Wednesday, July 25, 2007

On Songwriting: Limitations and Opportunities - Part One

So, having read my previous blogs, we know that music has structure and patterns. We’ve looked at basic pop song structures, we know terminology and vocabulary (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.), I’ve alluded to patterns like ABAB and ABCB, and tossed around terms like theme and variation. We now have a foundation on which to build.

I won’t spend a lot of time (or waste a lot of words) on definitions. It’s not my intention to make this an essay about how many different structures there are and what their names are, or what exactly is a “foot,” or why I think “meter signature” is a more accurate term than “time signature.” But ask me the next time we’re in a social situation. It’s a great conversation for sucking the life out of a party. There are plenty of text books and websites that cover the terminology and the “book learnin’.”

No, we’ve covered the basics, and built this common foundation so we can talk more about the psychology of songwriting, the emotion of songwriting, the passion of songwriting. As I’ve said before, good songwriting is not just about slapping words together. You may be able to put together a quatrain…sorry…four lines that rhyme, and even have a message in it, but is it compelling? Does it grab the listener? Is there subtext?

One of the most powerful anti-war songs I know is “Christmas in the Trenches” by John McCutcheon. I’ve heard it, and even sung it, many times, but it never fails to stir emotion in me. It’s a rare listening when I end up with dry eyes. (The song really needs to be heard, or read, in its entirety to get the full impact, but for brevity I’ll only cite part of it here.) It’s based on a true story from WWI when, on a cold Christmas Eve, a German battalion and a French battalion, engaged in battle, engineer a temporary truce, play soccer, share chocolates and photographs of loved ones and sing Christmas carols together. By morning each side goes back to its own trench to begin the “work of war” once more.

Now, an inexperienced songwriter might render the last verse like this:

We all know that war is wrong
Can’t we all just get along?
Together we can make it right
We’re all one family, why do we fight?

OK, that was just off the top of my head, and if I were a second grader, it might get high marks. But you get the idea. There is a message there. One may even be able to put a strong melody to it. But is it compelling?

Maybe I can ratchet it up a notch:

In battlefields we’ve cried and bled
In graveyards we have mourned our dead
And the prayers they’ve said for loved ones dear
Could have been said for me, right here

Better. Maybe.

But go back to what I said in “Wasted Words, Part 2” about putting your listener in the song, personalizing it for them, making it real and relatable. McCutcheon framed the song as if it was a story told by one soldier from his perspective. We experience, through his eyes and thoughts and memories very specific sounds and sights, the bitter cold, the tenuous respite from killing and the temporary camaraderie. And he does this all with a steady eye on the poetic. He stays away from cliché and triteness. His last quatrain is this:

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I, I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same

It’s simple. It’s eloquent. It’s powerful. (Especially in context.) So, make the most of your choices. This is the whole crux for me. I’m about to reveal a simple songwriting philosophy of mine that has also served me well as a life lesson: Turn what look like limitations into opportunities. One old cliché might be the one about one door closing and another one opening. Turning limitations into opportunities; Imposing structures and making the most of them. We’ll continue that thread in Part 2 of this Essay.

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