Written by Paul Harvey from Splitrock Media Productions.
If ever there were a case of inverse power, then the song writers of today can certainly make the claim. For the song writer is the starting point of every musician’s and music consumer emotional and intellectual journey. A whole billion dollar industry is reduced to one person with a melody and an idea.
We would have no music industry without the song writer. Even for all the instrumentals, and that goes for all the classical enthusiasts out there too, without someone sitting down and capturing the melody and a story and putting it on paper. Without it there would be no music industry.
So what does it take to write a song? Well there are a plethora of books, articles, music magazines, on line lessons and a range of other sources and devices available for the aspiring song writer to tap into. Despite there being all these resources, none of it would matter if there were not two fundamental elements that are common to all who would grace us with their musical offerings. They have an ability to make some kind of musical pattern/melody in their head or play it on an instrument and an array of images and emotions that they want to share. They must also have a compulsion, a deep seated need to share anything from their inner most sufferings to their joy and or whatever lies between these two extremes.
To begin with, before we dive into the nuts and bolts of the song writing process, I think it is important to understand that there are certain conventions that must be respected for any musical offering to be given serious scrutiny. This comes about because those who read and interpret your song will need to understand those ideas with which you have captured on paper. In today’s modern world we also have other electronic means of capturing these ideas that will actually write the musical notation as you play the instrument into the computer.
This means you need to be able to write your song in either musical notation, or understand musical script ie: standard musical text which uses the language of crochets, quavers, bars and time signatures. That being that they are written onto a music sheet with the five lines and spaces that represent the full arena for musical notations. Or you can use another system, commonly attributed to the stringed instruments of a modern non classical format, that being the form of tablature which denotes the finger position on the guitar/bass and its derivatives.
Then there is also the time honoured method of writing the chord structure for the song based on the 7 major chords A, B C, D, E, F, and G, the eighth chord being the duplicate of one of the above but in a higher or lower octave. This makes up the alphabet of music with its attending derivatives. By that I mean the chords being represented in any Minor or major scale or as a sharp or flat or with attending 5ths, 9ths, 7nths etc. in its construction. Without digressing into an essay on musical theory, it does need to be said that the language of music and song, are equally constrained by the need to follow the structure of good literary grammar and prose, certainly if you wish to have any real sense of authenticity in the genre. I am not saying that experimental music is any less valid, just that it is what it is, experimental.
I think the only other form of music that is probably the most ancient and time honoured is singing. It is quite likely that it is the original form of everything that we know musically today. What we can do with just the human voice is both spectacular and amazing, hence the beauty and power of an acapella musical performance.
Ok, so now that we know how to record and interpret a musical sound, melodic or otherwise, we can then attach a series of words to convey concepts, ideas, feelings and information, or not.
Who would have thought that something which appears so simple such as a song could become so complicated. This is never the less true also in that there are many layers to a song that by and large go un noticed by the average man in the street, yet resonate at a primitive level. So without further ado let’s look at song writing both in the light of what it is artistically and what it is practically.
If you stop and consider for a minute, music is used in so many ways that lie outside the simple role of hearing a song on the radio or at your local watering hole when a band is playing. When we consider the social implications of a song and or music it becomes much more significant than we may realise. Music is attached to so many other aspects of our daily experience. If you are shopping, it is quite likely that music will be playing over the PA system. When you get into an elevator and most will be familiar with the term elevator music, telephones that are on hold, your listening to music. We begin to realise that empty silences are uncomfortable at a basic or almost primitive level.
Ever turn the sound off when watching a movie, you almost begin to feel emotionally empty, that something is missing in the narrative of the vision. It reinforces the fact that we do not live in an audial vacuum, our lives have meaning, context, just because we can hear. Consider how many times a climactic cinematic event is preluded by a growing musical score, how the tension is raised as the events unfold. Rarely will you see a commercial on TV without a musical sound track. In fact 90% of commercial radio is about playing music and then the genre of music that the stations plays becomes a defining aspect for the identity of the radio station.
So, music from the position of being an artistic medium offers much in its power to move the listener. It is not uncommon to see tears running down the faces of an audience when listening to certain musical presentations and this is the key underlying fact about music in that, it has tremendous power to tap into the well spring of your heart and bring out our emotions at an intensity that would be destructive in any other circumstance. Because of this it becomes an incredibly powerful tool to alter the state of the mind by how it manipulates the feelings, hence its use in commercial applications. But as an artist it also become a tool of social comment, and never a more true saying “art reflects life” becomes a reality when we consider how much we have written songs to comment on our lives and in all the different aspects of it. From mourning the tragedy and loss of war or famine to the opposite when we celebrate the harvests, our children, and everything between, we have used song to re tell the emotions and the story of our life’s journey.
Ok so that’s the artistic potential of music but what is the practical reality of writing a song.
Firstly we need to understand that a songs construction is subject to the laws of good grammar and linguistics as much as any literary artifice. This means we need to understand the framework of its construction which is commonly referred to as its arrangement. An arrangement can be for both the lyrics ( words) of the song as well as the order in which the instruments are played, either all together or separately or in variations of that mix. This also applies to the structure of the song in its order of how the verse’s and chorus, the bridge, sometime referred to as the middle eight and its attending introductions and endings are played.
With that in mind we find that there are 6 main song structures that are used in song writing, with the understanding that this is a song that is to be sung.
We will look at the most commonly used structures for this article which entails, the musical introduction, opening Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Solo, format for as many verses and choruses that are required and the second one which is the musical introduction, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Solo, Chorus and outro.
The other four other versions of song construction which are used, use such devices as one or two lines of a verse that become the introduction to the chorus, single verse and chorus and then repeating verse and solo structures. I want to focus mainly on the two first mentioned structures as they are the formats that most popular and commercially successful songs are written with. In fact it has become so prevalent that we feel a bit cheated if subconsciously we don’t hear this kind of arrangement. The most commonly used format is the second option.
In this arrangement, Verse/ Chorus/ Verse/ Chorus/Bridge (middle eight) Solo and finish with Chorus, all of this is being delivered within the time frame of between 3.30 to 4.30 minutes and where the first 45 seconds are crucial to the success of the song in that this is where the listener will decide whether to continue to listen or not.
The other dominating aspect of successful song writing is the ability to write for a specific target market, a demographic that has the highest consumption of that kind of music. This usually determined by the age and the gender of the listener. Interestingly enough, the time that music is being played is also a determining factor to its success. Let me explain.
There is a phenomenon in the radio world called drive time, and this is from about 6.30 to 8.30 o’clock in the morning and from about 4.30 to 6.30 o’clock in the evening. This is because that’s when the radio is most likely to be listened to in the car on the way to and from work. Which also means that there is a specific demographic of both age and sex that the music is going to be heard by. Mothers taking their kids to schools, men and women going to and from work and those who are waking up to the next day with coffee in hand, reading a paper and so on. A study was done to identify who was the greatest number of people by their gender and age who were consumers of modern music. It was discovered that women are the highest consumers of music and that the different age groups that listened to music of both sex’s is very definitive in the style of music that is being listened to.
I guess the question that song writer has to ask themselves is with what sex and age do they feel their music is going to have the highest level of acceptance and with which gender it will resonate the strongest. So if you are intending on writing a song either for personal or artistic expression, or if you want to become a serious song writing professional, then there are some very real choices that you will need to make.
They will centre around three major things, The age of the listener, the sex of the listener and the genre of music that you intend to create it with, i.e.. Pop, Rock, Blues, Jazz etc. This is because every song that was ever written, addresses one if not all of that criteria in varying degrees.
There is another element to a song that a songwriter must make a decision about, and in no small way affects the success of the song. This is determined by whether the song is whining about something, preaching about something or venting about something, and the only way that is going to be palatable to the listener is if they couch the words of their song with humour, irony and detail. Because the song is all about you, you the listener and how it makes you feel, hence the need for detail. The intention of a good song is to help the listener identify in some way with the narrative of the song. To be welcomed into the story and to engage with the narrative, engage with the melody, the energy and the mental pictures attached to the lyrics. If you can imagine your song as a mini movie script, then the best songs give you a beginning, identifying the characters, the main reason for the story and how the story ends.
If you think about it there is a very real relationship that the writer is creating between themselves and their audience that hinges on their ability to welcome the listener in, that takes themselves, the writer out of the song and shows the listener what it is the writer sees about them. Because it is the ability of the writer to show us ourselves that makes a good song, great. For those who have the talent and the vision, the musical skill and the passion, then there is no limit to the distance and depth that your song will travel and the lives that it will touch. Imagine hearing your song being played on the radio whilst going to work or dropping off the kids at school, whilst shopping in the mall, and even in the elevator as you go about your day. If they are playing it, you are getting paid.