how to write songs

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The Independent Culture
Frank Zappa wrote songs about things that grow fur at the back of the fridge, and from the beginning of time people have made songs which reflect the fabric of their everyday lives. So what's gone wrong with our song tradition in Britain? Time was, if you wanted to express what you felt you might make up your own song. These days you buy a CD and hope to experience the feelings second hand.

Songwriters in the classical tradition haven't done much better. They still have an apparently unwavering appetite for the elevated and the exotic - usually in someone else's words.

When Declan McManus - aka Elvis Costello - made an unscheduled appearance as a guest teacher on the Composers' Ensemble Songwriting Course at Dartington a couple of years ago he offered a refreshingly new perspective on songwriting. Most songwriters in the popular tradition write their own lyrics, leaving the music to follow naturally. What's special about Elvis is his tremendous ear for making a text; he knows how to skew syntax, how to find the right image without spelling it out.

The odd thing was that after two weeks many of our students were still unaware that the talkative guy in hornrimmed specs, who had been acting as midwife to their hesitant attempts at songwriting, was Elvis Costello.

The songwriting course at the South Bank this Saturday, as part of Elvis's Meltdown, starts from the assumption that it's perfectly acceptable to make songs about the small change of life and show how, if you listen hard to the pauses and accents of speech, you can tease out the beginnings of melody.

The Irish poet Matthew Sweeney will help people find the words, together with the rest of the team including myself (right), the singer Mary Weigold and Gary Carpenter, Head of Music at Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts. Elvis will touch base during gaps in his Celluloid Meltdown day at the NFT.

The course is completely open access. The fewer preconceptions our students have the better - all you need is to have heard a song or two. For most of us, our earliest musical memories are the most deeply etched. And probably, everyone has at least one song of their own inside them. A couple of years ago at Dartington a woman in her early eighties composed her very first song.

For professional composers, writing songs can be like writing a diary although it can take five years to write an opera whereas you can dash off a song in five hours.

Song is the one musical form that spans the widest variety of musical styles. Six years ago, The Composers Ensemble embarked on a mammoth Songbook project. We've commiss- ioned more than 300 songs from the most disparate group of composers imaginable from Harrison Birtwistle to jazz improviser, Keith Tippett and rock guitarist John Renbourne. And Elvis. He has just written me some lyrics for a song I'm composing for the The Song marathon on 1 July. It's called "Malicious Observer" and his words have such a strong character that I can almost hear his music in them.

The Song marathon has such a loose structure that work emerging out of Saturday's course could very well find a place on the programme alongside Purcell, June Tabor, Jeff Buckley and Elvis Costello. But don't let that deter you.


The Composers' Ensemble Songwriting Course, South Bank, London SE1 (0171- 928 8800) 10am-4pm Sat 24 Jun, pounds 20/pounds 12, also at Dartington International Summer School 12-19 Aug