Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Challenges of Songwriting

songwriters-thumbIn some ways, songwriting is similar to other arts, such as writing, acting, or painting.
There are common basic principles. An actor must make a good entrance, employ the proper vocal dynamics, keep the energy level up, and make an effective exit from the scene. A painter must pay attention to color and shading, a writer must strive for clarity and flow.
Songwriters must also “make a good entrance” employ dynamics and energy, end their songs well, and strive for lucidity and flow.
All the arts share the same bottom line: creation. The painter starts with a blank canvas, an actor faces the empty stage, a writer stares at a bare page.
The songwriter also starts with a blank page (before the lyrics are written) and absolute silence (before the music is created).
But there are challenges in songwriting that are not shared with the other arts.
For example, in writing a play, you can have a whole host of characters to speak your words. You can create as many characters as you want. (Maybe not too many, lest you confuse your audience!). In addition, the characters wear costumes to further illustrate who they are, the lighting and sets give your audience a sense of time and place, and the director is there to pull it all together.
In writing a novel, you have the luxury of time. You can spend several pages describing a character to your readers, so that when that person finally appears on the scene, the reader already feels that they know the person. You can spend time describing places, setting scenes, revealing your characters inner thoughts. You can create subplots and digressions from the main story. Is it any wonder that some novels can top 900 pages?
If you’re writing poetry, you are free not to rhyme, and you don’t have to deal with the structural limitation that music can impose.
But what about a song?
Well, here are some of the challenges a songwriter faces:
  1. You usually have two or three verses, a chorus and a bridge in which to put everything, and it probably should not last more than 3 or possibly 4 minutes. In this space you must
    1. Explain everything about your character (or characters)
    2. Reveal your plot.
    3. Develop your story.
    4. Reach a resolution of some kind.
  2. Your only tool is a melody, and that melody:
    1. Must draw the listener in
    2. Must not bore the listener
    3. Must be interesting enough to keep his attention, but not so interesting that he forgets about the lyrics
    4. Must be familiar enough to be comfortable
    5. But not so familiar that it sounds like a rip off of something else
    6. Must be singable!
In addition, if you are a classical composer, you can have an entire orchestra at your disposal, but a songwriter must get his or her point across using a single human voice.
There is a further challenge, which famous songwriter and singer Janis Ian http://www.janisian.com/ calls “invisibility.”
When songwriters play their songs for each other at an NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International) meeting, the songwriter in the spotlight will hand out lyric sheets to the group members before playing his or her song. Then everyone follows along with the lyric sheet as they listen.
In a normal club or concert hall setting, the audience does not have lyric sheets. They will hear every line once, and they have to understand it immediately, before they are forced to deal with the next line. If they have to stop and figure out what the first line meant, they will most likely miss the next several lines, and then give up, and wait dejectedly for the song to be over.
You can’t stop after each line and explain to your audience what it means. You can’t put a long pause in after each line so that your audience can ponder your meaning. (Well, maybe you could, but it would sure make for one strange song!) Sure, you can “set the song up” by talking about it before your perform it, but most audiences quickly grow impatient with this, since they want to hear you sing, not talk.
Finally, you want your songs to be memorable. We’ve all heard songs that seem to “disappear” the second they are over. They’re like a mist or a vapor. There’s nothing there to fire your imagination, nothing that stays in your memory, nothing that makes you want to immediately hear the song again.
What makes a song memorable?
The lyrics have depth. Your lyrics have got to say something worth saying, and in a fresh and novel way. At the same time, what you say has to be couched in a way that everyone can understand.
The music is appealing. You need a melody that’s singable, but not simplistic. The melody needs to provide the ideal setting for the lyrics, and not detract from the message, while at the same time providing interest in its own right. You need a chord progression that ably supports the melody, while providing a pleasing surprise or two.
The best songs are the ones we never get tired of listening to. We can go back to them over and over again, and find something new to admire each time.
With all these challenges facing the songwriter, it’s amazing that any good songs ever get written. But amazingly enough, songwriters produce them every day.
Unfortunately, they also write a lot of mediocre songs as well. If you want to be a songwriter, then I’m sure you don’t want to add to their number!

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