Every Song Tells A Story…But Does It Need To Be An Abstract Novel?
By Sheena Metal
For a musician, your songs are your art. They are the physical embodiment of your creative gifts. Every bit of anger, happiness, angst, joy, pain, elation, knowledge or humor goes into the story known as your song. You write and re-write it, scouring over each note and word…perfecting it for recording and live performance.
But when you play it for others, you're not getting the reaction you expected. Your friends, fans and family seem less than enthusiastic as they dully respond, "Yeah. That was…um…good." How could this be? You poured your soul into this piece. This was your "Stairway To Heaven"! This was your "Smells Like Team Spirit"! It's a lyrically amazing ode about the persecution of pagan midwives in grass hut tribes! It flows, it breathes, and it's seven and a half minutes of pure musical perfection!
Whoa. Stop right there, Mozart. You wrote a seven and a half minute song about the persecution of pagan midwives in grass hut tribes and you're wondering why you're thirteen year-old cousin fell asleep in the middle of the fourth verse? You wrote a seven and a half minute song about the persecution of pagan midwives in grass hut tribes and you're confused as to why your drummer's girlfriend began calling her friends on her cell phone before the song had reached its bridge?
It may be hard to believe when you're penning an opus such as this, but the normal human brain is wired a little differently than an accomplished musician's, like yourself. And although music is art, it's also popular culture and the goal should be for others to enjoy your creative efforts as much as you do.
So, how can you make sure that your writing experience is as positive as your audience's listening experience? What can you, as musicians do, to eliminate aspects of your songs that may alienate, confuse or just plain bore your fans?
The following are a few tips that may add success to your songwriting experience:
1.) After Four Minutes, It Becomes Background Music---Music aficionado's aside, the average person has roughly the attention span of a young adult hummingbird. As a songwriter, you need to grab your audience's attention and hold it until the end of the song before they flit off to something else more interesting to them. Although four minutes (or less) may seem like the blink of an eye when a songwriter is storytelling, it's a very long time to expect your run-of-the-mill club-goer or web-surfer to stay fixated on your music.
2.) Tell Your Story As Directly As Possible---We all love allusions, allegories, vague references, and subtle metaphors but use them sparingly or become a beat poet. A little abstractness goes a long way when writing a popular song. Song lyrics fly into people's minds as quickly as the bassist plucks out quarter notes. If you make your lyrics too complicated, then your audience may still be trying to figure out the verse when you're already playing the chorus. This could prompt the average listener to tune out your masterpiece, order another beer and switch on their Ipod.
3.) If English Is Your First Language, Use It In Your Song---It's great that you're an educated, cultured, artistic intellectual sponge. But remember that most people who hear your music are not book worms or art whores. Big, involved words make for memorable song lyrics but use them occasionaly. It's good for your fans to ponder the meaning of a particular lyric but give them too many to ponder and they'll get so caught up in the words that they may forget your song.
4.) Obscure Musicality Can Be Confusing Too---Lyrics aren't the only way to confuse the average listener. Obscure time signatures, discordant instrumentation and avant guard drum lines may seem like genius to your fellow musicians, but if your listeners can't tap and/or hum along, you may find yourself only invited to perform in underground opium bars where the audience members have all had one too many hash brownie.
If you're not sure where to begin, start simple. Write a short, but sweet, song that packs an emotional punch in a universal way. Write about something everyone is familiar with: love, politics, lifestyle issues or the sociology of being a human being on the planet. Once people have fallen in love with your music, it will be easier to get them to give the extra listen to your more complicated, artistic pieces.
Remember that just because a song is popular or easily understood, doesn't mean that it's not good creativity. Art is subjective, and truly in the eye of the beholder. Your least favorite song could be someone else's favorite. You never have to stop being creative or artistic, just acknowledge that there's an audience out there that wants to hear what you have to say…but they'll need to be able to comprehend it first.
About the Author
Sheena Metal is a radio host, producer, promoter, music supervisor, consultant, columnist, journalist and musician. Her syndicated radio program, Music Highway Radio, airs on over 700 affiliates to more than 126 million listeners. Her musicians' assistance program, Music Highway, boasts over 10,000 members. She currently promotes numerous live shows weekly in the Los Angeles Area, where she resides. For more info: http://www.sheena-metal.com.
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