Gallery

A Songwriter’s Prayer and a Lyric Rhythm Challenge

Happy Birthday From Me! I inaugurate this new blog with a post combining some new creative work of mine with an exercise drawn from the work. This “dry lyric” is a kind of songwriter’s hymn: a non-denominational, spiritually open-ended, gender-neutral invocation of the higher purpose we pursue as songwriters. (Music still to come.)

As I wrote the piece, I began to pay attention to some details of syllabic rhythm, as discussed in my book Songwriting Strategies. By the time I finished, I had challenged myself to use all of a certain subset of rhythmic patterns at least once in the song. I then wrote up this challenge as an exercise for fellow writers, the pedagogical “shadow” of the song. That’s kind of the way I roll now. Read through the song lyric, note the technical challenge I tackled, then if so moved write a new song yourself that tackles that challenge or spins off from it to one of your own liking and constructive bemusement. Happy Birthday from me!

A Songwriter’s Prayer

©2014 Mark Simos/Devachan Music (BMI).

CHORUS:                                                                   syllabic rhythm

Thy Holy Name we shall exalt                                   u/u/u/u/            a

In every corner of Heaven’s vault                              u/u/uu/u/         b

In tone and chord, word, thought, beat, sound           u/u/ // / // /        a’

Our work not done till the Circle’s round                  u/u/uu/u/         b

 

Since You see even the sparrow fall                           u/u/uu/u/    b  a

Our task: the questions we ask of all                          u/u/uu/u/    b  a

No passing moment, fair or fell                                  u/u/u/u/      a  b

Unworthy for us in song to tell                                  u/uu/u/u/    c  c

CHORUS

When it comes out right let us delight                        uu/u/u/u/         d

Yet darkness too a spark can ignite                            u/u/u/uu/         e

In silence loud—truth can ring                                    u/u/ /u/             a’

We sing the song of every thing                                  u/u/u/u/            a

We sing the song of everything                                   u/u/u/u //          a’’

CHORUS

The Exercise Born From The Work

The Playground: (constraint or limitations on structure)

Iambic tetrameter: four-stress line, with an upbeat syllable, ending on stressed syllable

Each stress can be 0?, 1, or 2 weak stresses

 

The Attending Task: (what you learn to pay more attention to)

Secondary patterns formed by the subsidiary lyric rhythm

 

The Challenge: Placement of triplets

Intersperse, throughout the lines, lines that place a triplet on each of the four beats in turn, as well as grounding lines with no triplets

 

Additional challenges:

Light to heavy: a stressed or unstressed syllable can demote/promote to a secondary

Use this in a spotlight position

Have one spot in the song where the unstressed syllable drops – a caesura

Make it meaningful: render into caesura what is caesurest

 

Discoveries

 I did not begin this song lyric with the challenge in mind. I was more than halfway through the second stanza—on the word “unworthy”—when I realized I was paying attention to the placement of the triplet in the rhythm, but hadn’t committed to making the variations in these rhythms, line by line, an intentional pattern. I also had used only one of the variations at that point. I then committed myself to these new challenges in finishing the song.

 

This yields three discoveries for me:

 

  1. The best of our challenges emerge in the work itself. Just as structure can be emergent, in the work of the writer or in the listener’s ear, so can those self-challenges by which we build our skills. True, you can start a creative task with a known challenge, set by yourself or by others—a teacher or coach. But far more potent are challenges that only occur to you in creating the work itself. Working this way, something of this emergent quality, this captured epiphany, remains as a chaotic undercurrent in the fabric of the work, there to be experienced by the attentive listener.
  2. This is a “tour challenge”: use all combinations of an element or resource throughout the work. The nature of this sort of challenge is that the patterns formed by the resource of attention (in this case, lyric or rather syllabic rhythm) must be to some extent “through-composed” rather than repeating. That is, if I want to use all of:

    u / u / u / u /

    u u / u / u / u /

    u / u u / u / u /

    u / u / u u / u /

    u / u / u / u u /

    then I set conditions for work that will not be symmetrical or repeating. For this to be easy on the ear, we need an ancillary, more obvious consistent structure or pattern enforcing regularity against which this more chaotic patterning will counterpoint. In this case, those ancillary structures are the aabb rhyme scheme and four-stress line length patterns of the stanzas.

  3. In a challenge used for real rather than academic or textbook creative work, there must be room for a relaxation of restrictions. That means, instead of requiring endless permutations of too many variables, you pick one point of focus for the combinatorial exercise (in this case, use triplets in each position and in no position). You exclude certain other possibilities: in this case, there is never more than one triplet in a line. (Otherwise there would be not 5 but 16 variations to include.) Limitation is the crucible wherein style is formed. You allow some other detailed variations to occur just a single time in the work: in this case, one line without an unstressed syllable (u / u /   / u /); and one where either a stressed or unstressed syllable is shifted to a secondary. These one-time occurrences (or “events,” to use a concept I first heard from John Mayer) are placed in spotlight positions, so that they resonate as both purposeful and meaningful.

 

The Incrementalists

I’m a big proponent of starting songs from distinct “seeds”—fragments of lyric, melody, rhythm, or just strong ideas for songs. This approach is pretty much the unspoken “go to” technique pro writers use to jumpstart their writing process on a regular, even daily basis. I describe a more intentional and disciplined approach to the practice in the first chapter of my new book, Songwriting Strategies: A 360º Approach.

One of the best sources I know for lyric seeds in particular is reading. One nice perk in catching seeds from reading: You flake out on the couch all afternoon reading your latest young adult, SF or mystery guilty pleasure. When you find a good phrase on page 237, you can say to yourself, in virtuous, only slightly defensive tones: “Well, actually I’ve been working all afternoon. This is research!” (Your spouse may not buy the argument.)

Recently I was reading a cool new book— The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White—that combines a bit of time travel (my favorite) with a bit of Dan Brown-ish secret society thriller, along with quite a droll tone. In one bit of dialogue, a main character says something like, “I was never good at good, I always believed in better…” That was my seed.

Continue reading

Gallery

A Good Song Crying From a Song Gone Bad – Bad Song! Part IV

I hope you’ve enjoyed my thread on the joys of bad song writing. I’ve introduced the bad song exercise, as a solo, co-write, or group exercise; and the Gallery of Horrors pages for your Songwriter Toolkit.

I always like to teach things I’ve tried, and try things I’ve taught. (There’s an example of a rhetorical device called chiasmus, which is another exercise!)

So I thought I’d share one piece of creative work with you, that came out of a self-challenge that came to me for my own writing as I wrestled with the idea of bad song writing. I like to push my writing forward by setting myself challenges, then trying to write them. I sometimes make the challenges fiendishly difficult: failing is fun, when what you set out to do was outlandishly unlikely in the first place.

I love songs about songs (I call them “meta-songs”), particularly songs where a song itself is personified in some way—even the very song being sung. As I was polishing up my bad song exercise, I thought about what it would be like to be a bad song. Would the bad song know it was bad? Would it think it was good? As I played around with the concept, I switched the point of view. How about a good song trapped inside a bad song? How would that song feel about its bad-song “environs” not to mention the lout that cooked up the mess in the first place? I had my concept.

Continue reading

Gallery

The Gallery of Horrors – Bad Song! Part III

In Part I of this thread, I introduced a “Bad Song!” exercise you can use as an ice-breaker or warm-up. In Part II, I gave some examples of great bad songs from the media, and pointed out that a talent for bad song writing is not such a bad professional skill to have in your toolkit. Here I return to the theme of using badness as a way of opening up your creative work. I guess you could call this “I’m bad and I’m proud…” or “I wrote it bad, and hey!—that’s good…”

Taking ourselves too damn seriously can definitely get us stuck.

Supposedly, late in his career, the composer Leonard Bernstein became creatively paralyzed. When he sat down at the piano he felt whatever he came up with needed to be “worthy of Leonard Bernstein.”

Now, I’m no Leonard Bernstein. But at times I “Simos freak myself out” in a similar way. I become the victim of my steadily rising standards, if not abilities. So there’s a specific tool I use to counteract the “Bernstein effect. When I come up with a real howler—a spectacularly terrible line—instead of throwing it away and trying to forget I ever wrote it, I collect it in an ongoing list I call my Gallery of Horrors.

Continue reading

Gallery

Bad Song! The Professional Possibilities of Bad-dom (Ba-dum?!) Part II

In my first “Bad Song!” post, I shared a “Bad Song” exercise I’ve developed that can be used in solo writing, as an ice-breaker or warm-up in co-writing, and as a classroom or workshop exercise. The spirit of this exercise is about letting go of professional aspirations for the resulting song. Otherwise it turns into “work” and you lose the point of the exercise.

That being said…

Since I first developed the exercise, the universe has been presenting me with a steady progression of great examples of “bad song writing” (not to be confused with “bad songwriting”!) that truly are professional opportunities.

First off, there are countless TV shows, like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Frazier, 30 Rock, and the like, where bad songs are integral to the story lines. Some of these songs are side-splittingly funny, like the episode of 30 Rock (Season 5, Episode 12, “Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning”) where Jack Donaghy decides to pre-record disaster relief benefit shows for disasters that haven’t happened yet. Jenna Maroney winds up singing: “Help the people the thing that happened happened to…”—which would be funny, even if she weren’t singing about “Mayhem in Mago” and the wreckage of Mel Gibson’s sex jacuzzi.

Continue reading

Gallery

Sentence Fragments Part 2: Putting Fragments to Work

Revision Strategies

Stuck with a lyric that is just not flowing properly? Read over and sing through your lyric. Listen for places where you have crowded the line by assuming you needed a whole, grammatical sentence, but could get by with less. Remember, less is more, or, in Fragmentalish: “Less—more!”

 Writing Challenge. Write a new song, lyric first, where at least one section, or section type (e.g, verse 1, or all the verses, or the chorus) is written entirely in fragmentary lines rather than complete sentences. How long can you sustain a series of these before you need to close off the thought, provide a complete statement? Use a shift from fragments to other kinds of lines (questions, statements, imperatives) as a way to create contrast between the sections. Notice how the effect of the length of lines is colored when the line is a fragment.

In this blog, I’ll always do my own challenges! When you’ve completed your “Fragmentarian Song” let me know; we’ll compare our fulfillments! Post it to SoundCloud or another media site, and send a link in a comment to this post.

Continue reading