Camp Songwriting 101
By Jason Taylor
So, you want to write a fun, exciting, catchy and cool camp song eh! Well, you’ve picked the right article. Welcome to camp songwriting 101. My name is Professor Jason Taylor and I will be your host today for this informative session. Please turn to page 23 of your songwriting manual. Ummm, actually I’m not a professor. But I am a songwriter. And if you stick around I’ll share some of the tricks of the trade.
Keep It Simple
Whether you’re writing an original brand new song or giving an old classic a new face, the ingredients for writing a good camp song are basically the same -- make it easy to sing, easy to remember, easy to play and, depending on the purpose, fun.
Mozart, Beethoven and Bach all wrote lots of songs. Which ones do you remember? Which ones do you find yourself humming? More than likely it’s one of their simpler melodies. The Beatles, Monkees and even Green Day are immensely popular bands because people can easily sing along with their songs. So, keep it simple.
Creating Simple Melodies
Of course, creating simple melodies is usually easier said than done. For myself, I feel lucky because melodies pop into my head without much effort. When I write a song I can hear the guitars, bass line, drums, keyboards and singing all at once. And, if it all works, people sing along. Some might call this a gift. I call it madness!
All kidding aside, melodies take a little bit of practice, but I’m convinced anyone can do it. The key is you just have to try. Go ahead and give it a shot. If nothing comes immediately to mind, plunk out a few notes on the piano until something stands out and then run with it.
It may help to have a goal in mind. Decide what style of song you would like to write? What is the mood? Should it be fast or slow? Once you decide, try to paint a picture with the music.
Three Chord Johnnies
If these techniques don’t work, consider the age-old three-chord Johnny otherwise known as a repetitive, three-chord progression (1, 4, 5).
This meets our “keep it simple” rule and never changes. Let me explain (this is where it gets a bit technical, so please bear with me):
Start your progression with the root of the key you are in and then switch to the fourth note, followed by the fifth. It’s not as difficult as it sounds. For example if you are in the key of C (with no sharps or flats) you would play these three chords: C, F and G.
How did we determine this? By using the musical alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. If you start at C, the fourth note above C is F and fifth note above C is G.
Here’s another example, if you start with A then your three chord Johnny would be: A, D and E. And on and on and on… It’s really that easy.
If you’re playing these chords on a guitar, how quickly you strum them, how many beats per measure you play, how many times you play each chord before switching (your timing and rhythym) determine your melody.
This is where you can get creative. There are many, many, many different chord progressions (though C, F, G works really well) and rhythm patterns you can use, so explore and have fun. And, if none of this makes any sense to you, then just wing it. Play by ear. If you want to write a song you simply need to be brave and give it a try!
Camp Brébeuf Style
Here at Camp Brébeuf we have a lot of guitar players (I would say that it is part of our camp culture), but not all our camp musicians can blast out complicated guitar solos or classical renditions of Mozart.
However, they can play a mean version of Stand By Me, Time of Your Life or Leaving on a Jet Plane. And, playing songs kids can sing and enjoy is what matters most to us. At the heart of it, these songs meet our basic criteria, they are pretty straightforward and they are easy to sing. So, they work well for us.
Last year we put together a solid marketing campaign. As a part of this, my co-worker Nicky and I wrote an original song called Camp Rocks (see sidebar for lyrics or visit www.camp-business.com to listen). This was taken from our slogan for the year… “Camp Rocks…Grab A Hold”.
It was an instant success. We traveled to over 30 schools talking to the kids about our summer camp programs. As a part of these presentations we taught the kids this song. They were into it. It was a modern, fun, catchy and upbeat song about all the activities you get to do while at camp. In the summer we sang it at campfires along with another awesome song the male counselors wrote called Trumpet of the Swan (see sidebar for lyrics or visit www.camp-business.com to listen). The counselors’ song had four chords repeated over and over. Guess what? The kids didn’t even notice. What they did notice was the melody, funny words and a catchy chorus about all the animals at camp.
The Fun Factor
This brings me to the last ingredient -- FUN!
The easiest way to do this is to break down the walls of “I’m too afraid to be embarrassed” and let yourself act silly. Kids like funny rhymes, exaggerations, talking animals, and goofy sounds. And, don’t forget actions.
Actions not only add a huge fun factor, but also help campers remember the words to the song. And that makes singing the songs easy – which means more fun!
The bottom line is camp songwriting is not as difficult as you may think. You don’t need to be classically trained. You don’t need to have gobs of talent. You simply need to have the desire to write a song.
Find someone who plays guitar, someone who sings and someone who writes poetry and team them together. Or maybe give it a shot for yourself. How about introducing a songwriting time as a camp activity?
Maybe your campers could write a cabin cheer or a camp grace? Remember a remake or an original song works just fine. Some of our best campfire songs and graces came out of a year filled with creativity and the courage to give songwriting a try. How about I end with a poem about songwriting.
I wrote about camp songs today!
I wrote about guitars we play!
I wrote about the words we sing!
I wrote about the smiles we bring!
Jason Taylor is the Program Manager for Camp Brébeuf in Rockwood, Onatario, Canada. You can contact him via e-mail at email@example.com. Or, you can listen to recordings of his attached songs by calling 866-444-4216 and asking to be put on hold.