A Documentary Songwriter’s role is to serve the world as part-composer and part-journalist.
To collaborate with people and to communicate their experiences and feelings in a way that only music can.
Emily Eagen of New York says it this way: “To mix the art of making music with the art of connecting with people.”
- Musical beauty lies in the rhythms and words of spoken stories.
- Creativity can flourish when people collaborate.
- There’s more to life than what is often sung about in commercial music.
- To create enduring melodies and lyrics from people’s spoken words
- To create bonds among people through musical collaboration
- To bear witness to human experiences far and wide
- To discover what people will choose to sing about when freed of commercial constraints
- To transport listeners out of normal existence, even for a moment, and create beauty
Characteristics of a Documentary Song
The goal at docsong.org is to create meaningful songs that people enjoy singing and listening to. The aim is to create songs that are equally artistic and accessible.
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 convey the emotion without any words whatsoever. It has 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.
Since the song is most 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 make documentary songwriting feel quite challenging at times. It’s not for everyone. But for some musicians, the goals are lofty and thrilling.
How Documentary Songwriting helps people
Creating something as partners or in a group can fill a room with energy. It may be the most energizing thing that people can experience together. However, what can short-circuit this energy is feeling uncreative or fretting over finding an idea.
The documentary songwriting method tosses these worries out the window. It takes personal stories — spoken words — and uses them as inspiration. It carries people through the creative process and lets them experience their own creative power.
The Process Itself
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.