I’ve been writing a slew of songs lately, and, paradoxically, my break before getting back to this rap nonsense – oh, that’s not a pejorative; merely descriptive – is to share a little bit about how I do it.
Alone in the Lab
There’s a good amount of solitude involved. I’ve found that there’s no use in talking about the song I’m going to write. People can’t share that vision; they need to hear the tangible thing. So, I have this image of myself as a scientist who merrily mixes stuff in beakers, with nobody watching, until some new potion is ready for presentation for others.
Practically, I have to have many hours of uninterrupted concentration. (This can be hard to get.) There will be pads of lined paper, which is not the same as blank music paper, which I’ll also need.
In the Beginning Was the Word
But not just yet. I like to focus, first, on what’s being communicated in the song. Since it’s almost always a song in a musical, I’ve a lot of parameters that are set up by the needs of the show. I know what the song needs to accomplish, dramatically. One of the pitfalls, here, is that a good song in a musical doesn’t amplify or explain and emotion the audience already knows, or can deduce.
But that’s a problem that can be fixed later. Once songs are completed, there’s all sorts of adjustments that need to be made – often cutting bits of book – to avoid redundancy. Let me emphasize that again: avoid redundancy.
Staring at the blank page, I begin to list things that might go in the song. As I do this, the need for a title is never far from my mind. A good title will encapsulate most of what a song is saying. That’s why it’s usually possible to get a sense of a musical’s plot just by looking at the names of its numbers. But, at this point in the process, you don’t need to have decided on the final title. You’re just listing.
As the list grows, a sort of child’s game begins. Finding matches. The element most likely to leap out is rhyme. One could circle the rhymes, but I never do this, since I think in rhymes. It’s too obvious, to me, to waste time circling. A more important match would be metrical feet. Setting rhyme aside, can phrases be assembled that would have the rhythm of poetry? If you recognize rhythmic patterns, you’re well on the way to starting a melody.
I heard a rumor about Cole Porter: That he would set a lyric by notating the rhythms first, and the pitches came later. But what I’m more likely to do is to investigate various ways the stresses might fall. The image here is that of an actor, testing out different interpretations of a speech. Usually, more than one rhythmic setting will work. But here’s where you go beyond Cole: If you’re pondering the voice of the actor, you’re probably getting a sense of the shape of the melody. Nobody speaks in a monotone, except maybe that dullard who chants “stars and the moon and a soul to guide you.” Don’t be like that character! You’d rather have the moon.
I’m not sure what to call what you have at this point – a snatch of melody? Well, scientist, you now have an element you can build with. That snatch could go somewhere in your song, and it’s going to be one of many pieces you’ll use. So it’s probably time to think about the larger structure. Piecing together an A section, you’ll now make decisions about where the title goes, where the rhymes go, and how to use those matching rhythms you identified earlier. And, by this point, you’ve chosen the title, which is more than I can say for this essay.
And then give a thought to the larger structure. Your B section will provide a contrast. This might be harmonic, or take the voice to a different tessitura, or, most likely, there’s a rhythmic contrast. A song I’m writing now starts in a minor key – the title’s the first line, but there’s a rhythmic match with the third line there – and is on jagged syncopations. The bridge is higher, in major, and involves much longer sustained notes the singer can open up on. Just the example I have on my mind at the moment. Right now I don’t know about other sections, although I’ve been playing with a somewhat long intro and, as an obstetrician once said to my wife, “I suspect there’s a C section in your future.”
Color By Numbers
Now that I’m thinking about my daughter, let’s consider a bunch of First Graders being given the same color-by-numbers page and an unlimited spectrum of colored pencils. The little artistic prodigies will choose different pigments that give the same drawing a wide array of emotional characteristics. It’s something I particularly love about the painting done about a century ago: Unexpected hues led to unexpected feelings.
Give music students – Tenth Graders, perhaps – the same lead sheet and the geniuses will come up with chords that put the tune across with varying levels of piquancy. Now, if you’ve familiarized yourself with thousands of songs over the years, (and if you haven’t, why not?) you’ve recognized patterns in the chord symbols. It’s fair to say there’s usually the Most Obvious Way a melody might be harmonized. But why would you want to go with the Most Obvious Way? Leave that for the non-genius Tenth Graders.
Learning Through Observation
My daughter has started playing music too loud in the next room, and it’s one of those uninventive kiddie ditties with Most Obvious everything – Can You Imagine That? I’ve often spoken, here, of the sign in my office that reads Eschew Cliché. In order to do that, you’re really going to have to take a good long look at a huge quantity of songs from the past 100 years or so. See what they do with placing a title in the A section, deciding where the rhymes go, where the rhythmic matches show up. And if you’re staring at sheet music with chord symbols, take a gander at how the tune’s being colored. Anything that’s been done too much is, by definition, a cliché. Excuse me, I feel a sneeze coming on: Eschew!