“Think of it like painting a picture.”
“I can’t paint, either.”
“No, it doesn’t matter. Just think of it like painting a picture.”
“All right. But I still don’t know how to paint a picture.”
She sighed. “You don’t need to be an art expert to know how to paint a picture. You have the foreground and the background, right?”
“And the foreground is the most important bit, right?”
“The bit that everyone properly looks at?”
“But the background is also important — a bad background can ruin a good picture, but a great background can improve a picture. Right?”
“That also sounds about right. But I still don’t see how that helps.”
She grumbled but got a hold of herself. “It’s how you think about the process, John.”
“Okay, so, I’m painting a picture.”
“Without paints or a canvas or an easel.”
“Precisely.” A silence. “You don’t get it, do you, John?”
“Not even slightly, Charlie.”
“Gah! Okay, think of your favourite song.”
“Oh, God… My favourite song? That’s such a hard question…”
“Look, it doesn’t have to be your favourite, just a song you like. A song you know.”
“All right. Stairway to Heaven.”
“No, that’s a terrible example.”
“Stairway to Heaven is a terrible song? Maybe you aren’t the right teacher for me after all…”
“No, I didn’t say it was a terrible song, I said it was a terrible example. Big difference, John. It’s too complicated. Pick something simpler.”
“Okay.” He thought for a moment, face a rictus of thought. “Sound of Silence?“
“Ah, much better! Okay, think of the intro guitar.” Charlie fingerpicked the first eight notes to the song. The melancholy voicings rang from the steel-string acoustic. The name on the headstock said ‘Taylor’.
“Such a classic.” John smiled as the familiar notes fell upon his ears.
“Right. Now, we all know the vocal melody and lyrics, right?”
“I should hope so.” Together, the pair sang the opening line about darkness being a friend. Charlie continued to fingerpick the simple notes, her rhythm steady. They didn’t harmonise — a fault which John took the blame for — but they didn’t sound horrendous, either.
“Do you see what I mean with background and foreground?” She picked the notes again. “Background.” She sang the intro line about talking with an old friend again. Her voice followed the familiar melody with great ease.
Damn, John thought, she sounds good. He was jealous of her talent. Well, wasn’t that why he had sought her out in the first place? They said she was good.
“Okay, I think I get it.” John nodded. “Background and foreground.”
Charlie beamed at him. Her smile lit up the room. “Great! Okay, so you get the idea of the concept of the bit at the front and the bit in the back.”
“Yeah… sorta. But keep going.”
She nodded. “Each is equally as important. A bad background can worsen a good foreground, and a bad foreground might mean that nobody even looks at your background.” John gave her a quizzical look. “Okay, listen, Simon and Garfunkel again.” Charlie picked the notes again, but this time, when she sang, she didn’t follow the melody. She stuck to the same note, over and over again. She struck the same, monotonous pitch as the poetic lyrics danced onwards.
“That sounds horrible!” said John.
“Exactly! Your main melody — your foreground — is important. It needs to be simple enough for people to get it, yet original enough that people like it and enjoy it. It needs to stick in their minds.”
“Okay. Crap melody, crap song. Gotcha. Use more than one note.”
“Yeah. Sorta. Unless in special circumstances…” Charlie shook her head. Her hair whipped back and forth. “But don’t worry about that, it’ll just confuse you.”
John stared at her for a moment, as if she were a crazy person. He nodded. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Just keep it simple for me, for the time being.”
“Yeah. Baby steps, John, baby steps.”
“Got it. So, carrying on, that bit’s the foreground. What about the background bit you were harping on about?”
Charlie fingerpicked the intro chord to Sound of Silence again. “Okay, background — that’s a D minor suspended chord. A D minor sus two, to be exact. Don’t worry what that means for the time being. Now, listen to this.” Charlie started to fingerpick again, only this time the notes didn’t sound quite right.
John shook his head. “Nah, Charlie, you played it wrong that time.”
She rolled her eyes. “I know. That was intentional, John. I’m playing a straight D minor chord. Notice how it doesn’t have the same impact as…” She played the intro to Sound of Silence again.
“Right, right… The proper way sounds cooler.” God, he thought, am I getting too old to use the word ‘cooler’?
“—but I’m not saying you have to have a suspended chord as your intro chord, I’m just saying that an interesting background helps to make an interesting foreground. Harmony and melody together. They’re the bread and butter of music. Get it?”
“Sure, when you put it like that. Why didn’t you put it like that in the first place? Confusing me with paintings and all that…”
“Do you want my help or not?”
“Of course! I have to write a song for my wife.”
“Because she says that you don’t put in as much effort as you used to?”
“She hasn’t said it that explicitly, but—”
“But you can tell that she thinks it.”
“Well…” He trailed off. “How’d you know?”
“You’re not the first husband who turned to the guitar to rekindle that marital spark, John.”
“Oh indeed. So, do you want my help or not?”
“Yes, I do.”
“That’s good. Then listen to the advice I give and follow what I say.”
“Couldn’t you just write a song for me?”
“I could, but I won’t.”
“Damn. Why not?”
“Because it has to come from you. Music is all about honesty. A listener can tell whether you’re being honest or not.”
“Sure. Think of the classics. Bohemian Rhapsody, Tiny Dancer, Comfortably Numb… Every great song is written from a place of honesty. Truthfulness. Now, I’m not saying that Freddie Mercury actually killed a man, I’m just saying that when he sings those lines, you can tell he’s singing from a place of pure intent. Got it?”
“Now think of the worst song ever. I dunno, some generic love song from some ten-a-penny boy band. Y’know the type. They all sleep around with as many women as possible and then squeeze out painful lines about true love. Those lyrics stink like a bad fart, don’t they?”
That made John roar with laughter. “They sure do!”
“Even if the music isn’t all that bad. And why is that?”
“…because they’re being dishonest?”
“Yes! You don’t have to write complex or complicated stuff. Just be honest. Say it from the heart. Play it from the soul. All of those clichés. If you’re gonna sing it, you better bloody well mean it. They’re called clichés because they’re overused, not because they’re untrue.”
“Huh.” John cocked his head to the side like a puppy. “Never thought of it like that.”
“How long until your anniversary?”
“Okay, that’s doable. You’ll be no Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel, but we can get you to a place where you’re at the very least semi-decent. But you gotta work hard at it. So, pay attention.”
“Sure. So, let’s revisit the word you just used. You don’t have to write a song for your wife. Going into a song with that mentality will make it cold, sterile. Loveless. You should want to write a song for your wife. It’s a choice. A proclamation of love!”
John rolled his eyes. “All right, all right…”
“I know it’s cheesy, but it’s true. Sometimes, you gotta channel your inner cheese.”
“My inner cheese?”
“Yeah, I know, it sounded better in my head. But you know what I mean, don’t you?”
“I think so.”
“Cool. So, I always find it’s best to write lyrics when you already have the music and melody. I like to hum along and find that the right words sorta just… slot themselves in. But, we gotta find the right key for you.”
“The right key for me?”
“Sure. No offence, John, but it takes a well-practised singer to sing in multiple keys. And even then, the pros tend to stick to the keys they know their voice works best with, after years of practice. Repeat after me: La la la la la la la la!” Charlie sang the eight rising notes with ease. She added some tasteful vibrato at the end of the octave.
John cleared his throat and repeated the phrase. His voice increased in pitch with each syllable. From the way Charlie winced, he could tell he didn’t quite hit the right pitches.
“Hmm, nope, not E minor. Let’s try…”
Several painful minutes later, they found it. “Yes, that’s the one!”
“I thought it sounded terrible.”
“Well, you’re no George Michael, but you hit those notes without straining too much. I think that’ll do nicely.”
“Huh. What key was that?”
Charlie shrugged and pulled a face. “It’s not… not really.”
“Any songs I would know in… G whatsit?”
“G-sharp minor. I dunno, actually… I think Don’t Cry by Guns N’ Roses is in G-sharp minor… But don’t quote me on that.”
“Man, I love that song!”
“Well, now you know that you can probably sing it.”
John nodded. He looked fairly impressed with himself. “So, what now?”
“Now we gotta get our chord pattern.”
“Right… and how do I do that?”
“By knowing the emotion that you’re trying to evoke.”
“I dunno…” John wrinkled his nose. “I’m not sure what emotion I want to evoke.”
“That’s okay, let’s just go by feel, okay?”
John nodded but seemed sceptical.
“Let’s start with our root: G-sharp minor.” Charlie strummed the chord. “Now, you try.”
John squinted at her fingers. It took him a full three minutes to get his hand into the same shape as Charlie’s. His fingers looked like a claw. When he strummed, the chord didn’t sound quite as nice as Charlie’s had, but he didn’t think he had done too bad.
“Great! Now, there are so many directions we could go from here. First, let’s look at an interval of a third…”
This is gonna take ages, thought John. But he felt good about himself. He felt hopeful that he’d walk away from this with something half decent. Something half honest. After all, if it’s worth doing…
He smiled at the fresh callouses on the tips of his fingers.
He strummed the chord and then stopped.
“I feel silly.”
“Yeah. If you feel awkward or embarrassed, that’s because you feel vulnerable. Open. And that’s how you should feel — be honest with your listeners, remember?”
“Look, it doesn’t have to be poetry, okay? In fact, in my humble opinion, songs sound better when you aren’t trying to be all poetic. It comes out crappy, and you end up stealing other people’s clichés. Say what you want to say. Start with the basic building blocks. Once you’ve got that down, then we can try to make it flowery and pretty. If we need to, that is.”
“Just hum your melody, first of all. You still remember it?”
He did. He thought it was good. They’d written something that was neither derivative nor complicated. John thought it was pretty catchy. “Sure, I do.”
“Play along, humming your melody. Think of the rhythms. The patterns. Syllables. Words that’d fit. Words that are important to you and your wife. Words that encapsulate your relationship. Places. Sounds. Smells. Feelings. Memories. Don’t worry about rhyming for the time being. We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”
By now, John’s fingers moved almost by muscle memory. He slid into the chord changes with relative ease. He couldn’t play through the piece as smoothly as Charlie, but he could now play it all by heart. Most of the chords were simple, with some harder ones thrown in, to give the piece — in Charlie’s own words — some spice. Chords with names that had ‘suspension’ or ‘diminished’ or ‘minor seven’ or ‘add nine’ or ‘over C-sharp’ in the title. John didn’t know what they meant, but he knew how they sounded, and how they felt. Gentle and caressing. Soothing but not sad. Somehow sparkling and chiming — crystalline. In a word, romantic. He and Charlie strummed the intro chords. They were, for the most part, in time with each other. The two guitars chorused together.
John, a mechanic by trade, began to hum his melody. Never had he considered himself to be an ‘artsy’ person. But he was beginning to learn he could find satisfaction in this whole creative pursuit idea. He wished he’d picked up an instrument sooner, as opposed to half a century into his existence. Better late than never, John old boy, he told himself.
The guitars bounced from chord to chord. John’s rough but endearing voice traced the melody. Like sections of a jigsaw that slot together, the words clicked into place. The lyrics and phrases fell upon him with an ease that shocked him — as if they descended from the heavens like rain. As the vague outline of the song began to take shape, he marvelled at the piece. It felt as though he were trapping a fragment of his very heart inside a bubble.
For the first time in many years, the prospect of giving his wife a gift excited him.
His voice wasn’t perfect, and on many occasions, it cracked, wavered, or didn’t strike the right pitch.
It didn’t help that his mouth was dry — he felt nervous, like a young boy. In truth, he felt the same way that he had on their very first date, over 20 years ago. John thought that this was sensation was rather poetic; life had come full circle.
His guitar technique wasn’t flawless. Sometimes he didn’t press down on the barre chord and a string would buzz like an angry insect. Other times he’d slide up to a note and miss it — the clash of sounds cut through the body of the song like razor wire. John winced when these errors occurred, but he played on.
His rhythm wasn’t completely steady, either. The song began at a solid 120 beats per minute and ended up at around 140. He wasn’t sure how or when he’d sped up, but that final chorus was too fast. He chalked it up to nerves.
But on those glimpses between chord changes, when he stole a glance upwards, his heart did a backflip. She clasped her hands together and her watery eyes sparkled in the light. Her parted lips trembled — oh so kissable. The song enraptured her. Even when he slipped or tripped up, he kept going. He wanted that look to remain printed on her face forever. Even when the song tottered on the verge of implosion, he kept on strumming his cheap guitar. The one with the nylon strings.
And he sang to his wife.
A song of honesty.
In the key of G-sharp minor.