Friday, April 22, 2011

A summary of Tunesmith by Jimmy Webb

for the Essentials In Songwriting Certificate Course with Dan Wilt

Those pursuing the art of songwriting would do well to pick up Tunesmith by Jimmy Webb, a seasoned songwriter with a wealth of insight and knowledge. Weaving stories and personal anecdotes with vital technical and experiential advice as well as giving examples of well-written (or poorly-written) lyrics, Webb has created a valuable resource for even the most novice of beginners, like me. Webb also chronicles the history of modern songwriting and gives an inside view of what it was like in the early days contrasted with today. I found Tunesmith to be engaging and informative on many levels, discovering many principles within its pages that I began applying immediately.

He begins by talking about where songs come from. Webb says, “Song ideas are the most intense longings of the soul and its deepest regrets” [1]. The ideas come from something about which the writer feels passionately (loathing or hating). It will also include a destination which will consume the bulk of the efforts of the songwriter in getting from here to there the best way possible. A good songwriter also stays emotionally connected. “Without being able to expose ourselves to pain – to break down and cry if need be – we won’t have what we need to be songwriters or even human beings. The reverse is true. Without recognizing the good things life has to offer – the priceless gift of the distant laughter of children – we become sour pendants” [2].

Next, Webb moves into what was for me, the most significant part of the whole book. He relates the story of being mentored by Michael Geffen, one of Broadway’s greats. Showing Webb the room he’d be working in, he said, “In this room you can never make a mistake” [3]. At first read, I thought that Geffen was laying down a strict boundary where perfectionism was required. I cringed (which says a lot about the lenses I wear).

What he was really trying to say was that “…there is no crossed-out, blotted word on paper or half-croaked note or stumbling, tripping step toward the songwriter’s goal that is unseemly or shameful…creativity is a blameless process. That to exist at all it must function unselfconsciously and without guilt…The primary ingredient in that tranquility might be to pardon ourselves in advance for any real or imagined inadequacies and approach the work with the attitude that we will see what happens, make the best of it and enjoy the journey” [4].

Moving to the practical aspects of writing a song, he stresses that every song needs a story to tell. That story is told through clear lyrics that make a “meaningful contribution” [5] to the whole of the song. To accomplish this, a songwriter takes the raw materials (ideas) and begins to shape them into a song: “...a magical marriage between a lyric (some words) and a melody (some notes)” [6].

She brainstorms, making lists of words, phrases, feelings to express the idea. He makes use of a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary (never substituting these for creativity). She studies meter and rhyming schemes, counts syllables and checks verb tenses. He eliminates the “less desirable elements in order to expose the more desirable ones” [8] crafting lyrics that stay true to the song idea and lead to the desired destination.

Webb then traces the evolution of a song called “Problem Child”, personally, the second most helpful part of the book. He takes the song from the idea stage and the brainstorming process through the editing and re-write phase to the “finished” product. He explains the reasoning behind changes and points out the ways to make good lyrics better.

The next section of Tunesmith delves into the more technical aspects of song form and musical composition. These chapters hold a wealth of information covering music history and music theory. Webb delivers the information in an easy, conversational tone that makes it understandable and makes me want to go back and study these chapters more in depth when I can absorb more of this useful instruction.

Webb also interviews several songwriters regarding collaboration. Marilyn Bergman who collaborates with her husband says, “The most important elements are trust, respect and willingness to sound stupid. Sometimes a silly idea when put forward by one of us will trigger a really good idea from the other…” [9]. “The major impediment to collaboration is fear, “says Barry Mann who also collaborates with his spouse. “Every collaboration begins with this sense of unwillingness to reveal ourselves as in Oh my god, he’s gonna find out, he’s gonna know I’m a fake, that I don’t know what I’m doing” [10]. Isn’t that the truth! Collaboration requires a good deal of patience and forbearance and the ability to push past the uncomfortable emotions in order to be vulnerable and lay out ideas in front of another human being with a different perspective.

In the final section, Webb explains how the music industry works (or did at the writing of this book). He notes the various challenges facing the modern day songwriter. The advent of the singer/songwriter, MTV, and top 40 radio narrowed the playing field considerably. “A person with real songwriting talent would have had a better than average chance of placing a song with a major recording artist in the decade bounded by 1965 on the one hand and 1975 on the other.”

We are so far removed from that day, although YouTube, iTunes, etc. has in some ways made it easier for music of all kinds (the good, the bad, and the really bad) to get play time. Webb seemingly has prophetic insight into what the future held for music: “…eventually, entire record albums or perhaps even first-run feature films will be downloaded to recordable formats by satellite for a fee, which is paid electronically via credit card or some other code” [11].

In closing, Webb encourages songwriters to write. When one finds himself or herself “cowed, sullen and emotionally dead in the water…a violent, arbitrary and radical change of direction is called for” [12]. He goes on to say that “…the infamous ‘writer’s block’ may be nothing more than a stubborn unwillingness to cure ourselves, a psychomasochism caused by our refusal to confront the truth and put it into the air regardless of repercussions” [13]. He tells us to not burn bridges and to not allow bridges to erode from neglect, to remember that songwriting is best done in community. He emphasizes the importance of holding offenses lightly, choosing integrity over the need to seek revenge in a song.

I found Tunesmith to be surprisingly interesting and helpful and will refer back to it again and again. It is another decided gem discovered through the Essential courses.

1 Jimmy Webb, Tunesmith: inside the art of songwriting (New York: Hyperion, 1998), 3.
2 ibid, 17-18.
3 ibid, 21.
4 ibid, 22.
5 ibid, 52.
6 ibid, 70.
7 ibid, 136.
8 ibid, 271.
9 ibid, 296.
10 ibid, 298.
11 ibid, 375.
12 ibid, 395.
13 ibid, 397.

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