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Columns | Spring 2018

Pro Song

Passionate People Inspire Extraordinary Songs,
Part II

Welcome to the second half of this two-part column on nonfiction songwriting. In Part I we discussed how to interview passionate people for inspiration. In Part II we’ll pretend we’ve done an interview and explore a couple of techniques essential for turning all that great material into an extraordinary song.

Our first challenge in this nonfiction songwriting effort will be to identify a song-sized approach to sharing an interview-sized wealth of information. We start off like a sculptor, staring at a big block of marble. There’s a song in there somewhere, but how do we visualize it and draw it out?

Enter my favorite pair of songwriting tools, focus and angle.

While a song’s topic is what it’s really about, its focus is the one thing it’s most literally about, the one thing the lyric most often focuses on. A song’s focus may also be its topic, but not always: in the Beatles’ song “Blackbird” the focus is a blackbird; the topic is freedom.

A song’s angle is the unique lens through which it reveals its focus. A song’s angle includes its message, point of view, voice, setting, tone, structure, theme, metaphor, plot, etc.

Our interview has likely provided enough material to write dozens of different songs, each defined by a unique focus and angle. We’ll use this idea to generate many options, then we’ll choose the focus/angle pair we like best and let it serve as a roadmap for creating our song.

Our song’s focus might be any main item from our interview. If the person we’ve interviewed is exemplary in some way, our focus may be that person, but it doesn’t have to be. We could focus on the object of our interviewee’s passion, a cool tool they use, a problem they solved, etc. For my song “Citizen Scientist,” I interviewed a botanist about her research using gardens grown by volunteers. The focus of the song is one of those gardens, from the point of view of a volunteer. All the points I make about citizen science (the song’s topic) are made using details about that garden (the song’s focus).

Suppose we interviewed a microbiologist about her research on a certain bacteria. Combining just these two elements, we can look at six basic focus/angle possibilities:

  1. The song is focused on the microbiologist from the bacteria’s point of view.
  2. The song is focused on the bacteria from the microbiologist’s point of view.
  3. The microbiologist is singing about herself.
  4. The bacteria is singing about itself.
  5. A narrator is focused on the biologist. (See my song “Super Scientist.”)
  6. A narrator is focused on the bacteria.

Of course your angle will include a lot more than just point of view, and the focus can be made more or less specific, so each option above can branch into dozens of variations. Here are two possibilities that spring from number 4:

A bacterium is complaining (angle) about having to live in a petri dish (focus).

A bacterium is bragging (angle) about its molecular eye (focus). (See my song “My Molecular Eye.”)

Once we’ve identified a few promising focus/angle pairs, we’ll want to develop them with one or two detailed sentences each. What is the singer’s attitude toward the focus? Will the song be funny, touching, inspirational? What are the song’s major themes? Will the song move through time or hone in on a single moment? Will it tell a story?

Let’s try this as an exercise right now. Imagine you’ve interviewed Johnny Appleseed. (Don’t worry about getting the facts right, just go by what you think you know.) Give yourself ten minutes to write down as many different focus/angle pairs as you can. Add just enough detail to provide a sense of what that song would be like, then jump to the next idea.

Okay, write!

You’re back? Here are some of mine:

  1. This song challenges well-known myths (angle) about Johnny Appleseed (focus). Each verse tackles one piece of misinformation. In the bridge I make the point that the real man may be just as amazing as the myth.
  2. I am the pot (angle) that Johnny Appleseed wears on his head. I can hear his thoughts, and I can explain his odd behavior (focus).
  3. I’m Johnny Appleseed, musing (angle) about what will become of all my trees in the future (focus). Maybe in a few hundred years everyone in the country will enjoy apples from my trees.

Yours are quite different, I’m sure. The possibilities are endless!

It’s time to choose a favorite to work with. Our focus and angle will guide us in outlining the song and in determining which details are relevant. We’ll include only information that keeps the song focused and helps develop our angle. Everything else is extraneous.

Now that we’ve roughed out a song from that big block of information, we may face another challenge inherent to writing nonfiction songs: how to handle ungainly words. You’re likely facing a few key words—proper nouns, jargon, and other appellations—that are mouthfuls you’d never expect to hear crammed into a song. Examples from my own interview songs include ecotoxicology, corpus callosum, photosynthesis, basidiospores, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Zodletone Spring, and photocyclic chromophores.

I’m sometimes asked whether such monstrous words belong in a children’s song. In my experience, kids love to hear challenging words, as long as I make their meanings clear from context, or use them in a way that’s unimportant to the bigger picture.

To illustrate, here’s a couplet from my song “Bat Man”:

Deep in every cell there are molecular clues
A record of change that the bat man can use

While the word “molecular” may mean nothing to the listener, the idea of the “bat man” finding some kind of clue he can use (in his quest to solve “the mystery of life’s history”) is clear.

Difficult words can give a song character and color, educate the listener, and pique their interest. A great word rarely heard in song may even become a hook unto itself.

But what if the word you want to use is awkward and unrhymable?

Often enough this is the case. My approach is to start with my most cantankerous key word and actually build the melody, and sometimes even the entire song structure, around it. Let me take you through it using one of the most challenging words I’ve ever built a song around: my Oklahoma dinosaur, “Acrocanthosaurus.”

Your most important key word should be prominently positioned in your song, and one of the best places to put it is at the end of the chorus, where it can take the spotlight by completing a rhyme.

So my first question when working with the word Acrocanthosaurus was can I make it rhyme? What are my options? My choices were fairly paltry: bore us, before us, forest, chorus… Maybe the dinosaur came before us or will never bore us?

Here’s where my intended focus and angle kept me honest. I’d already decided the song would raise the mystery (angle) of the unusual spines (focus) down this dinosaur’s back. None of my available rhymes were key to helping me express these ideas. Though maybe…she’ll “never bore us” because she’s got these weird spines? Mmm…that seemed like a stretch. I didn’t want to suggest boredom as a possible response to a dinosaur. I knew I could do better, so I decided not to put “Acrocanthosaurus” in a rhyming position.

There are plenty of other prominent spots to place a key word, including (but not limited to):

  • Last word of a non-rhyming verse
  • Repeated several times in the chorus
  • First word in a verse

After some trial and error, I matched the word to a melody that put emphasis on the right syllables—ACK-RO-CAN-tho-SORE-us—and allowed it to start my opening line:

Acrocanthosaurus buried underneath the ground
One hundred twenty million years you waited to be found.

Putting its name at the beginning made it easy to address the dinosaur directly, and I liked that, so I adjusted my angle accordingly:

In this song I’m asking the dinosaur (angle) about the weird spines (focus) down her back.

To continue the pattern, I started each verse by addressing the dinosaur and ended each verse with the refrain “Acrocanthosaurus, my Oklahoma dinosaur.” With my title at the beginning and end of each verse, I knew I was looking at an AABA song form. All of which means I allowed my most challenging key word to determine the structure of my lines, my verses, and ultimately my entire song. The result: that crazy six-syllable dinosaur name feels right at home because the song was built up around it.

When faced with a jumble of nonfiction information, find your focus and angle, then build your song around your most challenging key words. May these methods help you write an extraordinary song!