Songwriting – can it be taught?

I just spent the weekend at a songwriting workshop by Jason Blume. It was awesome.

This is the second one I’ve participated in, and to be honest because I’d helped organise my workplace to host the workshop, I got to go for free.

I’d always been a bit hesitant about going along to workshops and training seminars about songwriting, because I always figured “I don’t want somebody to give me rules that I have to stick to – I want to make my own ORIGINAL music, maaaan” (That last because I’m kind of whining as I think that).

This is also why I resisted learning music theory ;o)

Anyhoo – now that I’ve been to a few of these things, I realise that they DON’T rob you of your unique voice and creative centre – in fact it’s more liberating if anything, because one of the main things that Jason expounds is that there are no rules. You can make whatever music you want, and it’s all great.

However – he is a storehouse of astute observations about songwriting (as well as the music and song publishing industries). So rather than saying what is right and what is wrong, he will point out that most of the popular songs have certain things in common – for example a chorus that has a memorable melody and lyric, and that can deliver an appropriate emotional reaction.

Jason will not tell you how to write your chorus, but he might certainly observe that it doesn’t really sound different from the verse, or that the song drops rather than lifts at that point, or the words or phrasing don’t’t make sense, or something along those lines.

He also makes a distinction between songs written by people for their own pleasure, and those who write for the public – if you are writing for yourself feel free to do whatever you want, if you are doing it for others, then it’s probably good to make it easy for them to engage with, and hopefully remember your song.

One of the most interesting things Jason does is to critique songs that people bring along to the workshop (either on CD/iPod or playing them live).

This is a real eye-opener, as you can see and hear yourself all the flaws in other people’s (and your own!) submissions, especially by the end of the second day, where you are more aware of the aspects to look for.

It becomes obvious that a good song not only has to be a unique, creative and detailed viewpoint of something, but also needs to be well-crafted to highlight its own good points rather than destroy them.
After so many meandering singer-songwriter instrospectives (I’ve been guilty of doing this for many years as well), it’s actually refreshing to hear simplicity and repetition. Half the problem is that everybody wants to be “clever”, and instead they end up with cumbersome and meandering and forgetful.

Last year my own submission, which of course I was sooooo proud of – (then my current latest and greatest!), was exposed as having three different verses that all had different structures, and lyrics that mostly failed to be a unique way to say what I wanted to say. It was true – it wasn’t a bad song by any means, but all you songwriters out there must know what it feels like to play your song to somebody and hear it though their ears as you listen? I was cringeing.

Over the last year I have taken on board a lot of what Jason taught me at the last workshop – I had written what I felt was a much better song – simpler verses, more repetitive, stronger melodies, a great chorus line. But I was anxious about the verse lyrics, having already thrown them all away a couple of times already and going back almost to the original idea. The lyrics still needed a lot of work to create a solid setup for the choruses, though.
A couple of the lines were even the original scratch lines I jammed along to it when I was first writing the song. One line was a complete throw-away and a bit of a joke. “Check one-two”. Whaaaat?

I had hoped to fix a couple of these lines before the second day of the workshop – but some problems with an Apple OSX update corrupted my Logic song session, so I had to submit it as it was.

I actually began to regret putting my song in the submission pile – as the stack grew shorter towards my own disc I grew more and more nervous. “Check one-two!?!?!!” Oh my god, what a stupid line!

Finally, Jason worked down to my own submission. My heart was racing. He put my lyrics up on the projector. There were some snickers and giggles – oh the humiliation!
He flipped the disc in the player and hit play.

Doesn’t sound toooo bad, nice hooky intro rhythm, clean verse lines (Argh those lyrics! Argh I hate the sound of my own voice). Kicks up into the pre-chorus, then bang into the chorus – phew – relatively safe. Then suddenly STOP!!!!!!

Jason cuts the song. He says “There are two major problems with this song”. My blood pressure has skyrocketed, my heart rate is so high it’s like I’ve sniffed Amyl Nitrate and the blood has drained from my face. I’m now sure I’m going into cardiac arrest and I’m almost welcoming the unconsciousness that will soon release me from this embarrasment. I’ve failed again!

“There are two major problems with this song – it’s not on the radio and my name’s not on it”. The room breaks into applause. My friends laugh at me. I manage a feeble “woo-hoo” and a shaky unconvincing smile. I feel a sense of relief – almost like managing to pass my driving test or an exam.
It’s not until later on when we have a break, when people come up to me to congratulate me and teenagers get my email address that I feel like I’ve achieved something special.

I guess for myself, songwriting workshops have been a relatively positive thing so far.

Edit: Oh if you want to have a listen: FallingMix3 by Mr Zeberdee