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«Introduction In this paper I will discuss some of the challenges I have faced while developing a postgraduate curriculum in a relatively undeveloped ...»

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Creating an MA in Songwriting

Andy West, Senior Lecturer in Commercial Music, Bath Spa University

Creating an MA in Songwriting

Andy West, Senior Lecturer in Commercial Music, Bath Spa University


In this paper I will discuss some of the challenges I have faced while developing a

postgraduate curriculum in a relatively undeveloped field of academic study. In my

role as a Senior Lecturer in Commercial Music at Bath Spa University, I have been

developing a Songwriting Master’s Degree to be introduced in October 2007. The curricular design of the MA draws upon my experience, over the past fifteen years, both as a teacher of songwriting in Higher Education and also as a professional songwriter in the U.K and the U.S.A. Whilst a number of the challenges faced in developing the curriculum concerned pedagogical relevance and balance, there was also a need to the frame the provision as part of a meaningful academic progression.

During 2006 I spoke with professional songwriters, HE academics and undergraduate students worldwide in order to gain a clearer understanding of the epistemology and pedagogy of songwriting. Later that year I interviewed London-based music publishers with the aim of developing a greater understanding of the qualities they have observed, and would typically look for in a professional songwriter. Finally, to ascertain the level and nature of pedagogy they would anticipate at Master’s level, I interviewed undergraduate Songwriting students currently studying at Brighton Institute of Modern Music, Liverpool Hope University and Bath Spa University. The thoughts and ideas of each of these respondent categories were instrumental in the development of the curriculum.

An Overview of Key Pedagogical Debates Around the Subject Songwriting is often described as a ‘problem solving’ exercise; the songwriter has an idea they wish to express and the problem that needs to be solved is how best to use a combination of musical and lyrical language to both reflect the nature of what needs to be expressed and to communicate the idea, or expression, to the listener. The pedagogy of songwriting is concerned with the facilitation of this problem solving ability; “students are not expected to acquire a pre-determined set of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. Instead, they are expected to engage with the complex situation presented to them and decide what information they need to learn and what skills they need to gain in order to manage the solution effectively. (They can)….explore a wide range of information…link the learning with their own needs as learners and develop independence in enquiry” (Savin-Baden, 2000: 3).

Some academics refer to the importance of ‘absorption’ or accumulated listening, claiming that the nature of what is heard by the songwriter leads to the development of a sense of ‘embedded taste’, adherence to which guides the songwriting process by directing the songwriter towardswhat he or she considers to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ creative songwriting decisions; in this context, good decisions are related to elements of song that the songwriter has heard and considered effective in a problem-solving sense and bad ideas are those elements, or decisions thought not to have worked.

It is argued that it is impossible to write great songs without having heard examples of great songs (Webb, 1998: 14), and that; “most successful inventions….Represent ‘forward incrementation’ which basically takes existing ideas and takes them to the next step in the direction the field is already going” (Donnelly 2004: 156). Students may be able to enhance their learning by developing listening skills; “an involved commitment to music is a necessary requirement of the best composition and performance, and is a frequent outcome of intense listening” (Swanwick, 1999: 77).

For the learner then, it may be necessary to become familiar with existing ideas, or songs. From a pedagogical perspective it may be beneficial to develop a songwriting ‘canon’ or frame of reference, which can be made available to students.

A number of my own students have expressed dissatisfaction with books on how to become a better songwriter, complaining that much of what is advised does not resonate with or have relevance to their own individual aesthetic or practice. From a pedagogical perspective, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that the more didactic the instruction, the less original the work of the reader / student is likely to be. For example, one author lists a page of clichés that the songwriter “should never use” – broken heart, moon in June, etc. Fair enough, but what if the surrounding context leads the songwriter to make a decision to use a well-known phrase or rhyming couplet and, within the context of the performance, its inclusion succeeds in communicating the essence of the songwriter’s intent? Those who have heard one of Bob Dylan’s (critically successful) last three records will be familiar with tens of examples of such a ‘transgression’.

Strategies need to be developed to teach the individual within the group environment.

It follows, that to steal a march on these publications such a canon should be inclusive to the extent that its content needs to relate somehow to the idiolect sought by the songwriter; “Specific idiolects pertain to Lennon and McCartney…Paul Simon…Bacharach and David... Individuality of idiolect, then, rather than originality is what songwriters outside the academy achieve, and the particular ways that creativity is harnessed is itself a product of idiolect…But idiolect can only be erected on a secure foundation of style…Thus even the teaching of technique needs to be harnessed to an understanding of the style within which a student wishes to work” (Moore, 2004). The teaching then, needs to be ‘reactive’ to the needs of the student.

Renwick and McPherson (2002: 173), indicate that there may be value in inviting students to deconstruct and conduct analysis of their own selections. Perhaps a compromise, in which a broad selection of well-known examples of good songwriting would be accompanied by a ‘revolving’ set selected by students-in-residence might be appropriate?

The teacher should formulate the pedagogy to suit the individual; “teachers should try to determine which type or types of intelligence each student has and direct the student to learning activities that capitalize on these innate abilities” (Gardner, 1989).

This strategy represents “part of a co-operative enterprise in which students and teachers work with each other towards ends which both induct learners into new ways of thinking and action as well as provide the means for them to transform their practices as needed by changing circumstance” (Boud, 1995: 215). Subsequently, teachers and students may benefit by working together in ‘co-investigative’ roles (Friere, 1970) wherein two types of conversation can exist; one internally, from within our self to our self, and another externally (Thomas and Harri-Augustein, 1985).

“To be significant and enduring, learning must gradually come under the student’s control” (Regelski, 1983: 56). Those keen to set the student at the centre of the learning process endorse “the creation of a powerful learning environment, with students as active, self-managing agents therein….Students are further engaged in the learning process through reflection on what makes some organizational environments more creative in comparison with others, what factors tend to inhibit creativity, and how these factors can be overcome” (Morrison and Johnston, 2003: 151). Such an approach appears to value reflection on the process alongside actual practice of the process. Further, “for effective learning to take place, learners, whoever they may be, must develop the capacity of monitoring what they do and modify their learning strategies appropriately” (Boud, 1995: 14). This activity, which involves the student ‘thinking about thinking’, is known as ‘metacognition’; “when learners reflect on a recent experience….and when they try to identify what they are doing in that experience, they are engaging in metacognition. And when learners reflect in action, and notice, for example, illogicalities or errors in their thinking, then they are devoting time, however briefly, to metacognition” (Cowan, 1998: 147). Vygotsky (1998) seeking to combine both co-investigative and metacognitive strands of learning sees the role of the teacher as one of a guide who encourages self-reflection.

Blacking speaks of the need for analysis in study; “We may never be able to understand exactly how another person feels about a piece of music, but we can perhaps understand the structural factors that generate the feelings” (Blacking, in Frith, 1996: 97). Teachers of songwriting in HE regularly conduct analysis of ‘successful’ or known works with the aim of discovering the essence of what made those songs so significant. Given that most teachers and students agree that there is no ‘formula’ to writing songs, the aim, for the most part, is not to establish a set of ‘rules’ which can then be followed, rather the collected impressions are intended to act as a guide towards more effective practice. By de-constructing compositions, a student may gain insight into how a good song might be crafted. Each creative solution that is identified may be located somewhere in the learner’s developing ‘palette’, ready for future reference when required.

Teachers of songwriting in HE regularly invite students to play their compositions in a peer group environment. Students often learn in groups and this dynamic can enhance the learning process; “Assessment at seminars has improved since the introduction of peer-assessed presentations….Moreover, the level of concentration is high because each student is an active participant….Furthermore, students gain in confidence and become more aware of their strengths” (Hunter, 2006: 61). Tunstall (1979) acknowledges that artistic works are not so much free and spontaneous acts of individual creation as they are assemblages of socially meaningful signs, and “much learning occurs without any formal instruction, as a result of….interacting with the environment” (Piaget, 1970: 172). Reddington (2006) also emphasizes the value of peer group performance and discussion, in which students are invited to play new songs to the group in return for critical evaluation of the song in the form of a group discussion.

Variation of performance aesthetic and interpretive standard may render the notion of the song as an isolated artifact redundant; “Many people are going to perform it, and on some occasions it will sound like a ghost of itself, if not (worse yet) a caricature.

The contrast is so great that many musicians and psychologists have maintained that there is no such thing as the piece” (Langer, 1953: 133). It is argued that song and performance are intertwined and that the nature of the song is shaped by the performance; “A song is always a performance and song words are always spoken act, heard in someone’s accent. Songs are more like plays than poems; song words work as speech and speech acts, bearing meaning not just semantically, but also as structures of sound that are direct signs of emotion and marks of character” (Frith, 1987: 97).

The performer’s interpretation of the piece may misinterpret the songwriter’s intention; “the way in which lyrics are sung, sarcastically, plaintively, etc, may belie the words on the page” (Cloonan, 2005: 79). It is argued that the same could be said of the level of compositional influence exerted by arrangement; some say a simple guitar or piano and vocal recording should be enough to represent a song, while others cite the need for a more sophisticated ensemble dynamic to emphasise mood and, perhaps, to reflect contemporary production qualities.

Academics are undecided on the level to which production skills should be included as part of songwriting assessment; some say it enhances communicability and therefore the song, while others maintain that a student of songwriting should not need to be skilled in production, and that the song performance itself should be enough to ‘communicate’ the intent. Likewise, there is a divergence of opinion among teachers on the degree to which production qualities are integral to songwriting. One explains how “I did not want the students to become involved in the technical aspects of song production unless they had decided that this was essential to what they were doing” (Reddington, 2006), whereas another claims that “The writing of a song, properly, I believe, entails the production of it as a sonic artifact…(stressing the need) to equip our songwriters not only with the creativity to determine their own niches, but also with the technical skill and competence to enter the ‘commercial world’” (Moore, 2004).

From a teaching perspective, subject expertise is given pedagogical value; “During the past decade renewed interest has been shown in what is involved in becoming an authority, expert, or competent performer in a given area of knowledge” (Lankshear, Peters and Knobel, 2000: 19). As a means of empathising with the learner’s creative journey, many academics are in agreement that it is essential to be a practitioner of songwriting to be an effective songwriting teacher. Expertise in the field of ‘known works’ is also required in order to understand new original works within the context of what has gone before; to conduct valuable critical discussion on the construction of creative works, it is argued, both the tutor and the songwriter must seek to understand the value of influences, the content of which informs the embedded taste that comes into play for the student songwriter.

Some academics, particularly those based in the US, seek to nurture commercially successful students while others view the aspiration of ‘creative self-control’ to be more important. One teaching philosophy encourages students to write about what they know about in order to develop a ‘creative voice’ (Reddington, 2006,) and another commentator adds that most professional songwriters value the exposition of meaningful personal experience before commercial ideals (Pattison, 2006). Ironically, from the learner’s perspective, the development of a means of self-expression may a necessary component in achieving commercial success (See ‘Songwriters from the Perspective of the Music Publisher’).

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