Songwriting - Art or Science? Guest post from Mark Sims
Updated: Dec 10, 2020
Song Writing – Art or Science?
20 years ago, I worked at University and I always found it interesting that on Graduation Day, those who qualified, were awarded a BA or BSc - all except Music Graduates who received a BMus. Music – Art or Science? Clearly, Academia, can’t decide.
My own take is that songwriting has both artistic and scientific elements. I think we would agree that the lyrical element is very much an art, just like any type of creative writing; poetry or story-telling. The music, on the other hand, combines art and science, leaning quite heavily on the latter.
I should point out at this stage, that I hold none of the above degrees, I cannot read music, I do not understand what a pentatonic scale is, I cannot tune my guitar by ear. I just enjoy writing songs. I understand the art elements a lot more, because, it seems, I have a decent command of language (in my case, English) and I have always enjoyed creative writing. I can also create a tune, a melody, a hook, these rely more heavily on science, which I really don’t understand, and it’s pure luck that my songs seem to work musically and structurally. I do not understand why certain chords go together and others don’t, I do not understand the concept of a minor chord or a seventh or a diminished chord, I just stumble on them because they seem to work at that particular moment of a verse or a chorus. Over time, I have learned how to use them.
The Science of Sound
Stringing a guitar tells you that the tighter the string, the faster it vibrates, the higher the note. The lower sounding strings are wound and heavy, the higher ones, slim and light. The strings of a bass are (to the eyes of a guitarist) massive. We can see the science at work. You can tune a guitar without hearing the sound of the note you are playing. Guitar tuners work, not on sound, but vibrations. The tuner tells you that the pitch is correct, simply by how many times the string vibrates, based on its size, length and tautness, this is surely science.
How to Write a Song?
The most common questions I get at gigs, especially from non-songwriters are simply “So how do you write a song? What comes first the words or the music?” There are of course, no rules. For me, it’s the words. I suspect this is because I have an O-level in English and a No-Level in music! I find it much easier to put a sentence together, than a bar of music (the latter I couldn’t write down, even if I wanted to). If I was musically trained, I suspect it would be the reverse way. But for me it’s always the words. In this respect, I suspect that lyrically, I am 90% artist and 10% scientist – the 10% being, not the words, but the rhythm of the words and how they complement the tune or melody.
Sometimes all it needs to spawn a good lyric, is a good title. I rarely write a complete set of lyrics first though; usually one verse and maybe a chorus, this provides the rhythm for the music, once it works on say, a four line verse lyric, I find it quite easy to write other verses because (1) I already have the theme, the story (art) (2) I already have the rhythm, some complimentary notes (science). I already know whether lines 1 & 2 or 2 & 4 rhyme, or maybe none of them rhyme. The structure is in place.
One trick I taught myself, was, on one occasion, I was struggling with the rhythm of the verse, so I decided to write the lyrics so they fitted a very well-known cover which I sometimes played at open mics. It gave me the lyric rhythm which I was struggling with, and I knew it would work because it made its writers a million back in the day, and then I completely changed the melody and the chords and you would have to be a very clever musical theorist to find the old cover I used! I used the existing science as a canvas for my art.
Keep it Simple
I am amazed at how many great songs are based on really simple chord structures. Many use just 3 simple chords, then maybe add a couple more in a chorus or bridge, some even use just 2 throughout a whole song. It is the melody and rhythm of the vocal and other instrumentation which makes the song memorable in those cases, but the simple chords underpinning the song, make it easy on the ear. The only bit of theory I (kind of) understand is the sequence I’ve seen called 1, 4, 5. This entails writing the standard scale in order, with the first chord at the beginning, then count along to the 4th and 5th notes in the sequence. These 3 notes give you the standard Rock’n’roll song structure. (1) G (2) C & (3) D is one example, A, D, E is another. This is another example of using the science and then adding the art. There are so many famous songs that use the structure, but they are all different in some way. The science remains constant, the art has no limits.
Minor Chords for Melancholy
Reading an article that stated that minor chords are sad chords was revelatory. Not 'why' is a minor chord a minor chord and all that guff about the root note etc. but just the fact that minor chords DO make a song more melancholy. Having read that article, I revisited my more melancholy songs and discovered they were full of minor chords. I had not known this concept when I wrote them, I just stumbled on the chords which felt right. The article also, very interestingly, featured a clip of the song "Losing My Religion". It is pretty much all minor chords (especially Am & Em) and it is a very melancholy song. But the clip had transposed it using major notes A & E, The song still sounded great, but it was transformed into a happy, upbeat song (lyrics excepted!) This I found intriguing.
The article then went on to say there was a study, where minor and major chord-based songs were played to an African tribe whose members had no concept of pop music or understanding of the lyrics and they could easily pick out sad songs from happy songs, just by the proliferation of minor or major chords!
But what I did learn was that the human ear (who knows, maybe the animal ear too?) is programmed to hear major notes, we are comfortable hearing A, C, G etc etc. but when we hear something that initially doesn’t conform, it triggers a response, in the case of a minor chord, which to my untrained brain, I would describe as a 3 note chord (triad?) where 2 of the notes are as expected, but one is slightly different or missing, then the effect is not unpleasant to the ear, but takes our unconscious thoughts elsewhere; to somewhere sad or exciting or uncomfortable. If you can do this as a songwriter, you’re on to a winner.
Most beginners learn Am & Em as well as A & E, so right from the start, the capability to write happy and sad songs is there.
Sevenths for dreamers!
In every chord book and many songs, you will stumble across “sevenths”. I do not, for one minute, understand what constitutes a seventh, but I know that like minor chords, they are slightly non-conformist and also trigger a human response; in this case, they seem to create either a more dreamy sound or in some cases, a slightly unsettling sound. I don't know why this is. As before, it's something to do with the major chords being what we expect to hear, so any deviation takes us out of our comfort zone. I have a song called "Swimming at Havre des Pas" which in my own modest, small island surroundings has become quite well known; The most distinctive parts of the song are two sevenths; CM7 & E7. The song works without the CM7 as the intro note or the E7 on the 2nd line of the chorus, but it is less distinctive. I just have to strum the CM7 at the start of the song, and the audience, if they’re familiar with my songs, know its “Havre des pas”. I don't think you could do that with a Major chord?
One other type of chord I play (purely by chance, you must understand by now!) is a Suspended chord. It’s a D7(sus2) since you asked. I have no idea what this means, I had to ask a friend to identify it after my fingers just found it at the right time in a song – it just requires 2 fingers would you believe, so it’s beginners stuff really. I found it to accompany the word “cloud” and now when I hear that chord, I hear and see clouds. If a cloud made a sound, it would be a D7(sus2). Maybe that’s just because of word/note association or perhaps clouds really do sound like a suspended note? Suspended in the atmosphere! Art or Science? Who knows?
If you’re still reading, then thank you, and congratulations, you have the determination and stickability required to be a songwriter! I hope that my own little BMus course has been of use to you. Most of the above, I have discovered having read articles and then retrospectively revisiting my songs, I do not believe there is a scientific formula to writing songs, but there are some things it’s worth bearing in mind. Certainly, understanding the effect of Minors and Sevenths has really helped me as I continue to write songs as the lyric can inform which musical path I might want to take.
Keep writing songs, don’t be afraid to play them live (if ever we get the chance again!). Remember Wonderwall (very strange chords) and Sweet Caroline were once unleashed on an unsuspecting public who probably wished they were listening to something more familiar at that very moment.