I spent the last few days learning how to iMovie. Edit, cut, insert images. So I’m both proud of what’s below, and keenly aware that there’s room to grow. Enjoy it. And comment to let me know what works and what doesn’t.
I spent the last few days learning how to iMovie. Edit, cut, insert images. So I’m both proud of what’s below, and keenly aware that there’s room to grow. Enjoy it. And comment to let me know what works and what doesn’t.
Here are two sheets I put together a dog’s age ago, with the clever titles “Dang Good Chords” and “Good Chords Fool.”* They talk about chord relationships and what chords tend to like to do, in the keys of G and C. This is all based on “The Chord Ladder” which is an alternate perspective on Chord Stories and Circle of Fifths.
The Chord Ladder takes the letters from the Circle of Fifths and stacks them up. If you climb a step up the ladder, the tension of your chord progression increases a bit. If you descend the ladder a step, it resolves. (Climbing the ladder brings you clockwise around the circle of fifths. Descending it brings you counterclockwise around the circle). Just like with the circle of fifths the letter could represent a chord, a whole key, or simply a note. There’s a lot of info packed into these sheets. Some of it could probably be explained more clearly, but I want to share it because I think it could useful.
Each rung on the ladder has a big grey box on it—the biggest letter in represents a major chord. On the top right side of the grey box is a smaller white box. That box tells you what the relative minor of the major chord is. In the case of G its Em, for C it’s Am. (I haven’t talked about relative minors anywhere on the blog yet, but will soon).
Underneath the little white box is a letter with slash next to it. Use a chord with this note and you can create a lot of drama and tension. Like most drama, it can be confusing to explain why it happens exactly, but it has to do with Mozart’s Alarm Clock which you can read about here.
There are two sets of examples building chords with this letter. The first is probably most familiar as a D/F# chord. (It’s the one where you play D chord normally while you strangle the neck of the guitar to declare a thumb war on the sixth string and wrestle it into submission at the second fret of your guitar). Here it is:
This chord uses the principle of Mozart’s Alarm Clock to point back to a G chord (or a G note). Here’s Lindsey Buckingham using a D/F# in Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide at 01:11, which signals the switch to the “I’ve been afraid of changing” section. There’s one of these slash chords for every major chord. (Some are easier to play on the guitar than others).
You could use that same note as the root of a major chord, or a (dominant) seven chord to create even more tension and feeling. Here’s John Lennon using this principle right after singing “You may say I’m a dreamer” at 00:01:38 (also 01:45 & 01:51)
Each of these things are describing a principle of what music “likes” to do. At some point soon I’ll go into more detail about all this stuff and work to make it more accessible. But there’s a Fearless Challenge Starting Sunday, so I want you to have it now.
*Clever because each is a mnemonic for the three major chords in the G and C scale, respectively, arranged by the Circle of Fifths.
I’ve wanted for a while to put together an intake to help people prepare for the Fearless Songwriting Challenge. I’d forgotten about “The Ship It Journal,” Seth Godin’s workbook to help people suss out the resistance they’ll find in working on a project, and helps them plan ahead to beat it. Here’s a link to the free PDF: “Ship It” Journal by Seth Godin
It’s not quite perfect for the challenge. There’s lots of group focused language, and we’re mostly writing our songs on our own. I took that language as an opportunity to think about the committee of voices in head that hold forth as I’m writing a song. You can see how I worked through it and adapted it below.
It took me about an hour and a half to complete the journal, try it out for yourself, it gave me unexpected ideas, inspiration and confidence.
You may be saying; “I don’t have an hour and a half to fill the journal out.” I’d respond; “Are you sure you’re committed writing a song every day for a week? That will take an hour to an hour and a half every day too.” Probably only filling out just the bits on planning your time out and sussing out resistance would take about 45 minutes to an hour.
The biggest sticking point for me was when it asked me to list all the tasks I necessary to completing the project. When I read that I was close to telling myself I’d finish filling the journal tomorrow. You know how finishing things tomorrow goes.
If you do try it out. Let me know how it goes. I’d love feedback on what works and what doesn’t work.
And. . . Here’s what I did:
(Please note, the following wasn’t edited, it’s a journal entry I’m sharing in the hope it will be useful to see what I did).
Project: Fearless Challenge
Ship Date: 7 consecutive days, 7/28 – 8/3
Reasons for not shipping:
“I don’t have anything good to say”
“I don’t have the time”
“I stubbornly refuse re: D. Burns”
“I don’t care enought”
The project is to run the Fearless Songwriting Challenge which requires:
Writing seven songs, one each day, for seven consecutive days
Posting prompts each day at 11:00
Checking in and listening to five songs a day, after posting prompt
When does it ship?
Sun 7/28 Writing: 8:30 AM – 9:30 AM Recording: 9:30 – 10:00
Mon 7/29 Writing: 7:00 AM – 8:00 AM Recording: 8:30 – 9:00
Tues 7/30 Writing: 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Recording: 10:30 – 10:00
Weds 7/31 Writing: 8:30 AM – 9:30 AM Recording: 9:30 – 10:00
Thurs 8/1 Writing: 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Recording: 10:30 – 10:00
Fri 8/2 Writing: 7:00 AM – 8:00 AM Recording: 8:30 – 9:00
Sat 8/3 Writing: 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM Recording: 10:30 – 10:00
Who is responsible for shipping it: Timmy Riordan* <–That’s me
What am I afraid of? Writing bad songs, failing to write, but more afraid in some ways of writing bad songs, being judged poorly, people thinking I’m a hack writer, a dilettante, that people won’t like me or my songs.
What are the distortions? All or Nothing, Fortune Telling, Mind Reading, Hidden Shoulds: I should be a good writer, I shouldn’t work at something that I may not succeed at well, I shouldn’t enjoy a project or have fun doing something if others might judge me for it and think I’m foolish, I shouldn’t write bad songs, I should only write fully formed songs filled with the beauty, pain and catharsis of the human experience.
Pick some edges:
Easy, (i.e. low bar for success)
Responsibility (i.e. I’m responsible to finish a song each day)
Fast (i.e. let’s write some upbeat songs!)
Cheap (Money-wise it costs nothing, time-wise I’m investing 2 – 3 hours a day).
Proven (Writing for seven days straight works)
Safe (The emotional risk is a distortion, and I’m learning to handle those).
Disposable (In line with keeping the bar low)
Mesh (We work in a cohort, we’re here to support each other).
Who is your Customer
For the songs, me
For the Challenge, the cohort, i.e. other participants
Who are the key influencers, gatekeepers, and authorities?
In a sense, Soph, John, the folks I care about that I currently (sometimes) share my songs with.
Does anyone else matter?
My censor, the imagined throng of critics that inhabits my head.
Can I ignore them? I can let them know I’m doing my work and that they need to give me space as I’m doing it.
Questions and ideas for the devil’s advocate:
It’s not enough time
I can’t write a good song in an hour
No one important will like a song written this quickly
People will laugh at me
–These are Fodder for Daily Mood Log/IDing the Distortion/Daily Mood Log
Who can stop this project:
Mostly me, I could get embarrassed and let my projections of what others thinks guide my decision to quit. Mind Reading/Fortune Telling combined with emotional reasoning are important distortions to watch for.
Who else can stop this project?
I mean Facebook could blow up, or go down, that would be inconvenient.
Who is essential to our success?
Internally, In this case, I think it’s getting the Censor on board, maybe my taskmaster as well. The thing to remember with the censor is we both have great taste. I’m going to write some mediocre songs during this project, that’s ok, they’re all first drafts and the only people who will see them are other people who care enough about songwriting to write bad songs themselves in the service of writing songs they love and care about.
Externally, who are my supporters? John Linn–can I find an accountability partner from the cohort as well?
What does perfect look like?
Dear god, perfect for this project is terrifying and overwhelming–laboring over each line, hand crafting and transcribing every melody, I’m not sure I can even consider it.
What does good enough look like?
Seven sets of lyrics with chords dangling off them precariously, and a one take video of each one so I can reconstruct each of them at some point further down the road.
List every Task–
Well, I’ve listed my writing times,
Posting the prompt
Sitting down to write
Brain storming: usually a word map or word tree
Playing guitar and singing/mumbling through a melody while recording to find the song
Typing up lyrics
Doing a one take recording
Posting to Youtube
Posting to Facebook
Who becomes my competition?
The people who post songs which I like better than my own.
What does failure look like?
Not writing the song–officially even not posting isn’t failure.
Things that can feel like failure:
No likes or comments
Being unhappy with my finished song
Feeling like my song is shitty
Other people writing better songs than I do
I think that’s most of it.
The Bradman Test:
That guy’s a jerk. He’d write effortlessly good songs and sing them in his effortless tenor with a disarming nonchalance that makes the whole thing seem way too easy. Also, he’d look good doing it without even having to try.
But I’m not Bradman, what will I bring to this project that someone who is truly gifted might not?
I’ll bring striving and effort and care. I’ll bring my cranky baritone that I tend to feel insecure about but does the job just fine, even well sometimes. I’ll bring my skewed, wry sense of humor and my sense of the human condition, and the vulnerability and hope that I think might make it just a bit easier for everyone. I’ll bring my grit and determination to work through and finish the project.
Plus it! List ten things you could add that would radically or subtly improve your project.
When was the last time you did something for the first:
This morning actually, I reached out to a stranger to ask permission to use her images. She was happy to share and it felt great. And yes, I forget sometimes about the rush of doing things for the first time. (Also, working through this journal is a first).
Emotional labor is doing the work you don’t feel like doing, because that’s the work. As Steve Pressfield points out, the act of turning pro is a conscious decision to do emotional labor. If you were a pro at this, how would you do it differently?
I think I’d just aim to lose the drama, i.e. I’d do the work, and forget about the belly aching–though I’ve been a pro a serving tables for ages and belly aching comes with the territory. So, I’d do the work despite the belly-aching.
“You’re not as good as you think you are…” Are you waiting to hear this? Afraid of it? What would it feel like if you did? Make a list of what you might hear instead of that if you actually shipped, shipped something artistic and generous and world-changing:
Great work, Tim!
That really helped me.
I’ve never written seven songs in seven days before
I wrote one of my best songs ever this past week.
Take a bow
You earned it.
Reserve this page for describing what happened when you shipped. If you want to write down the truth in advance, if you want to describe the end before you begin, go ahead.
The Wheel of Chord Story, (the circle of fifths), maps out what chords “like” to do, but it doesn’t really explain why.
The jump of a fifth between two notes is actually pretty stable. The only jump between notes which feels more stable is the interval between two notes with the same name, G to another G for instance. What is the jump between notes with the tension to really move you?
There’s a story that Mozart’s father had a secret to getting young Wolfie to the piano to practice. He’d tinkle out the notes of a major scale on the harpsichord: do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti and . . . wait. Supposedly Wolfgang would come running from any room in the house to complete the scale and kill the tension.
The modest jump from ti back to do is what really moves things in music. It’s the jump of one fret on the guitar. It’s called a half-step. The first few notes of the Jaws theme move a half-step.
The first notes strummed in Led Zeppelin’s “Rain Song” descend a half-step from do to ti.
Now, look at the notes of a G and C chords spelled out below, (G to C is an antagonist/hero pairing on The Wheel of Chord Story). Do you see Mozart’s Alarm Clock going off?
G major: sol ti re
C major: do mi sol
The “ti” of the G chord desperately “wants” to resolve to the “do” that is the foundation of the C chord. (“Do” by the way is just the just another name for a C note).
Mozart’s alarm clock, (the “longing” of the final note of a scale to resolve to the root of that scale is named after), is built right into every Hero/Antagonist chord story. If you love music, it’s probably what gets you out of bed in the morning.
Here’s experiment you can try for yourself. Draw a circle with 12 points on it. It’ll look like a clock without numbers:
Now what is the most interesting pattern you could create to get around the circle, moving the same number of spaces each time. You could move one space at a time, which gets you all the way around the circle, but it’s kind of a boring way to do it.
If you move by twos you create a hexagon, and you miss half the notes. Moving by three creates a square. Fours creates a Triangle. Both are closed loops and with a bunch of points which get missed.
Moving by five dots at a time however, is pretty cool, you a star and you touch all the dots.
Six is a line.
After that it’s all repeats in reverse. Moving by seven spaces is a again star, eight triangle, nine square, etc.
Now name the points on the “clock” with the twelve notes from frets one to twelve frets on the guitar. Use any string you like. I chose the low E string. Follow the path of the star around the circle and you end up with the same pattern as the Wheel of chord Story (the circle of fifths.
Kinda cool right? All the other patterns of 2, 3, and 4 spaces create closed loops, (geometric shapes really), but jumps of frets five or seven allow you to touch all the points on the circle. Of course all these jumps have names in the jargon of music theory:
Jumping of 1 dot (or fret) is a 1/2 step (or semitone)
Jumping of 2 dots (or frets) is a whole step (or whole tone)
Jumping of 3 dots (or frets) is a minor thirds
Jumping of 4 dots (or frets) is a major thirds
Jumping of 5 dots (or frets): is a perfect fourth
Jumping of 6 dots (or frets): is a tritone, augmented fourth, flat five, or diminished fifth (a lot names for a simple line, eh?)
Jumping of 7 dots (or frets): is a perfect fifth
That’s enough for now. All of that jargon can be a little confusing and abstract to keep straight. Looking at the shapes they create however give a nice visual reference to think about how these jumps might help you move in a scale, or piece of music.
Pat Pattison has a brilliant reduction for the elements of story:
Unstable . . .
Pivoting between these two states is the engine of story, (excepting exceptionally dull stories). You could frame this idea as tension and release as well. A pithy saying which expresses a similar idea is; “If it can’t happen (stability), it must (instability).”
This is known to obsessive watchers of Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, or any other bingeworthy TV. Is there a greater harbinger of disaster, (instability), than a character saying, “Great plan. It’ll work perfectly.” (Stability).
Music is story told with sound. Without stability and instability, tension and release, pattern and “surprise!” music is exceptionally dull. Just like a story. Chords tell story. Are you familiar with the rules? Do you know how to create stability and instability?
Almost no one will tell you this, but one of the classic stories is embedded in the standard tuning of the guitar’s bottom three strings. It’s there to see, plain as dry toast. Take a look:
Standard tuning on the guitar can seem like it was designed by a cruel madman. It’s full of sound and fury signifying and B string is in tune. But standard tuning evolved to help tell chord stories. The story on the E, A, & D strings is basic but flexible and full of possibilities. It’s could be a lot like the story boy meets girl who already has a boy. In it E, A, & D all represent the major chords their named after.
Here’s a plot summary: A major is the hero of the story, named Amanda. Amanda lives in a house across the street from her best friend Derek (the D Major chord). They have a lot of fun together. Derek’s place is great to hang out at but since Amanda is the hero of the story, going back to Amanda’s house always feel like home. Edgar (the E chord) is an older neighbor who lives next door to Derek. He’s mostly nice but he’s not happy when they’re in his yard. Obviously, it’s great fun to find excuses to be in Edgar’s yard, it feels slightly risky and daring. After Going into Edgar’s yard Amanda feels safest returning home to the A chord.
That is close the most basic chord story there is. (There two chords songs out there though). A is the hero and feels stable. D is the best friend and if feels fun to go to his place. E feels a little tense and makes you want to return home, to the A chord. Following these guidelines, how might you make a calming chord story? How might you make chord story that feels more tense or exciting? There are 1000’s of three chord songs in the world that all create stability and instability following and breaking the rules of that story.
This story is as movable as your capo. Clamp a capo on the third fret and the principles are the same but the chord names will change. (The chord shapes will remain the same).
C becomes the main character, the hero
F becomes the best friend
G becomes the antagonist
Do the same thing at Fret 7 and you’ll end up with the chords to a classic E major blues.
E is the hero
A is the friend
B is the antagonist
I can hear you complaining. Do I really have to know the notes on the guitar at the 7th fret? –Nah.
I mean, it’s not the worst idea, but if you don’t feel like it, I’ve got you covered. Though the answer could be unsettling. You must go to the of the fifth circle of hell. Just kidding. It’s worse than that. You have to use the circle of fifths.
I know. I hate the circle of fifths too. But it’s exceptionally useful as a guide to chords stories. (Has anyone told you that? They never mentioned it to me. I’m a little bitter).
You now know that A, D, & E major are the hero, best friend, and antagonist of a classic chord story. Take a look at the circle of fifths, can you see those letter together on it?
Do you see it? Here’s what I’m talking about:
The principle is this, assume all the letters on the circle of fifths are major chords. Take any three in a row and you’ve got yourself an antagonist, a hero, and a best friend. The main characters in a chord story. Translated into theory jargon that’s the I (the hero), IV (the best friend of I) and V (the antagonist) of a key. It works for any key. The I chord, the hero will be in the middle. The antagonist (or V chord) with be clockwise from the hero. The best (or IV chord) friend will sit counterclockwise from the hero.
I hear you again. Do I really have to learn the circle of fifths? –Nah.
Learn this instead: B.E.A.D. Guides Chord Flow
That’s a mnemonic for the Circle of Fifths in reverse, or B, E, A, D, G, C, F. Oddly, this is the better way for guitarists, (and perhaps everyone), to understand it. That’s because chords “like” to resolve down a fifth. B, E, A, D, G, C, F is only 7 peices of the circle of fifths though. The other part is B, E, A, D, G*, again, but all flatted. Then you’ve come full circle. That’s it.
*Gb can also be named F#, depending on the context. If that’s confusing, ignore it for now.
It’s easy to feel frustrated, lonely and overwhelmed writing. It’s a fuzzy, poorly defined project. Washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen, (both good substitutes for writing), are projects with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The details of dishwashing’s plot aren’t riveting, but are a comfort in relief to the writing’s unknown topography.
Writing is often a machete through the jungle, trailblazing-type scenario. Vines can seem like boa constrictors and vice-versa. A toothy, slinking predator like a critic could drop onto a tender young idea just finding its legs and swallow it whole. Many times we’re the critic.
Dr. David Burns has a tool he calls the relationship journal. It’s meant to work through difficult interactions we have with others. The idea is to take a difficult interaction with someone and journal through a five questions to determine if you used to good or bad communication techniques with them.
**spoiler alert** If it was a difficult interaction your communication probably fell short of “good.”
Good communication here means what you say leads to greater openness and trust with the other. Bad communication means what you say forces them to close down, and makes them feel defensive, unheard, disrespected. (Probably all three).
You might see some qualities of good communication already on display through their negatives. Good communication lets the other person know they’ve been heard, let’s them know you respect them and admire them. What if you don’t particularly respect or admire the other person? Did I mention this is a technique to be used with people hope to develop a closer relationship with?
What is good communication?
My curiosity with regards to writing is: Could I use the techniques of good communication with my inner critic while writing or editing?
Do I have sometimes have difficult interactions with myself? Yup. Am I someone I want to be closer to and have a better relationship with? Um, yes.
Maybe it sounds vaguely looney tunes to converse with myself and acknowledge my feelings to myself. I don’t know about you but I dialogue with myself constantly, and quite often, adversarially. Why did god make me this way: an angel on one shoulder, a devil on the other, and slavedriver cracking a whip behind, all of us bickering? (Maybe I could use the techniques of good communication with god too. But I digress).
What might it look like to use the techniques of good communication with my inner critic?
As an example, let’s say I’m John Prine writing a song to be called “Billy the Bum.” I’ve just written the line; “He was just a gentle boy, a real florescent light.”
My inner critic screams; “That line blows! Your writing sucks. You’re the worst writer ever;”
I respond; “You do better.”
Step 1 of the relationship journal is to write down what the other person said.
We’ve got that.
Step 2 is to write my response.
We’ve got that too.
Step 3 is to determine if my response demonstrates good or bad communication, i.e.
What do you think? I agree; nope, nope and nope. I didn’t acknowledge what my critic said. I’m pretty obviously feeling resentful, angry, and worthless, I didn’t acknowledge that either. Finally, my response shows disdain and a suspicion the critic-gremlin-monster is worse at writing than I am.
Step 4 is consequences, did my response made the situation better or worse.
I think my response cause my critic to solidify its belief the line is crappy and I’m a bad writer and made it even more adversarial.
Step 5 Revise my response using good communicaiton. So how could I do better?
Dr. Burns says there are Five Secrets to aid good communication, I have to use all of them if I want a better relationship with my critic.
Here’s my revised response I just wrote up:
Critic: “That line blows! Your writing sucks. You’re the worst writer ever.”
Me: You’re right (Disarming), that line is pretty out there and weird (Thought Empathy). It sounds like you really dislike it. (Feeling Empathy). I haven’t heard anything like it before. I feel kind of insecure about it to be honest, even a little embarrassed I wrote it down. (Assertiveness). You have great taste. We both like all the same music. (Affirmation) Could you tell me more about what you don’t like about that line?
Critic: “How is Billy like a florescent light? What does it even mean?
Me: Well, I guess Billy is weirdly dim, and being near him evokes a kind of angst and depression which soaks into the bones: soft, gentle, insidious.
Critic: Oh, That’s kinda cool actually. It works better than I thought.
Me: Thanks, I didn’t really realize how well it worked either. It just kind of popped out. It’s cool you helped me think about it more.
(Did I mention this takes some practice? David explains often how The Five Secrets can sound simple, even simplistic, yet seasoned therapists have difficulty adopting this technique and using them with grace).
I’m kinda of shocked by the result here. I’ve been hearing line from Billy the Bum for 10 or 15 years and by going through the relationship journal with my inner critic got some new insight. I chose the line because it’s always stuck out to me as brilliant, but a little weird. I often contend John Prine’s genius is actually something just short of being daft; he kept that line in despite it being weird and it works. (Maybe the line working was obvious for you from the beginning)
There is a time tested method of setting the critic aside while you write, and it can work well. But by conversing with the critic and showing it respect, (showing myself respect really), I can feel it giving me more leeway to do the work. “You have great taste, we both like the same music,” is stupidly true. (My critic could go on and on for hours about why Oasis sucks. Sometimes we do). I’ll try this out soon on a real song, see how it goes, and get back to you.
David speaks about relationships and the relationship journal on his podcast here.
He talks about these techniques at length in his book “Feeling Good Together“