Don’t Forget Square One…

I’ve noticed a lot of resistance to “songwriting rules”. Most of the criticism falls in the Craft vs. Inspiration camp. And my defense is always that it isn’t an either-or argument.

From Don’t forget square one…:

Horse trainer Linda Parelli says that, and her take on amateurs-vs.-experts is that the amateurs forget the fundamentals. Her husband Pat, founder of Parelli Natural Horsemanship (the most successful example of passionate users I’ve ever seen), says the same thing.

Let’s assume that we want to become experts at something. For our conversation here, we’ll focus on songwriting. Any path to mastery includes these three stages of development: pre-conventional, conventional, post-conventional.

Pre-conventional: You haven’t learned a single rule, principle or convention yet. Everyone has a right to create sound or make noise and call it music.

Conventional: You discover musical patterns and that seem to naturally arise. You call these rules or principles and you allow them to guide your musical creation.

Post-conventional: You transcend and include the conventions you learned at the previous stage. You see the wisdom in principles and patterns and you have the wisdom to know when to let them go.

Let’s use lyric setting as an example of what I’m talking about. The conventions of rhythm are rules and principles about meter, note length, relative stress level and so on. The conventions about language are syntax, definition, pronunciation and so on. Now, one of the most overlooked lyrical conventions is stress. Our dictionary defines the conventional stress of words. And since we put lyrics to rhythm, it makes sense to match the pronunciation of the word with the stress of the rhythm. When we don’t do this, we have the common problem of having our ac-CENTS on the wrong syl-LA-bles. But when we follow the principle of proper lyric setting, we bring a clear level of understanding to our message–our listeners actually understand our lyrics.

Talk to someone at a pre-conventional stage of songwriting and they’ll either be pissed that you’re telling them what to do and stifling their creativity or they’ll be grateful to learn how to write better. Talk to someone at a conventional stage of songwriting and they’ll be bothered by any stretching of the principles. But at a post-conventional stage of songwriting you’ll be able to explain your choices and intuitively know what the song needs in order to achieve your outcome.

If you don’t care that people understand you, then do whatever you want. But don’t expect people to “get it” or even like it. But if you understand the social aspect of songwriting–there is a songwriter and a song-listener–then you probably want the listener to understand what it is you are trying to communicate. And that is where the conventions will help you.

Another overlooked convention is the definition of a song. I think many people confuse a song with the feeling they get when they first hear a piece of music. I’ve enjoyed listening to many songs that on further consideration were poorly crafted. But they don’t usually stand the test of time with me. And a time-tested theorem is one that can stand up to years of scrutiny by a jury of experts.

The problem the Parelli’s see in those trying to transition from skilled amateur to expert virtually always comes down to something from the fundamentals that they either never quite mastered, or that they forgot over time. So, perhaps that’s one more thing the superior performers do better than the rest of us–they keep practicing the fundamentals. This fits with the notion that experts practice things that aren’t necessarily fun, which can include both the things they still don’t do well, AND the non-exciting basics.

I disagree with the article I’m quoting on one basic distinction. I don’t believe “square one” is the fundamentals. Square one is the pre-conventional stage. Square one is where the desire to create something exists. And square one is not the primordial emptiness or space that exists before any fundamental principle or rule emerges–that’s square zero. 🙂

Don’t forget square zero!

And don’t forget the fundamentals either.

Some of the best athletes never forget the fundamentals–whether it’s Tiger Woods practicing the basics, or a pro basketball player working on free throws.

And don’t let your lack of fundamental mastery stop you from playing the game. It’s perfectly okay to fire and then aim. Because there’s always more fundamentals to learn and master. It’s most important to just get in the game.

But the Parelli’s have another piece of advice that I think is equally important–that you shouldn’t get stuck trying to perfect the fundamentals before moving on. There’s a girl at my barn who has been taking dressage lessons on and off for the last ten years. Both her and her horse are bored out of their minds because the trainer won’t let them progress to anything interesting until they are virtually perfect on the basics. The Parelli approach is, “Keep moving forward, because you’ll gain new tools that you can use to go back and perfect the fundamentals.” But this is where the “don’t forget square one” message comes in–the problem is with the people who do NOT use their new “superpowers” to fix what might be lacking in the basics.

So from now on, when I bring up a rule or principle, you’re going to say, “Thank you for helping me write better.” Right?

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  1. The Graham English Blog » links for 2006-03-09 - March 9, 2006

    […] Don’t forget square one… I’ve noticed a lot of resistance to “songwriting rules”. Most of the criticism falls in the Craft vs. Inspiration camp. And my defense is always that it isn’t an either-or argument. (tags: songwriting songwriters lyricwriting lyrics songwritinghacks music writesongs writingmusic) […]