Life Is What You Make It – The Anatomy Of A Theme Song

It’s GRAMMY® voting season once again!

As NARAS voting members, this is that time of year where we take pride (and serious responsibility) in helping determine which artists/songs/albums, in our humble opinion, are deserving of taking home a GRAMMY® for music released this year.

For the first time in long while, we find ourselves not having a single horse in the race. These past years we’ve been busy campaigning for either one of our own albums or singles, or albums of other artists that we have helped produce. However our sole focus this season is doing some “responsible listening” to hundreds of eligible submissions in categories and music genres that we deem ourselves to have “expertise” and/or familiarity in.

While taking a break from one of the many listening sessions planned for this week, I found myself thinking about one of our own submissions in the movie soundtrack category last year, which sadly was deemed “ineligible” by the screening committee due to the timing of the official release of the movie, as well as the number of songs in the soundtrack.


The title of the soundtrack is LIFE IS WHAT YOU MAKE IT, from the movie of the same name. This short film chronicles the life of Tony® and Grammy® winner Jhett Tolentino  about his journey from the slums of the Philippines to the glittering lights of Broadway as a successful award-winning producer.

Jhett and I were both at the 59th Grammy® Awards in LA where his team brought home a Grammy® for producing the album The Color Purple: New Broadway Cast Recording, and our team with Kabir Sehgal and Herschel Garfein brought home two statuettes for Ted Nash’s album “The Presidential Suite: Eight Variations On Freedom,” though our paths didn’t cross then.

It was more than a week after the event and upon settling back in New York that I decided to reach out to Jhett to introduce myself and congratulate him on his wonderful accomplishment/s. Eventually the conversation led to Life Is What You Make It (LIWYMI), and I inquired if somebody was already scoring his movie, and if his film already had a theme song. He said he had commissioned a composer in the Philippines for the movie score, but never considered having a theme song specially written for this project.

I thought this was a great collaboration opportunity between two Fil-Am Grammy® members, so I offered to dwell on the “theme song” idea for the next couple of days and see what I could come up with.  Jhett happily agreed.

The words came very quickly for LIWYMI, as it was (and still is) a mantra I’ve always subscribed to in my own life and career. I wanted those very words, and not a derivative of them, to be the focus of the song. A “storytelling” format didn’t fit the pop mold that I envisioned for this tune, so I focused on general ideas and phrases that would convey positivity in the face of challenges as I try to relate this to Jhett’s life story as gathered from Wikipedia and information about the film through its Facebook page.

As easily as the lyrics came, the bigger challenge was coming up with a melody that “perfectly” fit those 6 key words as a joyous and triumphant affirmation when sung out loud.

If I could just get that “hook”, the rest of the song can by musical osmosis fall into its rightful place.

Those are the moments when I rely upon the universe to show me the way. For me, it’s allowing my mind and spirit to traverse through where it needs to go before stumbling upon something that musically works – where words and music naturally jive together as one. I “worry” about the technical details later (chords, tempo, style, instruments, etc.) You can tell if something naturally fits, or if something feels “forced”, or if you’re just rehashing old ideas that have been done before. You guard against those moments profusely, for its a natural tendency of your subconscious to pump out something familiar unless you explicitly direct it to explore different manifestations of creativity.

When the “hook” finally came, I knew the song would eventually finish itself. That’s my personal gauge. I have so many unfinished works of scattered thoughts and scribbled ideas on half empty notebook pages because the “hook” never materialized. When it came for LIWYMI, I knew I was a third of the way there.

The next stage in my own songwriting process is reverse-engineering the “hook” to create verses and maybe a bridge to compliment the chorus. You begin work on the first iteration of the Verse + Bridge + Chorus combination. Usually that’s the easy part, even though you still need to summon an inspirational source from somewhere. But the harder task, at least for me, is working on the 2nd iteration of that combination because now you have a template that you NEED to follow, unless you just want to say “to hell with structure.”

The final piece of the songwriting process for me is singing the words and melody out loud. Sometimes the words may make sense inside your head, but in reality when sung out loud, you realize the cadence is off or you have one too many syllables to fit into a pre-determined melody structure.  Or certain consonant-vowel combination just doesn’t sound or feel right. This is obviously a very subjective call, but in the end, you have to go with what “feels” right to you.

For LIWYMI, the first iteration of the V+B+C combination took a couple of days. As soon as it materialized, I quickly did a rough recording of just my voice with no musical accompaniment and using just the Sound Recorder app on my phone and sent it Jhett’s way, just to make sure the flavor and direction of the song was in synch with what he might have in mind. Luckily, he was in agreement with the flow of the song and the message conveyed in this very rough draft.

I think the 2nd half of the song took more than a week to finish. Yup – “reverse engineering” is my least favorite part of songwriting. But eventually, the song was finished. I had a good friend and amazing musical arranger Adrian Morales arranged the music, and after another week I started recording the vocals for the song.

That’s another “painstaking” iterative process that could be the topic of a future blog.

The entire process from songwriting to musical arrangement to vocal recording to mastering  probably covered an entire month for this one song.

In the end, all the hard work was well worth it, as the song garnered some very nice reviews along the way.

Dennis Sy has been wowing us with his combination of observational genius wit and overwhelming musical prowess for some time now.  Here he turns his songwriting prowess to explore the idealized vision of a better life and how to achieve that vision. It is a beautifully crafted narrative that Sy unravels with thoughtful insight. Hence “Life is What You Make It” is a song that not only grabs the listener with a catchy melody and hooks but also opens its bountiful treasures to those who are willing to sit back and pay attention to what Dennis Sy has to say. – Jamsphere Magazine.

Part reminder, part advice – in keeping with the tradition of Sy’s music, much of this song’s success surrounds the lyrics he’s written.  A proven master of imagery and knowing how to perfectly express in words whatever he’s focused himself on – he’s done a great job of taking the overall theme of “Life Is What You Make It” from the film, taking its core message and adapting that into something that can universally apply to us all. – Sleeping Bag Studios

I hope you have enjoyed our little exploration into the songwriting process for LIFE IS WHAT YOU MAKEThe Anatomy Of A Theme Song.

Have a listen and we humbly hope that the song’s message resonates with you and inspires you in ways that fill you with hope and positivity.

Thanks so much for reading.

Always In Music,

Dennis Sy (DSYMusic)


2 responses to “Life Is What You Make It – The Anatomy Of A Theme Song”

  1. GREAT TIMING to revisit this song!!! Thanks, Dennis!

    1. Thanks for visiting & reading Dolly! Missing our Nashville experience 😉👌🏻

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: