It’s been a great first week on this Coursera/Berklee online songwriting course. You can’t beat reviewing the basics and that’s what we did this week. An astonishing amount of information was neatly bundled and presented in entertaining bite-size pieces. We covered an awful lot of ground in a painless and engaging manner.
Thanks and happy, happy thoughts to Pat Pattison and the team from the bottom of my heart.
I’m really looking forward to the next five weeks, and I can tell from the lively and thoroughly kind conversations via Facebook on the SAC Course Group page that everybody else is having a blast too.
They packed so much good stuff into the first week, I can’t wait to absorb every last morsel of wisdom that lies ahead.
These are the professional’s tools we have been given by Pat Pattison and Berklee and Coursera, and it’s a truly wonderful thing to get this quality instruction for nothing but our time.
Bonus: it’s very, very entertaining, and, did I mention, IT’S FREE… those who aren’t on this great online course already, why not try it yourselves if you’d like to know more about writing songs? Only good can come from it, and it’s an awesome feeling to be pleased with a song you’ve written!
Here’s a fairly detailed look at what the heck happened so far on this course. You may need a caffeinated beverage.
We began by gathering 21 very cool songs for educational purposes. We all found songs on the Course list that we had not heard before. A new song that does it for you is a wonderful thing to find.
My new discovery was the wonderful “In Front of the Alamo”, written by Gary Burr and performed by Hal Ketchum.
The song is exquisitely crafted to take us on a journey to the WHY of the song, the reason it exists, and it’s an emotionally powerful ride. A great song fully realized, and fashioned into a great record through impeccable production and great vocals. Yes!
Hal Ketchum delivers emotional impact. His acoustic guitar picking and vocals are in the same territory as Don Henley, and are supported sympathetically by a production that fully realizes the narrative arc of the story. If only that happened all the time!
Way to go, guys. I’m quite sure I’m the last person in North America to have heard it… so thank you, Pat, for shining a light on this terrific song for me. Strip away the production and it’s still every bit as good. THAT is the goal – a good song works perfectly all by itself without any production. This was reinforced during the course lectures too, as Pat compared the producer’s job of creating a journey to the songwriter’s job – the same thing applied, in that we must create a journey too so that the producer is not simply propping things up artificially where we have failed to connect the dots.
Next, we watched a few video lectures (on average, about 10 minutes long). We took simple, short quizzes on the topics covered to show we were taking it in. Soon, we had successfully covered lots of ground in a very engaging way.
We even had a chance to examine various common song forms. We discussed the possible relationships of the singer to the listener. We dealt with pronouns and their influence on the song, and the common trap for beginners of inconsistent pronouns, which break the flow and confuse the story as well as the listener.
Pat Pattison also introduced us to the SIX BEST FRIENDS we all need – WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY and HOW. The same friends show up in journalism and creative writing classes since these are the friends of all types of writers.
Looking for fertile ground to pluck a song title from, I decided to start with WHEN as my inspiration. Imagining a WHEN or a WHERE is a great place to start peopling a scene with characters and sense-bound images. Putting yourself in that place in your mind might even provide a WHY in mere moments. This happened for me.
At the end of the week, an assignment is due. The first one involves outlining a song concept in boxes, much as the movie director storyboards a film script ahead of making the movie.
We were given the task of filling three boxes with outlines of our song’s potential progress from start to finish, in ways that would show the story arc we intended, but without actually writing a lyric or a song. The process of brainstorming and storyboarding was more important.
The final box (Box 3) will always hold the WHY of the song. The WHY is the point of writing it, the event that made the singer leap up and burst into song. We work towards that moment through the first two boxes of detail.
The boxes do NOT correlate to sections in a song’s structure. They are more like building blocks to carry you to the WHY in a way that seems natural and inevitable, and can encompass large parts of the song in a single box.
If this was comedy, perhaps Box 1 would be the scene being set, Box 2 would be the information necessary to get the joke at the end, and Box 3 would be the punchline. My song is way too sad for funny, however
Whatever happens in this song, bear in mind it is not autobiographical. It is simply the product of a wandering yet searching mind. All events are entirely fictitious and never happened, any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental, and no animals were harmed. They haven’t heard it yet.
I chose Winter as my WHEN for my song, being a universal metaphor for loneliness, vulnerability and loss. Okay, now I was getting somewhere.
I didn’t want to use a title from the five suggested titles offered by the course, since I felt it made no difference to the assignment’s function. None of them inspired me, and I can be corny for myself, thanks! I proved this by coming up with the well-trodden title “Footprints in the Snow” . Bound to be out there already somewhere, do let me know.
My song developed through the three boxes rather like the way Sinatra’s classic “It Was A Very Good Year” develops. My song also takes three moments in time, and links them with a central theme, snapshots in a life that lead us to a viewpoint of “fine vintage wine”. I have studied Sinatra’s voice and catalog for many years, with avid joy. He’s so good it’s ridiculous. Ditto his writers.
I much prefer “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”, “Let’s Get Away From It All”, “Cottage for Sale” or “All Of Me”, just to name a few. Still, it’s an educationally useful song with great clarity.
The singer of my song, this new creation “Footprints in the Snow”, has an emotional response to seeing a set of footprints in the snow at three moments in time. First in childhood, knowing his father has arrived home before him and being very happy about it, then on a remote mountain holiday with his father where they bond as grown men, then finally at his father’s graveside, where the WHY of the song happens and he has a reason to burst into song. A bit sick and twisted, I know.
He is reminded of the two earlier events described in Boxes 1 and 2 at the graveside. Each response, each event, is more “heavy, man!” as we proceed through the song. The ideas gain weight as they move towards the end of the song, and each event colors the perception of the following events, just as in real life. The song takes a shape, and there is a beginning, a middle and an end.
Woo-hoo! A song miraculously started to form in front of my eyes, as a single WHEN and WHERE moment that came to mind became filled with details, images, scenes I could describe, senses I could engage, taste, smell, and so on. The great adventure of songwriting began once again and I was off to the races, as they say!
In a book recommended to go with the course, “Writing Better Lyrics”, Pat Pattison uses the example of a bag of dye in Box 1, that drips through into the following boxes, colouring them. It’s a very helpful analogy. I bore it in mind as I thought about my ideas.
It occurred to me that “Footprints in the Snow” could never be a tale told by an untrustworthy narrator (think of most of Randy Newman’s work, for example); instead, my song would have to be a first-person, honest, emotionally-charged tale from the singer who is faced with the WHY of BOX 3 – the emotional moment in the imaginary protagonist’s life that I wanted to describe, that popped into my head, that created the entire idea of the song… the WHY. He is talking to his father in that moment. This answers the questions WHO IS TALKING, and TO WHOM. The WHY is the moment that belongs in Box 3 and it is my guiding star to follow through the Boxes 1 and 2. The funeral is the WHEN, and WHERE involves snow each time, so it’s always winter, which is a metaphor Pat suggested and I use for the deep sense of grief the singer is overwhelmed by in that moment.
This idea of an emotional reaction to seeing footprints in the snow because of memories of a loving father at the most intense moment of loss is able to gain weight emotionally as I go, just as the producer would try to do the same thing from another angle – through changes in instrumental density over time, or careful casting of players, for example.
Walking away from the graveside at his father’s funeral, the singer turns to look over his shoulder, one last look, one last time, and, upon seeing the footprints that lead away from the grave in the white carpet of fallen snow, he recalls a memory (my Box 1 contents) from when he was just a small child. He saw his father’s footprints leading to his front door and knew his loving father was home from the hard working day and ready to spend a little time with him. His little heart flew on wings, he was so happy, and the moment became fixed in his memories forever.
Next, in Box 2, I place him on a skiing trip with his father in a remote mountain wilderness, and they bond in a new way on the back-country trails, leaving footprints behind them in the snow near their wintry ski resort holiday. Glancing back at their own two sets of footprints in the snow, the singer has a feeling of love for his father and wishes that his father would live forever. He recalls this at the graveside in Box 3. The idea successfully gained weight and momentum, building towards a climax in Box 3.
When stuck for an idea, I thought as I began this process, looking for that WHY, that title, I had the thought of births, deaths, weddings, funerals – aha – a funeral. Winter. Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought. That’s how this imaginary moment appeared in my mind and I suddenly had a rabbit to chase.
Incongruous as it may seem, in Box 3 he is turning to look at the grave one last time and is moved to “burst into song”, as Pat Pattison puts it in the video lectures. I like the contrast of singing and grief, it amused me. Life is a musical.
There will be plenty to learn over the next five weeks, so do come back and see what happens each week! Each Thursday, I’ll post a new blog on what we’re all up to. I did not actually write this song, either, as we were told not to bother doing that. I may write it, give me feedback! Vote for yes or no to writing that song!
UPDATE: I have changed my mind on perspective – this song must be in DIRECT ADDRESS. This is a very intimate moment where the singer is overwhelmed with emotions coloured by earlier memories. The most intimate close-up perspective will work the best to pack an emotional punch.
One last point. The title “Footprints in the Snow” works as a metaphor for the journey through life and even better, it works beautifully as a metaphor for the mark we make on the world and the imprints we leave behind. The fact that we each matter.