Working the Body Language of a Song (Part 1)

Pat Pattison is a professor at the Berklee College of Music and a widely respected songwriting coach and mentor.  I’ve written about his approach to songwriting before and find it a helpful way to approach the process most especially during the revising and polishing stage of writing.

If I were to identify two key ideas that inform his approach to writing better songs they would be these:

  1. prosody
  2. stability/instability

I’ll talk more about Pattison’s notion of prosody in a future post but for now I want to focus on his second idea of stability/instability.  The idea is closely related to the notion or consonance/dissonance in music (or tension/release in other forms of writing).  Depending on the intended emotional effect of a piece of music, as writers we want to be aware at all times whether the idea or expression has the quality of assertiveness (stable) or uncertainty (unstable). 

More importantly, we want to be able to use techniques that help our writing to convey these qualities in effective combinations.  In other words, we want to design both stable and unstable elements into our songwriting.

The simple I-IV-V formula for blues progressions is an example of these two elements in a time-honored combination.  It begins with the tonic (I) chord, moves to the subdominant (IV) chord creating a sense of movement (slightly unstable), then back to the dominant (stable), then to the subdominant briefly before heading to the dominant (V) chord (unstable).  With the dominant (V) chord, instability/tension is at its maximum and it resolves satisfyingly back to the stable tonic (I) chord.  It’s like a journey that takes us away and brings us back home.

Many songwriters already understand this aspect of music composition but some like me hadn’t thought about applying it when we set words to music.  And that’s where Pat Pattison’s notion of ‘body language’ in lyrical phrasing comes into play.

More about that in the next posting.

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