Sunday, January 23, 2011


Inside the Art of Songwriting
Jimmy Webb

The author of By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Wichita Lineman, and MacArthur Park, Jimmy Webb should know something about the art and business of songwriting. Tunesmith is part pop psychology self help book, part memoir and part music theory and poetry writing textbook. That is a lot to cram into a 422 page trade paperback.

What got me started reading this book was a comment by Steven Sondheim on NPR's Fresh Air that he, of course, used a rhyming dictionary when writing songs. I had thought that those rhymes just fell out of his mouth like pearls, I guess. Looking for a good rhyming dictionary on led me to a list of songwriting books, including this one.

I have to disagree with Webb in his preference for perfect rhymes over the more interesting, IMHO, false rhyme, which he deplores - and also employs on occasion. Back in the day when I was an English major, using all perfect rhymes was considered a sign of immature, singsongey writing. Oh right, he is talking about writing pop songs.

The chapter on music theory is mostly wasted. Either you read music at a level where you already know the material he is covering or it's gibberish to you. I have a collection of music theory textbooks, some of which I have even read, but my music reading is pretty well limited to lead sheets. When he puts a three staff piano score under my nose, my eyes glaze over. I guess that guy who teaches the easy way to play piano on PBS wasn't around when Jimmy wrote this book.

I enjoyed reading about Jimmy Webb's adventures at Motown West, hanging out with Johnny Rivers and working with Art Garfunkle. His tales of wrongdoing on the part of record labels and music publishers are valuable lessons for the aspiring songwriter.

The music industry is a far different landscape now than when he started out in the early 1960s and was changing rapidly in the 1990s, when Webb wrote this book. His ideal of writing songs and pitching them to artists, producers and label executives is long dead, except perhaps in Nashville. I know that there is an Amway like organization which feeds songs from people all over the country into some inner sanctum in music city, where the high priests of country music choose songs for the big hats to record. I've met a few people on the bottom rung of that ladder. These days you have to be your own performer, producer, executive and have your own Facebook fan club if you want your songs to be heard.

My only problem with Tunesmith is that I have one of Jimmy Webb's songs stuck in my head. "Wouldn't you like to ride in my beautiful, my beautiful baloooooon."

Keywords: memoir, music industry, songwriting, Jimmy Webb


  1. Hey - Shah here from the WCBH at - I'm following and blog rolling you. This was a very interesting article -- when i was a nipper i longed to grow up to be a female Bob Dylan - strumming my guitar sing great meaningful songs. But I couldn't sing, didnt have the patience to learn guitar and my songs weren't that much cop! Ho hum! I loved Simon and Garfuncle too. The thing these days is, sure its great to have a great song, but its not necassery for a hit song. The amount of crud lyrics i hear on the radio is scary, yet these musicains are big stars and i imagine the half-wit who wrote about booties and such are doing quite well too? What do I know? Shah. X

  2. Hi Shah, Bob Dylan isn't such a good singer, either, but man can he write! One interesting thing Jimmy Webb said that is that you have to write songs because you love them or you won't write good ones. Writing to have a hit might get you a hit but it will probably be a bad song.

  3. Hi I'm following from Weekend Creative Blog Hop. What an interesting article!! I now have that Beautiful Balloon song stuck in my head is a beautiful day here today and yes, I'd love to take a ride in a beautiful balloon!! LOL

  4. Once again, NPR's fresh air proves invaluable. Great post!


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