An amazing wealth of helpful information and insight is available to the songwriter in books. Here are some of the books in my library that I have turned to as a songwriter, a storyteller, and a businessman in the world of music. They range in subject matter from songwriting, to copyright law, to the craft of writing a story, to the relationship of faith and art.
If a book is on this list, I recommend it to you. Click the book cover or the title to go straight to the book on Amazon via my Amazon affiliate account.
Mordden delivers a complete history of the modern American musical in this engaging book. Anyone interested in musical theater will find this to be an entertaining read.
This is the textbook used at Belmont University to teach copyright law. It is surprisingly not filled with legal jargon and not difficult to read. I use it as a reference for the copyright questions that arise from time to time.
Every commercial songwriter faces both creative questions and business questions. This books splits its focus between the “how to” aspect of songwriting and the business side of the work. It’s a great overview for both aspects of the professional songwriter’s world.
What? You thought I wouldn’t put my own book on the list? Wrong. This is a well-written, fun read. Just ask the awesome folks who endorsed the book. As the title says, the book focuses on matters of craft: Song structure, rhyme schemes, hook lines, poetic devices and such. But it also deals with the state of Christian songwriting today, the creative process, how to build a demo, and the all-important subject of re-writing. It devotes a chapter to collaboration, and another to critical analysis of twelve songs.
This is the lyricist’s Bible. If the book suffers from anything, it is that is so detailed the reader can get lost in the all the information and the references. (Davis references at a thousand songs.) Get this book and read it slowly. Then read it again.
A history of the Broadway musical as seen by the examination of nine seminal musicals, beginning with the first fully integrated book musical, “Show Boat,” and ending with the work of Stephen Sondheim after “West Side Story.”
Subtitled “Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes,” this is NOT your typical songwriting “how-to” book. But I find it highly educational to read the lyrics of other writers, and Sondheim is a craftsman without peer. Plus, the book lets the reader peek at Sondheim’s process, complete with handwritten drafts. And it is peppered with his writing principles and anecdotes from his storied career.
This little book is filled with helpful ideas and solid info. The author focuses on the commercial realities of songwriting, both creatively and business-wise. She doesn’t go into great depth, but she focuses on the big stuff.
Sub-titled “Creating songs for the Musical Stage,” this little paperback could almost be considered a book on songwriting. But it deals specifically with theater songs, and it also addresses the libretto (the “book” of a musical). Though I haven’t referred to it in some time now, my copy of the book is dog-eared and filled with faded highlighter markings. So it was obviously of some real use at one time.
The Brabec brothers (identical twins, btw) both work in the music biz. Their book is used as a textbook at Belmont University to teach music publishing. It covers a lot of ground (almost every aspect of the music business) in a manner that is easy to read. If you are looking for a first book on the music biz, pick this one.
I bought Piston’s book while still in high school, foolishly thinking I could learn all about orchestrating by reading a book about it. I. Was. Wrong. Still, this book is one of the standards in the world of orchestration books. It goes into great depth on every instrument in the contemporary orchestra. Not surprisingly, it focuses entirely on classical music.
A collection of 31 interviews featuring advice and inspiration from the likes of Carole King, Randy Newman, Paul Simon & Jimmy Webb. The reader gets to peek behind the curtains at the creative process of some of the best pop writers of the past 50 years. Each interview is some 10-15 pages, so it’s a fun book to read in short bursts.
Focusing mostly on the basic craft of songwriting, Gillette also tosses in a steady stream of brief, anecdotal essays from various writers on songwriting. The book is designed so that it is easy to pick the chapter that deals with whatever craft problem you are facing at any given time.
I am a big fan of Henry Mancini, both as a composer and as an arranger/orchestrator. This book addresses the classic Mancini sound found in his recordings of the 1960s. Mancini’s orchestra, much like Nelson Riddle’s, was essentially a standard Big band, augmented with French horns and strings. Mancini also addresses the doubling woodwind section. (His guys played every woodwind instrument known to man.) One of the best features of this book: it comes with a CD of recorded examples that you can follow in the book.
McKee is the undisputed guru of Hollywood screenwriting. And though this book is about writing screenplays, the parallels to songwriting are very strong. If you have an interest in crafting stories for either stage or screen, this is a must-read.
This was the textbook used in my one class in orchestration at Baylor University. I didn’t understand it much back then. But I’ve kept it all these years because it has some great reference lists in the back. And every now and again, I re-read a portion of it when I am facing an orchestrating project. For the record, I understand it a lot better now than I did in college.
This is the Bible of music business books – Old and New Testaments. It covers everything. This is a quality reference book that is kept up-to-date with revised editions. I bought my first copy in college in the late 1970s. I bought my current edition just a few years ago. This is not a light bedtime read. It is a book that one goes to find answers about the standard practices of the music business. It is worth the price for all the boilerplate contracts, legal forms and licenses it includes in its appendix.
Why do we still love the same songs we loved as teen-agers? Why is 10,000 hours practice more important than talent alone? Daniel Levitin is a rock musician-turned-neuroscientist, and this entertaining book he answers these questions and others as he explores the connections between music and the human brain.
Jimmy Webb is a national treasure. This book is worth the price for the anecdotes alone. But this book also proves that Webb knows his stuff. He goes into great depth on writing music. I recommend you read the chapters on music, chords and melody while seated at the piano.
Tobias breaks down the basics of storytelling into twenty master plots and explains how each one develops. Clear and informative, this book will help anybody trying to tackle the enormous task of writing an original story.
My paperback copy of this book is dog-eared and worn. There is hardly a page in it that doesn’t have an underlined or highlighted passage. I re-read this book every year or so. It’s that good. Originally published in 1972, it holds up so well that is has been recently re-released with a Foreword by Nicole Nordeman.
Pattison teaches at Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music. This book is aimed at the intermediate/advanced lyricist. It contains some great insights and observations, as well as very detailed craft techniques. And, perhaps because Pattison is a teacher, he includes a lot of exercises designed to accompany the principles he teaches.
This is a “craft” book – and a helpful one to anyone wanting to understand better the craft of writing musical theater. Frankel begins with the book (or the script) because that is where all good musicals start. He then goes on to cover the very specific and unique types of songs that musical theater requires.
Tools of the Trade
Just about every working songwriter/composer has some sort of recording studio in his workspace. I am no different. My recording set-up is relatively simple. I know guys with lots more equipment, and guys that work with much less. I’ve gone with what serves me well, making an effort to keep things clean, simple and affordable. In fact, affordable is a key factor in all my equipment choices (It is difficult to justify exorbitant equipment costs in today’s music economy).
Please know – I am not a gear-head. I am songwriter. These are the necessary tools to get the job done.
Like 90% of music professionals, I am a Mac guy. I currently work on two iMacs (I admit, the new Mac Pro is intriguing me). My studio iMac is a 4-year old tricked out 27” i7, with a 1 TB internal hard drive for samples, and a smaller Solid State Drive (SSD) as the system/boot drive. The SSD speeds response times up a lot when working with sample software.
For a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to deal with analog audio (such as guitars or voices), or to play through external speakers, an A-to-D converter is necessary. I went the Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) 828 MK3. It has more than enough inputs for my demo set-up. It sounds good and is affordable. And because it’s made by MOTU, it plays nice with my DAW, Digital Performer (see under “software”).
I went with another MOTU product, the Midi express XT, for my MIDI interface. For novices, a MIDI interface is needed for your computer to communicate with any outboard MIDI equipment. I have a lot less outboard MIDI gear than I once did, but I still have a couple of pieces that require an interface.
I don’t record live audio much except for the occasional guitar or solo voice. To do that, I needed a quality, yet affordable, mike preamp. I chose Focusrite’s Platinum Trakmaster. It’s easy to use and has that nice warm Focusrite sound.
I bought a single quality microphone years ago – the Rode NT2 – that is great for vocals and decent for just about everything else. When my guitarist, Larry Rolando, comes over to do tracks, he brings his own Shure SM57 to cut guitar tracks. Neither of these mics is expensive. Both are very durable.
There was a time not long ago that I owned a roomful of outboard synths and synth modules. Gradually, they were all replaced by software synths, except for one: the Roland XV-5080. It is a monster module with more sounds in it that I can ever use. It covers the gaps between my ever-growing software sample library.
I was need of a new set of near-field monitors last year. I spent an hour or two comparing the sound of every set of near-fields in the Nashville Guitar Center. I went with the Dynaudio Acoustics MKII. They are self-powered (no need for a separate amp) “book shelf” speakers. IMHO the Dynaudios sounded cleaner and less hyped up than the comparably priced competition. You can spend a small fortune on monitors. But unless you are making a larger fortune from music, or you won the lottery, I recommend you choose something affordable that sounds good.
All this gear has to sit somewhere. I bought a console desk from Argosy some 15 years ago. It is a monster. Solidly built. I will probably never have to replace it.
My only music keyboard input device is a 20-year old tank – the Yamaha Clavinova P-100. I can’t break it or wear it out. I’ve considered replacing it, but haven’t found anything I like better yet. Plus, it has built-in speakers, so I can turn it on and have an instant piano without having to boot the Mac.
My computer is worthless without the software to do the work. Almost all my music creation happens on one of two software programs, Sibelius and Digital Performer (DP).
I was a very late-comer to music notation software. Correction: I was a very early adapter who left it, and came back only recently. I purchased way back Finale in 1988 (for $1,000!!!). My serial number was under 100. It was sooooo slow on those old Macs. I could write three songs while Finale tried to spit out the parts for a thirty-second TV jingle. I used it for about a month, then went back to paper and pencil.
In 2010, I decided to give composing software another try (out of self-defense as much as anything). I asked several friends who knew both Finale and Sibelius. Even though Finale is the de facto standard typesetting software in the choral music industry, all my friends recommended Sibelius. Why? Because it is more composer-friendly.
It took me a few weeks to get comfortable with Sibelius. I continue to discover shortcuts and tricks every time I use it. But it offers endless and nearly effortless changes. And while the playback function is robotic and toy-like, it aids in checking voice balances. Also, it has reduced the volume of paper storage in my office drastically.
I will say this about music notation software: I am glad I learned to write/orchestrate/arrange without it. As a result, I believe my ear is better than it would have been otherwise. And I know what works, despite what the Sibelius playback engine sounds like.
Sibelius is not perfect. But I don’t find myself cursing it, as many Finale users do.
(Interesting note: The developers of Sibelius all left Avid and went to work for Steinberg/Yamaha to develop a new notation program. Should be interesting to keep an eye on this development.)
Whether I am building song demos or finished tracks for a video score, I would be lost without a reliable DAW. Digital Audio Workstations are the replacement for multi-track recording and editing.
I have been a Digital Performer user for a long time. I began using this MOTU (Mark of the Unicorn) software back in the late 1980s, when it was simply called “Performer” and only sequenced MIDI.
DP is reliable and affordable. Though ProTools is the undisputed king in recording studios, I find DP to be more musically intuitive. It costs less to operate and support than ProTools. (There’s that affordability factor again.) I can export my audio into just about any format, so my work can be transferred into any other DAW, including ProTools, with relative ease.
DP comes loaded with a ton of digital “outboard” gear: EQs, compressors, limiters, reverbs, delays, etc. They all sound quite good. So you can get right to work without having to purchase a lot of third-party outboard software.
DP’s digital mixing console is built to look and operate like a standard mix console. And everything in DP can be automated, stored and recalled.
Added Bonus: MOTU is one of the last companies to offer a real Users Manual with their software. The DP manual is well written, by people whose first language is English. And at nearly 1,000 pages, it could stop a speeding bullet at close range.
Sample Software and Software Synthesizers
Like I said above, there was a time when I owned a lot of real synthesizers: both keyboards and rack-mounted modules. Going all the way back to the venerable Yamaha DX7, through the Roland MKS20, to the Korg M1, and even a set of Roland V-Drums, my demo studio was once a rat’s nest of MIDI and audio cables. Not so much these days.
Today, all you do is load more software onto the old Mac. Here is a list of the soft-synths and sample libraries that are the core of my music production needs:
Ivory II (Synthogy)
Simply awesome sampled pianos. They sound freakishly real. I prefer the Steinway to the Bosendorfer. And the Yamaha C7 is great for pop song tracks.
A massive soft synth. You could spend all day every day for a year and barely get through all the sounds this thing has. It’s only real problem is that it is too big for a part-time user to learn all that it can do.
This is to the bass what Omnisphere is to the synthesizer. Trillian has the most realistic, most musical bass samples I’ve found. Electric basses, acoustic basses and synth basses: They are all here.
Stylus RMX (Spectrasonics)
This is the king of loop software. It has every sort of groove you can ever want, from insane electronic stuff to standard Latin percussion instruments. Though the use of perc loops and drum loops has abated somewhat in recent years, I still find Stylus to be useful for building a song background or creating a contemporary percussive bed.
Superior Drummer (Toontrack)
I love this software. It produces super-real drum tracks. The sounds are amazing. Toontrack offers a mind-boggling number of pre-programmed MIDI drum grooves and fills created by real drummers, from which you can assemble a song track quickly. Superior Drummer is so convincing that my son, the session drummer, thought I had used a real drummer on my song demos. Toontrack offers a lot of different drum kits. I find the New York kits and the Nashville kits to be most useful.
CineSamples Orchestra Sample Libraries (CineSamples)
The folks at CineSamples are film composers, who created their own sample libraries for film score mock-ups. They have a complete selection of orchestral instruments, and it is growing. I currently use the Brass, Percussion, Woodwinds, Harp, and Celeste libraries. They sound great and they work in the industry-standard Kontakt platform.
LA Scoring Strings (LASS)(AudioBro)
This is a massive library of strings only. The developers at AudioBro devised a string section that intuitively does true divisi when two or more notes are played. They sampled a large string section on an LA Scoring stage (thus the name). The sounds are true and expressive.
This is a mother bear of sample libraries. It requires a lot of your computer’s CPU and hard drive storage. Nor is it cheap. But is the most believable-sounding string library I’ve heard in a long time.
Session Horns (Native Instruments)
This program is still very new to me. But as a lover of “horn bands,” I wanted to give it a try. It promises to be an affordable way to add a pop horn section to my song demos. A newer version has just been released – Session Horns Pro. At first glance, it appears to be a much deeper version of the original.
Kontakt Komplete 8 (Native Instruments)
Kontakt is a sample playback platform that comes free with a lot of sample software. Komplete is the full-service rendition of the software that comes with a massive library (30+ gigs) of very useable instruments: pianos, drums, basses, orchestral strings and brass, synths, organs, and on and on. If you are looking for a single sample program to build a writer’s recording studio on, Komplete would be an excellent choice.