Singing in Tongues…

I’m not claiming by any means to have this songwriting thing down. But for what it’s worth, here is a summary of my songwriting experience so far. I am a big proponent of “singing in tongues” (I’ll explain the term later), and here is why – the more songs I listen to and the more I write, I’ve come to subscribe to a couple of key ideas:

Rule #1: There are no rules. The great Berkley writing coach, Pat Pattison introduced that idea to me. And it’s true to the extent that what seems to make a song stand out is exactly the moment(s) where the listener hears something truly unexpected and original in a song, be it a new twist of phrase, strange chord change, distinct sound production, odd vocal approach, extended phrase, etc.

Rule #2: Know the Rules! Notwithstanding Rule #1, it’s still helpful to have a solid sense of melody, structure, meter and verse…if for nothing else but to have good starting points, from which to then be able to effectively break out and create something new.

I’ve studied some truly great songs (read: anything by the Beatles) and tried to figure out what makes them stand apart at their very core (beyond George Martin’s brilliant arrangements and production). John Lennon was a master of using a certain number of lines in one verse, and changing it up in the next. He also had a knack for varying the duration of chords in a progression, so as to avoid predictability. Now he (and Paul McCartney) definitely wrote some FAB lyrics…but, thanks to their “supernatural” melodic abilities, they could also sing the biggest jumble of nonsense and somehow convince the world it had meaning to each of us! “Strawberry Fields Forever”? “I Am the Walrus – Goo goo gagoob”? “I Dig a Pony”? I still have no idea what they were singing about in these songs…but I don’t care! I LOVE them! Because, great music at its essence is sense-oriented…not the “logical” kind of sense, but the “feeling” kind. If music evokes a strong feeling, then it has done its job. The intellectual aspect (lyrics and music theory) are important elements to master. But without that basic feeling, a song as such has little impact. One just has to think of any song by a “virtuoso” band, with killer guitar riffs, and drum fills, but no memorable melody or phrase, for example.

That’s why to this day I write most songs starting with an initial melodic vocal line of meaningless mumbles over a basic chord progression (hence the “Singing in Tongues” title). I believe the great Keith Richard said that all music already exits out there in the Universe, and we’re just fortunate enough to catch a sonic “glimpse” of a song from time to time (while driving, sleeping, riding an elevator…). So once I’ve established some rudimentary idea of what the song is “about”, it’s then my job, much like a sculptor, to chip away at the superfluous stuff in order to reveal the creation that lies beneath – basically find the actual words that somehow maintain the feel of the initial mumbling, and yet actually make sense lyrically. Sometimes it’s a quick process. But most often, if I really want to be happy with a song, I need to go over the minutest details until it all makes sense to me…from both an intellectual and emotional standpoint. That’s where understanding “the rules” can prove beneficial. At least, as I said earlier, I have a starting point in terms of finding rhymes, cool chord changes, etc.

But at the end of the day, if singing about the “Fuzzy Purple Train Clouds” evokes the right feeling and image, then so be it. By the way, you can go ahead and use that line if you want…I’m pretty sure it hasn’t been taken yet!


10 / November / 2007  English   

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