A Documentary Songwriter’s purpose is to serve the world as part-composer and part-journalist.
To bear witness to people’s experiences and feelings by creating enduring music
To collaborate with people and work with them to create songs from their spoken words
Compassionate collaboration and artistic excellence
- Musical beauty lies in the rhythms and words of spoken stories.
- Creativity can flourish when people collaborate.
- There’s more to life than what may be sung about in popular music.
An Overview of the Docsong Process
The first stage is arranging contact: Through organizations or friendships, a documentary songwriter finds a person who has a personal story to tell. The documentary songwriter listens to the story and turns it into text by typing it verbatim into a laptop computer.
The second stage involves musical composition: The documentary songwriter serves as a “musical sherpa” and guides the storyteller — or “story source” — in distilling the spoken text into lyrics. The documentary songwriter compassionately supports the story source in singing an exploratory melody. Drawing on music theory and knowledge of song forms, the documentary songwriter finds chords for the melody and designs an instrumental accompaniment.
The third stage involves performing and recording. The documentary songwriter and the story source collaboratively refine the song and make a live recording. They publish the original song by uploading the recording, the lyrics, and any commentary to the site docsong.org. Additionally, there may be followup arranging with a band or in a recording studio for release on iTunes or Spotify.
DID SHE CHANGE: Exploring Cello in Documentary Songwriting and Expanding the Role of a Classical Cellist by Nora Willauer
Responsible Songwriting: Problems of Ethics and Negotiation
in Collaborative Autoethnographic Composition by Alex Wilder
Autoethnography of a Composer with a New Method by Malcolm Brooks
Stages and Breakthroughs by Marieke Slovin and Malcolm Brooks
An alternate approach that has been used in English theatre:
How Do you Write a Documentary Song by Adam Cork
Some Characteristics of a Documentary Song
A documentary song is an artistic and accessible song that expresses an emotion from a lived experience.
With regard to melody, a documentary song is artistic if it has a melody that expresses the emotional message of the story source’s experience. The melody, if successfully designed, will even convey the emotion without any words whatsoever. A particularly accessible melody may have the power to cross borders and languages and cultures.
With regard to lyrics, a documentary song is artistic if the song’s lyrics arise from the story source’s actual words. The lyrics provide the setting and the highlights of the story. The lyrics are accessible if they are pleasurable to sing and free of intentionally abstruse phrasing.
Groove and Arrangement
Since the song is often heard first through a recorded arrangement, a musical sherpa tries to design an arrangement that is accessible as well. The sherpa chooses chords that support the movement and emotion of the melody.
The sherpa strives to create a brief instrumental introduction, probably about 10 seconds long, that signals the groove – the rhythmic feeling – of the song, as well as the key and mood. Ideally, the introduction offers a sound and theme that help the listener distinguish this particular song from the many other songs that have been written over the centuries.
An accessible recorded arrangement usually lasts about 3 minutes, a length in line with what most listeners are expecting and what radio programmers can include in their playlists.
These goals regarding melody, lyrics, and arrangement can sometimes make documentary songwriting feel quite challenging. It’s not for everyone. But for some musicians, the goals are lofty and thrilling.