What can any songwriter learn from ‘Flowers’ by Miley Cyrus?

We are fascinated by what makes songs ignite the imaginations of millions of people around the world. In this case, Flowers by Miley Cyrus has this week broken the Spotify records for number of streams in the first week of its release (over 100 million).

In this video, Benny and Keppie break down the song, and reflect on:

  • What aspects of the song are resonating so strongly with global audiences
  • What can we learn from this song, IRRESPECTIVE of whether we like it or not, and also BEYOND whatever genre or style we love and write in.
  • 3 songwriting tasks you can take away from this song.

Enjoy! And please let us know in comments here why YOU think this song is breaking all the charts?

14-Day Songwriting Challenge: DAY 4

#4. Listen deeply.

This task is excerpted from the wonderful book, ‘The Art of Noticing,’ by Rob Walker:

“The composer Pauline Oliveros was known, among other things, for a practice she called deep listening. This evolved in part from her experience performing with a couple of other musicians in an abandoned cistern in the state of Washington, fourteen feet underground. The group shared a weakness for bad puns and titled a 1989 CD of their recordings in the space Deep Listening. 

But the extraordinary reverb in the cistern really had forced the musicians to listen with deep and extraordinary care to their environment. Thus the performances (there was no audience) prompted them to think in new ways about the relationships between the sonic and the spatial. This led to the Deep Listening Band, Deep Listening workshops and “retreats,” and eventually the Deep Listening Institute. Oliveros later explained that the practice developed into something that “explores the difference between hearing and listening.” 

Hearing is a physical process involving sound waves and the body. We know about it because it is easy to study; listening, the interpretation of those sound waves, is harder to quantify. 

“To hear is the physical means that enables perception,” Oliveros continued. “To listen is to give attention to what is perceived, both acoustically and psychologically.” 

Oliveros’s version of listening encompasses remembered sounds, sounds heard in dreams, even imagined or invented sounds. Elsewhere she referred to auralization (a term borrowed from architectural acoustics) as a kind of sonic corollary to the visual spin we tend to put on imagination. “Listening is a lifetime practice that depends on accumulated experiences with sound,” she asserted, one that encompasses “the whole space-time continuum of sounds.” 

Well before arriving at the term deep listening, Oliveros had experimented with many of these ideas, and notably produced a short but influential 1974 text called Sonic Meditations, offering various sets of rather poetic instructions:

“Take a walk at night.” 

“Walk so silently that the bottom of your feet become ears.” 

Most of the highly inventive prompts also involve making sounds, particularly in groups, consistent with her belief that musicality shouldn’t be restricted to musicians. For example, “Choose a word. Listen to it mentally. Slowly and gradually begin to voice this word by allowing each tiny part of it to sound extremely prolonged. Repeat for a long time.” 

You can piece together and modify some of Oliveros’s suggestions to explore deep listening without worrying about compositional goals. Here is one approach to experimenting with the kind of expansive listening that she advocated, borrowing from a few sources, but most notably a “meditation” that was part of a 2011 Deep Listening Intensive in Seattle. Think of this as a means of exploring your aural identity: 

In any space you wish, “listen to all possible sounds.” When one sound grabs your attention, dwell on it. Does it end? Think about what it reminds you of. Consider sounds from your past, from dreams, from nature, from music. 

Now think of a sound that reminds you of childhood; see if you can find something reminiscent of that sound now. Dwell on what you find. Stop here or follow the instruction of that 2011 meditation for as long as you wish: “Return to listening to all sounds at once. Continue in this manner.””


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14-Day Songwriting Challenge: DAY 3

#3. A list.

This poem is unbelievable.

Listen to it, the whole way through (listen to the recording here as well as reading it. The experience is beautiful.)

Now: write a list of things you like. 


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14-Day Songwriting Challenge: DAY 2

#2. Starting in motion.

Write a verse (with lyrics and melody). Instead of I V vi IV (the most used 4-chord progression in pop music of the last 40 years), try IV I V vi.

In the key of C, this would be:      F    C    G    Am
In the key of A:                             D    A    E    F#m
In the key of D:                            G    D    A    Bm

Meta: This is a gentle chord-based way to start down a less obvious road. It starts your song on a chord that is not ‘home’, so the song starts in motion. The last chord, the vi, is also a motion chord, so the progression itself, though simple, has a lot of movement and tension in it. 

I enjoyed this David Bennett video analysing the chord progressions of Taylor Swift’s songs (there are some she’s used more than 20 times…), and seeing this one feature heavily. 


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14-Day Songwriting Challenge: DAY 1

#1. Getting past the rust.

Write literally the most cliched lyric you can think of.

Really squeeze that juice. Just write the most trashy, obvious, cliched thing you can muster. String together cliches. Write the cheesiest love song you can.

Google “cliches you should avoid”, and then unavoid them.

Aim for a Verse and Chorus.

Set to music if you have time.

Meta: Today, we are clearing out the gunk. Letting the rusty water run til the clear stuff comes. For more on this (a 2 min, and very excellent read), check this out


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Top 5 Exercises for Coming Up with Great Song Lyric Ideas—#3: Twisting Cliches

Clichés are everywhere. 

They are encoded into the way we think and express ourselves in such a pervasive way that we simply don’t notice they’re there. Yet there they are, when you’re feeling “under the weather,” or if someone “paints you a picture” of dinner last night; when you’re just “killing time,” or perhaps instead “time flies”…all cliches.

Cliches are useful. They come preloaded with meaning. The problem is that they are dull.

So how can we use clichés in a way that exploits their pre-loaded meaning, but rescues them from their mediocrity? 

Strategy 1: Replacing

  • Find a cliche with an image inside it, or a word that is easily replaced.
  • Make sure that the rest of the sentence still sounds like the original cliche.

The aural fireworks happen because of the element of surprise—something familiar with something new inside of it.

For example: We fight like…rust and rain.

What else do we fight like (the key here is: anything unrelated to cats and dogs…)?

Maybe we fight like: 

  • tree roots and concrete
  • secrets and loose lips
  • a toupee and a sudden breeze

Any of these is not only more interesting, but the very fact of subverting the expected image shines an even brighter light on your alternative combination.

Song Example

I wanna drive you…wild, wild, wild

From ‘Wild,’ by John Legend


Strategy 2: Extending

  • Take the image that is being used in the cliché, keep the image, but elaborate on it using words and images that are related to that image.

For example: I was drowning as the conversation flowed

The cliché of “flowing conversation” is extended by adding in more water imagery, which is the base image that gave us the cliché in the first place.

Another example: Hungry enough to eat our words

You can see that by elaborating on the image contained within the cliché, the image itself comes back to life. We now re-see the image as it was originally intended.

Song Example

Taylor Swift and Liz Rose did a beautiful job of this in Taylor’s song, “All Too Well”:

It was a masterpiece til you tore it all up


Strategy 3: Inverting

  • Turn a negative into a positive; or
  • State the opposite of the known cliche

For example: The grass is never greener

Song Example

Time won’t fly

From ‘All Too Well,’ Taylor Swift and Liz Rose.


Strategy 4: Swapping

Strategy 4 relies on the cliché using two images, or using verbs that can also easily become nouns, and vice versa.

For example, let’s take: There’s no time like the present
And turn it into: There’s no present like time

You can see that this twist relies on the word “present” having two distinct meanings, which work in both contexts. The best way to find these is to brainstorm or research as many clichéd expressions as you can, and testing out whether an inversion will yield anything juicy like this.

One more. Let’s take: Storm in a teacup
And make it: A teacup in a storm

Even though the meanings of the specific images don’t change, the inversion creates a new image with a fresh connotation.


Strategy 5: Contrasting

  • Add to the cliché by using a contrasting image (even by combining two clichés into a novel combination).

For example: I’ll make short work of being long gone

The key here is finding clichés that contain one main image, then using the opposite or contrasting image to recast the original. When we talk about opposites or contrasts, we can think about things like: future/past; day/night; fire/water; best/worst.

Songwriters in the past have used this technique to generate snappy titles:

“The Night We Called It a Day” (Thomas Adair and Matt Dennis)

“The Last Thing I Needed Was the First Thing This Morning” (Gary P. Nunn and Donna Farar, recorded by Willie Nelson)

“Full Moon and Empty Arms” (Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman, recorded by Frank Sinatra)

This strategy runs the risk of getting cheesy pretty quickly, so approaching it with sensitivity and nuance is required to prevent the cheese from overwhelming the platter.


Strategy 6: Verb object

  • Change the object of the active verb
  • This relies on clichés that have an important verb as part of their construction.

For example, we can take: Play the devil’s advocate
And make it: Play the piano like the devil’s advocate

Or: Break the ice
Becomes: Break him like ice

And Taylor on the subject:
Break me like a promise

From “All Too Well”.


You don’t need to avoid cliches. 

They are too valuable, too pre-loaded with meaning to abandon altogether. Instead, we can take advantage of the meaning they carry with them by twisting them into new shapes and colors. In fact, by altering them ever so slightly, we not only end up bringing the dead back to life, but the element of surprise acts like a switch on the ears of your listeners.

The images you choose will be bathed in the special light of surprise.


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Photo credit: Instagram (Taylor Swift)

Why the title of your song is so important

When we are talking about ‘ideas’ in songs, it’s helpful to draw this distinction:

There is the ‘big idea’ – the broad story, experience, or concept we want to write about.

What Jimmy Webb is talking about here is when the BIG IDEA becomes a SONG IDEA. What’s the difference?

A SONG IDEA isn’t just what we have to say; it’s HOW we are going to say it.

It’s the specific angle we are going to approach it from. It’s not the house of the song; it’s the door we are going to walk through to get into it.

A big idea becomes a SONG IDEA when we give it a TITLE.

Deciding on a title gives you direction; it helps your song have an anchor, or a central point of gravity, and then indicates to you what lines and ideas you have already sketched really serve THIS SONG, and which lines were simply the stepping stones to get you there, but really need to now be edited out.

Every line of lyric in your song should ultimately clearly serve to set up the HOOK/TITLE.


Examples

Look at Ed Sheeran’s song ‘First Times’.

Let’s pick out a few Verse lines, and see how they clearly connect back to the hook:

I thought it’d feel different playing Wembley —>
I can’t wait to make a million more first times
Then we start talking the way that we do —>
I can’t wait to make a million more first times
This four little words, down on one knee —>
I can’t wait to make a million more first times

Have a listen to Taylor Swift’s ‘Anti-Hero’. Links to an external site. Let’s do the same thing with Verse lyrics and the hook:

I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser —>
It’s me
Hi!
I’m the problem, it’s me

Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby
And I’m a monster on the hill —>
It’s me
Hi!
I’m the problem, it’s me


The best advice I ever received

“Find the title at your earliest possible convenience.”

This advice came from Pat Pattison, author of Writing Better Lyrics. This was drummed into me again, and again, and it’s something I think about at every moment in a song’s development. You don’t need to START with a title, but be constantly on the lookout for it! By turning that searchlight on in your brain, titles will start popping out at you, inviting you into the house of the song, but showing you the special entry that is going to give your song a strong centre.


Check out our upcoming Live Workshops, and Online Courses here:

What I’m listening to and why.

I got a phone call from my friend Benny the other night (Benny, who I make videos with on all things songwriting). He was very excited: “Kep! You have got to listen to the new Sam Smith song! It’s in…Phrygian!”

What the hell is Phrygian, and why is this so exciting?

Well, music nerds, Phrygian is a mode, which means it’s a scale that is not your average minor scale or major scale. This particular mode is a minor scale, yes, but it has a crucial note that gives it its own special dark sauce: it has a b2.

For a more in-depth look at Phrygian (and also the wild extra note that makes the Chorus pop), check out this video on the channel:

The b2 note in the scale makes it very dark, and also totally unique among the songs on the charts right now.

In fact, it makes it unique amongst almost all Top 100 songs from the past decade or more.

But why should we care what’s on the charts? Well, I have it on very good advice (John Mayer told me this himself…) that a very good practice as a songwriter is to listen to the Top 10 on any day, without judgments of good and bad, but instead with this question in mind:

Why do millions of people love this?

And secondly: Can I use that thing in my own way (regardless of whether I happen to ‘like’ this particular song? Which, incidentally in this case, I very much do).

The video above gives some tips in the second half about ways you can take the musical concepts that make this song a standout, and apply them to your own song, without ripping it off.

For another example of how to take a cool musical idea you hear in a song, and apply it to your own songwriting, you can check out this video from the archive, on adapting this beautiful neo-soul progression.

And for a more structured and in-depth guide to taking a music idea, and turning into a full song, with step by step tools, techniques, and strategies, check out our brand spanking new Online Mini Course: The Songwriting Process Start to Finish!

Enjoy!

Music Theory Fundamentals–Major, Minor, and Diminished Chords

A little bit of music theory goes a long way – in this video, I explain the difference between the major, minor, and diminished triads, and show you how to find them anywhere on the keyboard.

Ready to take your songwriting further?

Writing better lyrics with metaphor magic

In this video, I show you how to write songs—and specifically lyrics—like Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, and John Mayer. There is a particular type of song and songwriting that these three songwriters have in common—it’s a way to write songs that lots of songwriters use: metaphor songs. I start by defining metaphor, and share the principles and methods for creating original ideas, and furnishing them with great lyrics, just like these songwriters.

Want to write your own original lyrics? AUGUST 25/26 2022 – LIVE ONLINE METAPHOR WRITING WORKSHOP. Join in here!