Working on a Building: The art and craft of songwriting

Working on a Building

A song is a built thing. As such, its creation is dependent on the efforts of a builder who deploys a combination of intentions, skills, and tools to achieve a finished result.

The Holy Trinity of Songwriting

The final barometer of whether a song can be considered a successful creation depends on whether it meets three related criteria:

  1. Vision: Is there a discernible, experience-able “intention” driving the song? Is there a “point” to it? Is there a worldview at work behind it? Is there a reason for the song to exist, and is that reason woven into the DNA of the song itself?
  2. Craft: Has genuine skill been applied to the creation of the song? Is there “talent” of a kind at work? Has the song truly been “built” through the application of technique?
  3. Aesthetic: Is the song pleasing in some way? Does it move a listener? Is it beautiful? Not pretty, mind you—beautiful.

By these standards, the raw one-chord majesty of Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Moves On The Water” is every bit the equal of Beethoven’s “Eroica,” and that’s as it should be.

The Due Diligence of Songwriting

As a builder of songs, you are remiss in your duty if you fail to evaluate every component of what you’re building, as you work to fruition. Lyric, melody, harmony, rhythm. It is your responsibility to consider these components, and ensure you’ve done your diligence. It is not required of you that you audition your composition in every single available time signature, but it IS required that you have experienced, understand the full import of, and have a reason for, the time signature you choose.

At The Crossroads

All that said, the best songs emerge from the holy crossroads where craft and spontaneity meet. You must practice all your life for those singular moments when you must act as if you know nothing at all. This, among so much else, is what both Bukka White and John Coltrane teach us. The critical moments of inspiration and composition depend for their success on the craft that you bring to bear on those instances. As with any craft, you must practice, and as with any practice, you must understand how to be free.

The Neil Young Use Case

If you want to understand how all the above inter-relate, listen to Neil Young. His transparency, and bizarre willingness to let us hear EVERYTHING from the terrible to the divine, offers a rare opportunity to bear firsthand witness to what a successful song requires in the way of synergy. Musically, he is often a mess. Otherwise potentially wonderful songs are marred by unimaginative melodies, repetitive chord patterns, and hopelessly sloppy execution. Lyrically, he falls into cliche so often it’s a wonder he is not concussed. Great lines are often surrounded by the most appallingly banal lines. Rhythmically, he rarely strays from the “Crazy Horse Beat.” Songs run one into another, hardly discerning themselves. But when it all comes together, he writes songs of otherworldly stature, that few songwriters in history can claim to have matched. We may all have personal preferences when it comes to songs such as the following:

  • Helpless
  • Pocahontas
  • Cinnamon Girl
  • After the Gold Rush
  • Old Man
  • The Needle and the Damage Done
  • Powderfinger
  • Only Love Can Break Your Heart
  • Heart of Gold
  • Cortez the Killer

But it’s hard to refute that they each in their own way represent remarkable convergences of spontaneity and craft, that they each meet the trinity of Vision-Craft-Aesthetic, and that they are each, in their own way, great songs.

The Complexity of Simplicity

Perhaps the most complicated concept, when it comes to the art and craft of songwriting, is the question of simplicity, because, what IS simplicity? Is this haiku by Basho simple?

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

If you want to experience songwriting perfection, listen to the opening couplet of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”:

Jolene, I’m begging of you please, don’t take my man
Jolene, please don’t take him just because you can.

The melody is perfection. The instrumentation and arrangement are perfection. The lyrics are perfection. Her vocal is perfection. The great Zen master Dogen once wrote, “The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.” The whole world and the entire sky are reflected in the first two lines of this perfect song.

That said, don’t be fooled by the seeming simplicity. To understand the complexity of simplicity, listen to Thelonious Monk’s re-harmonizations of Harold Arlen’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” on the “Monk Alone” collection. To hear this performance is to experience a completely different enactment of the Vision-Craft-Aesthetic triumvirate.

Working on a Building

The point is, there is no right answer. There is no universal definition of perfection. There is only the work. The work of songwriting is to work your songs. To build.


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