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16 - Pat Pattisons Introduction to Songwriting (recap)

Why do just one course at a time, when you can do two? The correct answer, of course, is that you should always be learning (I gave up on the third concurrent course though…)

Concurrently with the Music Production course I took Pat Pattisons “Introduction to Songwriting” class. As you know, I have been semi serious about playing guitar the last year, and been singing quite a bunch of the “standard” songs. Why not learn how they are written?

Pats course focused on the tools to create Prosody. Prosody is “the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry” and in the case of lyrics and song, how they work together to create an ensemble that conveys emotion, feelings and moods. Pat distinguishes between stable and unstable moments and showed ho various tools (line length, number of lines in a verse/chorus, rhyme schemes, rhymes, phrasing of lines (on the front or back beat) and more can create a stable or unstable moment in a song.

The course progressed from simple exercises (create a stable verse, create an unstable chorus) all the way through to creating a complete song in week 5 and revising it for week 6. All in all I have written quite a few fragments and three more or less complete songs. (Regular readers have been treated to Grey Days already)

Week 1 - The Journey of the Song

A song develops an idea over the course of the song. Pat shows several techniques to take a title and move it through three stages (3 boxes) and add more and more weight to the basic idea of it. Asking six friends can help to flesh out the setting of the song (When, Where, Who, Why, How, What) and by selecting the point of view of the singer and who is being sung too the quality of the song changes.

The difference between the verse and the chorus is explored in the wonderful story about Bernices wedding dress - basically the chorus should shine a lot more than the verses.

Week 2 - Stopping and Going

A first, simple way to create stability or instability in your song is the number of lines in a verse or chorus: Even number creates a stable, and odd number an unstable setting.

By using different line lengths, again you create stability or instability. A line that is significantly shorter creates an effect of “not quite finished”, pulling the listener into the next verse or the chorus. A longer line puts a spotlight on the last part of the line and draws the attention of the listener on it.

Week 3 - Sonic GPS - Mapping your Song with Rhyme

Lyrics are rhymed. English is a terrible language for rhyming. A lot of lessons on rhyme schemes, and what tricks are used to get around the fact, that english is a rhyme poor language. Understood why so many love songs have ‘above’ in them - above is one of the few words that rhyme with love. But fear not: Family rhymes, additive and subtractive rhymes, assonance and consonance rhymes all make for quite a zoo of words that can be used - and again, the correct choice will create stability (perfect rhymes) vs. instability.

Week 4 - Making it Move

Rhythm is important and stressed or unstressed syllables are the tools for making a line move - again stable or unstable, depending on how it is constructed. Slight changes in the words used create a totally different rhytmic ‘tonality’ and, you might have guessed it, stability or not.

Week 5 - Writing the Song

This week has a massive 3 hours of video lecture, showing all the concepts we learnt so far plus new ones (melodic rhythm and melody in general) to create a complete song. Pat takes us from a simple idea and title “Hobo Wind” to a complete song.

The assignment (of course) is to write a new song from scratch. Again, the process is very much tool based: it starts with the title, goes through the three boxes and then goes on to collect words that can be used in the song. Pat called this “Words in the key of XXX” where XXX would be one of the word in the title. A good thesaurus is invaluable in finding those words. When I did the exercise I was astonished that the words in my title “The essence of Life” actually were both in the “key” of each other, i.e. they were related. With that list in hand, select maybe 10 words that you feel add meaning to the song, and then create a list of rhyming words to each of them (again, choosing those that you feel belong to the song). An example from my song:

Words in the key of life: activity, being, breath, energy, enthusiasm, esprit, essence, excitement, growth, heart, impulse, sentience, soul, sparkle, verve, vitality, vital, élan, growth, human, living, mortal, circumstances, development, enjoyment, enlightenment, happiness, suffering

Selected words: life, being, breath, energy, growth, human, living, mortal, happiness

Rhymes for life life knife wife alive arrive dive lies rise laugh arrived

With that material in hand, the tools we’ve learnt already you have quite a bit of material to start working on the lyrics. The rhyming words worksheet with possibly 50 to 100 words that already rhyme is a great help when writing - and the work spent on finding them should already have generated quite a few ideas to start from.

When the text is set, add music: Again the choice of notes (tonic, dominant -stability), (6th, 7th - instability) are a guide for how to create prosody.

Here’s the first verse of the song I wrote during that week:

 As your life passes day by day
 it seems as if you live
 but in the end it fades away
 and you didn't realize the gift
 of the free will that you have
 the free will that you have

Lots of work in this week, but what a learning experience - and what a result in the end!

Week 6 - Crossing the finishing Line

Songs can be altered by how the song is phrased - that is, if a line is sung such that it starts on beat 1 (of a 4 beat bar) or delayed slightly (beat 2) or even bar 2 of a longer sequence. Front heavy lines (starting on beat 1) of course are stable, while back heavy lines create instability. Pat demonstrates the effect stunningly on a (already quite good) song he has co written. By adapting the phrasing of selected lines, the song changes noticeably and gains a lot of depth.

The assignment for this week was to take last weeks song and review it for changes in phrasing and re-record it.

Conclusion

This course has thaught me a lot about the technical side of writing songs. I don’t claim that I can actually create good songs now, but I feel that I have glimpsed at quite a few tools that I can train on how to use. I guess it is similar to photography: The good pictures will come after you have taken a couple of thousand bad pictures. On the discussion forums of the class, I saw a pointer to the 5090 challenge - write 50 songs in 90 days. That is way more challenging than writing 100 blog posts in 100 days and the little devil in me actually is thinking of participating in the next round that starts in July…

In the meantime I have learnt to listen to songs differently and I have been able to identify things that work to create Prosody and things that could maybe have been done differntly.

All in all, a great course and I hope to see more of Pat on Coursera.

Jens-Christian Fischer

Maker. Musician