The Geometry of Songwriting: Four Dimensions and the Importance of Time
By Bill Pere - 12/29/2012 - 03:10 PM EST
"Time management" is a phrase you hear used all the time as a core principle for good business practice. It is also as core principle for maximizing the impact of your songs, but with an entirely different meaning.
Music, by its very nature, moves in 4 dimensions: Melodies move up and down in pitch. The phrases move forward, building tension toward release and resolution. They move closer to and farther away from the ear as the dynamics grow loud and soft. They move through time with rhythm. It is usually easy to incorporate all four dimensions into the music of a song, because they are inherent components of music itself.
But when it comes to the lyrics, you're starting out with a dimensionless idea, an abstract concept that you have to fill with image, meaning, motion, and emotion. It's a much more difficult task to think in 4-dimensional words, and thus, songs are often stuck in a one or two dimensions, when there are really four that you can use to create a memorable experience for your listeners.
Steven Pinker, one of my favorite authors on the relationship between words and meaning, in his book "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature", discusses the importance of our perception of 3-dimensional space (height, width, depth) and its influence on how we use and perceive verbs.
A brief review from one of everyone's favorite topics in school, Geometry:
Space is typically represented in 3 dimensions: horizontal/width (x-axis); vertical/height (Y-axis); and proximity/depth (z-axis). We can see think, and move along each of these, with lots of words and metaphors to help us along the way. These find their way into songs, but are often focused on just a single dimension, because the more dimensions that are encompassed by the lyrics, the harder it is to write clearly and effectively and to fit the necessary words into the song. It is also more difficult to actually write about moving along a dimension than it is to just refer to it while standing still, Consider:
I'm standing here alone, I see the mountain there in the distance
I want to get back home, want to be there in an instant
It's so far, so far, so far away
But I know I'll get back someday
This refers to distance (z-axis) and height (y-axis), but there is no motion. The singer (and the listener!) are rooted in one place. This is not particularly exciting (or moving) for the listener. Consider this re-write:
Moving closer to the mountain, I begin to make the climb
Getting closer to my home now, been gone too long a time
Though far and high, from dusk till dawn,
I'm getting closer, pressing on.
Now we're getting someplace. The listener is being brought along by the singer on a journey. It's better, but still missing something.
To determine what's missing, let's look at some examples of x-y-z- hit songs:
The 1973 classic "Stuck in the Middle With You" is an example of an X-axis song (horizontal, left/right space), written by Gerry Rafferty & Joe Egan of the band Stealers Wheel):
"Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you."
The many songs written about driving along a road, walking a path, or riding on a train are x-axis songs.
The y-axis is the vertical one that orients us to us up and down. Everyone was lifted up in 1967 by the 5th Dimensions' top ten hit "Up Up and Away" by songwriting great Jimmy Webb. The title/hook is in and of itself, a trip along the Y-axis. The Wicked Witch of the West takes us all into the air with "Defying Gravity" from the musical "Wicked" by Stephen Schwartz. Johnny Cash took us "down,down, down" as he "fell" into a Ring of Fire". The Byrds took us (metaphorically) "Eight Miles High" while the Drifters took us (literally) "Under the Boardwalk".
For a ride along both the X-axis and the Y-axis , look at Diana Ross' biggest hit as a solo artist "Upside Down", written by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers:
"Upside down Boy, you turn me
Inside out and round and round"
Looking at the entire lyric, it's actually a very mediocre song from the craft perspective, but was made into a #1 hit in 1980 by the star power of the artist and the intricate production. Not great songwriting, but it does make use of our 3-dimensional thinking.
Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" is a Z-axis hit song (near/far perspective) written by band members Rushton Moreve & John Kay
"Any place it goes is right
Goes far, flies near ,To the stars, away from here"
Another z-axis example is the folk standard "Five Hundred Miles". Songs about moving nearer to or farther from something are usually z-axis songs.
Writer Dorothea Joyce metaphorically takes us in several directions with her 1971 hit (recorded ironically by the 5th Dimension) "Love Lines, Angles, and Rhymes":
Love leads the lines of love in circles and angles
Love runs deep like a tunnel with a pendulum beat
That touches the heart in many directions
Moving the mind in silent reflections
Of the lines that touch the corners and fibers
Of the feeling that keeps running inside you
The technique of providing x-y-z- motion for the listener is clearly important, but when it comes to writing a truly great song, it is quite secondary to what comes next: the fourth dimension, time.
When it comes to time, we don't often think about it with the same sense of motion and perspective, because we don't see it directly like height, width and depth, and we don’t feel the motion kinesthetically. Movement through time is implied and inferred by changes in distance, age, appearance, circumstance, etc. Thus, it is more difficult to get all the necessary information into the compact form of a lyric line. Yet it means so much to the listener to have that fourth dimension in a song, that we need to try.
Writing about time is not the same as writing about motion through time. There are clearly many songs about time: "Time Is on My Side", "Time in a Bottle", "Six O' Clock", "No Time Left For You", "Nine to Five", "Beat the Clock", "Can't Find the Time to Tell You", and so many more; But these songs do not use time as a dimension in which the listener moves. They are about time, not moving through time. It's the equivalent of writing a song about up and down, without actually moving the listener up and down.
A key point here is that an x,y, or z-axis song when conveying motion, may imply time as well. If the axis has a specific and fixed reference point (a home, a person, an event, a location) that you are getting closer to or farther from, there is distance involved and it takes time to traverse distance (remember your basic concepts of that Physics class you daydreamed your way through).
Edwin Starr's 1969 hit "Twenty-Five Miles" has the singer moving closer and closer to his destination (z-axis) but we clearly experience time passing as well. The 1994 Rascal Flatts hit "The Broken Road" (Hummon/Boyd/Hanna) has the singer moving along the road of life toward a person, and thus we experience time.
It is possible to have no x-y-z- motion but still move through time. Movement through time can be in the form of changes in age and circumstance, neither of which need to involve x-y-z- motion. A tree growing, ivy covering a wall, a graduation, or a gravestone all convey lots of time-related information.
So what it all comes down to is this: As discussed in Chapter 9 of Songcrafters' Coloring Book, there are two basic song formats: list songs and story songs. If you recall the Listener Response Matrix from Chapter 5 of Songcrafters' Coloring Book, the most difficult song presentation to write effectively is the story-song. However, it is the format that has the widest appeal, the greatest impact, and the best chance of having a long life. The reason that a story-song is more difficult to write is that it must have a clear flow of time. It can be forward, flashback, fast, slow, etc, but time must move. Given from the above discussion that time is the most difficult dimension to effectively include in a song, it becomes clear why most songs are not story-songs and thus do not have the full impact of really great songwriting.
Consider which experience you would prefer to have: Someone talking to you for four minutes, telling you of months or years worth of experiences, or someone talking to you for four minutes telling you about how they feel in one single moment that you know nothing about. Which is the greater bang for the buck (the "buck' being the four minutes of your life that you have invested in listening). In the first case you get more than four minutes worth of someone's life experience to add to your own. Whether or not it is interesting or relevant is a different matter altogether – that is up to the storyteller (songwriter) to make it interesting and relevant to you. In the second case, you spent four minutes hearing someone talk about one second that never moved. While it is possible for that moment to merit being expanded 240 times beyond reality (four minutes is 240 seconds), most songwriters have neither the moment nor the craftsmanship to make it worth your while as a listener (and as a paying customer).
The lower left section of the Listener-Response Matrix (attitudinal songs that only seek to evoke a transient feeling) may go something like:
I saw you there, my heart stopped.
My world is frozen and I'm thinking of you.
I'm hot, you would love me and I would make it worth your time
I'm better than she is, you know it's true,
Give me a look give me a sign
And I'll be there and you'll be mine
Oh I'm burnin' Oh I'm yearnin'
I'm turnin' into being into you…
This type of lyric is very common, but it leaves the listener with so many unanswered questions – who are these people, where are they, what's the attraction, what's the backstory, what is going to happen, where are they in a year from now, why is this relevant to me? This may be fun for a singer to sing, perhaps fun to see in live performance with lots of emoting in tight stage outfits, but it is unlikely for this to have a long life as a classic song that hundreds of other artists would want to record. It is not worth a listener giving up 240 times as much of themself as it gives back. With a some additional effort on the part of the songwriter to answer all of the above questions, this could instead be told as an actual story where the listener is led through the experience over a period of time, and thus is more likely to find points of relevance to relate to. (See Songcrafters Coloring Book Chapter 16)
A story-song is essentially a short movie. It uses all the cinematic and storytelling techniques of great directors and authors – characters, backstory, scene changes, camera angles, close-ups, establishing shots, tension, climax, and a treatment of time.
One of the great songwriting examples of taking a short amount of time, perhaps a minute or two, and turning it into a five-minute song that is worth the expansion, is Harry Chapin's "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" . Based on news accounts of the actual event, it takes the last minute of life of a truck driver as he hurtles out of control down a hill with no brakes and a load of bananas. The song lives on more than four decades later.
In your own writing, when you think you are "done", ask yourself how (or "if") you have treated the flow of time in your song. Most importantly, make sure you clearly see the difference between actually moving through time as opposed to just talking about time.
Consider this exceptional lyric from master songwriter Randy Edelman (I recommend that you add it to your collection of downloads).
Thirty Years Old (Mom)
My head leaves the pillow, I know I must move on
I've lived all my life here, but the time's almost gone
I don’t want to leave her, she's begged me to stay
But I'm thirty years old Mom today
I put on my jacket, she hears that I'm awake
She calls from the kitchen, as I smell the cake
She lights all the candles and makes sure I pray
But I'm thirty years old Mom today
I've been reading books, but now I want to see the world at first hand
I've been taking looks around, now I'm gonna show where I stand
I've been too locked up to give my heart half a chance
See, your baby has grown, it's time he left home…
She wanted to have me close by her side
But the years have stacked up now, God knows, I've tried
She wanted to know I was down the hallway,
But your baby's grown up Mom today
I didn’t look back as I closed the old porch door
I wanted no tears from that face I adore
But there's dreams I've been dreaming, and songs I must play
And I'm thirty years old Mom today.
This song clearly has motion through time BUT, when I ask folks at my workshops "What is the span of time that this song encompasses?", most people quickly answer 'thirty years' or 'a lifetime'. The song refers to thirty years, but the actual amount of time that the listener moves through is really just an hour, plus or minus. It runs from the time the singer wakes up, gets dressed, has some cake, and then finally leaves the house. That is the time span of the song. It moves in a forward direction at an even pace, marked by event mileposts (waking, dressing, eating, leaving). The mastery of the craft here is that in the 3 minutes of the song, we have spent an hour with the singer, and in that hour, we have shared his whole life – his past, his present, and his hopes for the future. This is what makes great storytelling and thus great songwriting.
Songs do not have to be complex to handle time effectively.
Here is a simple lyric from the Hollies 1966 #5 hit "Bus Stop" (G. Gouldman):
Bus stop, wet day, she's there, I say "Please share my umbrella"
Bus stop, bus go, she stays, love grows Under my umbrella
All that summer we enjoyed it, wind and rain and shine
That umbrella, we employed it, by August she was mine.
Here in four lines, we travel through about three months of time, at two different rates. Lines 1 and 2 recount a brief initial interaction that leads to a budding romance. Lines 3 and 4 take us through months to the end of summer where the romance has blossomed into love. An amazing amount of information conveyed in four simple lines. That is the craft of storytelling and the challenge of great songwriting.
Here is another great example:
Longer (Dan Fogelberg)
Longer than there've been fishes in the ocean
Higher than any bird ever flew
Longer than there've been stars up in the heavens
I've been in love with you.
Stronger than any mountain cathedral
Truer than any tree ever grew
Deeper than any forest primeval
I am in love with you.
I'll bring fire in the winters
You'll send showers in the springs
We'll fly through the falls and summers
With love on our wings.
Through the years as the fire starts to mellow
Burning lines in the book of our lives
Though the binding cracks and the pages start to yellow
I'll be in love with you.
At first glance it seems like a simple love song in list format.
But lets look closer at how a master storyteller subtly takes your through the better part of a lifetime:
Longer than there've been fishes in the ocean Higher than any bird ever flew
Longer than there've been stars up in the heavens I've been in love with you
The use of the Present Perfect verb tense here says that "For an ongoing time in the past I have been in love with you".
Stronger than any mountain cathedral Truer than any tree ever grew
Deeper than any forest primeval I am in love with you.
The verb tense changes to present-tense "am", meaning right now, i.e. as we arrive from the past into this moment, I still love you.
I'll bring fire in the winters You'll send showers in the springs
We'll fly through the falls and summers With love on our wings.
Now we move forward beyond this moment with verbs in future tense. As we travel through the years ahead (presented by the four seasons) we will continue to be in love with each other.
Through the years as the fire starts to mellow burning lines in the book of our lives
Though the binding cracks and the pages start to yellow I'll be in love with you.
This now bring us to the twilight of life after having spent years together that have written a life story. There is pluperfect verb use, and we still look forward with future tense saying "I'll be in love with you".
Overall, this takes us through a lifetime of love, with subtle change of tense and metaphorical signposts, always making clear where we are. The first verse reaches backwards, the second verse is present, and the bridge and third verse move along a future path. A great handling of time that makes an ordinary love song become something extraordinary.
In such a competitive music world, it is a losing proposition to just write a love song or a relationship song. It has to be an exceptional love or relationship song to get any traction.
Finally, let's look at a great example of moving through time with no other x-y-z motion at all.
Old Stone (by Kay Pere)
Old gray stone
How long have you been balanced
While the lichens grow
In symbiotic decadence
In your mossy robe,
Do you still recall the span
Of callused hands
That pulled you from the ground
Old Stone, silence unbroken
Speak to me with wisdom unspoken
Old stone wall
How long have you been standing
While the wild ferns grow
And violets nod their deference
To the things you know
While seasons turned
Three-hundred times around.
Old Stone, Silence unbroken
Speak to me
Old stone house
How long have you been watching
While the crops won't grow
And autumn snow descends
A shallow well soon frozen
Hard as quartz
Pray comfort can be found
Old Stone, Silence unbroken
Here, we have a story-song about a lifeless inanimate object. Yet, the storytelling from this New England writer is masterful, with a sweeping journey through more than 300 years, conveying the arrival of settlers to a virgin land who started tilling soil and farming, then building stone walls to define farm boundaries, and houses that withstand bitter New England winters. The only motion is through time, using age, and the change of an object's environment and location as signposts. This could easily be rendered as video watching a patch of land evolve over the centuries (if there were cameras that long ago…) condensed into a four-minute presentation. All the visual elements are there.
When the handling of time is done with great attention to detail, a song needs little else to connect with listeners and have impact.
To maximize the impact of your songs, and thus their artistic and commercial potential, you need to provide motion for the listener through time, in a clear way that conveys lots of information about who, what,where, when, what, how. It's a challenge and one that can seem daunting, which is why many writers turn away from the task. If you are one of the few who work to see it through, you will have a great advantage by having a better end-product in a very competitive market.
©2013 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission
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