Books on the craft and business of songwriting are a small investment that can pay big dividends. Here are a few of my favorites – including, of course, my own.
Author: Robin Frederick
I worked hard to make this book unique among songwriting books. It’s made to be used while you write songs, giving you ideas, creative choices, and inspiration to write your best, your most commercial, and your most memorable songs. You’ll find dozens of useful, real-world tips and tools you can start using right away, including 38 strategies for creating powerful lyrics, 30 easy-to-use ideas for making your melodies memorable, plus 117 “Do It Now” exercises to get you writing new songs and adding strength to old ones. Here’s what others are saying.
The music industry:
“Great reference material for people serious about writing great songs. It’s got it all.”
~ Kara DioGuardi; BMI Songwriter of the Year, American Idol judge, hit songwriter
“An excellent road map for writers at all levels. When you set out for success, it’s so easy to slip off the path – this is the songwriter’s GPS.
~ Ralph Murphy; Vice President, ASCAP Nashville
“Within the first few pages of Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting I was convinced of two things. Robin is passionate about great songs and equally passionate about teaching others how to write them. Thanks, Robin!” ~ Paul Secord
“Oh WOW!!! I am just half way through your book and my writing has changed for the better, forever. Your writing is so clear and to the point that it is amazing to me that someone can get their ideas across that well on paper. Anyhow, I just want to let you know that you have a HIT.” ~ David A. Myers, Houston, TX
Author: Robin Frederick
This is the first and only book that shows you how to write and pitch songs in the most exciting market for today’s songwriters, artists, and bands. I researched this field for a year, interviewed top music supervisors, then broke it all down into easy-to-use shortcuts. Here’s what people are saying:
The music industry:
“This book is worth its weight in gold! It will save you a lot of time, heartache, and could make you a lot of money!”
~ Jim Long, music library pioneer & innovator; Firstcom, OneMusic, Crucial Music
“Truly a great resource for anyone who wants to get their songs used in Film & TV. This book is a Must Have.”
~ Stephan R. Goldman, Music Supervisor for 65 feature films
This is not merely a “How To” book but, more importantly, a “What Not To Do” book. It gives songwriters the edge they need to compete at a whole different level.”
~ Peter Greco, 17 years as Sr. Vice President of Music at Young & Rubicam, NY
“I’ve been noticing songs in commercials and TV shows for a while now and wondering how I could get MY songs considered for those spots. Well, now I know!” ~ Steven Maren
“I have found your book on writing, recording, and pitching songs for film & TV to be very helpful with the info & tips concerning this exciting songwriting opportunity. I’ve already had a song placed in a film and anticipate other placements.” ~ Lee Kweller
Author: John Braheny
The first half of this book is devoted to the craft of songwriting and covers everything you need to know in a way that’s clear and understandable. You’ll be using the information in this book on your very next song. (The section on melody writing does require note reading skills.)
The second half of the book covers the music business and this may be the most useful part of the book. It offers real-world information, including collaboration contracts, what you can expect from a record or publishing deal, and more.
Author: Jason Blume
If you could take a class from a master songwriter who has written hit after hit in the Country, Pop, and R&B fields, you’d do it, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s what this book is! Jason Blume’s songs have been covered by artists like Britney Spears to the Backstreet Boys and they’ve sold records in the multi-millions. Yet he has the ability to teach others and a willingness to share what he knows! This is an excellent book on the craft of songwriting. There are plenty of hands-on exercises to walk you through the process and solid examples that demonstrate his points. Whether you’re just starting out or a pro picking up a few tips, it’s definitely worth the price.
Author: Jai Josefs
I took private lessons from Jai Josefs some years ago, long after I had started earning my living as a songwriter, and I immediately used everything I learned from him. Chord progressions, harmonizing melodies, and melodic composition are essential parts of a hit song whether it’s a Country, Rock, Pop, or R&B. Too often these things are under emphasized in songwriting books. I guess it’s easier to write about lyrics and melody than chord progressions.
Well, finally there’s an entire book on the subject. Jai is a great teacher and writer. If you are writing both music and lyrics, then this is an essential companion to Jason Blume’s “6 Steps To Songwriting Success.” (Note reading is required.)
One reader at Amazon.com writes: “I’m a self-taught pianist and this book has opened up a whole new world of ideas to me. I’m on my third reading now and in every reading I seem to pick up something that I didn’t before.”
‣ MUSIC SOFTWARE
There are many excellent midi and digital audio sequencers available on the market. I couldn’t possibly list them all and describe all their bells and whistles because it would take too long. But here are a few inexpensive programs that will get you started. If you’ve never used a sequencer before, be aware that these programs come with a learning curve attached!
I love this software and I use it! It’s not expensive as software programs go (around $130 at Amazon.com) and it’s a great creative tool. When the idea of fetching a song out of thin air seems a bit overwhelming, Band-In-A-Box can give you a plenty of chords, melodies – even a title – to get things rolling. Or maybe you’re a lyricist who agrees with me that writing a lyric without a melody is like eating fries without ketchup. Band-In-A-Box can create a solid scratch melody for you. I like to think of this software as a really good-natured collaborator: It never runs out of ideas and it’s ready to work whenever you are.
What it does: Band-In-A-Box generates original chord progressions, rhythm tracks, bass lines, titles and melodies in various genres from rock to country to pop. (It claims to do ‘hip hop’ but it really doesn’t – see FL Studio software below.) The generated song is available for you to use without copyright restriction because it is based on general patterns derived from pre-existing songs, not the songs themselves. The drawback is that the generated songs sound predictable and familiar… for obvious reasons. BUT the software has a lot of built-in flexibility, allowing you to substitute chords, create new melodies, write in bass parts, re-program drums. Or you can use the random melody-generator to create new melodies until you find something you want to work with.
Using the software as a simple song generator is very easy. There’s a bit of a learning curve when you start writing in complete chord progressions of your own, however it’s well worth the trouble. Beware: many of the pre-programmed songs that play when you first open the software sound awkward. I hate ’em! What you want to do is find a “style” (drum and bass pattern) that you like. The light rock styles and country styles are very good. Choose one of those styles and start experimenting. You don’t even need a midi keyboard – you can use your computer keys to type in chord names and Band-In-A-Box will play the sounds that are already in your computer.
Band-In-A-Box is available for both MAC and Windows. The Windows version can even record your vocals. You can download a free demo at their web site PG Music. Even a seasoned song composer will find this software intriguing.
This low cost, feature-packed software makes it easy to create your own loop-based tracks and songs on your PC. Play and mix loops and WAV samples -the software comes with over thousands of loops and midi samples – edit and mix with plenty of bells and whistles for the money. Multitrack recording allows you to mix loops with your midi tracks and recorded vocals and guitar tracks. Does not come with a mic so be sure you have a USB microphone or built-in. That’s all you need!
If your Mac shipped after 2011, you’ve already got a great music program: Garageband. The software includes digital audio and midi sequencing, mixing effects, better yet, it has lots of rhythm and instrument loops you can mix and match. Have fun creating a complete instrumental track within your computer (no midi keyboard required but you can buy a good, cheap USB midi controller/keyboard made by M-Audio). Record a vocal using either Mac’s built-in laptop mic or a USB mic (not included but they’re inexpensive). If you don’t have it already, this software is part of the Apple iLife ’11 software suite available through Amazon.com.
‣ LYRIC WRITING SOFTWARE
This software is primarily for lyric writers although it does include midi drums loops and some digital recording capability for keeping track of melody ideas. It includes several dictionaries including a rhyming dictionary, a dictionary of phrases, idioms, sayings and word combinations, a thesaurus, and more. A unique feature is “Songuard,” an online date-of-creation Song Registration Service. (To my knowledge this has not been tested legally but might provide some song protection.) There’s a database that allows you to keep track of lyrics, melodies and information related to the songs you’ve written. The software is available for both Mac and PC. You can download a free demo at their web site. Based on the demonstrations I’ve seen, it looks like it would work best for the Country genre. The price is currently around $250 and there is a version that can be licensed by the year.
Online rhyming resources
There are some excellent free, online rhyming websites. Here are two you can try to see which you prefer.
• RhymeDesk.com – This is a very easy to use site and comes up with good suggestions that work well for songwriters. Try using near rhymes for some fresh ideas. The site also has a thesaurus.
• B-Rhymes – This site offers a wealth of choices but you may end up having to wade through layers of words you don’t want. Still, you never know where the right word will turn up.
‣ DEMO RECORDING
You can make a good rough demo of your song with any of the software mentioned above. If you’re looking for the sound of a live band but don’t have a big budget, here are a few suggestions.
Here’s an easy way to create a whole demo or just add a single good live musician or vocal to your track. Check out StudioPros.com. It’s affordable and professional. Best of all, you can be in control the whole way through. At each step, you listen to what’s been recorded, then give your approval or request changes before moving on. Be sure you give them a solid rough demo so your song’s melody and overall feel is clear. A reference track is also useful – that’s a a hit song that’s similar in some ways to the production you want to hear on your finished demo. StudioPros will discuss what they can do within your budget. Be realistic. Communicate clearly. And you’ll get the best results.
I have recommended Larry Beaird’s demo service to several of my clients and they have all been pleased with the results. Larry and his brother, Eli, are based in Nashville so they’ve got the pick of some of the best musicians and singers working in the business today! And he’s not limited to Country demos, either! Check out the samples on Larry’s web site to hear the high quality work he does. He posts a complete menu of prices which is very helpful in planning your recording budget.
Need a strong vocal for your demo? Maybe your song is in a genre that’s not right for your voice or you need a second version with a male or female vocal. The singers at Session Singers Online are true professionals. Just listen to their reel. You’ll get a world class vocal performance from these folks. Be sure to discuss the vocal style you want. Play a few examples for reference just to be sure everyone is on the same page. You’ll need to discuss a deal. A buy out of the vocal performance for film & TV pitching is probably not an option. Consider offering a percentage of what you are paid for any Master Use licenses of the song in addition to the session fee.
A good live drum track can be the one thing standing between you and an excellent demo. A great drum track adds energy, life, and sizzle to a track. But few of us have the ten mics, sound-proof room, great kit, and mighty session drummer it takes to get a solid recording. Solution: Have session drummer Shay Godwin lay down a drum track to your demo and send it to you as an mp3. To find out more about how this works, visit his web site at Edrum Sessions. Prices are very reasonable.
‣ PITCH SHEETS & MUSIC INDUSTRY DIRECTORIES
In their own words: “TAXI is the leading independent A&R company helping unsigned bands, artists and songwriters get record deals, publishing deals and placement in films and TV shows.” Here’s the cool part: you can see their current listings online at TAXI listings. Just click on a music genre in the right-hand sidebar to see the latest listings. Of course you can’t submit your songs unless you are a TAXI member and they will be screened. If your song is forwarded to the listing, you will be contacted directly if there is interest. Whether your song is forwarded or not, you will receive a critique if requested. Critiques offer valuable suggestions from industry pro’s on how you can make your song more attractive to record labels and publishers. Check out the listings, read the info posted on their web site and decide for yourself if it’s right for you.
The TAXI Road Rally, held in Los Angeles each November, is a great event and free to members. The Road Rally alone is worth the price of a membership: three days of panels, lectures, one-on-one mentoring, and networking. I know many people involved with TAXI and I can tell you they are honest and do what they say they do. Membership fee is $300 for the first year. (Tip: If you sign up for their email, you will be notified of occasional membership fee discounts.)
The Music Business Registry has been publishing music industry directories for over 20 years. They’re very good at what they do. Information is kept up to date and is as accurate as it can be in a business that’s constantly changing. Most entries include a phone numbers and email address. You’ll find sample pages and more information on their website.
The Music Publishers Association of the U.S. provides an online list of publishers that includes address, phone number, and contact name. It does not say whether they accept unsolicited material or what type of material they are interested in. You could visit the individual publishers’ web sites, get an email address and write to find out their policy regarding unsolicited songs.
‣ Music Instruction – Songwriting
This is a GREAT resource if you’re looking for songwriting instruction and a supportive, warm-hearted, talented community of songwriters. I not only recommend SongU.com as an excellent place to find mentors, coaches, and songwriting classes, I actually teach there myself. I’m proud to be part of a first-rate faculty of songwriting teachers including Craig Bickhardt, Sara Light, Jai Josefs, Fett, Pamela Phillips Oland, and many more. And, guess what… it’s incredibly affordable! Take classes live online or self-paced courses at your own speed. Collaborate with other songwriters every month and get personal feedback on your songs. It’s definitely worth checking out.
‣ Music Instruction – Piano & Guitar
Learning to play chords on piano or guitar is easy and fun and it’s all you need to be able to write songs! Here are a couple of good, easy-to-follow instruction guides for beginners or musicians who want to fill in their knowledge of chords.
Winner of the 2002 Pinnacle Award in the category of “how-to” book. From their website: “Have you ever wished you could play the piano? Well, now you can! Scott “The Piano Guy” Houston teaches you to play the way the pros play, in a style enormously simpler than traditional classical piano and with an absolute minimum of note-reading. By focusing on playing the melody with the right hand (one note at a time) and simple chords with the left hand, Houston gives you the tools you need for a lifetime of musical enjoyment. Best of all, your tour guide to this adventure forces you to have fun along the way!” And this from me: If you’ve seen Scott Houston’s PBS special, you know how enormously entertaining he is, but more important, how simple and fun it can be to learn the chords and melody basics of piano playing. This is an inexpensive way to get started. Scott’s course is also available on DVD. It’s fun and entertaining!
From the publisher: “READING MUSIC AND PRIOR EXPERIENCE PLAYING THE GUITAR NOT REQUIRED…Want to learn how to play the guitar EASILY and QUICKLY? This great book by Chris Lopez will jump start your musical development in the right direction. You will find what the beginning guitar player has for so long been looking for, for starters, a guitar book filled with complete and easy to understand illustrations on how to play the most commonly played chords.”
The John Lennon Songwriting Contest is an international songwriting contest that began in 1997. The contest is open to amateur and professional songwriters. Entries are judged based on originality, melody, composition, and lyrics (if applicable). Instrumental compositions are accepted. Neither performance nor production are considered during the judging process; this is ALL about the song. Winners receive cash prizes, publishing contracts, or recording equipment. See the John Lennon Song contest web site for more information. This contest has a good reputation in the industry.
In their own words: “This international songwriting contest began in 1999. Amateur and professional songwriters everywhere are welcome to participate. There are nine categories, including an Instrumental category and a Lyric Writing category for lyricists. Songs are judged on songwriting excellence, not on performance or production. Winners receive a mix of prizes, awards and cash prizes. The Great American Song Contest is sponsored by Songwriters Resource Network.”
I know several of the judges (who are listed at the SRN web site) and they are truly among the best in the music business. Harriet Schock, Steve Seskin, Pat Pattison, and many more; they are all highly qualified to judge song excellence. The entry fee is $20 per song. You can expect a song evaluation from one of the judges whether you win or lose. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me!
Here’s a contest with a low entry fee ($10) that gives you free melody writing software just for entering! You can check it out without spending a lot. Be sure to read their “Entry Tips.” Production is not a factor in the judging; it’s your song that counts!
From the web site: The “Best Song of the Month” contest honors and publicizes the top songs submitted to Songwriter Universe each month. This contest not only spotlights the winning song and songwriter but also showcases the Top Five new songs that we hear each month. The winning songs will remain online indefinitely. We will be referring top music publishers, label A&R execs, producers, music supervisors and managers to read the “Best Song of the Month” articles and listen to the winning songs. Our objective is not only to honor the winning songwriters, but to help expose and promote their songs to top people in the music industry.”
The “Best Song of the Month” contest is run by Dale Kawashima, one of the music industry’s most respected publishers. If you have ever wondered how to get past the “no un-solicited submissions” hurdle to be heard by a top publisher, well, here’s your chance. There is a very low fee to submit to the contest (currently $12 per song). I can recommend this competition. And I recommend getting a song critique from Dale. See the web site for more details.
Forums & Message Boards
Looking for information, constructive criticism, or just someone to grouse with about how hard it is to get a little respect in this business? Here are a few places you can go to find like-minded souls. Usually you can read as many posts as you like but if you want to post something yourself, you’ll need to sign up. As with all message boards, take what you read with a grain of salt; people are trying to help each other out but not everyone knows what they’re talking about.
Not just for TAXI members, this is a great place to hang out with some people who are seriously involved in writing and pitching music to labels, publishers, and film & TV music users. There are personal recommendations for recording gear and home studio tips. Get some of your own questions answered or share your knowledge. The Peer-to-Peer section will give you a chance to hear some of their music and even play some of your own. The Collaboration Corner can help you hook up with some of these folks for a co-write. Altogether a great free resource!
Songwriting Resource Web Sites
MySongCoach.com – This is my blog site where I post free songwriting tips, tools, and videos. You’ll find ideas for adding emotional power and commercial appeal to your songs, as well as information on pitching your songs to the music industry.
Songwriting 101 videos – My YouTube channel is filled with fun, educational “how to write a song” videos that will walk you through the basics.
ASCAP – performance royalties (airplay)
BMI – performance royalties (airplay)
Harry Fox Agency (HFA) – Mechanical royalties (album sales)
Songwriters Guild Of America (SGA) – Publishing contracts and contract review, workshops, seminars, publisher audits, newsletter
Songwriters Resource Network – articles, contest, bulletin board, links.
American Songwriter Magazine – sample articles, lyric contest, bulletin board
Robin Frederick has written more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records , Executive Producer of over 60 albums, and the author of five top-selling songwriting books.