What exactly is a song anyway? Introduction

I’m sure I speak for a great many people when I say I have a deep fascination with, and love for the humble song. From an early age I could be found on a Sunday afternoon creating primitive mixtapes by recording my favourite songs from the top 40 on Radio 1 onto cassette tapes. These were then played pretty much constantly until their untimely, warbly, chewed up demise. As I grew up I learned, mainly by ear, to play some of my favourite songs on the keyboard and later guitar, and would sing along making appropriately impassioned faces as I did so, while no-one was looking. It was here I started to appreciate, almost subliminally how these songs were constructed. I’ve continued to do that ever since, particular as a member of a function band which plays classic cover-band fare. Now I write songs myself, or at least I try to, for various projects. I write for my originals band Divisions which I’m sure I’ll talk about in future posts, but I’ve also written songs for friends (including one as a substitute for a best-man’s speech). I am proud to say that I know at least one of my songs has brought a tear to at least one eye, and a lyric to another has been inscribed indelibly on a friend’s arm (through choice I should add). Maybe one day I’ll write a song that is known the world over, and/or that facilitates my early retirement, but regardless, I believe that songwriting is something that I will always want and need to do, whoever is listening.

But what exactly is it, this song, whose variations and permutations beguile us so? What are the parameters, the rules-of-thumb, the absolute no-nos, the tolerable aberrations, the norms and the extremes of popular song? Is there such thing as the perfect song? Has it already been written? Would we know it if we heard it? And if has, then I demand to know by whom! I hope in this, and forthcoming posts to address at least some of these questions.

To begin, we should probably nail down exactly what a song is, in a legal sense. The song could reasonably be considered the basic unit of the music industry, its ‘bread and butter’ if you will. When all the glamour, groupies, debauchery, cocaine, sponsorship deals, suspended stage-lemons and general ridiculousness of the music business is stripped away, the song is still what sustains the whole shebang, making some people very ‘comfortable’ in the process. A song is actually the coming together of two, potentially quite separate endeavours, namely the creation of a musical work and the writing of lyrics. For a song to legally exist, it has to take some kind of physical (or digital) form, which can become particularly useful when disputes arise (as they do with, it would seem, increasing regularity) to be able to establish the true originator of a song, much to the delight of many an entertainment lawyer.

You can think of a song in its widest sense as a collection of words, set to music. In many cases, this set of words (the lyrics) could be considered to be poetic, (though I’m sure many poets might take exception to that). Beyond that, making further generalisations about songs becomes a rather slippery endeavour. The song is by no means the only artistic statement that combines music and words (there are operas and oratorios, motets and masses, and of course, the Go Compare advert), so let’s dig a little deeper into the song as a particular art form.

I’d like you to think about your favourite songs. Pick maybe three, or five, and consider if you will what they have in common, and how they differ from one to the next. While your selection may be infinitely varied in terms of genre, era, prevailing hairstyle etc, I’ll wager they share a great many attributes in common too. I’m going to hazard a guess that they all last roughly the time it takes to make a cup of tea (including boiling the kettle, and perhaps buttering a fruit scone). While they may be infinitely varied in terms of their overall structure, I’ll guess they entail an amount of repetition both musically and lyrically, and while they may incorporate a wide range of instrumentation from bouzouki to banjo, that instrumentation can be grouped into only a small handful of more universal ‘layers’. Of course you may be delighting in the fact that you’ve chosen an exceptionally short, long, unpredictable, sparse, dense or otherwise unusually constructed song, but I’m sure you’ll agree these represent the extremes of the bell-curve, and not the part from which the bell dangles.

Putting the above rather more succinctly, Cliff Goldmacher, in his blog post on “how not to suck at songwriting” sets out a few longstanding characteristics of the song.

“Most songs are between 2 and 4 minutes, have about a 12 second intro, rhyme, get to the chorus in under a minute, are about love and relationships and have a big repeatable, sing-able chorus.” (Goldmacher, C. http://www.cliffgoldmacher.com/how-not-to-suck-at-songwriting/)

While this (knowingly on the part of the writer, I’m certain) rather over-simplifies matters, I hope in forthcoming posts to expand these ideas a little, to try to get to the bottom of what really makes a song a song.




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