Updated: Sep 27
About a year ago I was browsing around the internet and saw a Dungeons and Dragons starter kit. Though I have never played the game officially I remembered one summer at Camp Kanata, in my teens, seeing groups of campers who would play Dungeons and Dragons. The players were always rolling die, and filling in their character sheets with various numbers. Each number was for a certain ability, or statistic and so forth, and this would be useful as the story unfolds. They would create characters, and stories to be played in any fantasy world they could come up with. It suddenly struck me how similar this game was to writing, and especially in song writing. A spark of interest jolted me, as I immediately made the correlation between this gameplay, and what many writers must face when writing stories. Intrigued about this game I had never played, I decided to investigate further.
I looked at some of the old D&D books, and after a while I figured out how they play this game. In short, a dungeon master runs the game. He describes the world around them, what they can do or can't do. He explains circumstances and outcomes of pivotal points within the story. Other players explore a fantasy world the dungeon master has laid out in front of them. I think this is a good analogy for songwriting in general. In a lot of ways you the Songwriter are responsible for everything in your story. You control the characters, the background, the visuals, and the overall story of the song.
One key idea that helped me was, separating yourself as a songwriter from yourself as a person. By becoming a separate observer we can identify our own strengths and weaknesses. In songwriting we can focus on; lyrics, melody, harmony, and form and rhythm. Just like the campers rolling dice and filling in their character sheets, we can observe our own strengths and weaknesses as composers and songwriters. If we filled our own character sheet, here is what it might look like.
Songwriter A Songwriter B Songwriter C
Lyric + 5 Lyric + 2 Lyric 0
Melody + ? Melody + 5 Melody - 1
Harmony + 1 Harmony + 5 Harmony 0
Form -1 Form + 1 Form 0
Rhythm + 0 Rhythm -1 Rhythm + 1
My Songwriter A could be a +5 in Lyrics and story telling, but pretty low when it comes to understanding rhythm, and form. Songwriter B could have a +5 in melody, harmony, but only a +2 in lyric writing. Some of us might have a few negatives, question marks, or zeroes. An honest self evaluation of our songwriter will help us get a larger scope on what we need to work on. Ideally we want to evaluate our songwriter, and utilize our strengths, and improve our weaknesses. Even with a +5 in all of the elements, you will always have room for improvements.
Strengths and weaknesses help build character with your songwriting team. Some people have incredible story telling skills, and can find a lyric faster than you can locate your keys. I call these writers, “top liners”, because they can nail the title, or story of a song with almost complete ease. Others may be guitar geniuses, and have everything laid out for you to fill in the blanks. Some creators have a super powers that bring the song into the story, and catch all the little parts that fall between the cracks. Other writers may be more attracted to only one of the elements, but bring such a strong presence the idea is defined. Each individual has something to bring to the table, and their own way of understanding songwriting. We can create an overall map of our songwriting process to further understand these concepts, however building a strong foundation takes time and research.
Like the dungeon master, your writer controls everything in the picture, so make it fun and daring. You are responsible for what your characters see, and do. What shall be their personal fates? The practice of building characters, creating stories, and experiences greatly increase your abilities to come up with original content.
Every one of us, musician or not, has our own musical strengths and weakness which fall under any of the fiver elements of songwriting and composition. Perhaps it is in our best interest to study each of the elements individually, and bring them into play the next time we set out to write a lyric or piece of music.
For me this making the correlation between this fantasy, roleplaying, game and developing stories for my songs was a distinction that seemed similar. My epiphanies are weird sometimes, but perhaps this strikes a similar chord with you. If so please leave a comment. I hope to be sharing some new music with you very soon!
Beginning August 19, 2019, I will be teaching a songwriting class at South Brunswick Community College in Southport. The intention of this class is to give you the tools and examples you may use when writing your own songs and music. We will discuss each the elements including melody, harmony, rhythm, form, and lyric writing. The class will examine our songwriters map, and observe techniques for finding ideas to enhance your stories and music. The class will use examples of successful songwriters, literature, music and film to broaden and expand your creative potential. This class is going to be lots of fun, and I can’t wait to work with other songwriters in the area. If you are interested in signing up for the class, email me and I will put your name on our list for the next session.