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?


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