so forth. It will even search for your word in the collected works of Shakespeare, should you wish it to. Be warned, however, that like all the online rhyming dictionaries I found, it takes its rhymes from American English rather than our old‑fashioned kind — I asked it to find rhymes for 'missile', and the results it came back with included epistles, tin whistles and 29 types of thistle. The Word Together rhyming dictionary (www.togethersoftware.com/search.asp) was even more generous, claiming that 'weasel' and 'tinsel' were also 'optimum rhymes' for 'missile'. This is a much more basic site than Rhymezone, but does allow you to specify the number of syllables you wish to rhyme; you could also check out www.WriteExpress.com/online.html.
Many lyricists also find a thesaurus invaluable, and again there is no shortage of electronic examples. The grandaddy of all thesauruses, Roget's, is apparently available at (where else?) www.thesaurus.com. Getting there can be frustrating, though — when I visited the site, it tried to open annoying ad windows, and then promptly disappeared before I could even enter a word. Another established name in the world of thesauruses (thesaurii?) is Merriam‑Webster, and their online contribution can be found at www.m‑w.com/cgi‑bin/thesaurus. Yet another online thesaurus lives at www.wordsmyth.net.
Alliteration — the repetition of similar consonant sounds on stressed syllables within a line — can be a very powerful tool in lyric writing, and a resource that is, as far as I know, unique is the Vocabulary of Alliteration at www.xs4all.nl/~in/Poet/VocAll.htm, which is basically a huge list of words ordered by stressed consonants. If, for instance, you want to find words in which stressed 't' sounds are prominent, you simply select that letter from the list.
Most of these sites, and many others, are listed in the comprehensive round‑up of online dictionaries at www.yourdictionary.com/diction1.....