Skip navigation

I’m a songwriter. I wrote my first song when I was 8. I was in a class and they told me, write a song. And I did. I had to think about it, but I wrote something. It wasn’t good, obviously – that would come later. But I had some grasp of the fundamentals.

I suppose there are some things where people are just good at. Music came very naturally to me. I knew that the 7 white notes of a scale are mapped onto a piece of paper. I remembered that a music teacher taught me how to write music notation. This is a bar, divide the bar into 4. This is a minim, this is a crotchet, that is a quaver. I understood almost immediately. It’s not that hard. OK what’s for lunch? I can understand how people get by without ever having to read music. What I don’t understand is – they’re so good at music, why don’t they take the five minutes that it takes to learn music notation? But in a way, it is good, because reading music actually takes something out of the music. In some ways, not all, it will distract you from what’s really important in music.

(I must admit, though, I never got the sense of sight reading. I usually played a piece once, twice and then memorized it, and never needed the score anymore. I think I used my ears 90% and I used sight reading 10%. I think that there’s something fundamentally wrong with reading music – you don’t hear paintings, and neither should you read music.)

I am, however, not a good pianist. I never mastered the translating the music in my head into my fingers. I would always slip up at least once. I hated practicing. You could say that I never fulfilled my potential as a pianist, but I think I would never have made it as a pianist. I’m not very much a performer. My talent, I think, lies more in composing.

Now composing is, I think, a rare skill. I wish it wasn’t, because if it wasn’t, we’d have a lot better music in this world than what we have today. I’m going to call myself a songwriter now. It is presumptuous, I know. People raise eyebrows at you when you say you write music, because the people who manage to come up with decent stuff are in the minority. Some people come up with good music almost immediately. I’m not one of those people. I’ll say that you need to be writing for around 5 years before you’re any good at it, but I think Lennon and McCartney didn’t need that amount of time. Maybe it’s shorter when you’re living and breathing music week in, week out.

Songwriting is not really writing. Songwriting is really all about listening. The songwriter is not the author of his song. He is the first listener. What is a song? After all, it is nothing more than a series of numbers – probably even randomly generated numbers.How does composing work? First, you come up with a bunch of random notes. Then you try to listen for something in the random notes. If you find something, work on it and modify it, until it resembles a piece of music. Otherwise, come up with another bunch of random notes. There’s no mystery to this at all. All creative activity is like that. Creativity is nothing more than a search function. Search for an idea. Evaluate that idea. Creatively interpret that idea. Synthesize a few ideas into a completed whole. That’s it. So – the creative portion is in the listening, not the coming up with the notes. Having copyright for music is a little bit like patenting a bunch of numbers – a little crazy but people still do it. OK, some computer scientists out there will say that everything is nothing but numbers. But a song is something with maybe only a hundred numbers, rather than the millions of pixels that make up a photograph. There is not a lot of information encoded in a song.

The truth is, that bunch of notes is like a Rocharch test. It’s like an ink blot, and you need to interpret that ink blot. Music is noise plus logic, so you need to organize that noise into something that approaches logic. In a sense, understanding music is understanding that logic that underlies music.

So your first task to becoming a songwriter is first of all you have to get an education in music. You have to be familiar with the elements of music, which are: melody, harmony, texture and rhythm. I won’t be going through all this because there are a lot of other places which can teach you this, or somebody can explain to you what the basic ideas of melody, harmony, texture and rhythm are, and then you can go and listen to enough music to flesh out those notions.

After that, you have to learn music theory. You need to know what to listen for in music: what are you intervals, what are your chords, how to clap your hands to the rhythm, what are the styles of classical music. Classical music is nice and ossified, so it’s great to teach. All the holy wars about classical music have already been fought. Except I don’t know why people still play that piece of shit music Pachelbel’s Canon. It’s all written down on paper, which gives you the nice mistaken impression that it’s all canonized and done and dusted. Well it’s a great way to pick up the rules.

Beyond that, you have to learn how to become a connoisseur of music. You have to understand music on a more macro level, rather than the component parts. You start becoming a critic of music, the way that people write criticisms of music in the review pages. Yes, it’s not a good thing that musicians should listen to their critics. Critics don’t always know what they’re talking about. They can get it wrong. They are poseurs who sometimes write dishonestly about music so that they can show how clever and erudite they are. They also take themselves too seriously. But it is usually the case (and especially the case if you are reading some of the better music writing: Pitchfork is pretty good now. NME was pretty good 20 years ago. Rolling Stone and Creem, 30 years ago) that you can find something that people can teach you.

After that, being a composer is relatively simple. It’s like playing a jigsaw puzzle in your head: you have a few pieces of music, and then you try to make all the pieces fit together, in a same song. You know what a song is, you know your chord progressions: the basics, I, IV, V. Maybe you might want to throw in a suspended chord, or a 9th chord somewhere. You should practice doing that. Then you need to fall back on your knowledge of music to fix it up into something more coherent. You might have some direction in mind already: you want to throw in some interesting stuff, maybe some Balinese Gamelan. Maybe some Sonic Youth style feedback. Maybe a little bit of metal riffing there. But there must be a singular vision, something that makes it all hang together.

That last part – the practice of being a composer, is not something that I can teach anybody. You have to practice songwriting on your own. You have to go through that process of coming up with a lot of ideas, turning around that Rubik’s cube in your mind, until you magically hit upon a solution. But what I can do is to talk about music in a way that is useful for aspiring songwriters. It’s good to be a good judge of music. What I can do is to point out what I think are examples of good music writing and talk about why I think those pieces of music are well written.

Yes, it is true that good songwriting is so much more than just the music. It’s the words that help make a song great, and I will never denigrate the importance of words. But I’m not a good lyricist, and I can’t say much about putting the words to music. Somebody else will have to do that. I will mainly focus on the music, but inevitably some stuff about the words will come in.

The musical scores that I put up here are not exact transcriptions, and anyway there’s a lot of stuff going on in music over and above what’s explicitly written down. This is true even for classical music. But their main purpose is to illustrate ideas that I will then talk about in my main post.

This is the intro, and there will be other posts in the future which expound on these ideas. Hope that I’ll have the time and energy to keep this up. This will be a blog mainly about music composition. Is this musicology? No. It’s not. I write as a songwriter, not a musicologist. A musicologist has to analyse existing music in a very rigorous manner that can withstand oversight and scrutiny from his peers. I’m not sure what the exact purpose of that is, but I think it’s to preserve a record of old music for future generations. Songwriters are different. We listen to what we want to or have to listen to, and then we write what we want to write. There will be some stuff that resembles critical reviews of music – you can’t avoid that, because for me the second best way to learn music composition is to deconstruct what other people have written. (The best way, as stated earlier, is to write your own stuff).

This will not be a blog talking about gear and playing technique. Playing is an important part of performance but that’s out of my scope here. And performance is not really my forte either.

This will not be a blog talking about musical arrangement. But as we will find out – pretty soon, actually, how you play it is almost as important as what you write. And very often, a sufficiently well written piece of music can be played in two different ways, and the music will have two different meanings – often within the same piece of music. It’s like writing software: if you write it well enough, that same piece of code will be able to function under a variety of contexts. Similarly, you can do a lot of tricks. The same chord progression has different melodies. The same melody has different chord progressions. The same melody with the same chord progressions can be played soft or loud. Gently or violently. This will be a very useful technique to learn in songwriting.

Last of all, what is the name of this blog all about? I thought a bit about what I’d want to call a band if I were to start one – it would be called Play Punk. The sad part about Singaporean bands is that very few of them have Singlish names. So I’ll choose this because it’s a name that gives people an idea of what the band is about.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: