Canadian Musician


James Linderman

Confessions of a Top Secret Song Assessor by James Linderman

Confessions of a Top Secret Song Assessor by James Linderman

When I first became a Top Secret Song Assessor for the Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC) it was quite easy to just fall into the role of critiquing songs by focusing mostly on elemental discrepancies such as mismatches of form to style, or missing elements such as rhyme scheme, but I also went through a time of contemplating what the process of assessing songs might actually mean and also what value assessment might have to the songs and to their writers.

The first questions that arose from this contemplation were…

Do artists actually want their work assessed or do they merely want a forum in which to have their work heard and appreciated for what it is?

Is it possible for art to benefit and improve from adjudication based judgements?

As an assessor, will I be able to discriminate between the very few facts and rules associated with the writing of a song, and my own subjective opinions…and are my opinion based observations of any value?

Many of my answers to these questions came to me from recollections of having my own work judged and critiqued, and I began to take a mental inventory of what kinds of comments, in critiques of my work, seemed like they were aimed to help me as a writer, wanting to improve my songs and which ones seemed to serve only as a demonstration of the assumed greater authority of the person delivering the assessment.

I also felt that much of what I would eventually be able to understand about the assessment process and its value would come to me in the process of doing the assessments themselves. I also believed that assessments would have greater value to the artists if my observations could be drawn from a single motivation and with a singular purpose. The singular purpose I decided on has now become my assessment mantra…in a manner of speaking.

The assessment mantra I adopted was “serve the song” which essentially means that I attempt to address and suggest what will make the song better and not what will either commend or offend the song and therefore also it’s writer, falsely. Serving the song also helps focus the assessment on the songs elements and not on the artfulness of assessment or the perceived importance of the assessor (since we work in an industry where infamy and notoriety create a very self gratifying mirage, that is very tempting to portray as ones real self).

I have attempted to be as fact based during the assessment process as possible and work hard to determine where the songs strong points are located so that the writer can revisit the editing process with a good base to build the improvements into. I also see value in focusing on the strengths in the writing so that writers can, for instance, consider co writing where they would contribute their strong element with a collaborator who performs well in one of their less developed capacities. There is much to be learned from the collaboration experiences and in the process, it can produce some great work. Eventually, however, I believe that it is most writers’ goal to be strong in every aspect of writing songs and to this end, assessment can be revealing and instructive.

Over the time I have been providing SAC members with assessments there have been some very common elements where very many songs are consistently under developed and on the flip side, also some areas where writers almost always get it right and although each song is a unique assessment experience it is possible to see the same sort of need in many songs and draw some interesting broader conclusions over time.

It seemed like a great opportunity when the SAC invited me to write this article, to list some of these more common rights and wrongs found in the songs submitted for assessment, and help even more writers learn from explanation and not just from trial and error.

So here are the top 10 most common comments produced in the assessments I’ve completed so far…..

1. Great use of form whereby everything arrives just where and when and how it should. The song serves the listeners needs really well as far as structure goes.

Most songwriters get form right because we hear a greater quantity of music now in a lifetime then any previous generation and a sense of form is now very ingrained. Form is not an element in song craft that has evolved much over time either.

2. Your song title needs to be in the place where your strongest melodic hook is and needs to be in the optimal location to be identifiable as the title by your listener.

The power positions for the title is commonly either within the first line of the chorus but more preferably in the last line of the chorus which usually has the strongest melodic hook; the most final musical cadence. When we place the title line there it allows for multiple repeats at the end of the song which allows the listener an even greater chance to identify and remember your song title from the catchiness of the hook.

3. Establishment of setting or storyline in the first verse lyric is usually needed. If only “point of view” perspectives which carry over into the chorus and bridge are used in the first verse the song parts will not be diverse enough to be identifiable to the listener and will distract from the content.

There is lots of great point of view writing but most songs benefit from grounding that point of view in some first verse setting which should establish timeframe, some location information and some character description as well (if appropriate to the song storyline). Remember that verse lyrics need to “show” and the chorus lyrics “tell” while the bridge lyrics “philosophize” and that gives the lyric all its “weight” of emotional impact and its diversify of its song elements. One way to accomplish this is to look back at the first verse once the song lyric is complete and then edit so that it perfectly announces and sets up an initial display of what the rest of the song lyric will reveal.

4. Establishment of a rhyme scheme that properly sets the lyric over the rhythm of the melody

The rule to try to follow is to attempt to use imperfect rhymes (moon/room) in the verses which helps keep the storyline in the verses from having to conform to perfect rhymes and then perhaps having them not communicate what the song needs them to. This allows the lyric to stay on topic and to be the best line to follow the one before it and lead into the line after. Imperfect rhyming verses help the verse sound more conversational but still have a rhyme pattern which is essential for it to appear as a lyric and not like a prose (with no rhyme) or a traditional poem with only perfect rhymes. Perfect rhymes (moon/June) are ideal for the chorus and especially for the title hook at the end of the chorus where you want your listener to be able to predict the rhyme while they sing along. This allows your song to serve the needs of the listener.

5. Very hummable and memorable melody and it partners with the chord progression really well.

Melody is another area where many writers show a natural ability because we hear so much “tune” in a listening day and much of those tunes are designed to be catchy so that advertisers can help us decide what to buy and where to shop and to help us feel what the characters are feeling in movies and TV shows. The difficulty is to retain that tunefulness once the lyric is complicated with setting descriptions, character developments and metaphors which are more difficult to make melodic than point of view statements.

6. Vocal shows great emotion but has technical issues with timing and pitch

Vocal performance is an essential element of the song to get right and “under rehearsing” the singing of your song or not having the ability to sing in time and in tune can greatly alter the listener’s ability to focus on the song and not be distracted by the delivery. We now live in a world that is almost 100% pitch corrected and so it is important to either have the pitch verified to be correct in the vocal performance of your song (pitch correct software has become very affordable) or over rehearse the vocal performance (preferably with a metronome to get the timing right as well) and record multiple takes of the vocal to get a perfect vocal performance for your demo. Do not rule out hiring a demo singer that fits the song and can deliver a performance that gives your song the best chance to be brilliant.

7. Demo is recorded well enough for assessment but not well enough to pitch or release

Many songs are recorded specifically for assessment and it makes sense to not invest too much into the song if you feel that assessment is going to send you back to the drawing board and therefore to the possibility of another demo.  Greatly changed musically, the song will unquestionably need to be recorded again. However, since song form, including chord choice and rough arrangement concept are usually very strong song craft elements and most of the writing weakness are in the lyric elements and vocal performance it makes more sense to produce a strong recording of your songs instrument tracks to then edit lyrics, rehearse vocal performance and to do self assessment from. With a better quality recording you may even find that it will inspire an entirely better lyric concept and help the song sing out much better.

8. Instrument performance did not effectively represent the quality of the song

It is hard for a songwriter who can sing to consider hiring a singer to perform the vocal on their demo but if our ultimate goal is to “serve the song” and make decisions in the songs best interest, it may sometimes be necessary. It is equally hard for anyone who plays guitar or piano to give up that chair to a hired gun but again, consider the needs of the song and not the value of the personal experience and your song will thank you for it.

9. Song could be covered by artists who are producing similar work but you should release it yourself since you have written the song as a self contained performer.

Many songwriters look for opportunities to have recording artist cover their songs and although that is a great pursuit, the work they have submitted for assessment often shows that all the tools are there to release the work themselves and it also seems that they are “performing” like singers even if at this particular time they are “presenting” like songwriters. If a singer is going to write for pitching they should look into how that writing differs from the writing that is done for the self contained emerging recording artist they sound like they really want to be. Knowing what you want to be in the industry and then working backwards from that eventual goal is a great way to know where you are going and how to get there in as straight a line as possible.

10. The artistic level and the commercial potential are proportioned to indicate what will likely happen with your song next and when the artistic interest outweighs the intent to have an audience with a commercial interest in your song, your audience might not include enough people to constitute value beyond the basic value of self expression.

It is a clever tightrope walk to write a song likeable to the widest listening audience possible without seeming to be pandering shamelessly to the masses and transversely, write songs artistic enough to be brilliantly original without them being so different from easily digestible music that no one but you and your invisible best friend comprehend them.

I always advise writers to listen to well crafted songs by other artists inside and outside their chosen genre and to read more to give some traction to their lyric writing.

Song assessment has become a very interesting and inspiring addition to my workday as a musician and teacher. I have heard songs that I know has been the product of a lifetime of dedicated work and I have also had the thrill of hearing some writer’s very first works. Despite performing the service of assessment for these songs, I feel more like I am a fellow writer on the same journey of trying to find that rare combination of notes, chords and words that will tell people who we are and what we care about. It is my hope that assessment helps Sac writers get closer to that shared pursuit.

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