OK, so I’ve told you how I think you shouldn’t write a song, but having been critical, it’s now time to put up an alternative way of going about the task and being a bit more constructive. Instead of the tired, cynical, “song factory” approach to song writing, what’s another method of helping a new artist make their breakthrough, without making them feel artistically smothered?
This blog is about my suggested method for increasing the effectiveness of pre-production and setting forth a framework for thinking about the song that is being written. The process is all about ideas; both how to generate them and how to sieve them. Ultimately, the process is about producing a quality song that has longevity. This might not be the only process possible or even the best process, but I am pretty sure that it is an alternative to the usually described song writing processes and for that reason alone, might be useful to refresh your own creative juices.
Here are my starting assumptions:
1) The new artist is going to be stuck with this song and this sound for their entire career, if the breakthrough actually happens. The fact of the artist potentially needing to remain comfortable with the song for a relatively long time deserves considerable respect and pause for though.
2) Pre-production pays dividends. I am assuming that the artist and song writer have done their homework and prepared for the song writing session by having some musical ideas, riffs, lyric ideas and an artistic direction in mind, long before the song writing actually begins.
3) Let’s make the sweeping assumption that the basic song writing and record production hygiene factors are all in place, as a starting point. We all know how to play the instruments, we know the musical theory, how to record cleanly and how to engineer the mix to sound good. We have some expertise in arranging. That might be a far-fetched assumption, but let’s take it as read that having those factors in place is almost the least you can do for a struggling recording artist trying to make it.
4) The task of the song writer, in this case, is to act as midwife for the new artist’s own artistic identity and statement, not to bludgeon the song to death by stamping their own famous signature sound and production (and ego) all over it.
5) Before you can write the song, the key to the collaboration is that you need to understand the artist and respond to the type of person they are with the song you write.
How on earth do you tell what kind of person the artist is, in only a few short hours?
My theory is that the breakthrough can only really happen if the song you write references the artist’s personal strengths. For the artist to be able to sell the song to an audience, over and over again, they need to be playing to their personal strengths. It needs to look comfortable and authentic. You can’t fake that. All you can do is find out who the artist really is and make sure their best strengths are used to make the song work for them.
Fortunately, there is a very good way to find out what their strengths are and it only takes minutes. Regular readers of this blog will recall that I have spoken before about Martin Seligman’s positive psychology approach and his method of achieving lasting well being described in his book “Flourish”. In that book, he references character strengths and asserts that people that keep their own character strengths to the fore, in all they do, manage to do best and feel the most contentment while doing what they do. Sounds like the basis for a long musical career to me.
Here is a link to the survey that helps you discover what your character strengths are. http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx
The artist will need to take the test, after registering on the site, but in a few minutes they will know a whole lot more about themselves and who they are. The link you need to follow is the one that takes you to the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. The test has been taken by a large sample of people, so the results are pretty reliable.
Here’s a list of the possible character strengths:
1) Wisdom and knowledge – including creativity, curiosity, critical thinking, love of learning and perspective
2) Courage – including bravery, perseverance, honesty and zest
3) Humanity – including capacity to love and be loved, kindness and social intelligence
4) Justice – including teamwork, fairness and leadership
5) Temperance – including forgiveness, mercy, modesty, humility, prudence and self regulation
6) Transcendence – including appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humour and spirituality.
If you want to read a fuller explanation of these strengths, try these links:
Whatever the artist’s particular character strengths are, they must come through in the music. It gives you a guide to lyrical content, subject matter and even to style of arrangement, instrumentation and the type of song you will construct. Somebody that scores highly on courage is going to be a better fit to a heavy metal track than somebody whose modesty is their strongest character trait, for example. An artist that is very humane is not going to enjoy singing a song about making money for the rest of their lives.
Having decided who the artist is and what they are about, the next thing to do (in my view) is to explore the types of sounds that the artist loves or finds fascinating. By this, I mean both musical and non musical sounds. This is where we create the instrumentation in such a way that we aren’t simply copying somebody else’s record, but instead finding the sonic elements from which to construct the song. Have the artist make a list. If they love the sound of a quiet piano, a raucous power chord played on a distorted guitar, spacey sounds, the sound of a babbling brook, whatever it is, capture it on the list and try to find a way to incorporate that sound into the song.
Having decided on those things, you need to find a groove. Loops are a great source for auditioning lots of tempos and beats. What matters, in this process, is watching the body language of the artist carefully. When they respond to a beat and a tempo, their body will begin to move naturally. The dance begins almost subconsciously. When you have found a groove that reaches the artist, you’re in the sweet spot. This is a beat they will feel utterly at home with and comfortable expressing on stage, when they deliver their song. It makes the performance bearable and enjoyable for the artist, over a long career. Because it is attuned to their body’s natural movement and rhythm, it’s going to look good on stage, too, and be infectious to the audience.
By now, you should be laying the foundations of a workable song. Having decided what the artist wants to say and how they want to say it, you need to be thinking about audience response. What is it that the artist wants the audience to feel, in response to their song? Is that going to happen? Often, artists are required to write their own lyrics, but writing really excellent lyrics is as much of an art as writing and arranging the music. Professional lyric writers can often help shape the basic ideas into something stronger and more prosodic. My wife, Clare, has an exceptional talent for making highly metrical, concise and picture perfect lyrics, which carry massive emotional impact, about just about anything (she managed to write an affective lyric entitled “Quantum of Solace” that killed everything I heard, but didn’t manage to get it past the Bond production team’s secretary, unfortunately). Not everyone can do it. Sometimes, leaving the lyric to chance is a bad idea. By no means should the voice of the artist be subverted, by putting words into their mouth, but editing and polishing (which a professional lyricist can do) might be as valuable as adding slick production to the track.
The next check to make on the song under construction is whether or not it contains the elements of songs that the artist likes. I gave a list of elements of music that I like in this earlier blog post:
This is my list, but every artist will have a different list. Ask the artist to list the elements of other people’s songs that they really like and make sure the song has them, or at least many of them. If the artist loves lush vocal harmonies, put them in. If they love a dramatic guitar solo, the song needs one. If the song needs the delicacy of bird song, include it. This perspective check also speaks to the longevity of the relationship between the artist and this, their intended breakthrough song. Often, the song writer will dominate this part of the process, putting in the elements of music that they like, but I think this is a temptation to be resisted. It’s not about the song writer. This is about the artist. Only when the artist has no strong feelings about these elements should the song writer impose his or hers, but in this situation, which one is the artist really?
The song should be nearing completion when you, as the song writer, make some final checks. The first is for musical or sonic cliché. These should be avoided entirely, or heavily disguised, so that they are not recognisable as clichés. The second and final check is the aesthetic check. Having composed and recorded a workable demo of the song, does it pass the Maslow Being Values test? I wrote about this in a previous blog:
Essentially, the purpose of this final check is to see if the song has some sort of authentic and lasting aesthetic quality. The aim is to meet as many of the being values as possible, with the song. To remind you, here is a list of the values the song should try to exhibit:
- WHOLENESS (unity; integration; tendency to one-ness; interconnectedness; simplicity; organization; structure; dichotomy-transcendence; order);
- PERFECTION (necessity; just-right-ness; just-so-ness; inevitability; suitability; justice; completeness; “oughtness”);
- COMPLETION (ending; finality; justice; “it’s finished”; fulfilment; finis and telos; destiny; fate);
- JUSTICE (fairness; orderliness; lawfulness; “oughtness”);
- ALIVENESS (process; non-deadness; spontaneity; self-regulation; full-functioning);
- RICHNESS (differentiation, complexity; intricacy);
- SIMPLICITY (honesty; nakedness; essentiality; abstract, essential, skeletal structure);
- BEAUTY (rightness; form; aliveness; simplicity; richness; wholeness; perfection; completion; uniqueness; honesty);
- GOODNESS (rightness; desirability; oughtness; justice; benevolence; honesty);
- UNIQUENESS (idiosyncrasy; individuality; non-comparability; novelty);
- EFFORTLESSNESS (ease; lack of strain, striving or difficulty; grace; perfect, beautiful functioning);
- PLAYFULNESS (fun; joy; amusement; gaiety; humour; exuberance; effortlessness);
- TRUTH (honesty; reality; nakedness; simplicity; richness; oughtness; beauty; pure, clean and unadulterated; completeness; essentiality).
- SELF-SUFFICIENCY (autonomy; independence; not-needing-other-than-itself-in-order-to-be-itself; self-determining; environment-transcendence; separateness; living by its own laws).
If your song still sounds good after all of these acid tests, then you’re in good shape. If not, at least you have a guide for what to tweak or a framework of understanding, useful for recognising a flaw too serious to correct. In that case, you can (and arguably should) start over. Whatever you do, at least you have subjected your art to some kinds of important considerations that may increase your chances of discovering a real breakthrough track.
All of the above is completely unnecessary, of course, if you fluke a great breakthrough song. Often, artists do and the track is immediately recognisable as a breakthrough, but if you have to work for it, then the above is an alternative way of going about the process, without doing what all the other song writers evidently do.
So if you’re stuck for a song, give this a shot. You have little to lose except time and quite a lot to gain. If you use this method, let me know how it works for you.
Incidentally, if you aim to write something anthemic, which you hope the fans of the artist will chant at concerts for decades, the essence of the anthem is union and inclusion. If the lyrics are not about “us” instead of “me”, you haven’t written an anthem. Chances are that if the word “we” appears nowhere or is not even implied, you don’t have an anthem on your hands. Try it out. We Are the Champions. We Will Rock You. Let Me Entertain You. “Here we go, rockin’ all over the world”. “We’re half way there, whoa oh livin’ on a prayer”. “All we are saying, is give peace a chance”. The list is endless.