The 6 Ss’s of Songwriting
Songwriting is a very subtle art form that takes years to master — and is one of humanity’s favourite inventions. To the ‘non-musical’, songwriting can seem like magic. Like a prophet, the artist goes within and returns to the community with inspired messages that render the others speechless. Unable to fully explain this miraculous ability to clothe melody in meaning, the artist takes on a holy shimmer as do all voyagers between worlds.
Yet at its heart, songwriting a formalised kind of expression that anyone can learn. Songs translate feelings and thoughts into a sonic medium much like speech. Just as everyone writes their own sentences, so anyone can generate a unique melody to hum on the way to work — but writing great songs takes practice, technique, and a generous sense of playfulness. With enough patience, anyone can take up the challenge of exploring their feelings with art. Empowering and accessing new perspectives within, we become our own shaman.
Let’s break down what makes up a song:
Songwriting begins with the improvised performance of a new idea. Say a new song is being jammed on guitar and vocals. This choice of instruments is a huge factor in determining the basic sound of the song, and voice + guitar is a classic sound. It is a good idea to have synergy from start to finish in a song’s sound, as if all the sounds combined to create a single sound for your song.
The sound of a song is the first thing one hears as it blasts out a car window. The trumpeting vocals, the wobble of bass, the texture of padded chords harmonising the chorus. In the first analysis, the listener has no time to recognise the song and may simply treat the it all as a single sound, not pausing to disassemble the song at all. “I like it!” one might say.
The shape of a song is communicated through the repeating melodies and dynamic swell of the piece. Out on the street as the car is driving away, you recognise the lead vocal from the song is actually the Bee Gees — singing the chorus from ’Stayin’ Alive.’ Even as the car departs the scene you start to hum the rest of the riff, having long ago memorised the shape (structure) of this song.
The shape becomes a huge factor in determining the identity of a song. For example, what can we do with a song that stays at 99% intensity the whole time? Sounds great for party track but it’s probably not so great over dinner. What about a song that peaks and falls like the seasons, the sun and moon? Sounds good for a ritual performance, probably not the choice for action films. In the end most of our society’s favourite pop songs are shaped somewhat more like the Sydney Opera House — the more interesting, the better.
The sense of a song is the distinct feeling each song possesses; its meaning. In ‘Stayin’ Alive’ we know explicitly what the Bee Gees are talking about — survival of the sexiest — and the song feels a bit like what it’s talking about. In contrast, the meaning of an instrumental song is vague and difficult to penetrate, instead leaving feelings like melancholy or hopefulness. Music itself is open to interpretation, and so it can speak to our emotions without labelling them.
The Songwriter’s sense is a tool for examining your creations and making sure they feel right. Every song has a feel to it — and during composition it’s best to return to this feeling over and over again to make sure the emotional charge of the piece stays around. Make sure the song makes sense, even if only to you. By pleasing your own songwriter’s sense, often you will please others.
Most people have a very developed appreciation of style in their music listening habits, however the actual process of interpreting style takes the human brain into deeper analysis of the sounds in question. Production value, chord progressions, melodic patterns and arrangement methods are all places that stylistic traits that shine through recorded music — and people are very quick to identify a song that clashes with their stylistic appetite.
Style is very useful during the writing process, as embracing style entitles you to use special moves as tricks of the genre. During a big band Eurovision number you might expect to have an awesomely bombastic key change — in fact you’d be remiss not to consider one! It also allows you to do something expected of a ‘real’ song — whatever style you do, do it well.
The stage is where the song is performed and shared with audiences and friends. For unfamous musicians this often includes: on the street busking, at festivals, venues, even the bathroom mirror or the midnight chorus. Different stages have different requirements from performers, as music is received differently in a hushed living-room concert to mainstage at Glastonbury. One might often hear an original song played by a busker on the street and think, ‘oh, that song deserves a bigger stage.’
Picturing the stage for your song can help during the arrangement stage of composition. After all, why fly blind? If you can imagine exactly the experience you want to summon from your stage show, you can almost hear the kind of music you’d have to make to get there (and keep yourself happy). Note, however, that music is always better when it comes out naturally, so try not to twist your creations too hard to suit some image of what you’re trying to achieve — allow yourself to surprise and enjoy yourself, and surprise your audience too.
The study of song brings awareness to a songwriter’s choices. Although arm-chair inspiration brings a whole lot of new melodies into the world, the echoes fade away unless someone determines to play the tune again. Keeping yourself accountable does wonders for the songwriting process — and without this effort few songs will be finished, let alone performed! Most resistance comes from a fear of self-examination — for what else are we studying but our lives and our world?
Songwriting takes consistent and considered effort, and only becomes a habitual activity once it has been learned and practiced many, many times. To attempt to finish the last verse for an old song requires the same kind of commitment that an athlete shows when they’re training. You might not always feel like writing a song, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. If you’re serious about writing songs, you’ve gotta push through the parts of the journey when you’d just like to ignore it. You’ve just gotta keep writing — the songs are waiting.