Difference between songwriting and composing

May 11, 2007

durer_1.jpgLast night I met, face-to-face, the brilliant and multi-talented PK, of Loose Poodle fame. We overlapped one year at the New England Conservatory from 1976-1977 and thought we knew each other. We’ve corresponded via emaiil and blogs for the past year, and knew each other that way, but when we sat and looked at each other for a while we realized that we didn’t really know each other. No matter: we do now, and we have a huge amount to talk about. There wasn’t enough time to cram it all into the three hours we spent chatting, but we’ll pick up where we left off upon his return this summer.

The other day, PK asked three questions related to, or inspired by, my Joni Mitchell post. PK’s question #1: What IS the difference between “song writing” and “composing”? Are they the same act to be lumped together as one?

It seems that perhaps a music historian would be best equipped to answer this question tracing how instrumental music slowly veered away from vocal music. That was then, and this is now. Nowadays, it seems that a songwriter primarily writes word based music. I say “primarily” only because there are, at least, two time-honored methods of writing songs. The first method starts with the words, as the words convey what it is the songwriter wishes to say. The melody honors the words rhythm and feel, or not, but it is always written knowing that the music is to be sung with words. In the second method, the songwriter gets a tune in his or her mind and attaches words to that melody.

There are two other song-generating techniques worth mentioning: one is a looping chord progression (“Gloria,” “Just like me,” “Louie Louie” and you could include the 12-bar blues) where the songwriter melodically jams over the chord progression. These usually make for the worst vocal melodies, but provide a good harmonic background for (instrumental) melodic improvisation. The last technique is rare and has its roots in Ravel’s “Bolero” where a rhythmic figure or motive is set in motion and everything else jumps on top of it. Songwriters rarely attempt large-scale compositions. When they do, they are “concept albums” like “Sgt Pepper,” or rock operas like “Tommy,” which are in reality, a bunch of songs that sound cool together.

A person known as a “composer” is one who writes for both instrumental and vocal forces. Instrumental music has no foreground feature–like a text, or images, or underscore to a film, ballet, or play. Instrumental music relies on its own melodic, motivic, or hierarchical organization to indicate “what the music is all about.” Not all listeners have the ability to follow this not-about-anything-but-itself musical syntax. (I would imagine that most of the world prefers music with words to music without words.) Composers also write vocal music, but a much wider range of vocal music: songs (usually with piano or orchestra, not rock band), choral pieces, cantatas ( collections of arias, recitatives, and choral numbers), madrigals, opera, and sometimes musical theater.

So it would seem that the songwriter is more of a specialist in one compositional method. They are usually miniaturists as songs are usually 2 to 5 minutes long. Songs have a lot of repetition in them, helping the listener to remember its material even better. Classical instrumental music rarely has the kind of large-scale repetition common to popular songs. The texture of popular songs is usually well defined with little contrapuntal interference. Songs are usually “about” something, such as love, or no love, or springtime and so forth.

Your thoughts?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

music4stage May 11, 2007 at 10:14 am

This is a tricky one to pick apart, and it’s related to the whole “opera vs. musical” question I’ve been flogging on my site. It’s a question of how much detail the author is taking responsibility for.

So, most songwriters are also composers to varying degrees, ranging from the anonymous authors of peasant folk songs, who come up with unaccompanied melodies and pass them around orally, to people like Stephen Sondheim (and me), who carefully notate every detail of the accompaniment.

Looking at some folks who occupy the middle of that range, let’s take Elton John. Mmmm… let’s take pre-1972 Elton John. He mainly came up with chord progressions and melodies that probably varied a little from performance to performance. (The mere act of coming up with a chord progression is arguably a form of composition.) But, those early songs of his come off as compositions thanks to his collaboration with arranger Paul Buckmaster. To the extent that Elton was in the room with Paul contributing, approving, dismissing, etc., he also had a composer hat on.

Then there’s Burt Bacharach, known as a songwriter, but in my book he’s a full-fledged composer, considering that he scored elaborate arrangements for his recordings. If you listen carefully, particularly to his early Sixties stuff, there are many layers of counterpoint and large-scale thinking.

It’s also a question of what you call yourself. If you call yourself a songwriter, then you’re more likely to be open to alternate arrangements of your work. If you call yourself a composer, you might object to someone stripping out your carefully thought-through accompaniment and replacing it with a bossa nova vamp.

Daniel Wolf May 11, 2007 at 2:45 pm

Maybe it’s useful to grab an analogy from medical practice. Composers are “general practitioners” and songwriters are specialists within the composing profession. G.P.’s have the skill set to write songs but might not write songs, while song writers may or may not have the skill sets to write anything other than songs.

Of course the analogy can only be carried so far, as we’re dealing with a continuum of activity — there are pop instrumentals, and the song genre in art music can go in directions far beyond the song form. And what about music for social dance? Another specialty, I’d say.

Elaine May 12, 2007 at 5:53 am

I’m sure that I’m not the only person guilty of sometimes setting a text to music, removing the words, and having a coherent musical idea that I can then develop any way I want, unhindered by the parts of the text that may not work the way I want them to. Maybe the difference between composers who write songs as well as other music and people who only write songs lies in that practice.

PK May 12, 2007 at 9:01 pm

I suppose, one of the good things about the time we live in, if one (a composer) calls his opus a song, vocal or none, then it is 😉

Yet with Joni Mitchell (such a special case), I think we are talking about a “popular” song, as a modern extension of what once could be called, a folk, and after time, traditional song. It seems hard to believe that after a few hundred years, Britney Spears will be considered a singer of traditional songs phflttttth!1!! Maybe to be dug up (hopefully not literally) by some future musicologist. The Lost Art Of Britney Spears and Vanilla Ice wins the 2324 Pulitzer.

Roger, I really like your summing up of song types. Yet, I am not sure there is so much of a difference between the repeating loop form you mention, and a ritornello. And the other classic song forms, such as AABA are perhaps analogous to sonata form etc. I often feel that the flowering of songwriting in the early 20th century is a distillation of the aria. Everybody loves a great aria, so lets get them more, better faster (all good stuff, no filler). Certainly the song’s “verse” which eventually fell out of general use (except when one wants to show off) often seemed like the recitative set up.

I also agree with you and Elaine, that there seems to be a simple, specificity of intent involved, that tends to be textual in an early Joni Mitchell, but can be musical (as in James Brown).

A big, public thanks for the wonderful evening, and to my fellow readers, I can only shout my admiration for someone who could cook such a delicious meal while maintaining a good bit of a vigorous conversation (okay, I was hogging the airtime, but still).

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