The Art of Listening To Songs #apme2018


Randy Klein, songwriter and SongU coach.

Randy introduces himself and talks briefly about his work in music education, including his publications, talks, and his experience of listening to other songwriters’ work over many years. Today he’s sharing with us the structure of his 16-week songwriting course, and he begins with the philosophy of definition i.e. the question ‘what is a song?’. He suggests that most technical descriptions of a song fall short of the mark of describing its subjective effects on listeners, noting how difficult this intangible would be to achieve. He provides a traditional melody-lyric-harmony definition of a song (i.e. omitting the Sound Recording or arrangement), and then asks the potential student question “If [a song is too intangible to hold], then how can I learn about it?”.

To the great amusement of the audience, Randy now talks us (literally, talks us) through the whole of the lyric to James Brown’s ‘I Got You’, demonstrating that it’s clearly a love song. He now separates the [love] song from the arrangement, describing the horn lick and Brown’s vocal as ‘ear candy’, building on the core lyric’s emotional intent.

There follows a list of technical questions that can be asked in analysis – form, bar count, lyric meaning, hook placement etc – and also some more subjective elements such as sing ability and lyric coherence. The analysis approach is flexible enough to be applied to most songs that have melody and lyrics – we see examples from Duke Ellington, U2, Cole POrter, R Kelly and many others.

By week 5 of the course Randy begins to deconstruct lyric framework, content, narrative and intent. Like many songwriters, Randy believes that songs are generally about one subject; he describes songs with multiple subjects as ‘problematic’. We see the lyric of The Royal Teens’ 1957 song ‘Who wears short shorts?’, as an illustration of a song with a simple, direct meaning.

In future weeks the course gets into sophisticated rhymes, and Randy talks us through the complex nested interior rhymes in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. There’s also a brief mention of Paul Simon’s Kodachrome. Rhymes, he suggests, have to be balanced – too many can be too much ear candy and can make listeners tune out. He also discusses over-lyric’d songs, using the term ‘Word Weariness’. A small number of examples of rhyme-less songs is provided, and examples include Bjork, Leonard Cohen, Tracy Chapman and Depeche Mode.

Towards the middle of the course, there is a week that asks the question about core song meaning, a common challenge for songwriting students. Randy teaches this through a combination of repertoire analysis and end-of-week test/exam.

From week 11 the course moves from lyrics to music, starting with melody, and the learning outcomes focus on memorability and singability. He describes a class game (a sort of reversed ‘name that tune‘) where students sing pitches one note at a time until the song is identifiable. Randy believes that this helps them to think deeply about singing and hearing intervals, because it forces them to render intervals more accurately than if they sang a whole phrase. In the next two weeks, rhythmic elements (of the melody) are incorporated, and students analyze songs according to the rhythmic scansion only. To illustrate, he again talks us through I Got You using only rhythms and no pitches. It is of course easily recognizable and distinctive. In a related classroom exercise, Randy gets his students to speak their own lyrics rhythmically, which can highlight areas of problematic scansion. Related analysis – Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry Be Happy.

In week 15 Randy’s analysis begins to talk about harmony. He points out that harmony can be a lifelong study for composers, and this is perhaps the reason his approach uses an emotional and non-technical approach to student analysis [presumably, to level the playing field between students with different levels of chord literacy]. He uses the Janis Joplin v Porgy & Bess versions of Summertime to illustrate how different harmonic approaches can engender different feelings. He also mentions the many versions of Carole King’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? [JB note – here’s a survey I did of listener perceptions of versions of this song a few years ago].

We hear, now, two versions of Harold Arlen’s Blues In The Night, and enjoy the Cab Calloway version. Students are asked to analyze the song using the listening techniques learned earlier in the course. The song provides an opportunity to listen for form, lyric, meaning, core feeling, rhyme structure, scansion, harmony, and melody.

Randy concludes with a quick mention of his book The QuickStart Guide to Songwriting, followed by enthusiastic questions from the audience.

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