Songwriting For Dummies
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Walk into any bookstore and check out the Music Books section, and you’ll find yourself before a wall of daunting choices. Stop by any given online bookstore and search for music, and you’ll be faced with even more. It seems there are nearly as many books written about music composition, the music business, and music appreciation as there are albums or compact discs containing music.

Here are just a few of the good ones.

Songwriter’s Market

by various authors, Writer’s Digest Books
Songwriter’s Market is one of the most respected of the market guides and worth picking up every year when a new edition comes out (the 2020 edition is the latest as of this writing). For more than 30 years, the guide has provided up-to-date contact information on music-publishing houses, record companies, managers, booking agents, and record producers.

The book also explains what sorts of musicians and composers these organizations want to work with for the coming year. Besides that, it lists how much money you can expect to be paid for projects from each record label and music publisher mentioned. There’s also lots of information on composing and songwriting contests, as well as information on networking groups and unions that are beneficial for composers and musicians.

Plus, the book has a huge, easy-to-understand section on the business side of being a composer or songwriter, including how to read contracts or even write your own basic contract, what sorts of fees are acceptable when signing with a manager or agent, and advice on copyrighting your material. There are also about a dozen interviews in each edition with professional composers and songwriters on how they found success in their given field.

The Shaping of Musical Elements, Vol. II

by Armand Russell and Allen Trubitt, Schirmer Books/Macmillan, Inc.
If you’ve taken a beginning theory class in college, you may have read or heard of this series. Where the first volume introduced many of the basic principles of music theory, form, and analysis, Vol. II concerns itself with the historical development of music since the 17th century. Baroque, Classical, and Romantic era music is analyzed and dissected to its minutest parts, with good and detailed explanations of what each composer was either trying to do with his music or what his music inspired the next generation of composers to do. The book progresses into the 20th century, with analytical stops at every point in musical history.

It’s a really ambitious (and pricey) book — we feel particularly sorry for any student expected to cover all this heady material in one year at music school, even with the benefit of a professor close at hand. You could spend years familiarizing yourself with the concepts and techniques discussed in this book and have a lot of fun doing it, too.

The Norton Scores, Vols. 1 and 2, 10th Edition

edited by Kristine Forney, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
These books are an absolute must for anyone interested in seriously dissecting classical music. Vol. 1 contains full orchestral scores from the early secular period to renaissance, baroque, and classical periods of music, including works of Beethoven, Bach, Scarlatti, Haydn, and more than a dozen other composers. Vol. 2 features scores from the 19th century on and includes scores from Schoenberg, Bartók, Copland, and others.

The best way to use these books is to own or check out a recording of the score being studied so that you can follow along with the written material. For the novice score reader, this is an exciting new way to study music; for the more advanced score reader, these books provide the opportunity to really study a composer’s technique in a whole new way. Both books are written for the expert and the novice alike, with significant sections of the scores highlighted to make following the piece easier without dumbing down any of the material.

Another great thing about these books is that you have all this truly amazing sheet music at your fingertips. When you’re feeling particularly uninspired to write your own music, sit down and analyze and play a section of Mozart’s Don Giovanni or Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto — it might be just the thing you need to get inspired to write something entirely new!

How to Grow as a Musician

by Sheila E. Anderson, Allworth Press
This is a really fun and informative book to read, one that is aimed specifically at the touring and recording musician. There is a lot of information here about booking a tour, mentally preparing yourself for live performances in both familiar and unfamiliar settings, marketing yourself, and even figuring out how much to charge for different types of performances. Contracts and royalties are discussed in great detail, as are all the hidden fees that can pop up even after a contract is signed.

Anderson’s background as a jazz radio journalist makes this a great book to just sit down and read even if you’re not planning on going on tour or even into the studio; the book contains tons of great stories about the ups and downs of being a professional musician, including anecdotes from jazz greats like Ruth Brown and Michael Wolff. It also contains advice provided by attorneys working within the music business.

Analysis of Tonal Music: A Schenkerian Approach

by Alan Cadwallader and David Gagné, Oxford University Press
Schenkerian analysis is a method of musical analysis based on the theories of Heinrich Schenker, a music theorist of the early 20th century. In Schenkerian analysis, the basic goal is to reveal the tonal structure of a piece of music by reducing the music using a specialized, symbolic form of musical notation devised by Schenker.

The analysis reveals the inner musical workings of the music, dividing it into what is called the foreground and the fundamental structure. The foreground is the part of the music that immediately attracts a listener’s attention, such as the rhythm or the repeated chord changes; the fundamental structure is composed of the arrhythmic pitch events that help keep the music from sounding mechanical.

The beauty of Schenkerian analysis is that it is completely subjective, and there is no right or wrong answer to how each individual dissects a piece of music. Each analysis reflects the musical intuitions of the analyst and shows what he or she thinks is the underlying structure or most important parts of a given piece of music. It’s a more philosophical way of studying music than most theoretical approaches, and one more way to learn how to really sit and listen to a piece of music, instead of allowing it to disappear into background noises at a cocktail party.

The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music

by Victor L. Wooten
Written by Grammy award-winning bassist Victor L. Wooten, The Music Lesson is partly about the process of writing music and partly about self-discovery. Wooten takes the reader on a spiritual journey in which strange characters appear out of nowhere to offer advice on how to become a great musician. The book’s main spiritual guide, Michael, divides music up into Groove, Notes, Articulation, Technique, Emotion, Dynamics, Rhythm, Tone, Phrasing, and Space, and takes the reader—through the eyes of Wooten—on various adventures to teach each of these components.

As Michael explains as he’s demonstrating various techniques to Wooten, "Doctors use lasers to operate. Music, in the right hands, can do the same thing." Throughout the book, Wooten reiterates that music is more than just notes—it’s magic.

American Mavericks

edited by Susan Key and Larry Roethe, University of California Press
This book is gorgeous enough to be a coffee table book, and, if you’re as obsessed with music as we are and you have a coffee table, you really should pick up a copy. It’s loaded with fantastic photographs of unique American composers and their equally unique choices of instruments. It features in-depth profiles of composers as varied and dissimilar as John Cage, Aaron Copland, Steve Mackey, and Carl Ruggles. The book also comes with a CD containing 18 tracks of music — one for every composer and several from albums that are just about impossible to find in your local record store.

RE/Search #14 & #15: Incredibly Strange Music, Vols. I and II

by RE/Search Publications
Anyone familiar with the RE/Search books already knows they’re in for a treat when they pick up either one of these books. For those not familiar with the RE/Search series — well, you should be. They’re a lot of fun to read.

RE/Search #14 and #15 are both filled with interviews with fringe performers and radio personalities, all talking about their personal record collections. In #14, Vol. 1, Ivy and Lux from The Cramps talk about their collection of easy-listening records; Eartha Kitt talks about her own records and the scandal caused by her performance at President Johnson’s White House; Gershon Kingsley reminisces about his first recordings on a Moog synthesizer; and Martin Denny talks about the world of exotica.

Vol. 2 features Jello Biafra on Les Baxter, Robert Moog on the theremin, Juan Esquivel on the Latin music of the 1950s, and Yma Sumac on her own mythical life. Both volumes contain many, many more interviews and articles than what we’ve just mentioned here, but these are just a few examples of why these books belong in every music-lover’s collection.


by John Cage, Wesleyan University Press
This book is an incredible look into the mind of one of America’s greatest experimental composers. The founder of the concept of “happenings,” in which a thing happens exactly in the present and at no other time, whether it’s an art show, a live concert, or a dance performance, he epitomized the “Be Here Now” mentality of the Beat Movement of the 1950s.

In this collection of Cage’s essays and lectures, Cage discusses some of his compositional processes, including aleatorics, in which chance elements determine how a composition sounds. A prime example of this is Cage’s possibly most famous piano piece, “4’33,” in which no notes on the piano are actually played, but every sound around the piano — the audience shifting in their chairs, the breathing of the performer picked up by the mic, papers rustling in the room — becomes a part of the piece.

His other most famous compositional technique, used later by musicians such as Brian Eno, is that of drawing from the I Ching to determine where a composition is going to go next. Cage also talks about how the sounds of remembered or overheard conversations and numerology have dictated his compositional process, the effect technological advances have had on his own and other’s music, and his dabblings with psychedelic substances.

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