Sunday, July 29, 2007

On Songwriting: Limitations and Opportunities - Part Two

So, what do I mean by limitations? I’m not talking about your shortcomings. (And we all have those.) I’m actually talking about structure. Specifically, song structure. More specifically, verse structure – those very precise patterns that we impose upon our music. ABAB, ABCB, AABB, etc.

Let’s pause and remember two things: 1) Back in my Blog “Mechanics – Part One” I remember that when I started writing songs at the age of 13 I had no rules. That is to say, I hadn’t learned about structure. Songwriting at that time for me was fun and easy. Of course it was – there were no rules! I was creative and wild and doing anything I wanted in those songs. Sometimes it produced good results. By accident. And not often. I did have an innate sense of rhythm and rhyme so things usually worked out. And I’m not saying that I shouldn’t have done that. Everybody’s gotta start somewhere, and everybody’s gotta write crap, and everybody’s gotta have that learning curve. As far as I know, all writers, in any literary discipline, spend a lot of time writing schlock that nobody ever sees, at every stage of their career. It’s part of the process. And, of course, creativity is good. I encourage creativity and wildness and going beyond the ordinary in your writing. But, 2) also back in that blog, I said that you have to learn the rules in order to bend them, stretch them and break them.

Sometimes, one’s attitude can alter perception. You can look at a structure, know you have to work within it, and view it as something that limits you and your creativity. If you have an ABAB structure, for instance, you know that every other line has to end with a rhyme (the A lines rhyme and the B lines rhyme). And, depending on your structure and time signature, etc., you only have so many beats in which to put your rhymes and get your message across. I call it “economy of word.”

(Most Western music, especially pop music, is divided into segments of eight beats in some way. It might get counted as four or sixteen, but it always has something to do with eight. There are many people more qualified than I to teach music theory, so this is as far as I’m willing to take this thread. But try an experiment: turn on the radio to any station playing modern music – Pop, Rock, Hip Hop, Alternative, Folk, Country – and listen to any random song. Start counting. You’ll see, or hear, that everything divides neatly into eight. Note: don’t try it with Jazz, Broadway, or Post-modern. And in the Folk and Country genres you may occasionally get something in three, but that’s the exception.)

Trying to fit everything neatly into a structure can be frustrating. And it can be (should be) challenging. But “challenging” is a good thing. You should be determined to rise above challenges. They should push you in a positive way. I’ve taught myself to look at what could be viewed as constraints instead as creative challenges, as opportunities to stretch my creativity. How can I say this in the most effective and most poetic way, using only the words I need to use that will fit into this structure? Economy of word. Refer to my essay “Wasted Words.” Every word is important. You cannot afford to waste any.

I approach it as if it were a puzzle. And it actually gets very exciting. I love the feeling of finding that perfect fit. It’s a triumphant moment. But, like a puzzle, you can't force the pieces to fit. They have to fit naturally, organically. It has to feel right. I’ll create a scenario, based on fact, to illustrate:

I’m working on my song “Edge of the Ocean.” I don’t have the title yet, but I know it’s going to be based on an image that someone put into my head. A teacher, referring to teachers who come back to school in the Fall and have to start over again with students who don’t retain information over summer vacation said, “it’s as if Moses kept getting to the edge of the Red Sea, but had never been able to cross it.” Hmmm, good image.

Right around the same time, I’m reading some Torah commentary about the story of Abraham and Isaac. The author points out that at the moment when Abraham held the knife over the tied and bound Isaac, in those seconds before he became aware of the ram, the fate of human history hung in the balance. The entire future of Judaism rested within Isaac. Had Abraham not noticed the ram and plunged the knife, there would likely be no Jewish people (and thus no Moslems or Christians). Hmmm, another compelling image.

Can these two ideas work together? What can I say in this song with these images? What’s my message? The thought process begins. (See “Wasted Words, Parts One and Two.”)

I have this riff I’ve been playing around with, maybe something will fit. I start playing around with the riff and some chords. I start singing some words. “Are we standing at the edge of the ocean…?” What was that image? Trying to get across, but can’t. Frustration. “Are we standing at the edge of the ocean / just to keep our feet upon the shore?” OK. That’s strong. That’s my A and B line. Do I want to go ABAB or ABCB? Well, what rhymes with ocean? “Devotion” is a pretty cool rhyme. But can I make it work without being corny or trite? Let’s see. I’ve framed the first line as a question. Maybe I should carry that through. “Are we holding close to our devotion…” “Close?” How about “tight.” “Are we holding tight to our devotion / in our grip…” Yeah, “tight” suggest “grip” and that’s a good pairing. What rhymes with “shore?” (I go through the alphabet, I use rhyming dictionaries.) Lots of things rhyme with “shore” but nothing is jumping out at me as a strong rhyme, as a way to end my next line. Hm, too bad. “Shore” is a strong word and creates the image I want. But let’s see what happens if I change it…need a synonym…“land?” “…just to keep our feet upon the land?” What rhymes with “land?”

The process carries on until I end up with:

Are we standing at the edge of the ocean

Just to keep our feet upon the land?

Are we holding tight to our devotion

In our grip or is it slipping through our hands?

It’s a pretty strong quatrain. And the melody is also strong, so far. Now, there are a couple of other things to point out. I had the opportunity to employ some internal rhyme: “grip” and “slip.” In the line it’s not a perfect rhyme, but it’s in there. And listen to the feet, the accents, the buoyancy it creates. “In our grip or is it slipping through our hands?” Also, because “hands” is plural and “land” is not, it creates an imperfect rhyme. But it’s close enough. I’d rather sacrifice that bit of imperfection for meaning. And as a sung lyric, it’s a barely noticeable sacrifice.

So, now I’ve got an ABAB pattern. But my verse is far from complete. I need another section. I’ll spare you the internal monologue, but I break the mold a bit and come up with three lines that rhyme. So, in effect, I’ve got an A section and a B section which all together forms an ABABCCC pattern (don’t look at how it’s laid out on paper, count the beats):

Are we standing at the edge of the ocean

Just to keep our feet upon the land?

Are we holding tight to our devotion

In our grip or is it slipping through our hands?

Have we been brought to the edge

Never to have crossed?

Had we entered the desert

Never having gotten lost

Would we still fight for freedom

No matter what the cost?

Now I’ve got my patterns and structure established for the verses. I’ll stick with it through the rest of the song. I’ve imposed a limitation – ABABCCC. Now, all the verse need to follow that formula. But it’s not a limitation. It’s an (all together, now) opportunity. An opportunity to use your skill with words and wordplay, and invent the best possible lyric for the situation within the structure, economically and poetically.

Turn those negatives into positives. “You can’t do it that way” really means “OK. Then I’ll do it this way. And It’ll be even better.”

It’s a good life lesson, too.

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