Jimmy Webb’s, Tunesmith, is a comprehensive look into the life and realities of a professional songwriting. Cover to cover, Webb shares the ups and downs of his own career. Webb’s love for the craft of songwriting pierces through his story. His frank observations and his call-it-like-I-see-it candor give the book authenticity and put the reader at ease.
In the opening pages, Webb shares pertinent advice into creating a physical and abstract space to encourage writing. He suggest the writer “draw an imaginary protective circle around ourselves and step inside.” He adds that it is important to establish a place of continuity. “We need to be able to leave a work in progress for hours or days at a time and return to find it completely undisturbed.” Webb asserts that the writer should “think of songwriting as work – to set up specific hours when this work is to be done and tough out the feelings of isolation, even use those feelings as raw material.” Abstractly, he notes that “our office spaces are between our ears.”
Webb sets the goal of the songwriter. “We must accomplish our aims and tell our entire story in a time frame of about three minutes (plus or minus). Every word, every note must count.” To give the reader insight into how to accomplish this daunting task, Webb weaves the creation of a new song into the book. The song is titled Problem Child and is first introduced in the form of a letter. This is perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book for the budding songwriter.
With the introduction of his song idea, Webb is able to walk through the journey a song takes in the writing process. Starting out, he affirms the importance of a song vision. “The amateur songwriter’s greatest single failing and one that is immediately obvious to the listener is that the writer does not know exactly where the song is going.” He shares the benefits of finding a good rhyming dictionary and thesaurus. Webb says it is imperative to create a strong hook. “When deciding on a title or a hook line for a proposed song, try to include a key word that offers the greatest numbers of rhyming possibilities.” He also explains how writing techniques such as repetitive rhyme, false rhyme, blank verse, metaphor and similes enhance the song lyrics.
The following four chapters delve into the mechanics of songwriting. Webb diagrams a variety of songs to illustrate song form and function. When explaining the rhythmic pattern of spoken syllables, he explains, “We expect lyrics to behave in a certain way when combined with music.”
Chapter five encompasses writing sessions one and two for the song, Problem Child. Webb begins by working on the lyrics saying, “There are a thousand ways to write a lyric…” He uses the rhyming dictionary to find suitable rhymes for the key word child. After several re-writes, Webb arrives at a “good” chorus that utilizes “interesting language. “It has taken considerable effort to get this far and perhaps the reader is not used to making so much fuss over one lyric but most successful writers are at least this persnickety and perhaps even more so.”
Chapter six begins with a brief explanation of basic music theory, including diagrams of the scales of the major keys, augmented and diminished intervals, minor scales, skips and variations. This sets Webb up to teach the reader how to write the melody and chord structures. “It is a smooth blend of adjacent and “skipping”tones that creates beautiful tunes.”
Webb encourages the reader to be creative when writing chord structures. “Practice until you can invent and invert any major chord at will.” He adds, “Many different combinations of chord progressions can be devised to fit the very same melody.” Webb continues the in-depth analysis of writing chord structures and progression in chapter seven. He calls chord structures, “the foundation that lies under the form on any song…”
In Chapter eight, Webb adds a tune to his song Problem Child. He begins by creating a pattern of chords that “create a mood and tempo”. This leads to an analysis of how each syllable of the lyrics is stressed and sung. Webb defines this as the rhythmic profile that will help shape the melody. He admits that he does not know “why a composer will or should choose one note over another” saying that it is entirely subjective and “seems to originate in the source of my emotions.” He goes on to note that in a good melody “chosen pitches tend to accent the important words at their highest point.” Webb also includes a list of ten things to keep in mind when writing melody. The chapter concludes with Webb’s Problem Child written in its final form.
The final three chapters move away from songwriting techniques and into Webb’s personal experiences. Chapter nine opens with Webb’s thoughts on co-writing. “You have to be able to absorb the criticism and understand that in the end everything has to please everybody.” Webb reaches outside of his own experiences and includes the perspectives of other songwriters on the act of collaborating.
In the tenth chapter, Webb discusses the difficulty of breaking into the music business. This chapter dates the book a bit because it was written before the explosion of the internet. However, it is interesting to read how Webb describes the “Players” in the theater business, jingle business, conventional publisher/songwriter relationship, Nashville’s Music Row, and Los Angeles. Interspersed throughout his own story, Webb includes interviews with artists from their respective segment of the music business.
In the final chapter Webb discusses a broad scope of the hardships of a songwriter’s life. He speaks of how the songwriter is paid for his work, including performance and mechanical royalties. He also touches on copywriting, writer’s block, and the emotional toll songwriting takes on a person.
 Jimmy Webb, Tunesmith (New York, NY: Hyperion, 1998), 22.
 Ibid., 23.
 Ibid., 23.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 52.
 Ibid., 54.
 Ibid., 94.
 Ibid., 137.
 Ibid., 153.
 Ibid., 171.
 Ibid., 189.
 Ibid., 217.
 Ibid., 255.
 Ibid., 260.
 Ibid., 291.