Song Sketching is very similar to object writing, and is the next step in the process to craft your song.
Unlike object writing, which focuses intensely on a single object and allows for associations to occur, song sketching has a big picture goal: create a vehicle to convey a message.
Song Sketching is “the movie” you’ll use to craft the song’s story. And to begin, you’ll write it out in long form with no rhymes or structure to worry about.
This allows you to work through the story and then apply some rules later, eliminating restrictive thinking as you put things down on paper.
WHAT IS SONG SKETCHING?
I once heard Mary Gauthier talk about writing a song with Fred Eaglesmith. She had a single line: “between daylight and dark” – an idea generated from reading The Secret Life of Bees. His response? “Hold on, let me go get the movie.”
Eaglesmith went and found the scene to express “that feeling we get in that moment . . . the gloaming . . . the twilight . . . the feeling of something being lost, or a sadness that comes over you between daylight and dark.”
I had the good fortune of hearing her recount the story at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston, and I realized it is a great process for songwriters to have in their song craft bag.
Song Sketching is the laying out of the message you want to convey along with how you will be communicating it.
And, you can do it in several ways. You may not always use a storyline plot or a simple sequence of events with a beginning, middle and end. You can also speak directly to someone, use a metaphor or simile to convey your message, or a variety of other options. Regardless, your listener needs to be able to follow it.
Hence Song Sketching! Sketch it out and make sure they can follow it!
Think of Song Sketching in the fashion of a flip book: individual scenes/elements that work together as you hold it in your left hand, bend slightly with your right, and let the images cascade through your thumb to reveal the motion.
GETTING STARTED WITH SONG SKETCHING
Sometimes, you have a story line or general scene or two in your head, but as a songwriter, you haven’t discovered the message of the song. If you don’t know the idea you’re trying to communicate, then there’s no real intent on your part as a songwriter.
What’s a songwriter’s intent? Pretty important according to Jimmy Webb!
Your intent as a songwriter is the thing you want someone to take away from your song: basically – the message.
HOW TO CREATE A SONG SKETCH
Think of it as your baseline template for how things will unfold.
One of the most important elements is your opening scene (likely a verse) in your song. It will set the mood and tone of the song/movie.
So how do you make sure it delivers on it’s job of setting the story in the right “space” for the listener?
Write the whole concept out long form first. Don’t worry about what’s a verse and what’s a chorus – that’s mechanics. You’ll do that later.
Write down whatever pops into your head as if you’re watching a movie. Don’t edit just let it go. This “free writing” exercise should help get you to the message of the song.
If there’s dialogue, write that down too – it may help clarify the song’s message for you.
Why long form? Because you’ll need to figure out the point (or the intent – or the message) of what you’re writing down before you move to how you’re going to tell the story – and reveal the songs intent in a way your audience gets it in 3 or 4 minutes.
For example, is the intent/message about making decisions that impact others? Or is it about the speaker feeling they have no other options and the unknown is better than the known?
Free writing will help you figure out why the song is important. Your main character, who is telling the story (point-of-view), the scenes, the dramatic moments created, should all have a purpose and support your very important message.
Form follows function – so how is your “form” unveiling the song’s meaning, and your intent as a songwriter?
Think back to your template. Heck, maybe you even drew it out – even better!
Based on the “movie” you wrote down and the story arc template, convert the song’s outline into a song structure using the Song Outline Worksheet in the Member Songwriting Library. For an example of how to use the worksheet, check out the songwriting exercise From Outlines To Songs.
Your main character is extremely important, because who they are determines the perspective of the story.
The perspective of the story creates the context for your song’s message.
For example, if I’m the victim of something, me telling the story is very different than if I’m the perpetrator. Different message to the audience, who has a different take away from the song.
Consider your main character or story teller carefully. They are the conveyor of your song’s intent!
At a minimum, you should (A) set the scene/tone of the song, (B) identify the conflict, (C) resolve the conflict per the story arc.
Construction of your song can take a number of forms. For example, you can have a few verses that do each with a simple refrain running through the song and no chorus (ex., “Open Pit Mine” sung and arranged by The Vintage Martins).
Or you can use a chorus as a way to move the song’s storyline forward and provide a larger emotional meaning to the song (ex., “Leave Your Gun” by Louise Mosrie).
The important thing to consider when choosing how to structure the song is to make sure each occupies the appropriate parts of the song and that the melody supports what’s happening.
For example, are you starting with the end and going backwards in time to the beginning, or are you starting from the beginning and going forward? Does it stay true to the order you’ve chosen?
Are you using minor chords during happy moments? If so, this could create confusion for you listener. Does the melody rise and fall with the action or ideas? Leveraging the music to deliver the mood of the scene is one of the best devices you have to reinforce the story.
Movie scores rely on this for scenes with no dialogue. Make sure you use it to your advantage.
TIP: The next time you’re watching a movie, pay close attention to the music choices that support a scene. Notice how the music supports scenes with and without dialogue.
This also includes instrumentals within the song. For example, in “Between The Daylight And The Dark” an instrumental is used to create a break, and ultimately a transitional moment just before the resolution of the song.
It gives the listener a chance to catch up to what they’ve been told, process it, and prepares them for the big event.
This is a great device to keep in your back pocket.
EXAMPLE OF A SONG SKETCH DONE WELL