Richard Middleton
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"Theory and Songwriting"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, September 2001.

The simplest and most powerful way for songwriters to grow and develop their craft is to sing, play, and closely study great songs written by accomplished songwriters. It almost goes without saying, no? And yet as obvious as this suggestion may seem, it is often overlooked, and even actively avoided, by many people.

The reasons for this vary. Some folks don't consider themselves musicians, feeling that they lack the talent — or the time — to acquire the necessary skills. Some folks are afraid that knowing too much about music will "spoil" it for them. Some have an aversion to music theory that borders on the phobic. Others are able to play an instrument and yet they never play other people's songs, either out of pride or because they want to avoid being influenced too much.

What these folks don't realize is that they're cutting themselves off from one of the most vital sources of inspiration and information available to them: the thousands of excellent songs that have already been written. Even though they may "know" many songs in terms of being able to sing along, they've never taken the time to get to know them in a deeper way, chord by chord, line by line. They don't know what makes a given song tick.

Such songwriters are at a real disadvantage. They have little direct understanding of the musical building blocks that songs are made of, and the many paths that they can take with their melodies, chords, and rhythms. They have only a superficial appreciation for the history of songwriting, for the innovations and insights that have come before. Consequently, they have a narrow perspective on their own work and run the risk of sounding banal, of reinventing the wheel, or of painting themselves into a musical corner.

Ideally, a songwriter should be as skilled and conversant with music as they are with English. But any amount of musical knowledge is better than none. Scales, melodies, chords, bass lines, phrasing, rhythms, arrangements — these are the musical tools of the songwriting trade. Learn them. Be a musician. Learn to play an instrument. Learn music theory and how it applies to songwriting. Treat songwriting as a musical craft and put in your time as a musical apprentice. Play and study the works of great songwriters.

Of course, what and who is a "great songwriter" is up to you. The point is that you should study the songs that you like and admire, that speak to you, that inspire you. Get to know them by heart, inside and out, so you know how they're put together, so that their wisdom becomes your wisdom.

This advice is nothing new, and may seem obvious to the point of being trite. But I can't tell you how many writers I have met who don't follow it. Some are intimidated, some merely think it unnecessary, and some feel that songs are somehow too "personal" to be written with rigor and craft. Whatever their reasons for their musical ignorance, both they and their listeners are the poorer for it.

I've even known writers who, rather than aspiring to excellence, seem intent on proving how easy it is to write a song. One beginning songwriter told me, "This stuff on the radio is crap. I could easily write something like that." In other words, "I don't like this music, but I'm going to emulate it." And he proceeded to try to do so.

I told him that he would do much better to find something that he liked and admired and use that for his model. But he didn't want to hear it. This man had a very real gift for melody, but because he would not develop his musical skills, he was not able to fully exploit it. In fact, his choice forced him to remain dependent on other musicians to give shape to his musical ideas, an unnecessarily laborious (and often expensive) process.

Musical skill is not just a "plus" for a songwriter — it's almost a necessity. But you don't have to be a professional performer or technical virtuoso. You just need to know how to get around on your instrument, where everything is and what it's called, and be able to play simple yet accurate arrangements of the songs you're studying.

Play from chord charts, lead sheets, or by ear if you can — whatever it takes to perform a song well enough so that it sounds decent and you can understand how it's put together. Examine its working parts, how it gets from one place to another, how phrases resemble or answer each other, the relationship between the chords and melody, how the different sections contrast with one another.

Ask yourself, How do the music and lyrics work together to strengthen the song's message? What is the most emotionally powerful point in the song? Why? It's also instructive to compare different songs with each other. Notice how the same chord changes can be used in different ways. Notice how different lyrical messages are served by different musical treatments.

Playing other people's songs and letting them influence your own does not doom you to merely imitative, second-rate work. On the contrary, it provides you with the knowledge, tools, and confidence you need to write something with real merit.

In fact, study and imitation are time-honored tactics of students in any discipline, particularly in the arts. Students of painting often copy the works of great masters. You often see art students in museums, faithfully tracing the lines and forms of famous paintings with their eyes and with their pencils, hoping to embody something of the original's grace and power in their own gestures.

Take a cue from these students and let yourself follow the contours of great songs, learning their ways and means, their quirks and idiosyncrasies, their individual personalities. The more you do this, the stronger and surer your musical intuition will be, and the more adaptable you will be as a songwriter.

Good choreographers are also good dancers. They understand first-hand the physical and expressive reality of the body, and they can communicate that understanding to the dancers whom they are directing. Good authors are also good readers, and are ardent lovers of language and literature. Similarly, good songwriters are also good musicians. They speak and understand the language of music and can eloquently express themselves in that language.

So, if you are a songwriter, consider yourself a musician as well. Be a lifelong student of the art and craft of songwriting, and study the work of other songwriters. Consider the vast body of songs that have ever been written as your personal toolbox, and get to know it well. You'll be glad you did. Enjoy!

Copyright 2001 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).