Canadian Musician - May/June 2017 - Page 58

WRITING James Linderman teaches guitar and piano and coaches songwriting to students and songwriters all over the world. He is also an academic ambassador to the Berklee School of Music. For more information, contact him at or visit By James Linderman Song Design A s I was writing my newly-released Song Forms for Songwriters workbook, I started to draw parallels between the crafting and manufacturing of a song and the crafting and manufacturing of other artistic and non-artistic consumables. As I did my research, the two words that kept appearing were “ab- straction” (which involves creating a version or illustration of something that only shows a particular part or feature of it) and the word “design.” I certainly knew about sound design since I had colleagues who worked in that field, but I was not sure I had ever heard the term “song design” and I began to see that this might be the name for the kind of work that would allow those of us who write songs to create better ones. Form Of course, form is an essential element of any kind of design work and since I had just spent the last 10 years analyzing and compiling 500 of the most successful and iconic song forms for my book, I felt like I was practicing and studying the foundations of song design already. Of course, classical composers completely understood the impor- tance of compositional form. They wrote menuettos, sonatas, and fugues and poured their creative choices into these pre-designed frames. Writ- ing to a form like a menuetto comes with some rules and stipulations but it is surprisingly liberating since the writer can then focus on the expressive elements and the structural decisions look after themselves since they are pre-determined. First and foremost, to be considered a menuetto, the composition must sound like a menuetto. How the composer innovates their own creative elements into it cannot be so vast that the listener can no longer identify the form. For instance, it must be in 3/4 time and, historically, people had to be able to dance to it with a series of small steps. A tra- ditional menuetto is 32 bars long with an AABB form. See “Menuetto in C Major” by Mozart. Within the restrictions that come with writing to a form, it is then essential for the creator to make a brand new work and not have their music just mimic the examples that preceded it. Everyone who writes music has a responsibility to move the art form forward. It is what sep- arates those who paint, from those who paint by numbers. In our day and age, you would get the impression that form is not an essential part of the songwriting process. To create a commercially suc- cessful song, you do not need to understand, or even pay any attention to song form. I meet songwriters all the time who cannot distinguish their verses from choruses and did not realize that they were creating their own song form as they went along. The downside to this kind of writing is that songs that do not have a strong, reliable form, no matter how instantly popular or immediately successful they are, always die as quickly as they rise. 58 • C A N A D I A N M U S I C I A N The urban dictionary refers to these kinds of songs as disposable music – music that listeners find instantly appealing, but will abandon for their next musical infatuation, sometimes within days of the first listen. How commercially successful or popular these songs get before they disappear obviously varies greatly, and the study of that trend is not the focus here. In Practice Since my new book could be considered a design catalogue for chord progressions, let’s look at a small section of the template fea- tured on the second page. It is in the key of G and in 3/4 time. The templates in the book display the sections of a song: the intro, verse, chorus, etc., with boxes representing bar lines like this: Intro G Em Bm G Em Bm G Em Bm C Am C Am G Em Bm D F G Em Bm The chords displayed in this eight-bar intro are options so the song- writer can choose one chord from each bar and determine if, within this very stable and reliable form, they can find a pattern that inspires a song. That song might look like this: Intro G G Em C C G F G C Em D Em Another version could look like this: Intro Em Em Bm Am If you listen closely, you will hear a distinct similarity in these two introductions because they have the same form and the chords in each bar do the same kind of job, but there is also a significant differ- ence. They each convey a different mood and therefore represent the artistic choices of their particular songwriter. Play through both of these examples a number of times and the elements that make them similar and the elements that make them unique will become clearer as you get your ear accustomed to this analysis. Also try singing or playing a melody to this song part and see how easy it is to set a melody on a progression that has a reliable form. Many songwriters even go as far as referring to an element of a song as being trustworthy as it relates to the other song elements. This column is inspired by James Linderman’s new book, Song Forms for Songwriters. For more information or to purchase, visit