For anyone interested in the art of songwriting, Tunesmith by Jimmy Webb is essential. Webb wrote “Up, Up and Away,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Worst That Could Happen” and “Wichita Lineman,” among others. In the late ‘60s Webb was the most famous songwriter in the world. He has been called the last great American songwriter of the 20th century, but Burt Bacharach might disagree.
The book has sound advice on every aspect of an art that can drive you nuts trying to master. Simple tunes such as “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin or “Dancing Queen” by ABBA sound like pop fluff, but achieving such perfect integration of words and music is nothing to sneeze at.
Webb’s wisdom comes from a lifetime of sitting at the piano writing songs. He has spent those agonizing hours struggling to find the perfect line to fit a melody. There’s nothing rationalistic or “ivory tower” about his advice; he learned it the hard way.
Songwriting is not an epic art. Webb compares it to Swiss watchmaking. It’s an art of small details that must be fitted together to make a thing of beauty. 32 bars does not give one time to say much – just one point that evokes feeling, makes people laugh or maybe makes them think.
Among Webb’s gems of advice, he warns songwriters against excessive, schmaltzy chromaticism in the melody. This is moving the notes by half-steps, as was common in the 19th century. Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” has a lot of half-steps. The first three notes of “Ain’t She Sweet” move in half-steps. In the rock era half-steps must be used with care and taste or they can sound cloying. (This is something I have to watch out for because I love romantic music. Rodgers and Hart's "Isn't It Romantic," for instance, sends me. But I admit, chromatic intervals can easily get sleepy or sickeningly sweet.) He also warns against going too far in the other direction and writing huge intervals that are too hard to sing.
Webb’s chapter on harmony (that’s the chords) has some great tips. You’ve heard about rock songs with only three chords – Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” for example. Those chords are a I-IV-V progression. The other ubiquitous progression in pop music is I-VI-IV-V, which is “Heart and Soul,” “Blue Moon” and a million other songs. In the key of C, I-VI-IV-V is C-Am-F-G. I don’t know how many times I’ve come up with a melody in my head and picked up a guitar to find that the harmony was I-VI-IV-V. This progression is so natural and inevitable that it’s hard to escape.
Webb shows how to get out of the I-VI-IV-V rut by finding substitution chords. All you need is one note in common. For instance, you might substitute I-II-IV-V, which in the key of C is C-Dm-F-G (probably the most common substitution for I-VI-IV-V). This can lead to some unusual sounds, especially if you get into intense jazz chords, but sometimes experimentation finds that perfect chord that sounds fresh and new but also right.
In his chapter on lyrics, Webb writes, “The amateur songwriter’s greatest single failing and one that is immediately obvious to the listener is that the writer does not know where the song is going.” The song starts out with an interesting idea maybe, but comes to nothing.
In my experience lyrics are much harder than music. Music is one or two ideas that might come to you in five minutes, but finding words for that music can take hours of agony. You want to find an idea or images that are fresh but not idiosyncratic. You look for concretes that express an abstraction, which is hard enough, but fitting them to a melody can be brutal.
Webb’s prose style has its pretentious moments. (What do you expect from the man who wrote “MacArthur Park”?) Sometimes he comes off as a half-educated man trying to sound smart by using big words he doesn’t understand. He even quotes Immanuel Kant, but weirdly writes prolegomena as “Prolem Gamara.” But this is a minor drawback in a book that is rich with good instruction. If the novice songwriter can’t get anything of use from this book, maybe he should try some other field of endeavor.