Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Treatise on Songs

My friend Jane Eamon is writing a book called "The Songwriter's Journey." The book will include reflections from a variety songwriters on a variety of questions. So a few months back, she sent me a list of questions to respond to. This is an excerpt of my response to her. I will be posting more excerpts over time.

What is a song? On the surface, it’s words sung to a melody. Simple enough. But songs are complex creatures that work or don’t work on many levels. On a musical level, songs have melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structures. They can follow or break musical conventions, they can be at different tempos, and in different time signatures. They can mix tempos and time signatures. A song can change key, or visit other keys and come back to the first key. A song can musically draw on or refer to other songs or styles. The music can be discordant, harmonious, energizing, melancholy, driving, simple, complex, funny, touching, sexy, inspiring, or relaxing.

The words can be from the point of view of an object, a person, a deity, or an animal. They can speak from first person, second person, or third person. They can be about nothing. They can be about everything. The lyrics can be playful, happy, sad, personal, technical, angry, old-fashioned, modern, spiritual, or thoroughly common.

The song can have rhymes. Or not. Techniques like onomatapoetry, alliteration, internal rhyme may or may not be used. The words might be concrete. Or they might be abstract. The meaning might be ambiguous, or it might be totally transparent. Metaphor and simile will certainly be there, but they can be more or less obvious, used in different ways, mixed, or not.

The words can “match” the melody in tone or feel. Or they can be juxtaposed. The song form can be simple or complex. There can be an introduction, verses, refrains, choruses, bridges, tags, and codas. There can be a lot of repetition, or very little.

Songs can serve a higher purpose, or they can be just for fun. Or both. A song can evoke strong memories, be a powerful tool for change, make you cry, inspire you to shake your booty, or get you into bed with someone. Songs can reflect and express the hopes, desires, fears, and triumphs of a person, or of a whole community or culture. They can be created in situations of incredible adversity and oppression. They can be of the moment, or they can strike a chord that lasts centuries.

So how do we go about creating these miniature masterpieces that we call songs? I think the answer will be different for every songwriter, and in a way, one of the tasks of the songwriter is to figure out what works for them and go with it. What’s right for me might not work at all for you, and vice versa. Discovering the tools and methods that help you create your best songs will be a lifelong journey if you choose to follow that path.

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