Three strategies for songwriting

Songwriting is a regular feature in my workshops and projects. Creating their own songs gives participants a very tangible, share-able outcome of their musical creativity, is an experience that offers infinite creative choice and highlights participants’ voices, and can be a vehicle for exploring themes of particular relevance or importance to the group. In this post I share three ways into songwriting – creating initial melodies and lyrics that establish the feel and sentiment of the song –  – that I have used in some recent projects.

1. Melodies from harmonics

In the recent City Beats project we were creating music inspired by the element ‘air’ and to get things started I gave out a set of harmonic whirlies to the students. As half the class played them, I asked the other half to listen out for any short phrases or melodic fragments they could hear emerging. Some found this more difficult than others, but two boys in the first group gave it a shot and identified some strong phrases.

The MSO musicians taking part in the workshop also listened and played back fragments that they heard. The bass player set up a simple ostinato, and the trumpeter played a riff derived from the harmonic whirly fragments. The children improvised and sang words from an earlier brainstorm about ‘events involving the air/wind’ and the song began to take shape.

Here are two examples from that project, three weeks ago:

2. Words then melodies, Dorian mode

I worked with the United Nations of Song Choir and the Korean Choir as part of last week’s Manningham Community Jam project and asked them each to write a short phrase or sentence the orchard that this part of the City of Manningham once was.

We established a D-Dorian mode accompaniment on guitar and accordion. I asked them to first chant their words, establishing a rhythm through the way the syllables landed, and to then sing their phrase on the note D. Once everyone was comfortably and consistently singing their phrase on D, I invited them to add two or three other pitches from the mode (they did this by ear), in order to add interest to their phrase. We listened to each of the phrases (some in English, some in Korean) one by one and decided an order that would work well. One line became a chorus, others became verses, and several were sung at the same time, creating pleasing harmonies.

You can see/hear a Noteflight score of the song we created here.

3. Melodies from grid scores, lyrics from drawings

Middle Primary students at the Language School created original melodies using grid scores and a given pitch group. Each grid score had two lines of 8 squares, numbered 1-8. In pairs, the students coloured in the squares they wanted to play. They assigned up to 4 pitches from the pitch group to the squares. Then they slowly, painstakingly played through their scores and could change notes or numbers if they wanted. The 8 boxes represented quavers (eighth notes) in a bar of 4/4 so each pair of children created 2 bars of music.

Lyrics are challenging for English Language Learners. My preferred strategy to encourage their expressive language is to ask them to draw pictures on the topic of the song (in this case, about the countries they had lived in before coming to Australia). Each child then talks through their picture with me. I point to the different things I see, and ask them to tell me what it is, or what is happening. I write down all the things they say, and in this way I get phrases and sentences that later become our song lyrics.

As a group we selected words to go with melodies, agreed an order, and put the song together. Here is a recording of their song, “When I was small”.

Overall, my key strategy for songwriting with groups, is to say ‘yes’ to their ideas as they arise, and make sure I do not do all the problem-solving myself. By determining modes, pitch groups, and phrase lengths for words, I can ensure we develop material that is usable, while still giving a great deal of creative control to the group. People today are surrounded by songs and music – they understand a great deal about scanning, rhyming, and making the melodies and lyrics match up in length. The wonderful thing about throwing the problem open to the group is that they will often solve it in ways that you as the music leader might never have thought of! And that beautiful, spontaneous ‘teachable’ moment where we are all in creative flight together, is what it is all about.

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