This is an academic paper on the subject of collaborative songwriting in the studio. It was presented at the 6th Art of Record Production conference in Dec 2010 and appears in the Journal of the Art of Record Production Conference Proceedings – ISSN 1754-9892. Please feel free to download/cite it as you think fit. The correct citation is;
Bennett, J., 2011. Collaborative songwriting – the ontology of negotiated creativity in popular music studio practice. In Journal of the Art of Record Production 2010. Leeds, UK: Art of Record Production.
In keeping with my view that academics should make their research as freely available as possible, you can download the whole paper here.
Collaborative songwriting – the ontology of negotiated creativity in popular music studio practice
Bath Spa University
The relationship between songwriting practice and song product is an under-explored one in popular musicology, still less so in a studio-based environment. Our research sources are accordingly limited, drawing mainly on first-hand retrospective interviews with artist-songwriters, who may have an incentive for self-mythologising, or at least romanticising their songwriting methods to preserve fan perceptions of authenticity. There are no available real-time observations of the collaborative processes involved in creating popular song, despite the huge economic and artistic successes of songwriting partnerships throughout the history of our field. Sloboda (1985) identifies the reluctance displayed by composers of any sort to participate in detailed analyses of their processes; these difficulties are exacerbated further by some songwriters’ apparently deliberate mystification of their craft. Attempts to analyse processes of musical composition have generally focused on single-composer models (Nash 1955); even studies relating to collaboration remain concerned with instrumental art music (Hayden & Windsor 2007) or educationally-based observation subjects (Burnard & Younker 2002).
This paper builds on the single-songwriter research of McIntyre (2009) and the theoretical definitions of creativity provided by Csikszentmihalyi (1996). It explores, through analysis of ‘hits’ and examples of emerging practitioner-based research, the inferences that can be made by comparing historical and current songwriting practice with the finished product, and attempts to identify commonly-used collaborative models, including a discussion of the effect of the presence (or absence) of studio technologies as mediator of the songwriting process.
Popular song is one of a handful of unsubsidised populist art forms (other examples being mainstream cinema or video games) that could be described as truly market-driven. The market validates works (e.g. download charts, gig attendances or YouTube clicks) and provides the economic circumstances for creators to make new work (through royalties to the songwriter). Many other art forms – opera, contemporary dance, sculpture, fine art, poetry, art music, and some theatre – are not economically self-sustaining without some form of subsidy in addition to the consumer’s own contribution. This difference in economic context provides a different creative climate – perhaps a paradox – for the songwriter, who is trying to create an original work within a highly evolved, market-driven, and tightly constrained creative palette.
Thus, some Darwinism is at play in the metrics of gig attendance, CD sales charts, airplay and downloads. Unsuccessful songs die due to lack of interest, and successful songs survive to be heard by many listeners. The evolutionary metaphor could be taken further – elements of originality in a successful song (let’s call this originality a ‘genetic mutation’) may inspire other songwriters to incorporate these ideas into future songs. The celebrated psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi applies this Darwinist model to all creativity, describing the palette of accepted creative ideas as the ‘domain’ in his Systems Model of Creativity (1988). Domains are validated by a ‘field’; his catch-all definition of creativity describes this as a ‘field of experts’, although in the case of popular song the experts in question are consumers, albeit mediated by the mechanics of the music industry’s pre-selecting gatekeepers (A&R, record companies, music publishers, radio playlisting etc). The third element of Csikszentmihalyi’s system is the individual; if a creator invents a field-validated object that then survives to join the domain, the individual has been truly (capital C) ‘Creative’. If we apply the Csikszentmihalyi model literally to the world of popular song then perhaps only enduring classics are truly Creative; I suggest that the definition of (lower-case c) creativity in songs has a lower threshold. There are many songs that are ‘original’ works (in the legal sense) that may become economically successful, but this does not necessarily mean that they will become influential in the domain of songwriting.
2 Popular song – definition by constraint
The economic mechanisms that drive audience approval of songs have another important effect – they shape the art form itself. This contention is framed by the assumption that all art forms (that can be categorised) are at least part-defined by their constraints – a haiku being a prosaic but usefully simple illustrative example. Popular songs have, through audience-driven ‘natural selection’, evolved many characteristics in common with each other that, I suggest, define the form, or at least the popular mainstream of which less (literally) popular niche genre-songwriting activities form tributaries. The table below (Fig 1) demonstrates a selection of these, compiled through my analysis and observation of the Anglo-American singles and albums charts 1954-2010. This is not to say that all songs will exhibit these characteristics; rather, a majority of them will appear in almost all successful songs, and some mainstream classics will have most or all of them. For example, at the time of writing (October 2010) the current UK number 1 download is Bruno Mars’ Just The Way You Are – a song that exhibits 100% of the characteristics, as do the majority of songs in the current top 10. A comparison to the equivalent top 10 from any decade since 1960 gives much the same results, allowing us to speculate that some of the constraints that define song form may be constants, at least in mainstream hits of the last 50 years.
Fig. 1 Common characteristics of mainstream hits
- First-person sympathetic protagonist/s, portrayed implicitly by the singer
- Repeating titular choruses (where the song is in chorus form), usually containing the melodic pitch peak of the song, which summarise the overall meaning of the lyric
- Rhyme – usually at the end of lyric phrases
- One, two or three human characters (or a collective ‘we’)
- Feature an instrumental introduction of less than 20 seconds
- Include the title in the lyric
- Sung between a two-octave range from bottom C to top C (C2 to C4), focusing heavily on the single octave A2 to A3.
- Thematic lyric content relating to (usually romantic) human relationships
- Use underlying 4, 8 and 16 bar phrases, with occasional additions or subtractions
- Based on verse/chorus form or AABA form
- 4/4 time
- Maintaining one diatonic or modal key
- Between 2 and 4 minutes in length
As McIntyre (2001) implies, form constraints are understood by experienced songwriters; they are the landscape in which song originality thrives. Indeed, all musical forms could be said to be defined by constraints, and these may actually increase creative opportunity, as Stravinsky notes;
“…my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” (Stravinsky 1942)
When two or more songwriters collaborate, they will share a desire for their song to be heard by others; this is frequently economically-driven, but also born of a creative and artistic goal – to make an object that communicates emotionally. In the case of non-performing songwriters an additional factor comes into play – the song has to be suitable for a particular (or hypothetical) performer, who may or may not be part of the songwriting team. Mainstream songwriters who work with a variety of other collaborators may have an implicit understanding of the norms of songwriting, and write songs that adhere to most of these norms, breaking occasional constraints according to taste. Jez Ashurst, a songwriter who has written for Boyzone and other pop artists, describes his relationship with form thus;
“You want the chorus to come in between 40 seconds and a minute and you’ll want the song to be [ending] within three to four minutes […]. If you get to the end of the second chorus, and you’re with another writer, they’re not going to say [to each other] “what happens now?”. You’ll know that you’re going to do something for about 16 bars and go back to a final chorus. It’s almost a given. [So as a songwriter] you know the shape of the box, and you’re happy to be in that box.” (Ashurst 2010a)
For the full version of this paper please download the pdf.
Ashurst, J., 2010a. Jez Ashurst interview – on collaborative songwriting (April 2010). Interviewed by Joe Bennett.
Ashurst, J., 2010b. When The Well Dries Up. Myspace blog – Jez Ashurst. Available at: http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=202597070&blogId=531729156 [Accessed May 8, 2010].
Bell, L., 2011. International Skype Songwriting! | Lisa Bell Music Singer/Songwriter. Lisa Bell – songwriting blog. Available at: http://lisabellmusic.com/2011/01/international-skype-songwriting/ [Accessed May 4, 2011].
Bennett, J., 2009. Crows, Rooks and Ravens – the songs Â« Joe Bennett. Joe Bennett website. Available at: https://joebennett.wordpress.com/2009/03/09/crows-rooks-and-ravens-the-songs/ [Accessed May 4, 2011].
Bennett, J., 2011. How long, how long must we sing this song? Â« Joe Bennett. Joe Bennett music blog. Available at: https://joebennett.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/how-long-how-long-must-we-sing-this-song/ [Accessed May 3, 2011].
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 Boden (2004) defines this manufacture of historically significant works as ‘H-creativity’ and contrasts it with ‘P-creativity’, where a creative idea is psychologically new to an individual but not necessarily new to world history. Thus, all H-creative ideas are P-creative, but not all P-creative ideas are H-creative.
 Song duration in successful hits is one of the easiest constraints of form to illustrate with hard data (Bennett 2011); chart/sales analysis of these data can also provide evidence of ‘evolutionary’ trends over time.
 Moore cites JJ Gibson’s model of ecological perception (1986), and for the purposes of this discussion my ‘constraints’ could be described as a Gibsonian ‘environment’.
 Blunt can be heard ‘backgrounding’ the contributions of his professional co-writers in interviews (Hewson 2009).
 One recent application of the co-researcher role in the observation of collaborative composition can be found in Hayden & Windsor (2007).
 Pettijohn II and Ahmed (2010) found in a longitudinal study of the Billboard charts 1955-2009 that collaborative teams were responsible for as many number 1 hits as individual songwriters.
 Paulus’ findings do not necessarily contradict this assertion; the generation of twice as many ideas may simply increase productivity. Economic Darwinism is still a deciding factor in the eventual success of the end product, regardless of the circumstances of its creation.
 This distinction between genuine and ‘name-only’ co-writing is particularly important in the case of Lennon/McCartney, where very few songs were actually co-written in the sense of a two-part creative collaboration; rather, the co-writer’s role was primarily one of veto. McIntyre (2009) discusses this in more depth, as does Clydesdale (2006).
 See also Zollo (1997, pp.656-658)
 A remarkably precise illustration of Tagg’s melody/accompaniment dualism (Tagg 2009, p.268).
 Internet technologies have facilitated this model greatly since the 1990s, and there is some emerging evidence (Bell 2011; Bennett 2009) that synchronous/real-time online technologies (e.g. Skype) may be playing an increasing part in this model and others, allowing more opportunities for online implementation of the ‘traditional’ models.
 Hawkins (2003) reasonably uses the more contemporaneous word ‘track’ to describe House music, although during recent years ‘tune’ is becoming increasingly fashionable term for some forms of mainly instrumental dance music in the UK.
 A function in music recording software that enables a particular section to be repeated ad infinitum by the operator.
 This approximate forty-year period is arguably a close ‘evolutionary’ parallel to the ever-increasing tonal sophistication that developed over 500 years in European art music, from the Renaissance to Serialism.