What Jimmy Webb Says

October 23, 2006

I love reading about songs and songwriting almost as much as I love listening. I just finished Jimmy Webb’s book Tunesmith ~ Inside the Art of Songwriting and I highly recommend it! It’s a great read both for its insight into Webb’s songwriting techniques and for the fascinating behind-the-scenes stories about the music industry.

Tunesmith was written in 1998 and Webb may have a whole new philosophy about the craft of songwriting these days. But the thing that struck me most was the whole array of rules and procedures that he practiced and prescribed for writing a good song. I know it’s just plain wrong to question the tactics of the man who wrote “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston”, “MacArthur Park”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, etc., etc.*, but I was pretty surprised by the highly formulaic approach to his art. Is it common for songwriters to compose this way? Writing down every possible chord for every beat of a melody line and then substituting notes in that chord, one by one, to get each chord of the song? I mean, I love the work of dozens of talented contemporary songwriters that I’m fairly sure would have been kicked out of the Jimmy Webb School of Songwriting.

He’s tough on lyrics that use imperfect rhymes (like “smile/wild” or “again/friend”) arguing that “the listener will be offended on a subliminal level even if he or she doesn’t know the difference between a false and proper rhyme.” (p. 58) I think an imperfect rhyme can be refreshing as it opens up more vocabulary choices and so can surprise you lyrically. Also, nowadays, too many perfect rhymes in a song can sometimes sound a little old-fashioned. He banters on the “dangers of enjambment… the unethical practice of carrying over the meaning of a sentence from the end of one couplet to another.” (p. 98) I didn’t know what it was called, but it turns out I’m a big fan of enjambment. I love it when a smart lyric line carries through into the next line while keeping the rhymes at the end of the measures. When building chords, he adheres to Bach’s 17th century dictum: “The third should never be doubled.” (p. 222) I took this rule to the piano and picked out a few songs playing block chords in different inversions. Sometimes it did sound better without the doubled third notes. Sometimes I just couldn’t hear what the big deal was.

If your life hasn’t been diminished by not knowing the definition of “anapestic metric foot” (p. 87), then you might skip over Chapter 4. If you wouldn’t know a major seventh chord if it walked up and introduced itself, you will definitely want to flip a little faster through those chapters discussing the aforementioned chord building exercises (I know I did). But take your time enjoying the handsomely written philosophical discussions on songwriting and the analyses of famous songs by other writers. Allow yourself to be amazed as Webb literally walks you step-by-step through the composition of an actual song, “Problem Child”. (Chap. 5 and 8 )

Although startled by the strict methodology, a lot of his practical advice seemed truly sensible, such as his recommendation to songwriters to use a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary: “Virtually all of the great songwriters I know keep a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus close by.” (p. 5) But my favorite quote is this one in which he beautifully delineates his criteria for bending the rules:

When we break the rules it is essential to weigh the risk… Like the architect we may come to the conclusion that we will have to bend the code to create a free-standing arched dome fifteen hundred feet in diameter. Can we make it stand? Can we make it beautiful?

Kelley Martin
October 2006

*You’ll find a list of 331 of Jimmy Webb’s songs at www.ascap.com and another 60 or so in the www.bmi.com catalog. A successful, prolific, and talented guy! ~KyM

Webb, Jimmy. Tunesmith : Inside the Art of Songwriting. New York: Hyperion, 1998.