Sunday, February 13, 2011

Song Element Hierarchy (According to Jill)

Songwriting Method/Songwriting Elements

     So, in light of a comment from one of my Conservatory buddies, I've realized I need to edit this post because some things weren't clear.

     What I am doing here is laying out my song element hierarchy.  If you're a songwriter or composer, yours may differ from mine (which is fine). All in all, I really feel that having set priorities is crucial to being a convincing, decisive songwriter.

     The following is a list of what goes into a song, organized according to what serves what in my writing. Starting with the top, you'll see that according to my hierarchy, Form serves Character, Melody & Lyrics serve Form and Character, and so on.

1) Character(s)
I took a creative writing class once, and my teacher shared with us some publication by some author that boasted the importance of building strong characters. The main point of the article was that if your character is strong, the plot will unfold on its own. To this day, I have extended that principle to my songwriting, and it's been working out really, really well.  
Strong characters are the great divider in the pop music world. A strong, multi-dimensional character is what separates a song that feels "real" and "true to life" from a song of the same style and proportions that should, logically, be strong, but feels overwhelmingly generic. You all know what I'm talking about - the type of song that's often written by pros for a guaranteed quick hit, but that no one ever listens to a year later because the song lacks a certain "je ne sais quoi". I can guarantee that the missing "intangible" in almost all of these situations is a deep, resonating character. The character is the song's core, so don't neglect yours!

      I have placed Character on top of Form because the Form should serve the Character.  However, I do think form is more important than Character, which is why I initially listed it first (before I edited this post). A strong Character, as I said, is the difference between a mediocre song and an unforgettable song. Form, however, determines whether a song stands or whether it simply confuses and alienates the listener.

2) Form
Form is the skeleton that holds the song together. Without it, everything - no matter how wonderful - falls like a poorly-built wall. This is why I often lay out the song's structure-to-be at the onset of composition. And I'm not just talking about the relationship in bar count between the verses and choruses; I'm also talking about micro proportions and ensuring that space is inserted correctly, and that melodies have the right variation points.

3) Melody (in all its components, including rhythm of the melody) & Lyrics
Only when Form and Character are in good standing can I have any faith in the Melody & Lyrics of a song. I've lumped them both into the same category because to me, they are one being. At times I'll look at them separately while composing, but they are still One, and both Melody & Lyrics carry the same weight when I am writing a song. Melody & Lyrics are the inner monologue of the character. The personality (as I mentioned above) is the core, and Melody & Lyrics are the air that the character breathes to survive.

4) Harmony (Chords) & Accompaniment
I originally listed rhythm here (before I edited the post), but what I really meant was rhythm section (drums, guitar strumming patterns, groove).  And it's not just them; guitar leads and chords are also elements I expect to serve my Melody & Lyrics.
Harmony & Accompaniment can really make or break a song. They exist to serve and to ground the Melody & Lyrics. Harmony and overall Accompaniment are the environment's response to the character as conveyed by his/her inner monologue (vocal line). They react to and reinforce what the character is feeling.

     These are my priorities that guide me as a songwriter. For others there will be stark differences. For example, in heavy metal, instruments that are merely accompaniment in my songs will carry much more weight. And that's fine and central to the genre. But as for me, I'm never going to write a vocal melody to serve a guitar riff or drum beat. Hip-hop is another example of a style that would contradict my hierarchy. Beats are just as central to hip-hop as are melody and lyrics, if not more. So, as long as we're clear that I'm not up on a soapbox telling everyone that this is the only way, but that this is simply what works for me and the type of song I write, what is your songwriting hierarchy? If you're not a songwriter, what elements are most important to you as a listener?

- Jill <3


  1. That's a pretty tight hierarchy. For my own writing, I rank rhythm much higher. If you strip the tonal information from a melody, it is still frequently recognizable and even evocative; if you strip the rhythm away from a melody, it becomes unrecognizable and loses all sense of gravity, movement, and intention. Rhythm is the most visceral of musical elements, the least slave to the intellect and most master of the body and emotions, so much so that someone with no exposure to your tonal language, no knowledge of your culture, and no idea what you're singing about can still experience so much just from the rhythms.

  2. Looking at my post, I realize I didn't make this clear. When I addressed melodies, I meant all components of melody, including the rhythm of melody. I agree with you completely that the rhythm of a melody is just as important as the notes. There is a bit of gray area in this hierarchy, I have to admit. But this is the basis of it.
    The rhythm I was referring to at the bottom was the rhythm of the accompaniment (drum beat, guitar strumming patterns, etc.)
    The purpose of this hierarchy was to demonstrate what serves what. Melody & lyrics serve form and character, and accompaniment (including rhythm, i.e. drums) serve melody and lyrics. So, if I'm writing a song and I want to extend the melody, but it's not working with the form, the form takes precedence and the melody serves the form. Maybe I should have put character before form, because everything for me starts with the character and the form should serve the character. However, I do think a strong form is more important than a strong character. I think I started this post listing what was most important, and then by the end, ended up listing what served what. I'll think more about how I organize posts in the future.