Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 7b

frank-zappa-9540382-1-402We feature more this week from the always mercurial, occasionally obnoxious, often puerile, never boring mind of Frank Zappa, courtesy of the interview conducted by Paul Zollo in his Songwriters on Songwriting. As noted earlier, though Zappa died in 1993, and though his thoughts concern the pop-music industry, we can easily apply much of his content to the worship-music industry in 2020. I am not going to bother to change all the male-dominant language here. Please apply his words across the genders:

Zollo: So what would be your advice to the young songwriter when he sits down to write a song–should he concern himself with writing a good hook or should he simply try to write a great song?

Zappa: It depends on what he wants to do.  If he just wants to make money, he should copy everybody else’s stuff, which is what everybody else is doing.

Zollo: But you can only do that for so long.

Zappa: It depends on how good a copier you are.

Zollo: How about if you want a career in songwriting?

Zappa: Basically, it’s a career in being a fraud.  It’s just like when someone says, ‘What is your advice to a young composer?’  I always say, ‘Get a Real Estate license.’  You can’t earn a living being a composer in the United States.  But as far as being a songwriter goes, you can make a lot of money if you will listen to what everybody else has done that has been successful and tweak it around to the point where you can convince an accountant at a record company that you’re fresh, new, and original.  This is usually accomplished by changing your hairdo periodically and having a good wardrobe.  That’s basically the business you’re entering.  The idea of writing a nice tune is the farthest thing from the minds of the people you’ll be doing business with, and that is the reality of the business.

Harsh?  Zappa is just getting warmed up.  Here’s his response to the assertion made by other songwriters Zollo referenced that there hadn’t been a good melody written since the early 60’s:

I’d say that’s probably true because the basic thrust of today’s music is dance music, especially for Americans, who have an incredibly limited concept of what rhythm is.  If you look at the typical dance rhythms that motivate an American dancer, you’re very close to march music.  It’s boom-bap-boom-bap, and if there’s anything more than that, an American’s feet get tangled up.

So you start with a basic sort of fascist marching beat, and then you add a few parallel fifths to it (if you want to be heavy metal) and make sure that your melodies don’t have anything shorter than an eighth note.  Make sure that there is an incredible amount of repetition in the composition because you’re presuming that when people are out there semi-marching and pumping their buttocks up and down that they couldn’t really comprehend any more than a five-note melody.

If you were to do a statistical analysis of some of the most popular, big-selling tunes that have been on the market in recent days, you’d see not too many notes, the chords don’t give you too many surprises, and the beat is boom-bap.  So if you want to do that and make a lot of money, it’s not too hard to learn.  But if you want to write the great American tune, I would say to get a Real Estate license.

As previously noted, we run the risk of apples-to-oranges comparisons in this series when we employ secular artists in our attempts to improve the songwriting for the contemporary Church.  That acknowledged, let’s analyze Zappa’s concluding paragraph above where contemporary worship music (cwm) is concerned.  

  1. “[There are] not too many notes.”  Current CCLI #1 song: four notes in the verse phrases, each repeated three times; five notes in the bridge phrases, each repeated over and over.  What Zappa doesn’t mention re: melody but what is true for much of cwm is the melodies tend to be conjunct (stepwise, with very few leaps).  That’s true for this song, which features one-step melody lines throughout the examples above, save for two separate two-step leaps (i.e., just shy of drones).
  2. “[T]he chords don’t give you too many surprises.”  Of the top 10 CCLI songs, eight utilize only the holy quartet of cwm chords: I, IV, V, and vi.  The other two use those four, but one adds a ii, and the other adds a iii. 
  3. “[T]he beat is boom-bap.”  The cwm equivalent of the dynamic Zappa decried in the early 90’s is the power ballad.  Of the top 10 CCLI songs, nine can be considered power ballads–the only one that would qualify as an up-tempo tune completely distinct from power balladry would be “This Is Amazing Grace”–and of that nine, eight of them have recommended tempo markings between 56-82, with the average in the mid 60’s.

Is any of this evil or heretical?  Of course not.  But does it, perhaps, point to the cwm industry as regularly bereft of creativity, frequently beholden to what has “worked” recently, and often stuck in a rut dug deep by four-chord, mid-tempo power ballads?  I encourage you to examine the evidence yourself.

The Lord be with you!

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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