by James Linderman
As I was writing my newly released Song Forms for Songwriters workbook, I started to draw parallels between the crafting and manufacture of a song and the crafting and manufacture of other artistic and non-artistic consumables.
As I did my research, the two words that kept appearing were “abstraction” (which involves creating a version or illustration of something that only shows a particular part or feature of it) and the word “design”.
I certainly knew about sound design since I had colleagues who worked in that field, but I was not sure I had ever heard the term “song design” and I began to see that this might be the name for the kind of work that would allow those of us who write song to create better songs.
Of course, form is an essential element of any kind of design work and since I had just spent the last ten years analyzing and compiling 500 of the most successful and iconic song forms for my book, I felt like I was practicing and studying the foundations of song design already.
Of course, classical composers completely understood the importance of compositional form. They wrote menuettos, sonatas and fugues and poured their creative choices into these pre-designed frames. Writing to a form like a menuetto comes with some rules and stipulations but it is surprisingly liberating since the writer can then focus on the expressive elements and the structural decisions look after themselves since they are pre-determined.
First and foremost, to be considered a menuetto, the composition must sound like a menuetto. How the composer innovates their own creative elements into it, cannot be so vast that the listener can no longer identify the form. For instance, it must be in 3/4 time and historically people had to be able to dance to it, in a dance that involved a series of small steps. A traditional menuetto is 32 bars long with an AABB form. See Menuetto in C Major by Mozart.
Within the restrictions that come with writing to a form, it is then essential for the music creator to make a brand new work and not have their music just mimic the examples that preceded it. Everyone who writes music has a responsibility to move the art form forward. It is what separates those who paint, from those who paint by numbers.
In our day and age you would get the impression that form is not an essential part of the songwriting process. To create a commercially successful song you do not need to understand, or even pay any attention to song form. I meet songwriters all the time who cannot distinguish their verses from choruses and they did not write their song with an awareness that they were creating their own song form as they went along. The downside to this kind of writing is that, songs that do not have a strong reliable form, no matter how instantly popular or immediately successful they are commercially, always die as quickly as they rise.
The urban dictionary refers to these kinds of songs as disposable music. Music that listeners find instantly appealing, but will abandon for their next musical infatuation, sometimes within days of the first listen. How commercially successful or popular these songs get before they disappear obviously varies greatly, and the study of that trend is not the focus here. Perhaps I will write on that topic another time but for now lets get back to song design and have a look at the difference between a well designed and a poorly designed element of a song.
Since my new book could be considered a design catalogue for chord progressions lets look at a small section of the template featured on page two. It is in the key of G and it is in 3/4 time.
The templates in the book display the sections of a song; the intro, verse, chorus, etc. with boxes representing bar lines like this…
The chords displayed in this eight bar intro are options so the songwriter can choose one chord from each bar and determine if, within this very stable and reliable form, they can find a pattern that they might want to write a song with.
That song might look like this…
Another version could look like this….
If you listen closely you will hear that there is a distinct similarity in these two introductions because they have the same form and the chords in each bar do the same kind of job, but there is also a significant difference in these two intros as well. They each convey a different mood and therefore represent the artistic choices of their particular songwriter.
Play through both of these examples a number of times and the elements that make them similar and the elements that make them unique, will both become clearer as you get your ear accustomed to this analysis. Also try singing or playing a melody to this song part and see how easy it is to set a melody on a progression that has a reliable form. Many songwriters even go as far as referring to an element of a song as being trustworthy as it relates to the other song elements.
If you have enjoyed taking a look at these inner workings of song design, please visit my website at jameslinderman.com and find more information on my new book Song Forms for Songwriters as well as information on my Skype teaching and song coaching.