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May, 2009

"Story Songs"

by Webmaster

From the May 3, 2009, Denver Post:

"It's become standard practice for TV shows to use edgy, contemporary songs at key plot points.... Typically, those songs are selected after the plots are written.

"But this season, the producers on CBS's hit show "NCIS" took the practice to another step, getting exclusive songs ... as the shows were being crafted, and then taking inspiration from those tunes to help craft the show." — Nekesa Mumbi Moody, "Putting the soundtrack before the script on "NCIS" (The Associated Press)


It looks like songwriters and song selection could become more important in the crafting of TV shows. This will influence how songwriters write their songs.

Last year, I had the honor of co-teaching a songwriting class with an accomplished music / voice / performance teach and former president (2 years) of the Denver chapter of N.S.A.I. Christy Wessler . We decided to focus on songs that told stories, rather than songs that describe feelings, for a variety of reasons. It is usually easier to come up with concrete images and incorporate the passage of time in a "story song." They are easier to write. If you have a message to convey, it is usually more palatable in a story as an implied moral rather than in a format which might be seen as a sermon.

Now, both types of songs are popular. We can list hit songs of both ilks. We might look down on one or the other style, but we can't deny the effectiveness and universal appeal of songs that have endured. From the ballads of our folk-music legacy to pop hits such as "Feelings" and "I Hope You Dance," songs from both genres have touched us and even helped to shape our lives.

Now, with the idea that songs will be helping TV (and maybe movie) script writers craft their stories, perhaps "story songs" will become more prevalent (and more salable).

So, what goes into a "story song?" I'll use two of my co-written songs as examples.

  • Setting Where does the story take place? How does the setting affect the story?
    1. "A hot wind blew 'cross the prairie, a whiff of smoke in the air / The cattle were restless and wary. The night riders better take care" — "One Lonely Rider"
    2. "Up on a bar stool, drinking a cold brew, / Watching the girls down below / Swimsuits and tank tops, bright summer dresses / Dancing along with the show" — "Black Leather Coat"
  • You probably wouldn't have a cattle drive in a singles bar or singles meeting on a cattle drive, although these days it seems as if all things are possible. So, the setting should be appropriate to the story, from the actual location ("prairie" or "bar stool") to the hints of what will come next ("a whiff of smoke in the air" or "watching the girls").
  • Character(s) Who is involved in the story? Who is the hero or anti-hero?
    1. "Big Ed pulled duty as night hawk. I offered to stand watch instead." ... "One Lonely Rider watched our campfire" — "One Lonely Rider"
    2. "I spied the girl in the Black Leather Coat" — "Black Leather Coat"
    The characters should be appropriate to the setting. Also, there is a narrator in a story. Sometimes the narrator is implied and the story is about "he" or "she" or "they". In both of these songs, the narrator is a character in the story.
  • Action What happens first? What happens next?
    1. "We lost Little Joe and three ponies down a dry wash early that day" ... "I woke to a shout in the darkness. The cattle were starting to run" ... "A lone rider came out of nowhere, his catch rope stiff in his hand" — "One Lonely Rider"
    2. "And she smiled right up at me" ... "It seems years later, ... she smiled and asked, "Is this what you want?" ... "she turned and walked away" — "Black Leather Coat"
    Showing the passage of time is a great way to tell the story in chronological order. Clues like "last night" in the first verse and "this morning" in the second verse expressly tell the order of things. Sometimes, the passing time is implied: "I bedded down away from the others" then "I woke to a shout in the darkness." There should be some way to imply whether the action occurs in a short period of time (over 1 night) as in "One Lonely Rider" where the passage of time is expressed or through a long period of time as in "Black Leather Coat" where the passage of time is implied by a simile ("It seems years later") and by inserting a bridge before the last verse.

I hope that helps you write your own story songs.

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