Turns out, a great deal. Songwriting has, in fact, been one of the more recent demands that has kept me from blogging over the last couple of months. Let me be clear: I do not consider myself an expert musician, composer, or lyricist of any sort. But, in response to outside requests, I have had to wear the songwriting hat quite a bit over the last year—and I must say, it has enriched my understanding of what makes both stories and songs work and what makes them lame.
These observations will not apply to the mass-produced, run-of-the-mill stories and songs that play to audiences primarily seeking predictability. Instead, I make these observations about stories and music that defy the well-worn three-chord structure that we have all become so familiar with. This is not because these works have no place, but rather because I suspect most of us in The Inquisitive Inkpot community are interested in content that stimulates and moves us to a more fulfilling, more satisfying place.
So how do we get to that place?
If we have no conflict, we have no questions. And if we have no questions, we have no stakes. And without stakes, we have no reason to keep reading, watching, or listening. Stories and songs alike must create emotion, and in order to do that, we must build tension. If all conflicts in a story got resolved in the first chapter… would we keep reading?
This is why the three-chord structure in songs often falls flat (pun intended). If we have introduced and resolved musical tension within five seconds, landing right back on the major chord we started on, there’s not much emotion we’ve given the audience. The stakes can only be raised so high in the first five seconds, which is why we need to prolong that exploration of tension and keep them waiting for that resolution.
Practically, this means that you as the songwriter have to steer away from simplistic, familiar territory. You might even have to grow uncomfortable waiting for your own resolution. Revision will help you avoid extremes, but if you are trying to create something fresh-sounding, it’s better to err on the side of deferring resolution.
It’s not enough to keep the audience holding their breath—there need to be moments where we actually take their breath away. Every interesting story has plot twists where we’re forced to admit, “Wow, didn’t see that coming!” The element of surprise isn’t exclusive to thrillers—it’s shared by every story with dynamic characters and events.
In songwriting, this is where we as composers show the audience all the different places we can go musically and thematically before landing on resolution. We take them on a journey, where they don’t know the next note, chord, or sequence waiting around the corner. We don’t have to jostle them around constantly, but we should play our cards gradually so that once they’ve heard the full verse, they don’t automatically know the first line of the chorus. And once they’ve heard the chorus, they know there’s something more ahead than just a repetition of the first verse and chorus.
Simply put, we cannot take our audience on a riveting adventure only to end the story or song with a sequence they could have spotted miles away. Otherwise, we have a product that, if the middle gets trimmed out, flows like one of those mass-produced works we tried to differ from. Even if the ending is happy, the characters must be different than they were at the beginning. Even if we end on the original major chord, the notes preceding that chord must take a dynamic path to reach that chord.
In other words, if we have spent the previous two hundred pages, two hours, or two and a half minutes delving into complex emotions and themes, we cannot cheat at the ending. We have to deliver the promised resolution in a way that leaves the audience satisfied. Now a satisfied audience in this case doesn’t have to be a cheery audience or an audience with no further questions. In fact, some of the most powerful stories and songs are those that leave us wanting more. But there must be some level of catharsis, in which the audience receives the answer to the most pressing question.
The degree to which a story becomes compelling relies heavily on the stakes and on how long we are forced to wait for that final resolution. And the cathartic “aha” moment will be that much greater, if we’ve taken the audience on a wide and deep emotional journey in our novel-writing, screenwriting, or songwriting.
As with any art form, different genres have different conventions and audience expectations. I don’t think any one genre has the corner on fulfilling, engaging stories/music, but one of my constant sources of inspiration is film scores. Many songwriters tell stories in which only their lyrics really speak— the words are otherwise cliche and unmemorable. Film scores remind me of how loudly music itself can and should speak. Woven together, lyrics and music can wield a unique power.
For anyone straddling multiple forms of creative writing, I encourage you to think about the areas of overlap between specialties. You never know what insights from one might apply to the other. 😊