Song Writing, Analysis and Performance     

Marc Lowenstein;; B238




This class is designed to help you find an analytic, well-informed, constructive, and compassionate critical voice that can both help you with your own songwriting and deepen your appreciation of other people’s songs as well.

Subjects will include standard and non-standard forms, common compositional tricks and starting ideas, differing concepts of harmonic function, hooks, stylistic referencing and mixing, lyric writing, the relationship of text to music, the role of oral musical traditions and individualism, the role of technology, and aural dictation.  

Although songwriting often seems to be intuitive and resistant to academic thinking, this is still not an easy, automatic class to complete because much of the subject matter deals with finding useful language to expand your intuition and balance it with objective yet compassionate self-criticism -- a tricky balance, and a life-long task.  


Compassionate Criticism


A large part of the class will be practicing a kind of criticism that might help you become a better composer and performer.  This kind of criticism varies from person to person, but a crucial element is recognizing that not only is the expression of musical a personal act, but that your reactions to music is also a personal thing.  Therefore a certain kind of openness and compassion is required when judging your colleagues music. Because you are all decent people, this part is not too difficult.  What requires a subtler more difficult discipline, though, is using this quality of judgement to help you look at your own work with a gentle yet fierce combination of dispassionate analysis and compassionate presence: Ideally, the ability to compassionately criticize the music of others in class can help you realize what choice you have as to what kind of voice you will use when talking to yourself about your own work.

[If necessary, I will get a tiny, annoying bell to ring for every needless self-deprecation uttered in class . . .]




There is a startling amount of work in this class: 


You will be asked to write at least one complete song every week, and sometimes more.  These songs will be written within certain given constraints which will in turn generally be organized around a different topic every week.  Sometimes they will be imitations of other styles and sometimes in whatever style you feel native to yourself, and often in hybrids of the two.  Sometimes you will be asked to write different versions of the same song.  These compositional assignments will be due in class every Tuesday.


You will also be asked to complete one written analysis per week, sometimes a comparative analysis and sometimes one about a single song.  Sometimes these analyses will be historic or cultural in nature.  Very often these analyses will include a dictation or taking down of the changes of a tune away from the piano.  These short written assignments will be due in class every Friday.  At the end of the semester, there will be two papers due:  A comparative analysis of two of your favorite songs, and a less formal, journal-style paper describing your reactions to the material of this class.


Finally, about every third week you will be asked to perform at least one song in class, sometimes one you have written, sometimes one by someone else.  You will be responsible for either accompanying yourself or arranging for whatever accompaniment you think suitable.  The class and you will then talk about the performance and the composition.




So, the basic schedule might be:

Friday: Lecture and discussion and listening centered around that week’s topic.

Tuesday: Performance of student works written around that week’s topic, with discussion and criticism and additional listening.

but....well....really....that specificity will probably dissolve as the semester goes along.




Although performance is required in this class and although it is part of the assessment, please note that vocal style and ability are not at all the point.  Keep in mind that although it is a very, very good thing to be able to perform your own music, some of the best songwriters in history were not great performers (though, really, most were truly excellent in their own way, so do work on it -- it actually helps your writing.  Really.)

A high pass will signify a growing mastery including 

•the demonstrated ability to incorporate ideas from other artists into a style that seems native to you

•the demonstrated ability to match your performance to the appropriate compositional style

•the demonstrated ability to communicate clearly why you have chosen to steal from other songwriters and what that has taught you.

A pass will signify a growing understanding of the song genre, including an ability to tie creative contemplative thinking with the performance of both your own and other people’s songs.  It will signify a 

A low pass will signify some understanding of your own music, and some understanding of the historical and cultural contexts and the musical analysis of other people’s songs.  A low pass will signify an inability to express well in words and music the choices you are making.

A No Pass will signify a lack of sufficient effort in trying to understand both your own and other people’s songs.

An NX will signify that you have missed more than two classes with unexcused absences.  Absences will be excused or medical or professional reasons. Please let me know as far in advance as possible. And “Oh I forgot to tell you I’ll be playing Sitar with Snoop Dog on the Tonight Show” has already been tried. (That it turned out to be true actually helped.)

There will be no incompletes given in this class, so do not fall behind.  A good faith effort to complete each and every assignment is necessary to pass the class.  

The number of permissible unexcused absences is shockingly small and somewhere between one and three.  


Classroom Demeanor


Students are expected to support one another and to be courteous to one another. Corollaries to those two principles include:

•Internet use during class should be limited to relevant topics and searches

•Students should at the very least pretend to pay attention to one another’s performances. 

•This includes showing up for them.

•This includes not leaving class early or showing up late.




Topics will include some, but not nearly all of the following items.  As we go along, we can decide as a class which topic we want to move to or stay with.  Even still, I hope the discussion will always be both focused and wide-ranging to the extent that on any given day we use these given topics not as a sort of law but merely as guide to helping us think more clearly about how these specific topics are relevant to our general love of songs.

BLUES ‘Country’ and ‘City’ blues.  Old Blues and new Blues.  Blues in unexpected places.  Bessie Smith et al.  Blues in the 50s, Blues by British bands of the 60s and 70s. Blues today.

SIMPLE LYRICS, COMPLEX LYRICS What makes different kinds of lyrics effective in different kinds of musical settings.  Narrative versus poetic lyrics.  Realistic versus metaphorical lyrics.  Hooks in the lyrics.

TIME Pop songs in ‘odd’ meters, pretentious and otherwise. The interaction between temporal complexity and harmonic and lyrical complexity.  Song performances with significant tempo modification.  Song performances with rhythmic freedom.  Songs based on bell patterns.  Form as a larger yet still metrical issue.

DESCENDING BASS LINES, CIRLE OF FIFTHS, I - vi - ii - V and I - V - vi - IV, THE ‘BORROWED’ MINOR iv Common chord progressions (with substitutions) and their many uses.  Common tricks that underlie many, many, many tunes.  Why and how songs sound different even when using the same harmonic underpinnings.

SCHUBERT AND BEYOND The songs of Schubert.  Folk idioms in Art songs.  Strophic forms.  Repetition, simplicity.     Prismatic harmonies.  Later Schubertists like Mahler and Britten and Weill.

SCHUMANN AND BEYOND The songs of Robert Schumann.  Understated forms.  Yearning Chromaticism.  Brahms. Wolf.

STANDARD AND NOT SO STANDARD POP FORMS.  IRREGULAR PHRASES. TRANSITIONS. Origins of standard forms, and shorter and longer exceptions.  How “C” sections seem to work and how to write them. Where hooks occur and why. ‘Art’ pop and ‘commercial’ pop.

THE BEATLES An overview of stylistic origins and changes.

OPERA ARIAS, 19th CENTURY OPERETTA AND MUSIC OF THE GILDED AGE Why opera ‘arias’ sound different from surrounding material and how to achieve that effect.  ‘Light’ opera.  Chromatic passing functions in late 19th century popular styles.

TONAL FUNCTION VS. FLAT 7th AND FLAT 3rds.  MIXED STYLES. Incorporating different styles of harmony, melody and rhythm at the same time.  African and Latin influences in pop music, pop influences in African and Latin music.

FOLKSONGS Simple melodies that are either from an aural tradition or sound like they are.  The importance of folk ornamentation and its descendants.  Western and non-western folk - traditions in pop music. Folk Rock.

JAZZ STANDARDS A look at American Classical Music of the 1930s through 1950s including Broadway tunes and Jazz adaptations.

A LITTLE BIT COUNTRY Tonality, form, lyrics and orchestration, from folksongs to the early Carter family to the present, including alt country and overt borrowings.

POST-TONAL AND PRE_TONAL CONCERT SONGS Art songs without any conventional harmonic function.




Throughout the semester, there may be reading assignments from a variety of sources.  There has been a rash of textbooks rushing in to fill this area, and they are naturally quite uneven. I am still searching for good ones, and in the meanwhile you might want to buy two books:

The Origins of Popular Style

by Van der Merwe

It is a unique book that talks about the development of popular musical languages in the 19th century and early twentieth century.  The writing is a wee bit British at times, but don’t hold that against him.

The Rock, Pop and Soul Reader

ed. Brackett

This is more of an anthology, and as more of a cultural history it has much less “music theory” in it, but is a very good reader.

Both these books are quirky, and are all the better for not particularly telling you what or what not to do.  Both of them, though, are provocative in that they can indirectly challenge you to confront, reject, transplant or re-grow all sorts of musical roots.  In addition, there will be at least one analytical paper towards the end of the semester in which you will be asked to comment on these books.

Also, two books I use in my Words for Music class are very, very relevant. They are quite different and complementary and extremely thought-provoking.

One is very Berklee (but, er, in a good way!)

Writing Better Lyrics

by Pat Pattison

And the other is a more academic, froo-froo, poetic book (but, er, still a lot of fun!)

The Poetry of Pop

by Adam Bradley