Songwriting

Don’t Be Afraid to Commit!

Are you committed?  Should you be committed?

This morning I was at the piano, playing a song I had written some time ago.  This was a song I really enjoyed writing, and I felt that, by writing it, I had accomplished something special.  However, time reveals the cracks and the flaws, and I had a rare opportunity to step back and stare at this song from a distance.  What am I trying to say?  Who are these characters in the song, and what do they want?  As I realized that I had been far too soft on answering these questions consistently, a glaring truth stared back at me – I HAD FAILED TO COMMIT.

Does this situation sound familiar?  Can you actually hear those voices saying things like “leave it up to your listener to decide”, or maybe “it’s more universal this way”.  STOP LISTENING TO THOSE VOICES, AND DON’T YOU DARE LET THOSE WORDS PASS BY YOUR OWN LIPS!  This is our all-too-human tendency to resort to justification (“it’s good enough, because lots of songs are vague”), to confirmation bias (“see, I found someone who understands it”), to lazy songwriting!  (There, I said it.)

The consequence of leaving too much up to the listener’s guesswork is this – we can’t possibly evoke our desired emotional response in our listeners.  Sure, it’s possible that someone will “get it”, but that’s thanks to a lengthy introduction to the song (or a blog post about it) lending a helping hand to their understanding of the song.  Either way, their reaction isn’t going to be as strong as it could be.

So here’s what I did.  I took a look at my song, as a whole, and asked myself to COMMIT.  What do my characters want?  What do I need to know about them in order to respond properly to their situation?  Then, I looked at the storytelling throughout the song.

  • Am I telling enough story, for you to understand the characters? If not, or if I’m waiting too long to get to the point, I need to work on my verses.
  • Is it clear to the listener, what my characters are trying to achieve? Is it consistent?
    (Please, songwriters, avoid one verse saying “it’s over”, followed by a chorus that says “I want you back”.  PLEASE!!!)  My song must have a single, consistent goal.  Either I want to party with you, or I don’t, it’s time to make up my mind.
  • Here’s an easy one – does a word, or a line, in my lyric, mention unimportant details, or mention something that is CONTRARY to the point of the song? Those words/lines must go!
  • Have I used the best POV (point of view) to tell this story? Maybe I should switch from first person (I/me) to third person (he/she/they), or vice-versa.
  • Can I imagine introducing the song, on-stage, to prepare my audience for the song, without telling a single clue about the contents of the song? If the song needs me to tell the audience, in advance, anything about the characters or the story in the song, SOMETHING IS MISSING FROM MY SONG.

This exercise can become really uncomfortable for a songwriter, for a few reasons:

  • I might become vulnerable
  • I might get judged
  • I might get listeners challenging me, asking me WHY I made the choices I did

As for being vulnerable, there is absolutely no downside to this, as a songwriter.  As humans, our audience will only see this as an honest attempt to talk about something important.

As for being judged, well, here’s a newsflash: we’re already being judged, and the more we are judged, the more we have made an impact on somebody’s life, which is the best result we could have as songwriters.

As for listeners asking WHY we made the choices we did, I’ll again refer to my last point, and say that this is an indication that we’ve made a connection with the audience, and raised a response within them.  How can that be a bad thing?  Aren’t we confident in the reasons that compelled us to write a song?

When we’re writing and rewriting songs, we can choose one of two paths:  we can COMMIT, and gain a much better chance at having a deeper connection with our listener’s emotions, or we can keep it “universal”, and gain a much better chance at our audience looking at their watches while they wait for the song to be over.  THE CHOICE IS YOURS, AND MINE.  Let’s make our songs worth the time we spend writing them, and worth our listeners’ time.

Write On!

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