Creative Process Part 3 supplement — Teaching Song Writers

Yesterday, I described how in my work with Music That Makes Community, I have taught song leaders to lead singers who are not reading the music from paper.  The pedagogy draws on several principles we’ve encountered in this exploration of creative process.

Another workshop I have led for Music That Makes Community addresses how to write a song.  The workshop participants span a wide spectrum of experience and training, and the pedagogy exploits this by focusing on experiential learning, which not only helps beginners take advantage of their musical intuitions but also reminds trained musicians of how listeners absorb the ideas of composers.

The pedagogy relies on several principles we have encountered already:

Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate (from Clark Terry)

The importance of clearing one’s mind by focusing on something external (from Sanford Meisner)

The process of staging these processes one step at a time (from Bill T. Jones)

The workshop lasts 45 minutes and has what looks like a simple agenda.  Prepare participants to write their own music by inviting them to experience how . . . 

1. Melodies have a shape that takes the listener on a journey.

2. Memorable melodies include surprises such as  . . .

Melodic Leaps

We start by singing a familiar melody, “Amazing Grace” (the participants are almost all writing for a church context), and painting the melody with an imagined paintbrush. 

We talk about the basic shape of the melody we just painted.  It takes a journey and then returns home.  (This is not a prescription, only a bit of noticing.)  We then sing the words with the order of the melodic phrases inverted, so that “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound . . . ” is sung over the melody of “I once was lost but now am found . . .” and vice versa.  And we talk about what we noticed about that switch.

I then invite a participant to step forward, find one of the short texts I’ve posted along the walls, and sing the words using a melody of her own.  “See if you can sing one that takes a journey and returns home.” 

Note the various principles are at work here: Imitation (basing her melody on a simple shape idea of going away from the starting point and then coming back to it); focusing on something external (the texts posted on the walls relieve her of having to come up with words of her own); staging things one thing at a time (we have not yet discussed melodic leaps, dissonance, or syncopation.)

After she has improvised a melody, the group sings it back to her, and we discuss how the melody journeyed away and then returned home.  Two or three more participants are invited forward to try the same thing.

Then we move on to melodic leaps.  I have the group sing the opening lines of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as they paint the shape of the melody with their imagined paintbrushes.  We then try singing the same words with some of the leaps removed and talk about what difference the leaps and their absence makes.  We repeat this as we sing the opening lines of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”

A workshop participant improvises a melody using a text such as those seen behind her.

A workshop participant improvises a melody using a text such as those seen behind her.

The other participants sing her melody back to her.  Images via

The other participants sing her melody back to her.  Images via

Then I invite a participant to come forward, take a sample text, and sing it using a melody that takes a leap.  She sings, the group sings it back to her, and we talk about what difference the leap made.  More participants follow.

We follow this same pattern of learning as we sing and then improvise our own melodies with dissonance and then syncopation.  (Come to one of our workshops to see all of this in action.)

The participants are then asked to spend 40 minutes writing a quick song of their own (usually one-line in length) that they can teach to the group.  We invite them to use any of the sample texts on the wall or use a text of their own choosing.

Judging by the quality of the songs that are brought back to the group by even first-time songwriters, this method works.  We hear songs that have a sense of melodic shape (whether or not it returns home or not), melodic leaps, dissonance, and syncopation.  Most of the songs include several of these elements.  The participants are surprised to find how capable they are of doing something that many of them had never even thought of attempting.  They are also surprised by what their fellow participants come up with.

All of it attests to the insights of Terry, Meisner, Jones, and other master creators who have paid attention to the process of learning.

Thank you for reading.