Wednesday, September 24, 2008

what makes a good song/a song good?

i've just spent a couple of hours being judgmental: judging makes me mental.

i have the distinct privilege of helping my good friend Jennifer vet the applicants in Barriefolk's youth songwriting competition. we need to come up with a short list of ten worthies to showcase on the first night of the festival, where the real judges will face the toughest task, ie. picking one of them to win a spot on the main stage, $500 and some valuable recording time.

i just looked up the word "vet": "to examine or appraise expertly".

i suppose i am somewhat an expert when it comes to song writing. i do it, i teach it, i bring groups of people together to get better at it. but i didn't appraise these songs as much as an expert as i did as an appreciative listener. there were eight songs which Jen and i both agreed would be on the short list: no need for discussion on their relative merits on the grounds of lyrical interest, melody, structure, emotional effect, etc. they just worked. music enjoyed.

the songs on the bubble take a little more thought, and it's best to look upon their potential rather than where they failed to "work". things missing can be added. things oversaid can be shortened.

new writers, young and old, need to learn to edit, which in my book means "simplify". verbs - action words - move the story. nouns name important things. adjectives should be few and perfect. get rid of unnecessary modifiers, especially adverbs, the dreaded modifier modifiers. and when you do use an adjective, use an unexpected one. the simpler your lyric, the more potential power in each word, so make them powerful.

Art is Metaphor. very strong statement, very true, and a metaphor in itself: power, truth, irony - all in three words. now try this:

Art is like a simile. blah blah ouch. the simple lesson here is, avoid similes, use metaphor. (not to say there aren't a million great similes, eg. "and love is like a warm wind/you can't hold it in your hand..." Lynn Miles. never say never.)

even more powerful, don't say "love is an ocean". it's a metaphor, better than "love is like an ocean", but not as good as writing the lyric so we know that love is an ocean without your ever having said it in so many words.

all writers also need to beware of cliches, but it's only arithmetic that makes it even more dangerous for young people, who haven't been exposed to them as often as we fogeys have. if a young writer comes across an old saw for the first time, it's not trite to him. it's fresh and perhaps perfect.

this is the thing about cliches, which folks tend to look on as trite language. but it's only overused language. and usually the reason it's overused is that it's clever and holds some universal truth and we wished we had said it first.

i have friends who are deathly afraid of cliches. i use them regularly. when you think about simplifying a song and getting your message across at the same time, simple universal truths can be very handy. it raises the bar rather high to expect yourself to come up with new ways to say everything, and to have them understood. but be wary of using those worn phrases, groups of words which almost become a single word because they appear together so often.

even more difficult is expecting to come up with new musical ideas. of which there are none, by the way. wait, that would make it impossible, not just difficult. it bothers me very little when someone says that something in my new song reminds them of someone else's song, or another of my own. i guarantee you: if you come up with a series of notes that has never been heard before, i don't want to listen to it. it could only be awful, jarring and sick-making.

here's a perfect example of familiarity being a good thing:

i went to our local song circle the other night, with the express purpose of exposing my new song to the light of day (cliche, by the way). now this song i wrote from the perspective of my best friend Don, who also happens to be a songwriter, and who also frequents the song circle, 'though not on this night. i had tried to put myself in his place, to tell the story of the terrible summer he has just gotten through. i did a pretty good job of that, but realized there was a bit of melody i had used in an earlier song. ah well, so the song sounds like me. that's okay.

so i play the song. buddy Jim is getting coffee, so he misses the first part and doesn't really twig that the lyric is supposed to be Don speaking. or does he? because the first thing he says is "that's got something of the sound of a Don Bray song." i still can't hear it myself, but something is definitely working there.

because i have been known to channel Don in my writing. the most obvious example is a song i wrote called "Shadows", which i immediately realized sounded like something Don would come up with. sure enough, he loved it - to the point of recording it on his last cd, Taxi Moon and I. the greatest compliment a writer can give you is when she or he says "I wish i wrote that".

and you know, even in the kids' songs that won't make the cut, and those on the bubble which might, there are lines of lyric and melody that i wish i had written.

i told Jen that i hate the thought of discouraging any of these teens by rejecting their efforts. but when i listen to the songs one more time, i can't see it happening with any of them. there is such urgency, such passion, such truth in what they are saying, singing and playing.

i'm really looking forward to hearing the ten on Hallowe'en night. my work will be done, i'll relax and enjoy it. and i hope the kids who don't get to showcase are there too, and keep at it, maybe enter again next year. musical tastes sometimes seem to erect walls between generations. these young writers and i are building the same bridge from opposite sides of the wall, and we'll meet in the middle, in a lofty place of joy.
that was a metaphor, in case you didn't catch it.

a metaphor is like a simile, only better.

thanks for reading. now go write a song.

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