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Music Life: 07 - MUSICAL PRODUCTIVITY! - Part 2 - Write Scratch-Versions of Songs
By Brian Donovan - 11/15/2008 - 06:34 PM EST

"We find ourselves engaged in a discussion of great importance...hand me those two pillows I'll stuff 'em in my coat..."  That's a quote from an old Bing Crosby, Christmas radio show from 1955.  He was dressing up as Santa Clause to surprise his youngest kids on Christmas Eve.  And although he was merely dressing himself in a Santa outfit (complete with a bear that has a pretty funny moment later in the skit) it's relevant to the discussion that WE'RE engaged in about musical productivity.  Why?  Because we can't merely stuff our songs with fluff and expect them to become something of value.  Much like Bing, who's outfit ultimately blew his cover and destroyed his entrance into their living room.  (Through the front door.)

A few months ago, I covered how to capture your random musical ideas.  Last time, I talked about organizing those creative ideas for easy access and now I'll cover how to utilize those bits of inspiration to write your next song.

So, to recap, there are 4 major steps to being more musically productive:
1. capture & organize your random ideas
2. write (and re-write) scratch-versions to assemble these ideas into a complete statement that stands on it's own
3. arrange (and re-arrange) these scratch-versions into fully-produced demos
4. record (and re-record) individual parts to create final versions of these arrangements and call the project done


"W H A T ? ! ? !" - You're probably asking.  "I have a great bass line that would be perfect for this song!"  Or, "I want to arrange the bridge right's hot!"

Yes, yes, yes.  I agree, I too love to jump right into the cool gear I have to get the most awesome sounds and a tight groove to work with.  BUT........we're talking about writing a song right now...not arranging said song.  So, here's what I propose:  (and you can't dispute it, it worked for the Beatles, Sir Elton John, Eddie Van Halen, Poison, Diane Warren, and MANY others...)

See, I made a huge realization for myself a LONG time ago about songwriting.  It's the idea that a GREAT song needs no arrangement.  A great melody needs no lyric.  A great lyric needs no song.  Point being: if it's great, it stands on it's own.  So I strive to write from a single instrument for harmonic purposes, and a single voice for lyrics and melody.

So, using the bits and pieces of musical ideas that I've collected and now organized, I'll sit down and listen to a few ideas to see which ones hit me right at this moment.  Once I've gotten sucked in by an idea or set of similar ideas, I'll start working it into something more than it is.  How to do that specifically, I really shouldn't say here.  Everyone works on songs differently.  But I will say, usually I'll use that initial seed of an idea, and come up with new parts to compliment.  Rarely will I combine 2 or 3 ideas together.  Usually, each idea is the start of it's own song.  After I feel as though I've made this particular song it's own "complete statement" (and I feel that's the best term to use for "finishing" a song, because you truly never FINISH a song - but at least if it's a complete statement, well, what more can a person ask?) I will call it "done" and set it aside for a day or so.  I WON'T LISTEN TO IT, SO I CAN COME BACK TO IT WITH FRESH EARS!  -  Very important to do.

That's where the re-write portion of our discussion comes in: when you sit down a few days later and listen to you song.  Invariably, (if you really didn't listen to your song at all since you wrote it) you'll hear chords or melody elements that just don't flow well.  THAT'S what needs to be changed.  Words that don't make you tingle....they need to be rethought.  After that, don't mess with the song too much, you have to be able to allow the song to take it's own shape.  That mentality makes it simple.  If you're writing for a specific situation, you may need to pay more attention to specific details of your song, but if you're just writing a song with no immediate need in mind, you be the judge of what's good and bad...

Next time, we'll look at how to start thinking of arranging your new song.

Until then, appreciate the horizon...

Brian Donovan is a songwriter in Los Angeles, CA, graduate of Berklee College of Music and has been working in the music industry for over 12 years.  Check out Brian's newest CD: "Mugu Point" at his website:

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