- The Washington Times - Monday, September 30, 2002

Steve Key has a knack for writing songs.
Mr. Key, of Northwest, has been creating lyrics and melodies since his teen years. But, he says, songs don't fall from the sky during moments of inspiration; hours of hard work are involved and it is only with practice that his songwriting skills have improved.
"Learning how to write a song is like learning how to write an essay, short story or newspaper article," says Mr. Key, 44. "You study the ways that have been done. Then you think, 'I could do it exactly the way it's been done before, or I could be an original and put my own fresh spin on it, using some of the old ideas.'"
Mr. Key has recorded several self-released albums, including "Scatter Seeds" and "History Lessons" (available at www.stevekey.com). Country singer Kathy Mattea recorded one of his songs, "33, 45, 78 (Record Time)," on her album "Lonesome Standard Time," released in 1992 on Polygram Records.
Although talent plays a large part in being a songwriter, the tools and techniques of writing a song a lyric and its melody can be taught to anyone who is interested in learning. Like any other subject, basic principles underlie a well-crafted song, and they can be learned through books and seminars.
However, working with other songwriters is just as important as reading the latest songwriting book, says Mr. Key, a member of the Songwriters Association of Washington in Northwest. He enjoys bouncing his ideas off other people, who might have different perspectives.
"It's a great way to get outside yourself and your own little world and get exposed to a variety of approaches," he says.
For this reason, he runs two open mike nights: one at 7:30 p.m. every Monday at Jammin' Java in Vienna, where people of all musical levels present their music and offer suggestions to one another; and a second, sponsored by the association, every first Friday of the month at 7:30 p.m. at Borders Books & Music in Germantown.
Steven Cutts, president of the Songwriters Association of Washington, says the society offers an array of events throughout the year to help songwriters improve their skills. Intermittently, the organization has professional songwriters speak about the nuts and bolts of writing a song. It also offers opportunities for free song critiques from peers and professionals, such as monthly sessions from 7 to 9 p.m. at St. Elmo's Coffee Pub in Alexandria.
"The perception is that the songwriter or poet just sits down and the pen just magically moves," Mr. Cutts says. "You might have a nice little germ of an idea, which is inspiration, but you have to turn a 30-second idea into a three-minute idea. It comes down to trying ideas and putting the time into it. That's true for those of us who do this as a hobby and those people in Nashville who are getting paid to write songs."
Pat Pattison, professor of lyric writing and poetry at Berklee College of Music in Boston, says experienced songwriters decide the theme of their songs before they begin writing. Although the songwriting process is unique to the individual, one might choose the title first and brainstorm how to expand the idea. After considering this, he says, the songwriter might turn to the guitar or piano, considering what melody and tempo best expresses the lyrical idea.
Mr. Pattison, whose Web site is www.patpattison.com, teaches seminars across the country on songwriting. He is the author of three books on lyric-writing, including "Writing Better Lyrics." Starting in January, he will offer an online lyric-writing course through Berklee. As part of the curriculum, he instructs his students to make worksheets with 10 key words that might be used in the lyrics and list possible rhymes next to them. This expands the choices for words and helps avoid cliches. He encourages his students to consider how the lyrics will develop from verse to verse. Lyrics should not say the same thing over and over. Instead, the idea should build throughout the song.
Choosing the best point of view for a song idea is important as well. A songwriter should also make sure the different sections of a song such as the verse, chorus or refrain, and bridge contrast with one another. This can be accomplished by varying the number of lines in the section, the number of syllables per line, the rhyme scheme and melody. Repeating the title throughout the lyrics helps make the name of the song one the listener can remember.
"There are all sorts of different pieces that songs are made of," Mr. Pattison says. "The more you learn about the pieces, the more control you have over the song."
Jason Blume of Nashville, Tenn., author of "6 Steps to Songwriting Success: The Comprehensive Guide to Writing and Marketing Hits," says people should not confuse lyrics with poetry. Lyrics are meant to be sung, and poetry is meant to be read. The phrases of lyrics should be short, memorable and easy to sing. They also should lend themselves to a melodic hook, which is the catchy part of a song. This melodic hook is usually presented through the title and repeated many times throughout the song.
"You want the normal person walking down the street to be able to sing your song," he says.
Mr. Blume, whose Web site is www.jasonblume.com, emphasizes that writing a hit song requires rewriting. He says there have been instances when he has rewritten a song seven times. He says he puts his songs under the microscope and searches for ways to improve them. He encourages his students to do the same.
Mr. Blume teaches at seminars across the country, including free workshops through Broadcast Music Inc. in Nashville every month. Country singer Collin Raye has recorded Mr. Blume's song "She's Gonna Fly," and country singer John Berry recorded his song "Change My Mind."
"The most important thing to remember is persistence," Mr. Blume says. "Make time for creativity. Find a way to make it work. You get to make choices. Set the alarm one hour early three days a week. Go to the library for one hour three times a week or Saturday afternoon for three hours."
Being a great songwriter doesn't necessarily mean that you also have to be a great musician, says Justin Wilde, president of Christmas and Holiday Music in Lake Forest, Calif. For instance, Irving Berlin, who wrote classics such as "White Christmas," could barely play the piano.
"There are a lot of songwriters out there who are not good players," Mr. Wilde says. "There are people out there who can hum a melody in a tape recorder and who can write a great lyric, and they are not great musicians."
Monti Olson, vice president of artist and repertoire for BMG Music Publishing in Beverly Hills, Calif., says he encourages anyone interested in songwriting, regardless of their musical abilities, to study the craft. He says even professionals need to brush up on the basics from time to time.
"What's very rare is for a songwriter to write in all popular genres," he says. "Songwriting is a speciality business. Pick the genre of music you love most. Pay attention to writing choruses and learn about the structure of a song. Have a lot of fun."
The Songwriters Association of Washington will sponsor "The Spirit In Music: Writing Songs of Praise, Faith, and Inspiration," from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Oct. 19 at the National Cathedral School for Girls in Northwest. It will include panel discussions, small-group conversations, song circles, resource tables and performance opportunities for those who write songs that express religious faith or explore the profound questions of life. Pre-registration costs $20 for association members and $25 for nonmembers. More information can be found at www.saw.org.


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