musings on songwriting part 1

I have always wondered - what are the percentage of songwriters who write songs in order for they themselves to sing, versus those who write songs for the sake of the song itself. In this instance, I am talking about amateur songwriters, as obviously when you are a professional songwriter you have to write songs specially for others to perform, unless you are a singer-songwriter.

There is a great difference when someone pens a song for himself/herself to sing and perform, versus when someone pens a song which is not intended for the composer himself/herself to perform. Some of the differences are:

1) The style of the music
2) The range of the vocals
3) The key of the song
4) The quality of the performance itself

I have come to believe that it would limit a songwriter's potential and development if a songwriter merely composes a song with the aim that he/she will be the one performing it. This is because the potential of the song itself then would be curtailed by the limitations of the songwriter as a performer. For example, a particular song happens to sound wonderful in the G key. However, as the songwriter is unable to pitch certain high notes in that key, he/she has to lower it down to an F or an E key, which may result in the song losing its impact. It gets lost in translation, so to speak. Imagine Canon in D being played in the key of B.

Furthermore, if a songwriter only composes songs for himself/herself to perform, there would be a tendency to write materials which he/she feels comfortable with to perform, as there would be no external demand for a certain style/standard, and as such the rate of improvement and development of the songwriter would not be as great as compared to someone who is exposed to different styles and ideas on music. Have you ever had the experience where an artiste's first, second, third, fourth and fifth album sounds the same?

On the other hand one could argue that a songwriter may not be the one who performed his/her own compositions, but there might not be a guarantee that it would necessarily be better. For all that is, the songwriter may be writing the same type of songs, but only offering it to different performers. Well if that's the case so be it, but I think the songwriter is being self-content if that is the case and it would only be a matter of time before people stop appreciating his/her works.

Finally, the most important factor that would greatly affect the song which is produced is the ability of the songwriter to perform the song to the desired standards which would do justice to the song. A songwriter may have written a wonderful song, but if the execution is terrible, then the song itself would have been judged to be terrible by the listeners. On the other hand, if the 'burden' of performance is relieved from the songwriter, he/she would be free to explore the limits of the musical composition and yet be certain that justice would be done to it, by searching for suitable vocalists/musicians to perform the song. *hint* Bob Dylan *hint*

Alas, the world is not perfect. Most of the time, amateur songwriters would not have the resources to employ performers to perform their songs. Even enlisting the help of friends could be difficult, at the best of times. A songwriter may have no choice but to continually perform his/her songs. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a great pity.

And of course, some amateur songwriters aspire to become singer-songwriters, so the songs which they write are essentially for the purpose of them doing the performing. There is nothing wrong with this, but in my opinion quite a lot of the times the performance does not do the song justice, which is (again) a great pity.

But on the other hand, if the songwriter happens to be an excellent performer with a unique style, it would make more sense if he/she writes his/her own materials in order to fully utilise and take advantage of the natural gifts that he/she possesses.

Oh well, it is a complicated world. But I still feel strongly that a songwriter should seek to explore the various types of music/styles there is and also not to let the songwriting process be constrained by his/her abilities as a performer, as that would be (yes, again!) a great pity indeed.


Ivan Chew said...

What you've written makes sense. You're suggesting there are different levels of "being a songwriter": (1) writing to perform it yourself and (2) writing for others to perform.

Level 2 obviously requires higher skills, because you have to go beyond merely writing a song, but writing it with the specific characteristics of other singers in mind.

Lingfeng said...

I would say it can be both, i.e. writing for yourself to perform and for others.

Maybe I'm thinking in the perspective of the Christian songs I write. It is a personal song, but then again, I also wish that it will be used to minister to others, you know, encourage others.

I know, sometimes it's difficult as you wish to have your song performed in a certain way, but then you've got to struggle with accepting another person's style.
It's like adaptations.

It really depends lah. If you're a good singer, then why shouldn't you write for yourself!

Jeremy Yew said...

Excellent article and analysis. I couldn't agree more. This subject is something I've been pondering over for a long time too.

Personally I prefer to focus on simply the "composition", i.e. for anyone to perform, not just myself. I feel that when I write not for a specific performer in mind, I am able to be more liberated in my thinking, and I can write with no boundaries whatsoever, e.g. range, quality, style, etc.

In other words, the "composition" takes precedence over everything else. If I write for myself, I'm always thinking about how I can write within a certain range, or whether I have the "style" to deliver the song, etc. Too many restrictions. And in the end, my song is compromised to suit my own vocal and expressive needs.

So therefore, I always prefer to just "compose", rather than aspire to be a singer-songwriter.

But that's just me. Cos I'm a weak performer. Strong performers may think otherwise.

If I were a strong performer, I might think otherwise too, haha!

Firdaus said...

Ivan - yes, i agree! but it depends on the motivations of the songwriter i guess. if the purpose is (1) then (2) wouldn't matter.

Lingfeng - yes, i agree too!

Jeremy - i have an inkling that because you admire the broadway composers, you are more focused on the craft of songwriting itself, and not limited by the performance aspect. i think that's great - the hard part is to find people to perform them! haha..