The Hit Songwriting Formula

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Feature Article #4: The Questions Your Listener Wants Your Song to Answer …and Ask

Original article from: https://itallstartswithasong.wordpress.com/2017/06/20/feature-article-4-the-questions-your-listener-wants-your-song-to-answer-and-ask/

For the Month of June the S.A.C. will be featuring a series of articles by James Linderman.

James @ Berkleemusic
James Linderman works at the James Linderman Music Lesson Studio in Newmarket, Ontario, Canada. He teaches guitar, piano, bass and music theory as well as contemporary songwriting and film composition, in studio, as well as over Skype to students all over the world.

 

 

The Questions Your Listener Wants Your Song to Answer …and Ask

by James Linderman

 

Picture the beginning of the film.

The camera pans down from the sky across a hillside, past a statue of Jesus Christ; arms outstretched. Many of us know instantly we are in Rio. The camera continues down the hillside and into the busy city streets where we see modern cars and we know that the film is set in the present era.

We then follow the camera into a coffee shop where a man is siting at a table holding a newspaper up; it covers most of his face but as the camera rises above it, we see, behind dark sunglasses the face of film actor; Denzel Washington. At this point we now know that we are watching a film where a number of people are going to lose their life; primarily because they’ve done something horrendous to someone innocent. In the scene, there are lots of people scurrying about, but one other person stands out and as he enters the coffee shop and sits down across from the star, we realize that this person will feature in the storyline.

If we trace the stages of the opening of this film, we can see that it answers questions in a pattern that allows the audience to feel like they are right there with the characters; not being told the story, but being shown it, as it unfolds.This distinction, in art, is a huge one because the difference between being told something and being shown something is not only a fundamental difference that ignites our senses of both sight and sound but also inspires a greater amount of care for the characters involved. It also helps if everyone involved in producing the art, have worked hard to make it seem as real, or at least as relatable, as possible.

If we follow the storyline written above we can see that, even in the opening scene, a number of important questions have been answered. The first question that is answered is “where”. The filmmaker has made sure that we know the story is taking place in Rio and the famous statue of Jesus Christ does that job. The question of “when” is the next one that is answered. We see the contemporary looking automobiles and instantly know the timeframe that the story is set in. Some smaller time questions may also be answered by it appearing to be morning, afternoon or evening as well and we may even be able to tell it is a weekday or weekend, that sort of thing.

The audience may not even be aware that they are being informed when they are shown, and not directly told, this information, but that is part of the experience of discovery, for an audience enjoying a work of art.

The next question that follows is “who” and we are shown the actor without being told, just yet, what he will be doing and why. We also get to see another character and by his proximity to the star of the film, the audience instantly attaches greater importance to this person as the rest of the actors (waiters, other patrons of the shop, passers by on the street) fade into the background as if they are human props. The longer someone stays on screen and the more they say or do, the more we are led to believe that they will be essential to the successful continuance of the storyline.

“What” is a question that will now be answered, as in, “what will happen next?” and the question “how” will also unfold. Some of these questions can be answered in dialogue or narrative explanation in a film and in that regard they are certainly told and not always shown but shown is the dominant and preferred mode of expression for the movie goer.

As songwriters we can be tricked into believing that because we are expressing our ideas in a song, with the words in our lyric, and not with a camera, as with a film, that our job is to tell and not show, and more pointedly to explain and not describe. It is generally understood that there is language that tells and language that shows. A lyric like, “I loved you from the moment I saw you” is a statement of explanation whereby the lyric, “Indian summer, Abaline, you were new in town, I was 19, sparks flew” written by Dave Tyson, Dean McTaggert and Amanda Marshall from the Amanda Marshall hit song Dark Horse uses imagery and descriptive language to take the listener right there and show them.

If we look at the progression of description in this short piece of writing we can see that it opens with when -“Indian summer”, where – “Abeline”, who #1– “You were new in town”, who #2 – “I was 19” and we get a little hint of what– “sparks flew”. Now that our listener has been taken to the scene and shown the scenario the writer can then get away with some “telling” and start a bit of narrative but mixed with more imagery to keep the listener at the scene.

Often, however a song lyric does not need to provide a setting and is written mostly to explain some aspect of life, some feature that is just the right balance of unique and universally relatable. Having clever and non obvious imagery can be key to making this work and writing consistent to a form is also very important to this kind of song. The song may just answer one single question.Therefore, analyzing a template of an existing song, line by line, can be a great way to grow this skill faster. Certainly much faster than if we just wrote songs till we got this quality of pattern and pacing right.

A song written by Gary Burr, Joel Feeney and Kylie Stackley that was a country single for Lee Ann Rymes called “Nothing About Love Makes Sense”  displays a pattern for the type of application. Look up the lyric to this song online and match it up with this line by line form template. The song asks the listener, “Is love as confounding as it seems, since the world in general also has some puzzling features?

Verse #1

Line #1 – Example of contradiction in the world

Line #2 – Example of contradiction in the world

Line #3 – Example of contradiction in romantic love

Line #4 – Refrain line – Title.

Verse #2

 Line #1 – Example of contradiction in the world

Line #2 – Example of contradiction in the world

Line #3 – Example of  contradiction in romantic love

Line #4 – Refrain line – Title.

Chorus

Line #1 – Statement of wonder concerning contradictions of love

Line #2 – Example of contradiction in romantic love

Line #3 – Example of contradiction of romantic love

Line #4 – Statement of wonder concerning contradictions of love

Line #5 – Statement of wonder concerning contradictions of love

Line #6 – Statement of wonder concerning contradictions of love

Line #7 – Statement of wonder concerning contradictions of love

Line #8 – Statement of wonder concerning contradictions of love

Verse #3

Line #1 – Examples of features of romantic love

Line #2 – Example of contradiction in the world

Line #3 – Example of contradiction in romantic love

Line #4 – Refrain line – Title.

Chorus

Verse#4

Line #1 – Example of contradiction in the world

Line #2 – Example of contradiction in the world

Line #3 – Example of contradiction in romantic love

Line #4 – Refrain line – Title.

Outro

Title repeat.

You could now just pour your own creative ideas into this pattern, knowing that the form will help measure out your lyric message, helping your listener to comprehend it and feel it’s emotional implications to produce the greatest impact.

As mentioned earlier, in this example the lyric sends the listener one unified message, “love is confounding” and asks the listener, (without coming right out and asking them) if they experience love the same way. Due to the universality of loves confusing nature, it is a relatable song to every honest listener.

That certainly seems to appear to be what we want, a relationship with our listener whereby we answer our own questions about life…and love, and we inspire listeners to weigh the value of the evidence our song provides. In great songs it is a terrific conversation.

 

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James is the author of the book series titled “Song Forms for Songwriters” that is based on his primary academic discipline known as compositional abstraction. It is a system for creating new songs from shadowing single elemental features extracted from existing work.
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Disclaimer:   Songwriters Association of Canada posts songwriter related news and events as a resource to members.  Publishing these posts does not imply that the S.A.C. endorses the teacher, product, service, or company.

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