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On Songwriting: What’s the Purpose of Writing Songs?

For a long time I never considered this question since making up tunes and singing along to them – relying totally on serendipity – was a childish habit I developed as soon as I was big enough to hold a guitar. This was long before I asked why anyone did anything. Only later in my early teens did I slowly become aware that writing songs could be a medium for something called “self-expression” – but I think I saw it as equivalent to others who might choose sport or some other recreation or hobby. Only much later, when writing and playing became my sole source of income, did I concern myself with the purpose of the songs – the “why?” of the songs. I no longer wrote songs for their own sake – songwriting became a means to an end. Then later again, when I quit touring and playing for a living, I wondered what purpose there would be in continuing to write songs since the means no longer had an end.  Habit? That wasn’t enough. So I decided to stop.

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Too Much Introspection?

Lurking around online guitar communities one’s bound to come across a variety of opinions on this, that, and the other to do with the best example of this and the best way to do that. It’s all excellent fodder for contemplation and is occasionally informative. Most of what one reads is, though, borne out of ingrained prejudice or the recycling of received wisdom, or reiteration of some pronouncement of this guitar god, or that. This exchanging of views is commendable, no doubt, but fresh insights or genuine authoritative advice is rarely found – particularly for free.

As ever, the most productive time is spent alone in serious study and objective (insofar as this is possible at all) consideration of one’s output. To honestly and objectively appraise the progress of a song under development is a piece of voodoo that I’m only partially successful at practicing. Criteria to use in judging the success of a song is a prerequisite to the process, but is more difficult to arrive at than it might appear at first glance. Consider:

What are the aims of the song? To sound “good”? If so, to whom? The writer? An audience – real or imagined? A prospective publisher / artiste / producer? To an aunt or uncle? Posterity?

Or is the purpose of the song to make money? If so; what is the target market?

Or is it intended to be a piece of art of purely aesthetic value only without reference to commercial appeal or admiration of an audience small part of a magnus opus defined by your entire songwriting output – whose mere existence is its own justification.

Or might It could be written as part of a strategy to charm the pants off some girl? Or is it going to be another page in a musical diary recounting your thoughts, dreams, experiences, hopes, joys and disappointments as you make your own way through the days.

Or could Its purpose be catharsis, or to have some other therapeutic value? A safety-valve less you do some awful deed? Ha! Ha!

Or could it be a means to emulate or imitate a hero / heroine? A three-minute dreamscape in which you can “be” your idol? A means to escape the horror of the hum-drum day after day after day?

It doesn’t matter if, like me, you took to songwriting as a child without thinking or questioning and just did it as naturally as eating and sleeping. With self-awareness and learning about bad, good, and better – and pu-leeease, don’t tell me music is all about personal taste – you will make value judgments about your output. About form and content; about design and execution. So it would be better if we had a clear idea about the purpose of all this effort into writing songs. Without knowing this, how can we judge how successful we are? Because, for sure, different qualities are needed for songs serving the different purposes I mentioned above. And, yes, although I was drawing caricatures in these descriptions I will still assert that clarity of purpose is needed.

“Ah,” (you might say) “but I have to write songs. It’s what I am. I am a Musician. It’s innate. What else is there to say? Thinking about all of what you suggest would do nothing but unnecessarily complicate the process. It might tie me up in knots and even inhibit my songwriting. I would rather not interrupt my free and natural musical outpouring, thank you very much!”

OK. So be it. Rock on.

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Songwriting – wherefrom the songs?

Sometimes I’m asked at gigs and catches me off guard. It’s always a difficult question to answer succinctly to a stranger, and causes me to stutter and stammer incoherently. “I’ve always done it”, is as lame a reason as it is true.

But to me it’s all rather obvious since it’s an internal life that gets externalised through the act of songwriting. More accurately, its expression is stimulated by the act of simply noodling on my guitar without the intent of writing a song being present at all. But once the gears are engaged, so to speak, then whatever store of resource that resides within seeps up like some osmosis into my consciousness.

What does crop up which is caused by the stimulation affected by simply improvising (say) on chords and / or melodies based on scales will depend on a multitude of unrelated events in my life – contemporary and historically. These “events” can be superficially trivial or deeply personal or even completely impersonal. I’ve written a song about a cowboy after watching western TV shows.

The extent to which they are autobiographical spans the whole spectrum from not at all to almost journalistic.

Some songs are borne out of empathy and portraiture as distinct from being vehicles for self-expression. Other songs are more concerned with the sound and expressiveness of the language used than with the meaning it conveys. Yet others are a means of catharsis. Others still are long-winded and overblown ways to tell a joke. Whatever kind of song comes about is caused, not intentioned.

What is an anathema to me is to go into the studio for the purpose of writing a new song. I don’t do that. Sometimes I will go into the studio for the purpose of trying to finish a song that is already underway – in fact, without that discipline no song would ever get completed! Coming up with new stuff – they can’t yet be called “songs” – is unconscious in the first instance.

To a future stranger, who asks, I may well shrug and say that I can’t remember: I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid and that’s a long time ago. It’s a habit – no more; no less.

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Noodling with form

One of the effects of my listening to so much classical music (particularly symphonies) is that I appear to have developed an ear for forms such as rondo, sonata, minuets, etc. Out of curiosity, I’ve also read a little about the historical development of these forms. Even more curiously, I’ve been pondering how they might be exploited in my writing.

For example, I’ve been noodling around for a couple of years (yup, a couple of years) with an extended tune that includes a verse and a refrain. The interesting feature for me is that it moves pretty seamlessly from the minor tonality in the verse to the major in the refrain. Now, with a little bit of imagination – or flight of fancy – this combination could be construed or reinterpreted as a “sonata exposition”! A school form of the sonata may be written down as follows:
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Noodling with words

As I wander from internet forum to bulletin board and back again, I come across certain topics that come up repeatedly like the sunrise. One of these is a question about the relative priority of music or lyrics when it comes to songwriting. If I pipe up and post a reply it is usually a minor reworking of what I’m always moved to write under such circumstances.

My replies are along the lines that I consider words and music equally important. More than that: I find words to be musical in their own right; their rhythm, the ability to mess with syllable emphasis, alliterations, and so forth… Colour, mood and other quasi-musical qualities are no less applicable to words.
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Songwriting: On the use of early fragments

I’ve writ elsewhere (all over the world wide web) that I picked up the guitar at an age too early to learn anything proper like an extant piece of music. I was simply interested in making twanging and snapping sounds. I had no loftier ambition than to disturb the peace in our home. It’s true that I had some competition from my mother screaming at my father and slamming doors while they raced from room to room hell-bent on redefining the meaning of dysfuntionality. Nevertheless, I could punctuate brief times of truce with my brother’s guitar. I was a contended little lad.

When this random noise migrated into something more harmonious, I can’t really recall; but I do remember having the guitar placed across my lap and discovering the root position E minor chord and it’s adjacent neighbour on the fingerboard (which I suppose is an A minor ninth chord). So I would alternate these two chords in a strict 4/4 for hours, until my mother couldn’t stand it any more banged me across the head with her hand.

I think the neighbourhood in general was pleased when my brother showed me a few more chords. I wonder if he thought that the fact that these new ones needed more than two fingers to execute would act as some sort of deterrence because, if so, he was bitterly disappointed. Anyway, I plowed on regardless.

The development of any sort of musical profiency was a random affair and was punctuated by my need to use the guitar as a means of defence from time to time when my brother would, for reasons I still cannot fathom, chase me around the house promising murder and mayhem. The “boing” as the guitar bounced off his nut at the conclusion of the chase had a very satisfactory sonic stamp to it which these days I would ascribe to a guitar with mahogony back and sides, an ebony bridge, and scalloped bracing. But, back then luthiery was not my main concern. Escape was.

No sounds I made in these times evolved into any approaching a cogent piece of music, but the seeds were scattered in my soul. I did begin to learn some American folk songs from a chord book my brother had lying around and I had a couple of friends at school with whom I practiced some Beatles’ songs. But it was Bob Dylan who pointed out the obvious solution for a boy with an acoustic guitar. All I needed was a few square feet in the corner of a room, to be left alone, and be fed once in a while.

I never suffered from acne or any of the other hormonal complaints of adolescence. I put this down to the musical venting and pouting I was able to indulge in, thereby providing an alternative outlet for these irritants. Indeed, some early habits still linger. I used the guitar to complain about my luck with early girlfriends and songs of unrequited lust have been the soundtrack to my life ever since. Indeed, I became so adept at these songs that I would deliberately screw up in the romantic department so I could go home and bleat about it in a song on the grounds that girls come and go but songs are eternal. Or some such rubbish. Anyway, all of these songs should have been consigned to the flames. That I had the temerity to think that any of my output during these years had legs is evidence both of the supreme confidence of the true artist and the self-delusion of dilettante.

So today, when the muse is silent, I entertain myself by revisiting some old fragments that remain from these youthful outpourings. Very occasionally I happen across something that I think has the spark of invention or hints at musical possibilities and I noodle around with it to see if it has any legs. Perhaps more often than I think is decent I slip some forty-five year old chord sequence and melodic phrase into a new song. I could claim that that this helps give my musical life a sort of unity. But I won’t. It’s just my little joke with myself.

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Tourism and songwriting

Last week I was in Italy with my family on holiday and we spent some considerable time strolling around the streets of Rome and Florence taking in the sights. I had decided before the trip that while there I would try and put lyrics to a few songs that I had kicking around waiting for same. Certainly, mulling over the tunes in my head while we negotiated our way through flocks of tourists kept my natural irritibility under such circumstances at bay. I hoped that the benign weather and the intoxicating smells and sounds would provide a stumulus for some creative outpouring. Well, in truth, I did get a song out of it but overall the divertions offered by these fine places were too numerous and sustained to offer much opportunity for serious and prolonged contemplation. Still, I have no regrets; it was a happy and rewarding couple of weeks and I now sport a healthy tan. And I have another song…

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Songwriting – Stirring the muse

Sometimes I’m asked…

Most of the time I stumble across something when I’m working on some experimentation with harmony and finding different ways to change key, or trying to get some weird scale under my fingers. An idea will pop up which I’ll mess around with to see if it’s got any legs. Thoughts of form and structure come a bit later. Thoughts on lyrics come a lot later after I’ve worked out most of the guitar part and often will arise seemingly unbid from the rhythm and mood of the music. I’ll often mumble some “scat” while I’m finding a song melody over the guitar part. I never “hear” a tune in my head – I envy those who do.

Some way along the line I’ll begin to sense if the thing needs a guitar intro and break in the middle, in which case I’ll improvise up something. I’ve got a bad habit of making things up for breaks that are beyond my technical ability to play at tempo which inevitably involves me in lot of practice before I’m comfortable playing it in public or recording the piece. Even then, I’ll sometimes make a hash of it.

If it needs a coda, I’ll make it up at the end. Suprisingly.

I guess all that falls under the heading of “noodling” during which a bottle of Chianti to accompany these processes is always optional. Preferred, but optional.

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Songwriting – a fact of imbalance

Proportionality is a lost cause. I have the curious knack of making my major key output sound more minor than most peoples’ minor key output! It might tell of a deeply troubled nature. I would, there is no doubt at all in my mind, be a deeply troubled individual did I not have the therapy – catharsis, even – of writing songs. I guess it gets it all “out of my system”. If that’s the only point to all these songs, then that’s point enough. Who knows what I would have got up to had I not been “locked away” safely with a guitar.

The truth be told, I’m always too quick to see the down side of a situation and the risks (and not the rewards) associated with a course of action. The sunset moves me more than the sunrise (which I’m rarely ever up and about to see, anyway) and my glass is often half-empty.

Further (and to metaphorically ram the point home with another metaphor), my prediliction for lifting up a rock in a garden to inspect the bugs underneath has always been a habit, and I’ve only recently learned to wait to do it when no-one’s around to see.

Whence many of the songs’ melancholic substrate, no doubt.

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Songwriting – a question of balance…

… between the melancholy and joyful. What the heck? What is it about melancholy songs that they just seem to drip from the fingerboard seemingly without call or effort. Whereas, in contrast, happy songs require the skills of a musical sorcerer. I can sometimes approach a pastiche with burlesque outbursts or strains of manic hysteria, but straight songs of joy or celebration, or – perish the thought – peaceful contentment seem to be beyond me.

So it is hard, when thinking of a CD compilation to avoid populating it with a mixture of hand-wringing, angst-ridden confessions interspersed with laments of unrequited lust and with only with the odd aforementioned hysterical jabbering thrown in for light relief. A genuine moment or two of repose would be welcomed by most, I think. But how the heck do I write a song so contoured? Indeed, without contour? A song so lacking in spirit, momentum and even point that it has all the life of a bank holiday coach trip? I suppose a pleasant song – which such a song must be – is condemned to be just that: pleasant. Not beautiful, poignant, ugly, urgent, resigned, bitter, ironic, exuberent, or even bad. Just pleasant. And unnecessary!

Or maybe these peaceful songs are valued as balm for the enervated souls (one of whom I am on occasion, I daresay). This music of repose is a narcotic which you’d be well advised to avoid. Children: just say “No”!