"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 expert in art 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 quickly 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. Eventually he said: "Sound of Silence?"
"Ah, much better! Okay, think of the intro guitar." Charlie began fingerpicking the first eight notes to the song, the melancholy voicings ringing gently from the steel-string acoustic the woman held on her lap. The name on the headstock said Taylor.
"Such a classic," said John, smiling, 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, keeping the rhythm steady. They didn't harmonise brilliantly together – a fault which John solely 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, but much more rapidly. "Background." Then she sang the intro line about talking with an old friend again, her voice following the familiar melody with great ease.
Damn, John thought, she sounds good. He was intensely 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 said, nodding. "Background and foreground."
Charlie beamed at him, smile lighting 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 started picking the notes again, but this time, when she started singing, she didn't follow the melody. She just stuck to the same note, over and over again, monotonously striking the same pitch as the lyrics danced poetically 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, hair whipping 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 slowly. "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 2, to be exact. Don’t worry what that means for the time being. Now, listen to this." Charlie started fingerpicking 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 started playing 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,” said John, cocking 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 offense, John, but it takes a well-practiced 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 sung the eight rising notes with ease, automatically adding some tasteful vibrato at the end of the octave.
John cleared his throat and repeated the phrase, voice increasing in pitch with each syllable. From the way that Charlie winced, he could tell he wasn’t quite hitting 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, looking 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…” said John, wrinkling 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.”
Squinting at her fingers, John took 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 badly.
“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 actually walk away from this with something half decent. Something half honest. After all, if it’s worth doing… he thought, smiling 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 fairly good, actually. With the help of Charlie, they’d written something that wasn’t too derivative but wasn’t excessively complicated, either. In fact, 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 were moving almost by muscle memory, sliding 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 fairly 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 really 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 started strumming the intro chords, mostly in time with each other, the two guitars chorusing together.
John, a mechanic by trade, began to hum his melody. Never had he considered himself to be an ‘artsy’ person, but he was rapidly learning that there was a great satisfaction to be found 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.
Slowly – as the guitars bounced from chord to chord, as John’s rough but endearing voice traced the melody – like sections of a jigsaw slotting together, the words clicked into place. The lyrics and phrases fell upon him with shocking ease, as if descending from the heavens like rain. As he saw the vague outline of the song beginning 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, John was excited to give his wife the gift that he had prepared.
His voice wasn’t perfect, and on many occasions it cracked or wavered, not quite striking 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 twenty years ago. John thought that this was sensation was rather poetic; coming full circle.
His guitar technique wasn’t flawless – sometimes he didn’t press down properly on the barre chord and a string would buzz like an angry insect, and other times he’d slide up to a note and miss it completely, the clashing sound cutting horribly 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 definitely too fast. He chalked that one up to nerves.
But on those glimpses between chord changes, when he stole a glance upwards to where she sat, his heart did a backflip in his chest. Her hands were clasped together tightly, her watery eyes sparkling in the light, her trembling lips slightly parted and oh so kissable. She was enraptured. Even when he slipped or tripped up, he kept going – wanting that look to remain printed on her face forever. Even when the song tottered on the verge of falling to pieces, he kept strumming on 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.