Like any art form, songwriting does not have hard rules, but it does have guidelines which present you with choices as to whether to follow them or not. There are songwriters who feel comfortable following a set of guidelines, and there are those who absolutely bristle at the thought of any type of structure or restriction being imposed on their creativity.
The choice is always yours, but you can only make an informed decision when you know what results are likely to occur, and whether you'll be happy with those results.
I saw the most perfect real-time, real-life example of songwriting guidelines in action on America's Got Talent last week. On stage, guitar in hand, comes an unassuming thirty-something named David Johnson, who is going to sing a song. Now, anyone who watches American Idol, America's Got Talent, or any show like that, knows the importance of the song choice. Doing a familiar song that people know and like is important, as the familiarity allows folks to focus on the performance, without having to process new and unfamiliar music and words.
So David Johnson does something that is almost never done on these shows – he's going to sing an ORIGINAL song! This immediately puts David at a huge disadvantage. He now has to deal with people's short attention span and their desire to not have to listen to unfamiliar stuff, unless of course it's amazingly good, or unless the singer is amazingly good to look at. He's made a bold and risky choice. This then leads him to another set of choices:
Conventional songwriting guidelines tell you that in order to capture people's attention, you have about 30-40 seconds at most. Any music intros should be kept under 15 seconds, and you should get to the chorus/hook in about 40 seconds, which leaves about 20-25 seconds for a verse. And that verse needs to present all the info needed to set up the situation and have the hook make sense. Those are the guidelines. Your choice as an artist is to follow them or not. No one says you have to.
Why are these the guidelines? Is it because some record company executives say so?
Not at all – it is a matter of human nature and the way people give, receive, attend to, and process new information. Music and performance is a people-to-people activity. Human nature is always a significant shaping force.
So David Johnson begins his song. No music intro – he gets right to the lyric.
His voice is decent, and he's in tune, but audience and judges on Idol and AGT are a tough crowd. At 10 seconds into the song, the audience is booing. They are bored and not into what they are hearing. At 13 seconds into the song, Piers Morgan (the Simon Cowell of AGT) buzzes the singer. It's only a matter of seconds more until he is buzzed by the other judges, thus ending his dream. Finally, eight seconds later, at 21 seconds into the song, he hits the hook – the payoff -- revealing that he is singing a love song to one of the AGT judges, David Hasselhoff!
At that moment, David Johnson's life turned. Now he has hooked the audience and the judges – the booing stops, everyone is smiling and listening. By 30 seconds, the crowd is behind him, appreciating the well-crafted humor of his song. They are singing along. The song lasted 1 minute and 30 seconds. At the end, he gets big applause, and even the generally negative Piers Morgan admitted "I buzzed you too early". He is passed on through to the next round, and his song is up on YouTube the next day to worldwide chatter. (Google it – you'll find many links). And here I am writing about it.
Why the good outcome? He took into account human nature, and wrote for his audience, not for himself. He made the right choices to achieve the outcome he sought. The choice to do something different by playing an original song triggers the Von Restorff effect i.e., that which is different stands out; The choice to conform to guidelines in the structure of the song is the Asch Effect, the desire to fit in. By balancing these two elements, he memorably communicated to others, rather than wrap himself in self-expression.
This not to say that there is no place for pure self-expression – of course there is. Just not when you seek to establish a rapport with others. You can be sure that if David Johnson had added a musical intro and took any more time to get to the hook, he would have been buzzed and booed into obscurity right then and there. He made the choice to follow the conventional guidelines with precision.
The lesson is clear and simple – if you're writing for a broad, general audience, they are the ones who set the guidelines, not you. You can’t ignore human nature. However, you are always free to follow your own guidelines, but then EITHER:
(a) you'll have to be satisfied with a much smaller following, OR,
(b) it will take much longer (perhaps even after you've departed this earth) for your art to be appreciated, assuming there is artistic merit to your body of work.
There are no rights or wrongs here – only choices.
Jazz great Ornette Coleman, artist Jackson Pollock, and poet Edgar Allen Poe were not appreciated at first for their way-out-of-the-box approaches to their respective art forms, but their genius is now recognized.
Do you want to touch people 'now' on their terms, or would you rather do what your unique muse leads you to do, and hope that people come to appreciate it over time (which may or may not ever come to pass)?
There are no rights or wrongs here – only choices. (see previous blog post on the Asch Effect and the Von Restorff Effect)
Know your choices and their consequences, and make informed decisions about your creative output. This is what Songcrafters' Coloring Book is all about.
For more, visit http://www.songcrafterscoloringbook.com
©2009 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. Content may not be re-posted without permission. Quotes from this content with attribution are permitted. Use of this content in for educational purposes is permitted with proper attribution. Links to this content are encouraged.