Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Elements of Music Style

Photo courtesy of The Constant Gatherer

I am looking for new material. I am spending hours tolling I-Tunes, You Tube, Music stores, artists’ websites, my own personal sheet music collection, bugging  all my song writer friends  and doing anything and everything it takes to hunt down material that’s just perfect. Finding a great song is an art unto itself, it’s sort of like being a museum curator. You have a number of wonderful possibilities in your collection but you have to pick just the right ones for the given moment. There have to be just enough to tell the story, but not so many that your audience is overwhelmed. They must work well together but each piece must be a gem in its own right able to stand on its own.  I make endless lists of songs when I’m on the prowl. To put together an hour of music which is somewhere between twelve and fifteen songs I will usually start out with a list of fifty to sixty songs. With my tendency to over prepare sometimes it gets close to a hundred.
Starting this process for the umpteenth time has me thinking about what it is that, for me, makes a great song. I think it really comes down to three basic things that have to be there, if a song doesn’t have these three elements then I don’t want to sing it. I can’t list them in order of importance because they are all equally important. Take away one and the other two are meaningless.
Emotional Resonance: A song has to reach me on a visceral level, and have emotional integrity. I look for emotional honesty, because it’s impossible for me to sing a lie. By that I don’t mean that I have to have actually experienced everything that happens in a song to be able to sing it (that’s where acting comes in) but there has to be a core of truth to the story. I really REALLY dislike songs that attempt to manipulate the listener into feeling a certain way. A great tune stays out of its own way and allows the listener to have their own emotional response without pre-programming it. 
Fantastic Lyrics: It doesn’t matter how honest a song is if the lyrics aren’t good then forget it. I’m looking for a complete story not endless repetition of a single thought.That is not to say that all songs have to tell a story in a traditional linear fashion, many don’t, but that the lyrics have to leave no doubt that there’s an entire emotional journey there.
Wonderful Melody: This isn’t just about how the song sounds, but how it feels too. A terrific song physically feels good to sing. The melody should support the story the lyrics are telling and not work against it. Melody can be seductive though.There have been times that I was so enamored of the melody that it took me a while to figure out that the lyrics weren’t up to snuff. In fairness, this has happened in reverse with lyrics catching my attention and the melody being subpar, but not as often.
Tempos, keys, arrangements, all these other things can be worked out if the bones are there. Truly, this is all it takes to make me a very happy girl, see how easy it is?


Jon88 said...

Hear, hear. Although "hear" is counter to the advice I give to people looking for material -- then, it's "read, read." In spite of my musical background, I encourage them to work lyrics-first, and not be distracted by a pretty melody. Granted, for some singers, the story is not an issue (he wrote, thinking about the swingy version of "Love For Sale" he just heard the other day; oh, those happy prostitutes!).

Wendy Lane Bailey said...

Ahh...I think I'm seeing a follow up post or two with one of them being the subject of arrangements. A happy, peppy "Love for Sale"?In the words of Holly Golightly "the mind reels". Thanks for sharing your great advice, I couldn't agree more!