THE GREAT UNKNOWN:
There are absolute beginners, rubbing shoulders with people who have had many years of songwriting experience. There are earnest people who try hard every year with not much success competing against people who study the techniques and structures of songs and songwriting.
There are people who write great songs who can’t perform them and people who are excellent performers with banal and clichéd songs. There are good lyricists let down by their tunes and people with inventive tunes who fall down on their lyrics – sometimes I want to introduce these groups to each other.
This unevenness cannot always be solved by classifications like amateur and professional So how do judges sift through all these apparent disparities in performance, experience and (let’s face it) ability? In general terms judges are looking for originality. Most judges avoid clichéd songs. The clichés can be both in the lyrics and the music.
SAME OLD SONG:
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to write a song to catch judges’ attention especially if the song’s lyrics, imagery and melody/chording are not exploring new areas. I’ve heard many well crafted songs that stay safely within a blues, jazz, rock or folk genre.
Often they’re beautiful examples of their type but, frankly, they’ve already been written many thousand times before! There has to be enough in a song that’s familiar to an audience that it can identify with. The trick is to include the unfamiliar – those elements of a song that engage the heart and mind of the listener. This can be original subject matter or original treatment of familiar subject matter, musical innovation in the rhythm, melody or chording or in a number of other subtle measures.
BREAKING THE RULES
If you’re going to break the rules you need to know what the rules are in the first place. That probably means writing a lot of stuff that is not original, that has been written thousands of times before, that is banal, trite and clichéd. That’s what I consider serving your apprenticeship in songwriting.
You’re learning about the craft, you’re copying or deriving using your favorite role model songwriters or genres. The trick is to know when it’s time to extend yourself. Some people practice “safe songwriting” for so long and have received approval of audiences for so long that they forget to be truly creative by being original. Maybe that’s the real value of song competitions.
© Written by Robert Childs 1998