The Art of Conversation in Song

(Some thoughts on the idea of conversation as a way to visualise the interaction of parts within a song).

Both music and its production involve various transactions, or a dialogue, or a conversation, between interested parties.

This might be between the artist and the audience at a gig, as the audience responds to what the artist is playing, which inspires the performer to even greater heights. Or it might be between the artist and the producer (acting as an informed audience) while in the recording studio.

Or it might be the artist talking to themselves (in a musical sense I hope) across a period of time – sort of like those emails you can send to your future self. How often does an artist make a musical decision on an ongoing piece of work, only to change things later when they have lived a bit longer and learned or experienced more? This is just a conversation over time.

Or it might be a type of conversation within the music itself. Melody and counterpoint. Call and response. The statements uttered by a brass section or backing singers. The drummer and bass player locking in together for certain fills.

When you look at it in a certain way, a good song is a continuous conversation between all of its component parts. Some bands seem to have this nailed – everything they do just locks together like a big fat intricate interesting machine. Jazz artists do it as part of the way the whole genre works – taking turns to solo for example.

So – does this mean a, shall we say “less effective” song, might be not so much a conversation, as a room full of people speaking at the same time, over the top of each other? Maybe so, and maybe the problem isn’t so much about all the voices speaking, but more about the lack of listening before talking.

Let’s look at the value of live performance. There’s not much doubt that a magic performance will grab us in a way that a more technical rendition of the same song doesn’t. In fact, in the studio, early takes of songs seem to exhibit more of this magic than later takes. The first take, despite much more chance of mistakes, generally has the best overall “vibe”. (And if you’re recording stuff while you’re still writing the song, it supposedly grabs it even before the first official take).

Why are these early takes so good? I suggest that it’s because all the participants are listening to each other. Whether it be for clues as to when the next change is coming up, or to see if they are playing the right notes or are in the correct key, or are locking in to the groove, or whatever it may be.

And listening is not just a component of good conversation – it’s arguably much more important than the talking bit. Because each spoken part of the conversation is a continuous transaction between every other part that is heard, and the conversation can adapt and change as needed. More breathing space is left between each component. By the way – don’t you hate it when people are just waiting for a gap to say something that they’ve been holding on to for ages? Even if it doesn’t fit anymore because the conversation has moved on? That’s not good conversation. Just saying.

Good conversation helps the music move towards that area of “flow” where everyone is unselfconsciously involved and “in the zone”. Where the conversation becomes the thing that everyone wants to keep going – like playing tennis or badminton (or maybe beach volleyball), where instead of trying to win the competition, you really just want to keep that ball in the air for as long as possible. That’s where the fun is, that’s where the magic happens.

Conversation can also have its part in the more sundry technical aspects of song arrangement. For example, how can the sections of a song have a conversation, and what sort of voice would they “speak” in? When you think about it in this way (and really all these sorts of concepts are just handles for manipulating musical ideas) it opens up a world of possibilities for ways to look at an arrangement.

Does your chorus shout in a happy voice while your verse is more of a grinding tortured whisper? Are the drums angry or subdued? Is there a buzz of an annoying bassy mosquito whirring around your head on a song that sounds otherwise like a murmuring summer’s day? Maybe that mosquito is a good thing otherwise you’d fall asleep. Unless that’s what you wanted to happen. Okay I’m stopping there…




I just had one more thought on a related note.

The problem with working solo, or being the only “voice” in your song is this; It’s like a room full of only one “voice”. Yours. It can be a good idea to do full or mini-collaborations with others – even if it’s just to add another voice or two in there somewhere. Of course I don’t mean voice literally – it could be guitar or bass. Or banjo if that’s your thing.



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