Movember Man-isms Part 1: Physical Health

I’m a creative and intellectual guy first and foremost. I’d much rather be writing songs, playing piano, reading, watching great movies, and learning new things than going for a jog or doing a workout. I feel like this is hard wired in me, so I have to hack my way to engaging in physical activity. Bit by bit, I’m appreciating more and more that it’s as essential to my being as music and other activities. Well, not as essential as music, but hey, I’m learning, and that’s the important thing.

Who’s got my back?

I remember way back in high school, a bunch of us, and by us, I mean my math and science geek friends, mostly non-athlete types, thought it would be an easy credit to continue taking gym class after Grade 9. We had no sense that exercise was good for us; we simply wanted an easy class next to advanced math. I distinctly remember being taught a section on “Wellness.” We thought it was utterly hilarious that there was academia behind making sensible decisions about being active and eating well. After all, we were teenagers, and therefore invincible. Nothing could possible hurt us. We biked to school, we spent lots of time outdoors, and ate mostly home cooking. What was the problem? Certainly my enthusiasms at the time were mostly intellectual and creative; the physical would take care of itself.

I started having back problems in my mid-20s. Spending countless hours in an office, at a computer, no doubt played a critical role. Many visits to the chiropractor later, the pain always returned. I took up yoga and pilates (the “For Dummies” series on DVD were my instructors), which did help, but only when I was working out consistently.

Only this year, I happened to meet a personal trainer, and thought it was time to try something different. Keagan Campbell tailored a program to my specific needs. My only goal was for my back to stop hurting; I had no interest in developing a six-pack or increasing bulk.

I think the big change in my attitude was to accept that I can’t do this myself. For something like physical fitness, I have no expertise. DIY is great for many things, but this isn’t one of them. I need someone to tell me what to do, and that’s perfectly fine.

I’ve learned a lot from Keagan, feel stronger, and visit the chiropractor much less. Both my chiropractor and my wife have told me my posture is better and I look stronger. Keagan’s approach is also learning-based, so I can eventually become self-sufficient.

At the same time, I know that if I push myself too hard, I hurt myself and lose my motivation to continue. The whole “no pain, no gain” mantra just doesn’t apply to me. I had to ensure Keagan developed a program that pushes me, but not too much. Slow and steady wins the race, indeed.

When I do the workouts myself, I usually take in a podcast so I feel like I’m feeding myself intellectually too, and it feels less boring. When Keagan is working with me, we spend rest times talking about Star Wars, so that’s cool too.

Doctor says…

We hear time and time again that men don’t go to their doctor for routine check-ups. I guess the stereotypical reasoning is that we can muscle through anything just fine on our own, and it makes us look weak if we admit something might be wrong. This is clearly a case of guys just making up stuff to try and look better. The fact is, we all age and stuff that’s sometimes out of our control can go wrong.

Besides, for most things, we seek professional help. Auto mechanics, lawyers, contractors, programmers, the list goes on. With all these things, the assets we’re trying to take care of are more expendable and temporary than our own bodies: our cars, our separation agreements, our basement renovations, our digital gadgets. It’s cliché to say it, but also true: you’ve only got one body. And for you smart asses who claim you can get replacements for missing body parts ala Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, most stuff that goes wrong is way more subtle than having your appendages severed, and the replacement is never as good as the original.

I once went in for a physical and both my blood sugar and LDL (bad cholesterol) were a bit off normal. My doctor suggested I made a few minor dietary changes and check back in 6 months. I reduced my red meat and sugar intake (not dramatically), and in 6 months I was back in normal ranges. Is this story more or less embarrassing than having to take pills for the rest of my life because I never had it checked until it was too late?

I am what I eat

I’ve always had a sweet tooth. My mom (and many others) always fed us Indian sweets growing up. I didn’t find out until quite recently that diabetes is rampant in the South Asian community. Couldn’t possibly be all the roti and sweets, could it? I also found out that heart disease is equally bad, and in my genes too. My father had a (mild) heart attack several years ago and his father died quite young from a heart attack.

I’m pretty lucky that I can eat just about anything and not gain too much weight, but even this is not as true as it used to be. Just like my fitness health, I need to take small steps towards improving my eating habits.

In my late 20s, I developed a sensitivity to dairy. It took many rushed visits to the bathroom to figure this out, and in the end, all it took was my doctor saying, “Why don’t you try eliminating dairy for a week and see how you feel?” I think this was one of my first signs that my adult body was aging and changing. I’ve since learned which dairy products work for me, and which don’t.

When my blood sugar and LDL were tagged during a routine blood test, my doctor suggested dietary changes. I took small steps towards better eating; I cut sugary breakfast cereals out and reduced the sugar I take in my tea. When I order a chai latte at Starbucks (not very often) I order it “half sweet” which actually tastes better; more like chai, less like candy. As a couple, we’ve also drastically reduced our consumption of bread and heavy pasta, opting for thinner bread and gluten-free pasta instead. I still indulge the occasional sweet treat, but on average I’ve certainly reduced my consumption of high glycemic foods.

Very recently, I had an unusual day where I had a Tim Horton’s breakfast sandwich (on an English muffin) for breakfast and white pasta for lunch. I felt so lethargic and tired in the afternoon I almost took a nap at work. It’s amazing how different it feels when you fall back into a previous “normal.”


As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental health, physical health, social health, and sexual health.

Movember Man-isms Part 2: Mental Health

Mental health and taking care of your emotions is so essential to everyone. It’s a great feeling to learn about yourself to the point of knowing the things that work for you and give you joy. I’m still on my journey, and have a long way to go, but here are a few things I’ve learned so far.

Second time’s the charm

I find myself saying this truism from time to time: “The second time you try something, it usually works out better.” For myself, this includes marriage.

My first wife was a test case in emotional baggage. Her past was ripe with abuse, family tragedies, and emotional self destruction. My own past couldn’t be more different: loving, stable family life, opportunity, and valuable education. Things started falling apart seven years after we got married (no kids). She started expressing unhappiness, and how I couldn’t fill her emotional needs; incidentally, a revelation that came to her after seeing a therapist herself.

We tried couples therapy for a very short time. Afterwards, I began seeking professional help for myself. I recall my first session, complaining about my wife’s neediness and anger. My therapist turned the tables on me, getting me to see my own responsibility in the relationship. This was my first lesson in cognitive behavioural therapy: introspection, and understanding what I actually had the power to do. This was not easy; it took many sessions, most of which I felt angry at my counselor for not giving me easy answers. I didn’t want to look at my own faults; it was better to put the blame elsewhere. Of course, the truth was that I was equally responsible for the downfall of my first marriage.

I grew up being on the receiving end of care, and while I wasn’t spoiled to the point of always getting my way, I was always supported by family and friends. Hers’ was a life of disappointment after disappointment, always being let down, desperate for someone to take care of her. I too, was eager to be her provider. But I wasn’t up to the task; I didn’t have the skills or the practice to be anyone’s savior. The kicker was that while I so busy trying to be her everything, I didn’t realize that the whole ordeal was making me miserable too. The fellow she cheated on me with made it clear that I wasn’t the guy for her. He’s extroverted (I’m introverted), an enthusiastic smoker and drinker (I’m neither), and party guy (which I am not). I remember talking to my brother about this; he told me flat out, “Sometimes we’re just not able to be what the other person needs.” By 2010, we were divorced.

I think it’s this fear of failure that demotivates many men from seeking emotional support and help. I’m stereotypical in this regard; I wasn’t taught how to deal with my feelings at a young age. For me, I take an intellectual approach to emotional intelligence; tracing the root causes and reasons why I feel the way I do. Where do my insecurities come from? What did being teased and bullied as a child actually do to me? Understanding is the first step toward getting past blaming myself, and getting on to making things better.

Side story

As a bit of an aside, I have a story I love to tell my friends and anyone who’s willing to listen. As I was going through my divorce, someone told me that when any significant relationship breaks down, one person ends up on the high end, and one ends up on the low. I’m convinced I’m on the high.

Sometime after I moved out, I got a message from my soon-t0-be-ex-wife that she had a box of my stuff, and our camping tent, which we agreed I could have. I asked her to please drop it off at my office, as I didn’t want to reveal my home address (petty maybe, but still my prerogative). When she finally got around to dropping my stuff off, I asked her to leave it at the reception desk, since I didn’t care much to see her either. She told me I had to come downstairs to the car, because she has the six-month old in the back.”

I relented and went downstairs to get my box and camping tent, and sure enough, there was an occupied baby seat in the back of the car. When I got back to my desk, I had to do the math. We had been separated for about 18 months. Seems that for all the talk about having kids later, she didn’t waste any time once I was out of the picture. And if the guy she cheated on me with was the father, that’s a big minus, as he was already married with two teenage boys. The patterns of self-destruction she seemed to be so good at were reaching new heights.

Moving on

By this time, I had a better understanding of myself and was acutely aware of how much happier I was to be able to let go of years worth of resentment. By this time, I had vowed to invest more time and energy in myself. I think the idea of being selfish is largely misunderstood. There are two kinds of selfish: the first is deciding to invest in your own happiness, which results in better relationships with others. The other kind of selfish is being greedy and manipulating so that you can only be happy if others around you suffer. Here’s a list of really simple things that I neglected during nine years of marriage, and I knew would make me happier. I followed through with them all:

  1. Live within a 30-minute bike ride to work
  2. Get back into songwriting and music
  3. Be debt-free
  4. Meet new people
  5. Get back into playing tennis

Like any good songwriter, I got a few songs out of my divorce. One hasn’t been fully recorded, although writing this article has certainly got that fire stoked. The other is a song called Brand New Door, and it’s about moving on. My friend Sunny helped me with the vocal track.

I also met my future wife, and suffice to say, I knew from the get go she was a far better fit for me. I vowed to never let resentment build up again, and we’re actually pretty good at talking out our differences. We were married in 2014, which is also the year things started to unravel for me in an unexpected and unceremonious way.

The downward spiral

In late 2013, my fiancé and I were living comfortably together in a rented house in the west end of Toronto. We got a great deal on the place, playing landlord to the upstairs apartment. In less than a year, the owner told us he needed the house back. We were homeless, and ended up moving in with my parents, north of the city. (Incidentally, our first morning at my parents was also my 40th birthday.) My 30-minute bike ride to work was now a 90-minute commute through regional transit, subway and streetcar. This didn’t irk me too much, as I got a lot reading done, and I knew it was only temporary.

In early 2014, we were set to purchase a townhome close to our west-end rental. Everything seemed to be place until, on the day of our home inspection, I lost my job. I had never been fired before. It was sudden, unexpected, and emotionally brutal. I wrote a song about it.

I had no idea why I was let go. The organization I worked for had just undergone an operational and human resource audit. I can only surmise that the consultants told management they were paying me too much for my job. My position morphed into a slightly different one, as I saw on the organization’s website, presumably for a lower salary. There’s nothing quite like quantifying your worth in dollars to take a kick at your self-esteem. Looking for new work proved to be daunting task, as I found myself in a job market where I seemed to have no place.

Eventually, I leveraged a connection I had to land a stable, well-paying permanent position. Of course, there’s a downside. While I have a full-time job, four days a week I spend working by myself at home and one day I week I commute to another city to meet with my co-workers. While working from home is ideal at times (e.g. snowstorm), there are feelings of isolation and loneliness I can’t seem to escape. I know my productivity suffers by not being around the people I’m working with. I’ve tried to find other ways to be productive, by working on personal and freelance projects during lunch breaks and during times I would otherwise be commuting in the city to get to and from an office. As much as I am an introvert, and value time by myself, it’s still a struggle spending many hours on my own.

Finding a balance

So I’ve lost only two items on my “happy” list. I can’t bike to work anymore, and I stopped playing tennis a while back due a knee injury (from playing tennis). That’s not bad. I’ve recently started playing a greater role in my physical health.

I’ve since taken on many music projects, including co-hosting a weekly radio show and podcast, and being in an indie folk-rock band. I’m also meeting great new people through Meetup.com and other venues. I wrote about this a while ago.

I’m happily married. And my mom loves my wife. And my mother-in-law loves me. What more does a guy need?

At times, the future feels very uncertain, particularly with work. I think finding a balance is important, and it varies from person to person. For myself, my hobbies are actually really important to me, and I take them seriously. For everyone, I believe it takes a lot of introspection, and knowing yourself well enough to know what works for you and what doesn’t. We tend to spend a lot of time doing things we know aren’t the best for us, but it’s important to keep everything in perspective, and find ways to ensure you’re content with whatever situation you’re in. I’m trying and I hope you are too.


As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental health, physical health, social health, and sexual health.

Movember Man-isms Part 3: Social Health

Sometimes I have an easier time around women than men. I’d rather talk music, philosophy and health than sports, cars, or tools. Of course, these are just stereotypical interests of the genders, based on conventional views of gender identity. I like to think I’m neither stereotypical nor conventional in my thinking. I’ve been told, only by women, that I think like a woman. I presume this means that I’m not very confrontational or competitive, I’m gentle, and I’m sensitive. I can go with that.

The no boys club

I was at a BBQ party a few years ago, where I literally knew nobody there except for my now-wife, then-girlfriend. I found myself in the backyard, sitting in a circle of friendly strangers, a mix of men and women. One by one, the men left the chat and eventually I was the only guy left. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but I do remember that a bunch of guys came back, and the women all left. The guys carried on about home renovations, as I recall, to which I had nothing to say. This is not to say stuff like this happens all the time, but in this instance it was spelled out pretty clear to me.

I recently got a Fitbit, naturally after my wife got one. I don’t use it to anywhere near its full capabilities, but it does help me keep on track with moving and getting my steps in. For Movember this year, I set a goal to walk 201 km in the month – there’s only a couple days left, and it looks like I got close, but not quite. The social part of Fitbit is your list of Fitbit Friends – people you know who also have Fitbits, and you can compare your progress against them and either get encouraged or discouraged.  Most of my Fitbit friends are women, and all of my active Fitbit friends are women. Does this mean that Fitbit is a girl thing and therefore I shouldn’t use one? No, of course not. I tried it, I like it, it works for me, and I rarely go a day without it now. That tells me it’s good for me, and that’s all that really matters.

I don’t want to suggest that I only hang out with women. Some of my best friends are men. Every week, I co-host a radio show with two other guys. I’m in a band with three other guys. The key here lies in the content; even with the guys, we’re generally not about sports, cars, or beer.

“Sister in my soul”

There’s a song by the Canadian band Rush called Animate, from their 1993 album Counterparts. The song talks about the presence of the female psyche in the male mind, based on the theories of renowned psychologist Carl Jung. If the verses and chorus didn’t spell it out clearly, the bridge of the song states it plainly:

My counterpart – my foolish heart
A man must learn to rule his tender part
A warming trend – a gentle friend
A man must build a fortress to defend

It’s the moment you believe that gender itself is largely a social and cultural construct that you give yourself permission to break the rules. We’re not wired to like sports, cars, and GI Joe; it’s society and upbringing that makes it feel that way. As with all my “man-isms” I think it’s better to discover your own path and decide for yourself what gives you joy.

Even in areas of stereotypical “man-ness” I tend to go soft. I used to play tennis, and I found the guys I played with hit really hard. It got to the point where I hurt my knee trying to return a particularly forceful stroke. For a short while, I was meeting a female co-worker after work for some casual tennis; in this context, I was the one hitting hard, but it turned out we were a good match for each other. Sure, it wasn’t as brutal as playing with the guys, but I got a good workout, had fun, and there was a greatly diminished chance of injury. I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone; I only wanted to play tennis casually for both fitness and fun.

I’ve been a drummer longer than anything else I do musically. It’s where I’m most comfortable, and what I do best. I’m totally a rock n’ roll guy, but my drumming is not aggressive or too heavy. I prefer to use nuance, creativity, and attention to detail rather than pound my way to oblivion. I carved out this space naturally, and it feels right. In fact, there’s no voice inside me telling me I need to hit harder because I’m a guy.

Thinking like me

Our culture prefers to put things into small boxes, and gender is no exception. To me, there’s no such thing as “thinking like a guy” or “thinking like a girl”; there’s only thinking and acting like me. Sometimes this is hard for us to accept. We’ve all been brought up to believe the stereotypes, both boys and girls.

For guys, we never learned to talk about our emotions. We’d rather bury them, especially if they’re negative. It takes not only unlearning but practice to move beyond this. I’ve still got much to learn, but I’m lucky that I have a loving wife who I can trust with my deepest, hardest emotions and support me when I’m feeling down. Moving forward, I hope that I can open up this kind of dialogue with my male friends as well. I did reach out to a few friends when I was going through a particularly rough time several years ago (divorce) and it was encouraging. It’s amazing what happens when people, whatever their gender, become more open and trusting with their feelings.


As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental healthphysical health, social health, and sexual health.

Movember Man-isms Part 4: Sexual Health

I was brought up to believe that any discussion about sex was so taboo, that this belief was never even expressed; it was just strongly implied. So this topic, even to this day, is a tough one for me to talk about. Sometimes the ceilings that are built for us as children are hard to break past. This ceiling is not even glass; for a long time, I couldn’t even see what was beyond.

OK, enough with the architectural metaphors; let’s get to some childhood events that helped shape who I am today.

My Sex Education

When I was in Grade 7, I was entering a class with my buddies and to this day, I can’t even remember what we were talking about, but we were carrying on the way that 12-year-old boys do. I made some kind of a gesture in a random direction; I believe I was imitating the “Walk like an Egyptian” dance from the Bangles song of the same name. Turns out I unknowingly gestured towards one of the prettiest girls in our class, whom I had never even spoken a word to. For the weeks and months following, I was relentlessly teased by my friends and others about how we had a secret relationship. The lesson learned here was to forever be cautious and never express myself without careful consideration, especially in a physical way like a silly 80s dance.

My dad was a big fan of the 1983 movie Trading Places, starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy, for its hilarious rags-to-riches-turned-upside-down story. We always watched the edited version on cable TV. One day, probably when I was about 12 or 13, he rented the videotape for us to watch together as a family. Naturally he didn’t know about the part when a topless Jamie Lee Curtis joins Dan Aykroyd in bed, because it got edited out for TV. My dad grabbed the remote control, stopped the tape and fast forwarded it for several seconds, mumbling something about my mom’s eyes hurting so we needed to take a break. Now, I was at an age that I knew this was utter silliness; surely they knew I had seen far worse in movies already. But I was also at a young enough age to not call him out on it, since talking about sex was totally taboo. And what did I learn from this experience? It only reinforced the taboo belief in my mind that anything sexual in nature was to be kept secret and not talked about with anyone.

In early high school, a friend of mine invited me over after school, like we had hung out many times before. But on this day, he had two girls over at the same time, who I didn’t know. He raided his dad’s secret stash of porn videos and we watched one together. I felt incredibly awkward the entire time, and excused myself afterwards. Even into my teens, sex was still taboo and I had no idea how to behave in this kind of situation.

Simply talking to girls was frowned upon when I was growing up. In high school, I had many friends who happened to be girls, but no girlfriends. The American comedian Hasan Minhaj summed it up perfectly in his excellent stand-up routine Homecoming King: (I’m paraphrasing) “When you’re a kid, it’s like, ‘No talking to girls!’ And then when you’re 30, it’s like, ‘Why can’t you talk to girls?’”

Many years later, I ended up marrying the first girl I really had a relationship with, which as it turned out, was a mistake. In hindsight, I realize that most things don’t work out the first time I try them; why would an intimate relationship be any different? I talked about this on my Movember Man-isms Part 2: Mental Health article. I stumbled through our first sexual encounters, and managed to learn through trial and error (not terribly uncommon, I realize). Today, I’m happy to say I’m in loving, healthy relationship with my second wife.

Fantasies and consent

Maybe it’s my lack of experience, but I feel like even my fantasies are on the cautious, careful side. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into the details. For those readers who are hoping I would, I’m glad I don’t know yours either! But this point has been solidified in my mind recently, with the recent #MeToo movement: fantasies are supposed to be fun and pleasurable; for me, there’s no fun without enthusiastic consent.

Another childhood incident resurfaced in my mind after #MeToo began making headlines. Around Grade 7, I was in the public library with a few of my friends, and somehow the discussion got around to sex, and they were teasing me that I had no experience. Today, I wonder if they actually had much at age 12. One of my friends told me, “You wouldn’t even know what to do if Madonna walked in here right now completely naked.” It’s true, I didn’t know what to say to that as the boys continued to laugh at me. I do remember thinking I would probably cover her up with my coat, because why would she be strolling in here naked? But I didn’t say that; I was embarrassed enough without making it worse.

There’s a special kind of rapture when there’s enthusiastic consent. So yeah, even in my fantasies, there might be hesitation and verbal or non-verbal foreplay, but always a strong willingness to get it on.


As part of my Movember 2017 plan, I’ll be blogging about four aspects of my man-isms throughout the month. I’m far from the stereotypical “guy” so the stuff I have to say is perhaps a little outside the norm. I’ll be sharing my thoughts and experiences with mental healthphysical health, social health, and sexual health.

How to use the Circle of Fifths to write songs

I know many of you don’t care for music theory. It’s clinical, it’s boring, and it sucks the soul out of songwriting. Well, news flash: you’re using music theory whether or not you intend to. For myself, I know my theory pretty well, as I learned it at young age. I couldn’t tell you if I’m playing in a Mixolydian or Phrygian mode, though, except that it’s fun to throw “Phrygian” into normal conversation.

Case in point: the Circle of Fifths (the Circle). Download a hi-res copy here. I’ve been asked before if a certain chord progression is an example of the Circle of Fifths. The question is missing the point. The Circle of Fifths isn’t a technique like modulation or chord substitution. It’s a way of understanding the essential elements of western music: the notes, the intervals, the chords, and the relationships between them.

It’s the relationships between chords that make a chord progression. Referring to the Circle of Fifths can help you discover interesting chord progressions, particularly when you’re stuck for what the next chord wants to be.

Just like clockwork

The Circle looks much like a clock. Just like there are 12 hours on a clock, there are 12 notes on the Circle. (If you haven’t downloaded a copy yet, you’ll want to so you can refer to it as you read the rest of this article.)

Moving clockwise, each note is a fifth above the last one. A fifth, as we know, is the third note of a major or minor triad (3-note chord), and the fifth note of any major or minor scale. For example, the C-major chord is C-E-G. The G is a fifth above C, and one “hour” past C on the Circle of Fifths. Similarly, an A-major chord is A-C#-E. The E is a fifth above A, and one segment after A on the Circle. This pattern holds true for any starting point on the Circle of Fifths.  And it comes full circle; if you start on C and go up a fifth 12 times, you’ll be back to C.

But the Circle can also be used to represent chords. The outer circle refers to major chords, and the inside circle to their relative minor chords. Remember, the relative minor is always the VI chord in a major key.

For example, in the key of C-major, the 6 major and minor chords are:

I Chord II Chord III Chord IV Chord V Chord VI Chord
C-major D-minor E-minor F-major G-major A-minor

How many songs in C use a variation of these 6 chords? Many popular songs use only 3 or 4 of them. Now look at the Circle of Fifths. The chords touching the C-major are the other five major and minor chords in the key of C major.

Just like the notes, this hold true for whatever key you’re in, or your base starting point on the Circle. In the key of G, all the chords touching the G correspond to the other major and minor chords in that key.

There’s also a great youTube video that explains this well, specifically for guitarists.

Get experimental

Developing a chord pattern based on the six major or minor chords is tried and true. Even if you use the I, IV, and V chords in your verse and chorus, you could try starting with the II, III, or VI chord for your bridge. All the notes you’re using belong to the scale you’re in—i.e. you’re never going out of key.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever used a seventh chord. That’s the one that sounds bluesy or jazzy. It’s called a seventh chord because it’s a major chord plus a flattened seventh note. That is, the seventh note of the scale is taken down by one half-step or semitone. That note is out of key, technically, and it sounds Phrygian awesome (see? It works).

The point here is that going out of key is cool. It creates musical interest, adds tension and can really open up a song.

So how does this relate to the Circle of Fifths, you must be asking? Say you’re writing a song in the key of C-major, and you’re using the tried and true chords—the ones on the Circle that touch C. If you want to extend a little, say for your bridge, or heck, the third line of your verse, try a chord that’s “two hours away” from C. So, try a D-major, B-minor, Bb-major, or G-minor.  Just like the seventh chord, these chords have one note that’s out of the base key signature or scale. The other two notes of each chord remain grounded in the base key signature.

If you want to experiment further, try the chords that are “three hours away” from your I-chord. Once you start introducing chords that have two notes out of key, things start sounding weirder or more dissonant. The trick here is to stay grounded in your home base. It’s fun to travel to strange and exotic places, but it’s reassuring to come back home soon.

And of course, this holds true right around the clock. You can start on any chord and you’ll have five other chords that are guaranteed to work in consonant harmony with it. Try chords that are 2 or 3 hours away from your base, and things can get interesting.

A fine example

The Beatles were masterful at creating interesting changes in the songs without compromising catchiness. In other words, they did some weird stuff without making it sound weird.

Take A Hard Day’s Night as a fine example. The A part starts with G-major, F-major, and C-major. Even though it starts with a G-major, the section is clearly in the key of C-major. The G and F are either side of C in the Circle of Fifths. It’s very consonant (i.e. not dissonant). The second half, however, things start to shift. They introduce a D-major chord (“things that you do”). The D is “two hours away” from C. They quickly return to the G-C-G pattern they introduced at the top to finish off the section. It’s like you’re walking along the curb of a street, and just for a moment, you step on to the road (maybe into a puddle), then right back on the curb.

In the B section (“when I’m home…”) they shift to a B-minor. This is a great contrast for two reasons: it’s “two hours away” from the base C-major, and it’s the minor flavor (it’s also Paul taking the lead vocal from John). By the end of this section, they’ve returned to the D-major chord that we’ve heard before.

The twists are both subtle and noticeable. There’s no mistaking the B section for anything else when it comes in. They always return to base fairly quickly.

Light a new path to songwriting

I co-wrote a song called Light Your Way with Adi Aman for our band Beige Shelter. We released it in May for Mental Health Awareness month.

Download the chord/lyric sheet here.

The verse, pre-chorus, and chorus all remain in the E-major key with no dissonant chords. The pre-chorus introduces the F#m chord which wasn’t used in the verse. For the guitar solo section and bridge, we flipped over by “3 hours” to the C#-major chord. By the end of the bridge, we’re back on B-major which is perfectly consonant with returning to E-major for the final choruses. Sometimes when you step far away from your base key signature, it can be tricky to get back to base.

Writing with purpose

I don’t deny that sometimes you just stumble upon some magical moment when you’re writing; you don’t know why it works, but it sounds cool and different, and you go with it. For myself, I’ve been trying to embrace my intuition for writing more recently. Knowing about the theory doesn’t destroy your intuition; in fact, I think it strengthens it. If you practice writing with purpose enough, you’ll begin to forget the reasons you make excellent snap decisions, but you’ll make better ones and feel more confident that they’re right. Keep on writing.

7 ways to bring variety to your collection of songs

When writing a collection of songs, whether for a album release or in general, we sometimes end up playing it safe and resorting to tried and true motifs and ideas for every song.

For myself, when I become a fan of an artist or band, I like to hear a variety of songs. Sometimes the differences are obvious, like a ballad vs. a rockin’ out song. And sometimes, the variety comes in more subtle ways—-ways that only looking closer reveals. Your audience will know something feels different and unique, but only the more discerning listeners will know the how and the why.

More than likely, you’re already doing some of these “7 ways” — they are by no means truly unique ideas, as my examples of popular songs will show. Some of them may not work for you, and this list is by no means exhaustive. Hopefully, looking at these will spur on some more ideas. So let’s get into it.

One: Play with the structure

The typical verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus structure is a go-to for many songwriters. But you don’t have to look any further than the Beatles for excellent examples of structural inventiveness. In I Feel Fine, for example, the title occurs at the end of each verse. Then there’s a “B” section that almost sounds like a bridge, until it repeats later, and then maybe you can call it the chorus. Who knows? And more importantly, who cares? It’s all catchy, the title is clear, and the changes are frequent, regular, and interesting. They did something similar with A Hard Day’s Night, and we argued about discussed it on an episode of Song Talk Radio.

When you play around with structure, the parts of the songs sometimes defy conventional nomenclature. Call it a bridge or a chorus, it doesn’t matter; it’s merely semantics. Sometimes it’s more effective to use terms like “A section”, “B section”, and “tag.”

Sometimes the narrative you establish can inspire an unconventional structure. For my song, Depend on Me, I established a narrative with three distinct parts: an easy going afternoon drive, a car accident, and the aftermath. This structure inspired me to begin the song with a simple verse chorus, verse chorus, then a bridge (for the accident) and a completely new section for the aftermath.

Two: Write a song with very few or no perfect rhymes.

Rhymes are usually an integral part of any song in a popular medium. If there’s anything most genres have in common, it’s rhyming. More “pop” songs characteristically have lots of perfect rhymes. At the other end, folk songs tend to have fewer perfect rhymes.

First, let’s talk briefly about rhyme types. Perfect rhymes are pairs of words which have both final vowel sounds and final consonant sounds the same – e.g. space / race, moan / cone,  exemplify / diversify. Assonance rhymes have the same final vowel sound, but different final consonant sound, and the result is softer – e.g. lost / cough, graze / lake, policy / bakery.

The tricky part might be writing a song that minimizes perfect rhymes. Fast Car by Tracy Chapman comes pretty close, using mostly assonance rhymes to end her verses.

For my own song Hurting. Choosing. Learning, I managed to get through four verses and two choruses with absolutely no rhymes, and writing the verses as haiku poems to boot.

Three: Do a few songs in 3/4 or 6/8 time

This one is fairly common, but still, many songwriters fall back on the ubiquitous 4/4 time signature.

Before I get into examples, let’s go over what time signatures mean and how they work. Time signatures are normally expressed as two numbers (four-four, six-eight, or three-four). 4/4 time is sometimes called Common Time (go figure). The first number, or the one on top, is how many beats there are in one bar or measure. The bottom number represents the note division of the beats. So, if the bottom number is 4, the song is counted in quarter notes. If it’s 8, it’s counted in eighth notes (half the duration of a quarter note). It’s far less common to see a 2 for the note division.

For example, 4/4 time is counted as “1,2,3,4” in a moderate pace. 6/8 time is counted as “1,2,3,4,5,6” where each beat is about half the duration of the quarter notes. Of course, tempo plays a big part in exactly how fast the song is; the note divisions are relative to each other and also represent rhythmic emphasis—i.e. most of the time, there’s a strong emphasis on the “1”, otherwise known as the downbeat. In 3/4 time, the emphasis is usually on the 2 and 3, and in 6/8 time, the emphasis is usually on the 1 and 4. You can usually focus on the kick drum and snare drum hits in a song to indicate the stressed beats.

Compare the songs Wrapped in Grey by XTC and I Go To Sleep by The Pretenders. See if you can identify which is in 3/4 time and which is in 6/8 (hint: in the chorus of Wrapped in Grey, the snare hits on the “2” of every other measure).

Four: Treat your title differently

Many songwriters write from titles, which is a great way to get your song moving in a focused direction, and sticking to that focus. Sometimes the title is a phrase, at other times, a single word or pair of words.

Context is important here – does your title stand alone, or is it part of a larger phrase that maybe connects it with the verse or pre-chorus? Take note of your collection of songs; do you stick to one way of singing your title?

Consider Billy Joel’s song The Stranger. In this song, the “stranger” shows up frequently but it’s always part of a larger phrase in the verse. There’s a catchy “B” part which might be called the chorus, except that the title doesn’t show up there.

Contrast that with a song like Layla, where the title is the main hook (apart from the classic guitar riff), tops each chorus and melodically stands by itself.

Then look at the classic rock song Closer to the Heart by Rush; here the title is a full phrase that ends each verse in a verse-refrain structure (there is no chorus).

You can examine just about any song and note other ways in which the title shows up. Consider melody, narrative and what it might mean if the title was incorporated differently. For example, often when the title shows up as part of a larger context or phrase, the song is following a verse-refrain structure (see tip One above).

Five: Try a song with a quiet / small chorus

Where is it written that your chorus has to be the “big” part of your song? Typically, your chorus has a melodic center change to a higher, more expansive and catchy melody. But in Pretty Good Year by Tori Amos, the chorus is the most understated part of the song. The melody goes nowhere, it’s dynamically quieter, and very simple. The bridge is the section that takes on more characteristics of a chorus, expect the presence of the title and refrain (multiple repetitions in the song).

For a different example, check out the song Pretty by Miggs. The verse has a good amount of melodic range, and is fairly resolved. The chorus (“If it’s worth it..”) has more tension and less melodic range. Similarly to Pretty Good Year, it’s the C-section of the song that takes off with the catchiest, most energetic part of the song (“It takes a lot of steps…”). Call this part the post-chorus, maybe.

I took the “quiet chorus” approach when writing my own song, Brave DaughtersIn this case, the chorus lyric was more reflective and less direct than the angrier verse lyrics, so it led me to treat the music with a lighter energy.

Six: Open a song with your chorus

Opening your song with the chorus is a great way to give it a great kick off, particularly if your chorus is catchy and tight. This works usually when your chorus expresses the central theme of the song, and it doesn’t spoil anything to give it away up front. If you’re used to working in a double chorus at the end of your songs, this is an opportunity to keep that a single, lest you have too many choruses in your song.

A couple of good examples are We’re Not Gonna Take It by Twister Sister, and All About the Bass by Meghan Trainor. (Note: The song doesn’t kick in until over 2 minutes in We’re Not Gonna Take It, but that first couple of minutes is classic music video satire at its finest.) In both songs, the opening chorus is treated more like an introduction, with lighter arrangements than the full-blown choruses that come later.

Seven: Try a different mode in a song

I’ve saved the (arguably) most complex tip for last. Using different modes assumes you know about scales and key signatures, but after that, it’s fairly simple. Customarily, we begin a chord progression on the I chord of the key we’re playing in. But what about starting on the II chord, or III chord? Doing this imparts a subtle tension to your song, and especially works well if you resolve to starting your chorus with the I chord.

Try playing a major scale using the same notes but going from the II tone to the II tone. For example, the Dorian mode in C major would go like this:

D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D

You would also stick to chords in the base key signature. So in the the key of C major and the Dorian mode, this would mean you start your chord progression with a D minor. Famous songs in the Dorian mode include Scarborough Fair (made popular by Simon and Garfunkel), and Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles.

I tried this myself in a collaboration I did with my friend Shari Archinoff, called Winter Without You.

Note that the special, unusual chord progressions start with the II, III, IV, or V chord. It’s very common to start with the VI chord, known as the Aoelian mode or natural minor—just think of every song starting on A minor and using C major, F major, and G major.


You can also combine any of these tips into a single song. Please comment below about any of these 7 ways you’ve used, or about other tips you have for adding some variety to your collection of songs.

Do you write songs from the heart or from the head?

Often on Song Talk Radio, this question arises.  Sometimes, it’s fun for the hosts to try and guess.  “Your song sounds very cerebral,” or “Your song sounds very intuitive.”  The guests themselves tell us how well considered every decision in their songwriting process is, or tell us “It just came to me.”  This question of process in creative endeavour is as old as the creative endeavours themselves. On Blair Packham’s show, he talked about his own journey on both the intuitive and the cerebral roads.

Most songwriters and musicians know the history of the Beatles.  In the early 60’s, before they were famous, they played for hours every night in clubs in Hamburg, Germany.  They learned their chops, got better at harmonizing together and playing tightly together.  Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book Outliers, describes this as the 10,000 hours rule: practice anything for 10,000 hours and you’ll be an expert.  The Beatles played more shows in a few short years than many contemporary bands play in their entire career.  Gladwell uses evidence-based examples to show that the most successful people are those who put in the time.

In another book, Blink, Gladwell champions the subconscious mind as a powerful decision maker, and how little information can be beneficial in making positive, snap decisions.  He cites such examples as fine art experts who can spot a forgery at a glance (and can’t explain how they know they’re looking at a forgery) and orchestras who hold blind auditions to reduce conscious biases.

So let’s bring this back to our central question.  It may be possible that songwriters who feel they channel their songs from some outward source, may in fact be so well practiced they make decisions in a “blink” and rely more heavily on their subconscious experience to guide their songwriting decisions.  “That chord progression just felt right.”  On the other hand, some songwriters are deliberate and conscious in their writing, and know the reasons their songs work the way they do.

I recall clearly learning to play the drums many years ago.  I started with simple rhythms on a single drum, and practiced many hours to coordinate my hands and feet on a drumkit.  The moment I could successfully coordinate kick drum and snare hits with a running cymbal rhythm, something in me clicked and I’ve never forgotten how to do it, no matter how long it’s been since I’ve last played a drumkit.  These days, I don’t think about it – I just follow my subconscious to feel the beat and play along.  If I’m playing in an unusual time signature, like 5/4 or 7/4, I need to engage more of my conscious mind.

I think the same applies to songwriting.  As songwriters, we can rely on our ability to “blink” and know if a songwriting or performance decision is the right one.  However, we can also study more conscious tools of songwriting to change things up, overcome writer’s block, and think outside the boxes we have created ourselves through our experience.

For myself, how do I answer the question of do I write from the heart or the head?  Historically, I’ve been a head-dominated writer, but lately I’ve been “consciously” relying more on my snap judgements, and perhaps surprisingly, they’re mostly right.  So, like everyone else, I’m somewhere in the middle.

Let us know how you look at your own process.  Do you write from the heart or the head, or both?

Song Talk Radio articles

I’m a regular contributor to Song Talk Radio’s blog and newsletter, with writing original content on topics of interest to our songwriter audience.

Check out my articles at the Song Talk Radio website.

What does it mean to be an “amateur” songwriter?

On Song Talk Radio we have a wonderful variety of guests and songwriters, and one way to group them is whether they are professional or amateur songwriters. Often, when we refer to amateur, there’s a negative connotation that implies a less polished, unsophisticated, or otherwise lesser craft. When we talk about being professional, it implies a polished, well-considered, or elevated craft.

However, if we consider the word amateur and its inherent meaning, there’s a better way to look at it.  Amateur is derived from the Latin amatorem, which means “lover of.” So, if you love writing songs, you’re an amateur. This doesn’t say anything about the quality of your writing. Surely, many guests on Song Talk Radio, both amateur and professional, are superb songwriters.

Of course, there’s a caveat. Those songwriters who have devoted their careers, either full-time or part-time, to songwriting and performing, tend to have more polished and carefully considered songs. But consider if this is because they are “professionals” and earn money from their songs, or because they have made a decision to approach their craft with commitment, seriousness, and time.

Also consider the advantages of being an amateur writer. You don’t have to answer to anyone, or consider if your songs are “radio-friendly.” You can take risks, be experimental, and pretty much do as you please. (Another caveat – yes, there are commercial songwriters who can and do pretty much as they please and still sell records.)

The bottom line is if you love what you’re doing, you’re an amateur. You can still put in the time and commitment to polish your craft, and above all, embrace your amateur status with passion, integrity and creativity. Keep on writing.

Evolution of my home recording studio

I recently purchased a new audio interface for my studio, after the mic inputs on my old one starting giving me static or no signal at all. I thought it would be interesting for others to see how I went about making the choice of which interface to buy, within the framework of the evolution of my studio.

So, even though I starting making MIDI-based instrumental music on my computer back in 1988 on a Commodore Amiga 2000, I didn’t really get into audio recording until around 2002 on my first Windows-based PC. One of the first purchases to be made was an audio interface.  At the time, I had a Roland D70 synthesizer, a drum machine, and (potentially) a microphone. I knew that I only needed to be able to record one track a time into the software on my PC. The first thing I learned was the difference between consumer-level “audio cards” (e.g. Soundblaster) vs. professional interfaces.  Primarily, the professional ones allow you to more effectively record audio while playing back audio at the same time. This is essential for any multi-tracking studio.

I opted for an M-Audio 24/96 interface, which was really just a PCI card with 2 RCA inputs, 2 RCA outputs, and MIDI in and out jacks. I fronted the interface with a 12-channel Behringer mixer with an Alt-bus (or submix bus). This allowed me to send only the keyboard, or only the mic signal, for example, into the M-Audio to be recorded on the computer, while still using the mixer to listen to playback from the computer and my keyboard.

Understanding this flow of signals, both MIDI and audio, was essential to making the purchasing decisions. Suffice to say, I figured out exactly how I was going to connect everything before ever laying down a dime. (Incidentally, this process also allowed me to know and purchase only the cables I needed.)

Over the next few years, I slowly expanded my studio to include monitors (speakers) and a couple of guitars. The extra inputs on the mixer made it easy to patch any of these extras in and use the alt-bus to send each one to be recorded on the PC.

The home studio, circa 2006
The home studio, circa 2006

Of course, as with most budget-gear, the Behringer mixer started crackling and hissing with static after a few years of use. At this point, I figured a multi-input interface would be a good idea. This would allow me to eliminate the hardware mixer entirely, thereby simplifying gain staging and improving signal path quality. I opted for an E-MU 1820 in 2007, which had a digital PCI card and a “break-out box” with 2 mic inputs and a few analogue inputs. Of course, it also had MIDI I/O.

By this time, I had sold off the old Roland D70 synth and got a CME U7 keyboard controller and a Roland JV-1010 sound module on eBay. This, together with the plethora of virtual synthesizers on the computer made my old Roland seem very quaint and limiting. I also gave up on the guitars (instead investing in killer guitar software).The EMU interface served me very well for several years. I attached the Roland JV-1010 and another drum synth to the other inputs. Theoretically, I could record up to 8 tracks at once, but the opportunity to do so never came up.The one limitation with the EMU was the lack of a dedicated output knob. I ended up picking up a Mackie 402-VLZ3 mixer which was used as a glorified volume control and mute button for my monitors, and in a pinch, I could also use its mic inputs if I needed.

Finally on to my latest setup. On July, I purchased a Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 interface. While my old EMU allowed me to record up to 8 tracks at one, the Focusrite only allows 2. I figure if I hadn’t needed more than 2 inputs in the last few years, chances are I’m never going to. It has a dedicated volume knob, so I no longer need the Mackie mixer. However, my Roland JV-1010 has nothing to plug into (previously it plugged into line inputs on the EMU). This is not such a big loss, as I haven’t used the Roland in several months, since software synthesizers and samples are getting better and better.

The Focusrite is wonderfully simple. The only driver interface is to set the latency buffer. No software mixer panel, no built-in effects suite, just pure input and output. I picked the 2i4 model over the 2i2 model to have the variable control over the input vs. playback monitoring, and I thought I could use the extra outputs to feed into my Mackie, but didn’t end up using them. Plus I prefer to have real, old-school MIDI connections rather than USB for my keyboard.I did also check out the Presonus 44VSL interface, which has 4 mic inputs, for a possible future when I might actually need to record more than 2 tracks at once. The Presonus was more costly, but quality-wise felt and sounded about the same as the Focusrite. However, I was unable to get the latency for software synths to work – it was quite bad, in fact. I chose to shop at Long & McQuade, who offer a 30-day no-questions-asked return policy, so the Presonus went back and I kept the Focusrite.

So I think the take-away message here is to really examine your needs, do your research, and make informed purchases. You don’t need to spend a fortune to get good quality sound. If there’s one truth to the evolution of my studio, it’s this: the longer I do this, the simpler my system becomes – in other words, fewer parts. Part of this is the fact that newer computers can handle more of the workload, so your outboard gear can be pretty minimal, but part of it is also understanding signal flow and boiling your setup down to the essentials.

The studio earlier in 2013
The studio earlier in 2013