Category Archives: Book Reviews

A collection of reviews of books relating to writing songs.

Try This At Home: Adventures in Songwriting: Frank Turner

In his new book Frank Turner takes 36 songs and explains how they were written. He also explains a lot about how they work. Each song has a separate chapter where Frank talks about the inspiration for the song, the words, the music and how the recording came together. 

I listened to the audio book version which is a great way to get close to the songs. One of my strongest impressions is the difference between the thoughtful intelligent analytical discussion of the songs and the wild passionate way he performs them. The contrast is dramatic and that is one of the main lessons from this book.

For a long time I used to say that Frank Turner was the most successful singer songwriter that most people have never heard of. In the last few years he has become more visible to a general audience but he has achieved this success by writing great songs and playing thousands of shows. Word of mouth seems to be his secret weapon.If you haven heard of him then check out this play list.

The first part of each chapter talks about the background of the song and the lyrics. Many of Frank’s songs are based on his experiences so there is an element of autobiography. He believes that he has the right to share what he likes about himself but says it is difficult when he is writing about relationships because they involve other people. How much should he share? Some of his songs are a combination of people pulled together under a common name, Amy is one of these.

He then goes on to discuss the music of the song, often this is in terms of chord patterns (I, IV, V or C,F G) but he also goes into more detail about how he moves away from these to make for interesting music. The song ‘Broken Piano’ was based on the sound of a faulty microwave oven that produced a sixth interval, singing other notes over the top of this drone made other harmonies.

The final part of each chapter covers the recording and performance of the song. How the band built up the arrangement and how the song changes as it was rehearsed. It’s interesting toi hear how much of the songs come alive in performance.

Best Bits: When you get stuck on a song just play what you have with confidence and see what happens when you get to the part that is missing, perhaps it will just come to you.  Don’t be afraid to redraft. Play a song as much as possible before you record it to rub off the rough edges. A great song is not just the words and the music; it is the way you present the finished piece. The arrangement is a major part of the song.

This is definitely worth five stars. Some great song writing ideas and an entertaining read.

A Natural Woman: A Memoir:Carole King

I bought this book to find out a little more about how she wrote songs. “Will you still love me tomorrow ”  and “You’ve got a friend” are two of my favourites but she seems to have written for everyone. Check the Wiki Page. Lots of interesting stuff about how songwriters could go into a publishers office and play some songs.  She talks about the Brill building and working in a small room with a piano and table as the only furniture. Lots of songwriters competing to write follow up songs for big artists. It’s a great book but from a song writing perspective she doesn’t give much away.I recommend that you get the audio version of this book as carol sings all the bits of songs that she refers to. This seems a lot better than just reading it on the page.

I have only given it 3 stars because you won’t learn a lot about songwritign but it is an interesting history of the 60s and 70s.

Best Bit: Goffin and King worked 9 to 5 at the office. All those amazing songs were the result of solid work.


So You Want To Be A Rock N Roll Star: Why Songwriting Matters

My first impression of the book was guarded. I didn’t warm to the title as it is songs that interest me. There is no paper copy available (only kindle e book) and the audio version has an unusual sound quality with a lot of echo. I hadn’t heard of Marc Platt’s music. I bought an audio copy based on other reviews and I have given it my top star rating.

The book may have it’s faults but I learned a lot from it. Marc tells you the things that you need to know but other people are unwilling to tell you. e.g. Your friends and family will always say nice things about your songs. Other musicians will praise your songs if you do the same for them. Here are a few snapshots

There are a lot of songs out there so don’t bore us; get to the Chorus. People can easily jump to the next song. grab them in 30 seconds or less. Keep the song short. 3 to 4 minutes . Keep up the attention and don’t meander.Look at the faces of the audience during the song. Not every song has to be Stairway to Heaven.

Melody, rhythm message. When building a song all three need to work together. Unless you are a genius then a great message will not save a song without a good melody. Keep checking all three as great production will not save a bad song.

You can find more info on Marc’s web site.

Best Bit: There is no such thing as a bad audience. Your Songs are not your children, if they don’t work then change them. The audience response during the song is far more important than after it has finished.


Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told Me About the Creative Life : Austin Kleon

The one negative thing to say about this book is that you don’t get a lot of words for your money. It is quite short and costs around £6.00 as an ebook. If you really want to save the money then I will tell you the 10 things. ‘Steal like an artist; Don’t wait until you know who you are to start making things; Write the book you want to read; Use your hands; Side projects are important; Do good work and put it where people can see it; Geography is no longer our master; Be nice (the world is a small town.); Be boring (it’s the only way to get work done.); and, Creativity is subtraction.’

It may be brief but I think the book is well worth reading because my biggest problem with song writing is not so much the words or the tunes but the attitude and the feeling. When I am in the zone a song just seems to flow, the really hard part is getting in that zone. This book has some great pointers about moving towards that state.

Best Bit: Don’t just write what you know, write what you like, or even better write what you love.
It would have 4 stars if a little cheaper or longer.

The Mayor of MacDougal Street: Dave Van Ronk

The Coen Brothers’ new film, Inside Llewyn Davis was inspired by this book. Only a few incidents from the book are represented in the film and even those that are are greatly changed. I like the 1960s New York in the film but I found it very bleak. This book is very different, whilst Dave didn’t have the financial success of his contemporaries like Dylan and Joni Mitchell he was a successful musician in his own terms. A good jazz/folk/blue guitarist and songwriter, able to make a living playing his songs. The descriptions of late 50s early 60s Greenwich village are interesting, as is the description of the life of a musician at that time, how he earned a living and the people he learned from. The stuff about the reverend Gary Davies are fascinating.I listened to the audio book version as I don’t have a lot of book time at the moment.It was well worth the listen.

You might be wondering why I have added this to a song writing blog. The main reason is that it gives a feel of the mind space that produced some amazing songs. How the people were living and making a living. How they worked as musicians, the coffee house scene and how it changed their writing.  There are also a few more specific things that are interesting. Apparently if Dylan had a great line he wouldn’t worry too much if some of the rest of the song wasn’t as strong. He didn’t rework much, he just wrote another song.

Tom Paxton wrote a song a day for over a year in order to get really good at writing songs.
The singers at the time worked very long hours to make a living so a lot of what may seem moments of inspiration are more the result of spending a long time singing and playing. There is a parallel to the Beatles early years. Just keep at it till you get good.

Best Bit: Realising how much the 60s singers “borrowed” from what had gone before.  Blues songs, folk songs anything that would serve as a source of inspiration.


Isle of Noises: Conversations with great British songwriters By Daniel Rachel

I loved “Songwriters on songwriting” by Paul Zollo but it was practically all American writers. Daniel Rachel has filled this gap. It’s amazing how many great people were willing to talk to him. 26 writers including Noel Gallagher, Ray Davies, Paul Weller, Jarvis Cocker, Billy Bragg, Johnny Marr, Damon Albarn and Laura Marling. 
For each subject there is an overview of their career followed by a long interview. Daniel must have spent ages researching before talking to each person as he really knows the detail of their work. It’s exciting to see the original written version of many songs.
If funds are tight I recommend reading it on a kindle (£3.20) as the hardback version (£16.25)  is a lot more expensive.
Best Bit: Sting explaining how he writes his songs backwards. It makes total sense that if you know where you are going you can build towards it but I hadn’t thought like this before.


How Music really Works Wayne Chase

How Music Really Works_

This book is not often available on Amazon so there is no picture link. I will give details of how to get a copy later.
It’s a big book  (890 Pages) and covers a huge range of subjects. It is also pretty quirky as the author uses wild west stories to make some of his points, but there are some great insights that I haven’t found elsewhere so I recommend checking it out. The first 6 chapters are available free on-line so you have nothing to lose. Read them here 

The book ranges very widely so I will focus on just one area here so that you can decide if you want to explore further. One of the most interesting  topics for song writers is the Chase chart. This is a diagram showing the harmonic movement of a song. The chords of the harmonic scale are written in a circle and arrows show the movement between them. The arrangement of the chords is rather clever, as you move round the circle clock wise each chord moves down a fifth (with the exception of the bottom chord.) The major chords are on the right and the minor chords are generally on the left. Any chords that are not in the harmonic scale are outside the circle.  Here is an example from the book, the Star Spangled Banner,I chose this example because most people will know it. .  In just a glance you can see what the song is about harmonically.


If you want a paper copy then the best option is to buy a copy from the publishers website . If you live outside USA/Canada then shipping puts up the price a lot. Another option is to download a PDF, this is what I did as I live in the UK, the only snag with this is that the PDF is protected so you need a special program to open it.

Best bit: The chase chart in chapter 6.

I found it really hard to give this a star rating, some parts are very innovative and really helped my song  writing and worthy of 5 stars.. It does vary widely in usefulness so I decided to give it 4 stars, but since you can check out the first half for free I recommend that you see what you think.


Songwriters on Songwriting Paul Zollo

This is an amazing book. It is a collection of Interviews published originally in Song Talk, the journal of the National Academy of Songwriters. The writers are mostly US based and are mostly from the 1980s and 90s. I didn’t read it from cover to cover initially, I jumped to the interviews with the people I admire most and then slowly read the rest. This is much better than the usual music magazine interview, much longer and far less showbiz, the focus is on the songs.
He asks most of the writers where they believe their songs come from, if there is some kind of creative spirit. This is an interesting question as many writers do have some sort of answer. He also discusses their work patterns, do they treat it as a job or just wait for inspiration.
At 730 pages there is a lot of material and at the price it’s a bargain.

Best Bit: This is really hard to answer but there are three. The interviews with Dylan, Paul Simon and Lamont Dozier.


How To Write Songs On Guitar. Rikky Rooksby

If I was only reviewing page 42 of this book it would get 5 Stars. It’s a list of song chords for each key, apparently initially developed to allow you to work out the chords in a song you are listening to. It’s really useful for exploring other areas to take the harmony in a song. The table starts with the usual harmonic scale chords but adds in another half dozen that can work but you might not have though of.
My second favourite part of the book is a large section on song sequences. Rikky takes sequence e.g I-III-IV-V: (in Am this is Am-C-Dm-Em) and then gives lots of examples where it is used. For this sequence the list includes Elvis Costello “I want you”.
There are also good sections on song structures, key changing and melody. Most of the rest of the book is chord diagrams, a pity since most guitarists will already have those.

Best Bit  Page 42 Song Chords table


The Songwriting Secrets of the Beatles Dominic Pedler

This is the best book I’ve read on song writing so far. It uses the Beatles’ songs as examples so that even if I didn’t know a song I could look it up on-line.
The book begins with very simple two and three chord songs, each chapter then adds another layer of interest and complexity. It’s a great book just to read through, and there are lots of points where I suddenly understood how a part of a song worked.
You don’t need to read music to use the book but it helps as a lot of the examples use notation, there is an Appendix, “A beginners guide to music theory” that gives you the basics.
I bought the hardback (almost 800 pages) and the Kindle version. The Kindle is much easier to handle as the paper book is quite chunky. The only downside of the kindle version is that you need good eyesight to read some of the musical examples.
If you buy just one book on song writing then this is the one to get.

Best bit: Appendix 2 “Beatles chords in practice”, some great example of modulation when moving between song sections, e.g. Verse to Chorus or Chorus to bridge.