Songwriting, Style, and Habit

I recently wrote a review of a book on song and singing that I quite enjoyed (you can read the pre-pub draft here). I must confess that I struggled with it a bit with writing it, though. Why? Because — and this is, I think, a compliment to the author — there are a dozen little philosophical side alleys that I kept wandering into as I went, all prompted by the issues the text raises. So: semi-coherent rambling about aesthetics ahead! All aboard!

[Seriously — ramblers gonna ramble. You were warned.]

One of most interesting of these side alleys is the way in which philosophers of music (and of aesthetics in general) tend to talk about the creative or artistic process. More often than not (leaving aside for now the extensive literature on “creativity” in both philosophy and psychology), our discussions about how artists create art seem to involve an attempt to understand the nature of the relationship between rational deliberation and spontaneity in the generation of some artistic product. Indeed, artists themselves are often asked to frame things in this way as well — witness the many interviews and artist’s statements in which they are expected to be able to talk about what their work means, or about their influences, or about the effect they want it to have. Witness, too, all of the fractures between what an artist says about what she’s done and what other people get out of it; one can almost imagine some interviews or statements as interpretive prophylactic measures, attempting to manage how an audience responds to a piece (see, for example, the opening card for Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel).

I have to confess, before I go on, to a thoroughgoing impatience with certain kinds of liner notes or artistic statements, specifically the kind that seem to import huge amounts of theoretical baggage that almost certainly could not have been present in or necessary to the creation of the piece. I think the worst offender of this sort that I ever read was a dance performance program description of a piece of choreography using Limón technique that foundered so badly under its own overwrought conceptual weight that it completely failed to capture the emphasis in Limón technique on the organic and natural movement of bodies. I don’t mean to say that all program or artistic statements are like this, only that this is an example of one of the dangers built-in to the relationship between talk about art and the art itself — sometimes, the talk-about gets in the way, or creates a sort of hybrid thing in which the statement and the art are inseparable for interpretive purposes. When it is not intentional, that latter bit strikes me as unfortunate at best and sort of horrible at worst, a kind of manipulative usurpation of the interpretive faculties of the audience that doesn’t really do the art work itself any favors.

Songwriting is an interesting set of practices for working out the difference, I think, between composition discussed in terms of the actual process whereby someone writes a song and composition as a kind of theoretical construct through which a philosopher might address the relationship between deliberation and spontaneity. Note that there are at least two reasons why talk about that relationship is important, aesthetically speaking: first, in sort-of-ontological terms, to get at what songwriting is and what songwriters do, and second, in evaluative terms, to make judgements about the aesthetic value of songs (where spontaneity is directly related to judgements about authenticity). Just the same, paying too much attention to the philosophical constructs that make it possible for us to discuss those aesthetic and ontological judgments may obscure the messy process of actual creation.

Given that, here’s the thing I want to start with: “Songwriting” covers a lot of different processes and practices and bodies of knowledge. A person with no formal knowledge of the fine points of music theory  or poetry/verse whatsoever can write a song. A song can be written arbitrarily and by-the-numbers, in response to a request (“I need something in 3/4 time in the key of C that’s twelve measures long and contains only quarter and sixteenth notes, matched up with a recitation of the alphabet in English”). Lyrics may or may not rhyme, may or may not be set in some specific verse-chorus-bridge structure, and may or may not actually mean anything (a song composed almost entirely of nonsense syllables can still be a song). A computer given the right sort of algorithm could write blues-shaped tunes using a standard chord structure in the key of E, sentences randomly pulled from a database of existing blues lyrics, and a pre-set lyrical model. There are cultural conventions and rules of form, and there are also more-or-less arbitrary limits (how long a song should be for regular radio airplay, how recording media can also shape what we choose to record and how we record it, etc.)


It is tempting, I think, to look at songs that someone else has written and to impute to the songwriter a process of creation that bears very little resemblance to the actual work that author has done. It is also tempting to find deeper significance in certain choices a writer makes than may actually be present, precisely because those choices are aesthetically effective (something I need to work out more, perhaps). I think it’s important to resist this sort of temptation.

Sometimes, lyrics are the result of a phrase caught in passing,  or the need to create a rhyme. Sometimes repetition is more about the sound of the words repeated than about their meaning, or about the use of repetition to do something relative to the audience. Sometimes we choose a word because it has the right vowel sound to create a certain effect at a given pitch; we write for the voices we have, and that means that our pitch and enunciation limits may also govern our lyrical decisions. Sometimes a song is inspired — it appears in a dream, or it just comes out in a jam — while at other times it is structured and deliberate and planned or the result of laboriously throwing things at the wall and keeping what sticks. We might write a song using a given instrument because we just bought it, or because it was the first one we grabbed out of a collection of possibilities, or because it is the thing we’ve decided will provide the exact sound we want — and this may happen with multiple different instruments in the same song. The length of a phrase might depend, frankly, on whether or not we’re in good enough physical shape and have the air we need to sing it in one way or another.

We all have little habits of thought and practice, favorite figures, favorite riffs, and favorite chords, all mingled with training and culture and accidental preference. While these things can be a deliberate style, just as often they’re habits that happen to coalesce into something style-like (indeed, we may look back on what we create and read a style into it as we come to recognize our own habits, even when the notion of those habits as a style never occurred to us at the time).


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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