“He’s the most talented songwriter this country has produced…”
When I joined the Songwriting Faculty at the Berklee College of Music in 2010, I was 26 years old. I put up a brave front and tried to summon a facade of confidence. But in the privacy of my ramshackle share house in Boston’s Chinatown, I was spending 10 hours a day pulling together all my notes, rereading text books, calling old teachers, and cramming. I basically wrote myself a script for each class so there would be no cracks, no breaking points.
This worked out well enough for the intro classes. But I had another class to teach where the weekly instructions were: “Write songs. Get feedback.” How do you prepare for that? I took a deep breath…
When you’re forced to explain an idea, you need to find specific vocabulary to describe cause and effect. You need to be able to observe how decisions affect outcomes, and how different choices impact the depth of communication and connection that is possible.
After almost 10 years of doing this, I’ve experienced the value that this kind of feedback brings to other songwriters, and — importantly — the benefit that it brings to my own songwriting. I train my students how to listen and observe in this way. I always tell them: take as much notice as you can of the feedback you get here. Once you graduate, feedback is limited. It comes in the form of unconditional support (or lack thereof) from parents and friends, applause (or lack thereof) of audiences, and money (…). But it’s impossible to disentangle these from emotions and reactions that have little to do with the songs themselves; none of these will tell you what specific choices you’ve made as composer have worked or not worked, and what might make the song better.
People know the value of great feedback. It’s transformative. That’s why almost every major city has some kind of songwriters’ circle. The trouble is…we know good feedback when we get it, but it’s a lot harder to know how to give it! My hope here is to give an introductory guide to giving great feedback—knowing how to move beyond “I like it!” The promise I give you is a double reward: the reward of helping others; and the reward of improving your own writing.
There are a few basic frames of reference, or mindsets, that are the foundations of giving good feedback. Let’s talk about them first before getting the dirt under our fingernails.
1. Know the difference between what is “good” and what you “like.”
There is music that you like. And there is music that is good. The two are independent of each other, even though sometimes they overlap, like this:
There’s an important insight that comes out of this:
There is music that is good, even if you don’t like it. Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s not good. People who do like it could spend several hours explaining to you what makes it good, and why they like it. If you can open your mind to it, you too can appreciate why it’s good. You may even like it more when you can identify more subtle aspects of the music that make the difference between good and bad songs within that genre.
A lot of people get these two things confused. It’s unbelievably common for people to describe music in the Top 40 as “bad.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you: it’s not bad. It’s good. It’s effective. It’s doing exactly what it set out to do. People are just confusing what they don’t like, for what they think is bad. Anyone who has actually set out to write a massive pop hit can tell you: it’s not easy. It requires a lot of effort to create something that will spill over the tipping point of people’s imaginations.
In 2008, I spent a week songwriting and recording with John Mayer in Boston with 12 other young songwriters. I remember the moment that he cracked opened my perception about the pop music industry. He said, songs in the Top 10 aren’t there because a label has spent a million dollars promoting them. They’re there because millions of people love them, demand to hear them, and buy them. There are way more songs and artists that have had as many resources poured into them and never get there. It has to be good to rise above the rest.
2. Let’s define what is “good” songwriting, whether you like it or not.
There are centuries’ worth of philosophers who have tried to answer this question, and countless poor PhD students giving themselves vitamin D deficiencies by holing away in a dark room trying to fill in the gaps.
I’m just going to give you a practical way to think about it. “Good” is defined by whether a song achieves what it has set out to achieve. In that sense, we can also use the word “effective” interchangeably.
In the case of a songwriter who cares about communicating something with the words and the music, it’s effective if a listener is drawn in, connects, feels an emotion, has a thought, broadens their perspective, empathizes, identifies, imagines. It’s good if they are engaged from beginning to end. It’s not effective if a listener is bored or confused at any point in the song.
This is the foundation of giving good feedback: the ability to monitor your level of engagement with the song. Putting aside whether you like it or not, paying attention to your level of engagement leads you to asking constructive questions: Where am I most engaged with this song? Where are moments that I tune out, disengage, become confused? And most importantly, why?
Now comes the dirty fingernails.
To recap, we now have an important mindset: identify when you are more and less engaged in a song, rather than whether you like it or not. The next step is identifying why you are engaged or not; what particular aspects are having that effect?
3. Get specific.
When we talk about songwriting, we are talking about three basic components: lyrics, melody, and chords. Production and arranging are separate issues.
When giving feedback, it’s useful to break these three components up, and think about them independently. I often ask students to play a song two or three times in a row, so that I can observe their song through these different filters, uninterrupted by the other.
Under each of these headings, try to get as specific as you can. The first basic question to answer is where did you engage the most? What was it about that particular moment that was compelling? Lyric? Melody? Chord?
If it was the lyric, what was it about the lyric that grabbed you? Try to verbalize what was different about that moment than other moments. Apply the same pattern of thought to melodic or harmonic moments. The key here is that your feedback needs to go beyond saying that your engagement was because of “the melody;” instead, pinpoint particular phrasing, the unstable tone, the unexpected interval, the increase in melodic rhythm leading into the chorus…
And equally, try to pinpoint the exact moment that you disengaged, or became confused; specify whether it was lyrical, melodic or harmonic (knowing that it may be a combination). Try to identify what was different about this moment…or the answer may be that it was the same; the repetition became predictable so you tuned out.
Finding the specific answers to these questions is truly the hard part. Below is a list of much more specific questions you can ask yourself that might help guide you to the answer.
4. Giving good feedback makes you a better songwriter.
The questions below are posed as questions about other people’s songs; but, of course, these are questions we can turn around onto our own work. Giving feedback to other people is a way to hone your skill at identifying cause and effect in songs that you have no special emotional attachment to. It’s also wonderful because you do not have insight into what the songwriter “meant” other than what is apparent in the song itself—and you should never let the songwriter “explain” to you what the song is “actually about,” what they “meant,” or the “backstory.” A song needs to stand on its own legs, or it doesn’t stand at all.
This is completely different from our own songs, where we are immersed in all of our ideas and intentions, and oftentimes have quite poor vision about whether our intentions have actually made it out of our imagination and into the form of the song. Practicing giving specific feedback to others is one of the best ways I know to begin having a more objective eye about our own work.
- Understand the difference between songs that you like, and songs that are effective.
- Monitor the moments in a song where you are more and less engaged.
- Be specific. Always follow a statement about an effective/ineffective moment by identifying what made it that way.
A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO QUESTIONS FOR GIVING GREAT FEEDBACK
- Do the verse sections present new ideas/development of plot/idea/theme, or are they restating the same ideas with different words?
- Are the verses in the right order? Is the most important idea at the end (where it should be)?
- Are different types of sections (ie Verses and Choruses) functionally and formally contrasting?
Point of View
- Is the song in the most effective Point of View? Does changing the POV create any more traction?
- Who are you talking to in the song? Is that consistent all the way through?
Level of Detail
- Are the verbs and adjectives specific or generic?
- Did the writer succeed in making you feel like you were an active participant in the story? What details made you feel like you were ‘in the scene’? Were there moments where the language was too abstract or conceptual to know what was going on?
- Was there a balance of descriptive/sensory detail and lines that gave a meaning or purpose to the section?
- Does the refrain line/chorus take on new significance through the songs, or does it stay at the same emotional level throughout?
- Does the trigger line (ie: the line before a repeating line or section) set up the refrain/chorus in the most effective way?
- Are there opportunities for the lyric structure to better reflect or reinforce the meaning of the lyric? For example, if the lyric section is describing and unstable or unresolved feeling or idea, what elements could be altered to create structural tension?
- Are there any words that are being stressed that are normally unstressed in natural speech? Are there any important words that are being hidden in an unstressed position?
- Is chord choice being used effectively to create sufficient contrast between different section types? Consider variations to:
- chord choice within the key
- chord choice outside the key
- placement of the Tonic chord
- harmonic rhythm
- Is the tonality (major or minor) creating prosody with the content of the song? Is an opposition of tonality and meaning creating parody? Is this appropriate?
- Is the chord progression too simple or complex to retain the attention and communicate an emotion to an audience?
- Could a non-diatonic chord be used to spotlight a key lyrical moment, or create dramatic contrast in a bridge?
- Is there a single melody that you can sing from the song 5 minutes after hearing the song? If not, why not? What could be added/changed to make a key motif more memorable/engaging?
- Is there prosody between the melody and the lyric? Does the melody feel like it is enhancing the meaning of the lyric (or is it neutral, or even distracting?) If not, what can change to more closely support and advance the meaning?
- Is there enough contrast in the melody between different section types?
 He did say that these days financial backing is necessary, but it’s not sufficient; and that’s the point. Something else other than money is what filters the cream to the top.
 I wholeheartedly admit that composition that happens “in the box,” i.e. on the computer, is increasingly common. The more common it gets, the more the extraordinary the technology is, and the more the computer has become an instrument of composition itself. People can “play” their computers with something close to the fluidity and spontaneity of instruments. Nevertheless, drawing a distinction between “compositional” decisions, and “arranging” decisions can help parse things out in a more manageable and systematic way, that allows us to see the components, even if they ultimately push and pull in and against each other.
 The flip side of this is, of course, that when you are receiving feedback, you are not allowed to explain your own song. The song needs to stand on its own, and listening to how other people are perceiving your work is critical to understanding where the gap actually is between what you have intended to communicate, and what you are actually communicating.
 See Pat Pattison, Writing Better Lyrics, Ch 10: “Perspectives”.
********Keppie Coutts is an Australian singer-songwriter, music educator, founder of KC Song Studio and alumna of the ASCAP Lester Sill Songwriting Workshop. Coutts's fourth album release, The Mysteries of Mad River (due for release September 15, 2017), is full of swampy, honky-tonk, blues-folk narratives that call on a musical ancestry that includes Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. For more songwriting insights, visit Keppie online at www.kcsongstudio.com