James Linderman “Song Forms for Songwriters – harmonic function template workbook” Challenge #1.

James Linderman “Song Forms for Songwriters – harmonic function template workbook” Challenge #1.

[This is a songwriting challenge, not a performance or production challenge.  Certainly unfinished, but it did take me out of my comfort zone, in more ways than one, e.g. using my DAW as a writing aid (definitely not a production aid :-)].

I decided to blog the creation of this song.  I’m mostly a lyric theorist.  The most interesting stuff, how I think about lyric creation, constitutes the second half of this post.  The production sounds clunky, but, this process did lead to a lyric.

We’ve been asked to write a song based on Harmonic Function Template #1. A-A-A song form.  The worksheet lists a four-bar intro and four 16-bar verses.  A suggestion worksheet lists the tonic/dominant/sub-dominant choices possible in the bars for this song form and suggests 3/4 time in the key of C.

I strummed the suggested chords on my guitar for about an hour.  I changed-up the tonics / dominants / sub-dominants in various bars to hear what they sounded like.

I finally settled on an intro of:

C G7 C7 C7.

My brain wanted to end on C, but I forced myself to use C7 to leave a bit of tension.  The first chord of the verse is C, so the tension resolved quickly.

The verse I chose is:

C Am F C
C Am G7 G7
C Am F C
Am G7 C C

This song form insists that the second line end with two bars of Dominant.  After playing around and listening, I chose G7, since it gave just a little je nais c’est quoi to the piece.

It is obvious to me that I wouldn’t have come up with this song form myself – my fingers want to jump to blues notes automatically.

I found that I had drifted into 4/4 time with triplet strumming.  No sense in fighting it – I let it go where it wanted to go.

So, one battle won – I have come up with something that is against my grain.

As I played the final version of the chords, I began to hum a tune.

I was hearing a pipe band anthem or lilt.

I am notoriously bad at keeping time and much worse at playing with a click track.  I hoped to lay down a track of drums (Logic Pro X), record the guitar, then work on the melody some more.

I Googled for a pipe band drum chart.  The page took forever to load, during which time I played around with Logic’s drummer track.

To my surprise, I discovered that the hip-hop drummer (Dez) plays something very akin to a military beat.  I used that.

After laying down the drums and acoustic guitar, I began to paint, with the mouse, my melody.  I switched to “score” mode, finding it easier to place notes between rests that sounded like what I wanted.

My melody starts on the Dominant (G) and ends up on a final Tonic note (C).

The melody sounded rather bland until I started playing with the notes, choosing to move some from tonic to sub-dominant, etc.

At this point, the melody was being played with a cheesy sounding standard synth.  (Here is that version https://soundcloud.com/guitarvydas-1/form1-challenge-c/s-tlNAZ (final version below)).

I played around with instruments until I found the upright ballad bass.

The song immediately took on a completely new feel.

I was afraid of singing the melody I came up with – not enough vocal training.

Yet, with the bass playing the melody, I realized that this piece could become a Leonard Cohen-like thing – melody played by the background with essentially spoken vocals.  Or Lou Reed.

This is where I sit now.  I am creating a lyric and commenting on what is going through my mind as I create the lyric…

1.  To me, the song sounds longing, lost in thought.  “Sands of time” immediately comes to mind.  Too cliché.  Ah “Sandpaper time”.  “Smoothes the rough edges”.  This immediately suggests woodworking, or crafting a sculpture from wood.  I like the latter better, let’s see if I can work the imagery…

Sandpaper time
Smoothes the rough edges

The “stress” analysis (accented syllables) is:

/Sand/paper /time
/Smoothes the /rough /edges

3 stresses in each line.

I might drop “the” after I see how it sings.

2.  Then “Washes up against the grain” floats into my head.  This doesn’t carry a lot of meaning, but it supports the imagery and overlaps with imagery of waves on a beach and sand.  Beach = washes up.  I wanted to say “washes up against my ankles”, but “washes up against the grain” speaks better and ties the images together – grains of sand, grain in the wood.

Washes up against the grain

Stress analysis:

/Washes /up a/gainst the /grain.

Hmm. 4 stresses.

I might try

/Washes a/gainst the /grain

which is 3 stresses, when I hear this against the music.  Now, I have choices.

3. Haven’t decided yet on rhyme scheme – xxAA or xAxA?

Wait a minute.  Pat Pattison says that if you want to learn everything about songwriting, you should listen to the Cars.  Prosody – what supports the “feeling” of the song?  This song is about reminiscences.  The Cars’ Heartbeat City begins the vocals on bar 2, not bar 1, of the verse.  This makes the song sound more “floaty”.  Hmm, let me give that a try.

4. Tried both, not sure which I like.  I notice that I’m singing the verse lines “back heavy”, behind the beat anyway.  Back heavy gives a longing quality to the lyric.

5. Rhymes.  Using B-Rhymes.com…

for grain (xxAA): strain, rain, contain, entertain, explain, complain, pain, paint, taint, plane
– paint and plane relate to woodworking, but not so much to sculpting from wood.

for edges (xAxA): change, arrange, exchange, reflects, effects, displayed, degrade, fade, grade, handmade, trade, wade, marinade, create
– sculpting -> handmade, create

Lines that come to mind “What did you create?”.  Note that POV has finally arrived “you”, 2nd person narrative.  It would be better if POV were established right at the top.  Hmmm.

Sandpaper time
Smoothes the rough edges
Washes against the grain
What did you create?


What did you create?
Sandpaper time
Smoothes the rough edges
Washes against the grain


Sandpaper time
Smoothed rough edges
What did you create?
You went against the grain

This is starting to sound like “Like a Rolling Stone”, but maybe not as nasty.

6. Words to riff on (Google “wood sculpting”): carve, mahogany, cherry, pine, walnut, maple, gouge, chisel, sketch, Dremel, wood burning, sanding, polishing, relief, finish, glisten, stain, sealer, oil, dust, dye, lint free, rags, turpentine, spirits, wax, stir

7. What is the arc of the song?  Currently the first section starts with just imagery and sets up a question.  Maybe the 2nd section is about regrets, loves lost, loves gained.  3rd section – behold the beauty, family portrait, long lasting, keepsake, sunset glistening deep orange in the finish.

8. Recap.  What was set up in V1?  Rhyme scheme xxAA, stresses roughly 3 per line, 4 lines.

Re/grets you /have /had
/Whittled them /all a/way
/Loves you /have /gained
[gain: pain, paint, plain, became, game, overcame]
/Painted /over all /pain

It /stands in /full re/lief
[ah, realization, I want to finish on “sandpaper time”, to bring it full circle]
/Your /sculpture of /love
/Carved in /time
/Sand/paper /time

Hmm.  Time doesn’t rhyme with time and V3 line3 is only two stresses, but, maybe this is a place to break the box…

Sandpaper time
Smoothed rough edges
What did you create?
You went against the grain

You’ve had regrets
Whittled them all away
The loves you have gained
Painted over all the pain

It stands in full relief
Your sculpture of love
Carved in time
Carved in sandpaper time.

10. Spoken against the music, I realize that I need 4 more lines in each verse.

After listening again, maybe the verses should be 2 x 3 lines.  3 lines might fit the prosody better (unstable).

Sandpaper time
Smoothed rough edges
What did you create?

You carved against the grain

Let’s see if different POV’s get the juices flowing.  There are only 4 POV’s – 1st person direct, 1st person narrative, 2nd person narrative and 3rd person narrative.  The above is all second person.

1st person direct:
Sandpaper time
Smoothed rough edges
What did we create?

You (I) carved against the grain

1st person narrative:
Sandpaper time
Smoothed rough edges
What did I (we) create?

I (we) carved against the grain

3rd person narrative:
Sandpaper time
Smoothed rough edges
What did they create?

They carved against the grain

My knee-jerk reaction is that 3rd person leads to a story about pioneers carving out a homestead in tough conditions.  Or refugees thrown off their land coming to a new place.  Usable stories, but unrelated to sandpaper time (at least IMO).

I’ll leave it in 2nd person for now.

Sandpaper time
Smoothed rough edges
What did you create?

Learned to follow the rules
Learned to break them
Carved against the grain

Now the rhyme scheme is xxAxxA.

The imagery is consistent, but the story is vague.

There’s nothing in here as good as “Once upon a time, you threw the bums a dime, didn’t you?”.  The listener immediately knows “where” this is and can picture the scene.  The subject is well-off and walking on the sidewalk, sneeringly throwing a dime to the “bums”.  I can even see what the subject is wearing.

I need to get more specific.  Then, couch it in imagery.

Sandpaper time
Smoothed rough edges
What did you create?
Kid throwing breadcrumbs
Seagulls settle facing sunset

Sandpaper time
What did you create?
Kid throwing breadcrumbs
Seagulls flock
They settle facing sunset

My first songwriting teacher told us “you have to do your homework”.  This is an example.  I had an idea, it didn’t quite flesh out, but, with all of the above – decisions about rhyme scheme, main imagery, numbers of lines, general stress counts – I arrived at this in about 10-20 minutes:

Sandpaper time
Smooths rough edges
Washes against the grain
Kid throwing breadcrumbs
Seagulls facing sunset
What did you create?

Slowly working maple
Outdoors beachside
Hoping dust will blow away
Dusty failed friendships
Scarred and gouged
Loves whittled half way

Yet, loving sculptures
They stand in full relief
Handmade throughout the years
Tenderly crafted
Carved through time
Sandpaper time

( not very good – https://soundcloud.com/guitarvydas-1/form1-challenge-c/s-tlNAZ )

After some consideration, I left only the guitar, bass and voice (and a verse of drums).

Let this rest and see what I think of it in a few days.

Future: I hear a female voice singing the melody line (the bass line), maybe with words like “sandpaper time”.


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