Song arc: telling a story

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Update: I have been hinting for a while that I am making changes regarding the Online Music School and let me give you a quick update on that. The long and short of it is that I am killing it completely for two reasons. First, I have had a hard time reconciling it with my lifestyle for various reasons that I won’t go into here. Second, it has not gained a lot of traction anyway. In fact, it has been a failure.

When I talk about business here (as I often do), a recurring theme is that you have to test things and expect failures. My failures have always greatly exceeded my successes. In regards to this particular venture, because of the success of my work-at-your-own-pace instructional courses, I will not deny that I did not really expect a failure. As it turns out, people just like the courses better than they do the live instruction. That is perfectly fine with me so that is the direction we will go. (To be clear, I am obviously not getting rid of any of my existing pre-recorded courses. That would be the dumbest decision I ever made.)

I need to say this too. For those of you that decide you want one-on-one attention, Faye Lopez is still interested in doing that and she is a great teacher. Just pop over to her site and contact her directly.

I have been quiet for a few days because it has been extraordinarily busy. I was at the Composer’s Symposium this week. It was a good time as always and I heard a lot of music.

One thing that was really on my mind this week while listening was the idea of song arc, meaning the way a song develops and tells a story.

Just as a story has ebbs and flows, music needs to as well. Good writers take a while to fully develop the characters and plot but eventually, the storyline begins to progress to a conclusion. A story that does not go anywhere may sometimes be pretty enjoyable but always leaves you empty at the end (sometimes with the uneasy feeling that you invested several hours of your life into something not very valuable).

As an aside, while I am writing this, I am thinking about John Grisham. I enjoy reading John Grisham because he has a very dry wit and style that makes his books very enjoyable. However, Grisham is unconventional in that he usually sort of meanders through a story and then just ends it with lots of loose ends. There is a climax (sorta) but things are left sort of unresolved. When you end one of his books, you usually feel a bit incomplete.

I am not slamming Grisham because he is enormously successful with his approach and I also think his writing reflects a worldview (that I agree with) that the problems of life are not easily resolved. They are too complicated to wrap up in a 400-page book. Grisham essentially ends his books on a IV chord but unlike many worship leaders, he doesn’t do it because he thinks it is cool. He knows exactly what he is doing.

I guess what I just said is sort of the point. Just as Grisham knows what he is doing, composers and arrangers need to be intentional in making sure their songs have a storyline that says something.

I will be frank for a second. When you listen to church music, you can easily start thinking that not much of it really stands out. A lot of music is written at the same tempo with the same general texture and harmonic palate. Often, it has a pretty melody but yet something feels missing.

If you are writing and you are in that place where you are wondering how you get a good place in a piece that starts hitting people in the gut, start by examining your story line. What is your piece trying to say and what is the path it is using to get there? Where are the climaxes and how do you build to them? Does your texture support the story?

I have a theory that many of us think we have a defined storyline reflected in our music but it is either not well defined or just not obvious enough. In other words, we don’t necessarily go as far as we should. The biggest parts of the music are not big enough and the softest parts are not soft enough. If we are attempting to musically paint a mountain landscape, we end up with maybe a slightly rolling terrain of middle Tennessee where I grew up.

I can talk about arc a lot and the impact of various arcs but for the moment, that is not the point. The takeaway for the day is that you conscientiously figure out what your arc will be and then as objectively as possible examine your music to make sure that what you are trying to do is actually happening. That should give your music a boost and will probably make it stand out a bit.

One thought on “Song arc: telling a story

  1. Gordon Armstrong says:

    Thank you for the help you give in your hymn arrangements. I am an old guy who wants to play better and receiving your arrangements each month encourages me to sit down and practice. The result now is very obvious because without any music in front of me I can play hymns by ear using some of the same chord sequences that you put into your arrangements. We always strive for more and will never really arrive but you have made the journey more fun.

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