What is a documentary song?
A documentary song is one that recounts an experience that has been lived, either in waking life or in a dream or reverie. The song also expresses a feeling about that experience. The song usually has:
- Lyrics that convey a setting and a series of events
- A melody that expresses the emotion felt during the experience
The account of the experience is usually provided by a Story Source — someone who is willing to share a personal story and collaborate with the documentary songwriter to shape a song together. In terms of time, the process usually requires two sessions, each one lasting two hours.
Contrary to what might be assumed, a documentary song is not a part of a documentary film. Instead, it stands by itself, like an impressionist painting. Just as an impressionist painting may express an artist’s perception and feeling about a visual scene, so a documentary song may express a perception and feeling about a personal experience.
The goal of creating a documentary song is to offer listeners something beautiful and true.
What is the Documentary Songwriting Method?
The Documentary Songwriting Method takes a spoken story or conversation and turns it into a song.
It was originally developed by Malcolm Brooks of Rockport, Maine, as an evolution of his composing work for television and documentary film. It was first explored collaboratively with Hannah Batley of Orono, Maine, and led to the composing of “Sunflower” and “A Star or an Angel.” It was further explored and explicated by Marieke Slovin of Prescott, Arizona.
A growing number of writers and composers, including Alex Wilder, Will Foote, Nora Willauer, Chloë Isis, and Melodi Var Öngel use it to as a way to guide their creative process and to encourage originality and authenticity. The method has developed variations as it has evolved and spread in recent years.
The Documentary Songwriting Method nearly always involves at least two people — one who says a story aloud and one who takes down the story by typing it or writing it out. The spoken text becomes the source material for the song itself.
The process often takes place in public, before a group of supportive observers. The documentary songwriter invites a volunteer from the group to come to the front, to tell a personal story, and then to participate in shaping it into a song. The final product is a song that expresses and documents the emotional experience of a meaningful excerpt from life.
Key aspects of the method:
- It is collaborative, with at least two people creating together.
- The goal is to create beauty and document in music the emotions of a real-life experience.
- Originality arises from the inherent uniqueness of each individual. No two experiences and no two speaking styles are the same.
- The creative process may take place in a group setting, with observers listening with compassion and singing the song as it emerges.
The method usually proceeds as follows:
- A volunteer shares a story, which is typed verbatim on a laptop by the documentary songwriter.
- The documentary songwriter — often called a musical sherpa — and the storyteller — often called a story source — turn the text into a free-verse poem, by breaking the long text into a series of shorter lines.
- The two of them look for a phrase that expresses or symbolizes the emotion or message suggested by the overall text. Sometimes there are several phrases and possible messages. The story source chooses one to become the refrain. The musical sherpa then guides the story source in editing, expanding, or trimming the refrain so that it becomes something that may be something enjoyable and expressive to sing.
- The story source, with guidance from the musical sherpa, inserts the refrain line in between blocks of the free verse, separating the blocks into what may become verses of the song.
- The story source sings the refrain several times, not aiming for quality, but simply trying to get a feeling where the melody might rise or fall. The sherpa records the improvisation.
- The two of them listen back to the recording, choose their favorite, and refine it into something that feels delightful to sing.
- They then trim one or more of the blocks of text that will become the verse. They try to preserve the original phrasing as much as possible.
- The story source sings, in an improvisational fashion, a possible verse melody. The sherpa guides the story source in shaping a verse melody that leads into the refrain and completes a melodic arc.
- The sherpa and story source sing through the verses and choruses together, often joined in by an audience. Often this final sing-through is recorded in a casual way on a phone or computer. The recording allows other listeners to hear the song at a later date.
Who tells the story for the song?
The Story Source is a person who tells a story about a personal experience and, with guidance, discovers a possible snippet for the melody. She or he then collaborates with the docomentary songwriter to create a song.
The process usually unfolds over two sessions, each one lasting about two hours.
The Story Source’s role is to:
- Recount a personal experience while the documentary songwriter types the words on a laptop. The experience can be about anything, as long as the Story Source feels some emotion about the experience. The emotional component is important, because it may suggest the arc and nature of a melody.
- Collaborate with the documentary songwriter — also called a musical sherpa — to break the typed text out into shorter lines. The shorter lines transform the Story Source’s story into a free-verse poem.
- Be willing to read the free-verse poem out loud to help both the Story Source and the musical sherpa grasp a sense of the rhythm of the words.
- Collaborate with the sherpa to discover which phrases in the the text might convey an overall feeling or message.
- Be willing to sing — in an extremely rough and approximate way — some of the phrases in the text. The rises and dips in the Story Source’s voice help the sherpa see how a melody might reveal itself.
- Collaborate with the sherpa to refine both the words and the rough melodic themes into a completed song.
What about age, gender, and location?
Interest and passion seem to matter more than age. The youngest person we’ve collaborated with is an 8 year-old school girl. The oldest is a 96 year-old prisoner of war survivor.
Of the 49 story sources and musical sherpas on this site, 31 are female and 18 are male. In percentages, the ratio is 63% to 37%, female to male.
We’ve conducted documentary songwriting sessions at:
- community centers
- music schools
- private homes
Although our plans are to collaborate with people internationally, at this point we have only visited the continental United States, Canada, Spain, and Cuba.
Most documentary songs to date have been in English. There have been explorations into Spanish, as well translations into Greek, German, Italian, French, and Portugese.
How do I become a documentary songwriter?
What does it take to get started as a documentary songwriter? There is no license to acquire. But there are qualities of character that make the work easier, as well as skills to develop. Here are some character qualities of a documentary songwriter:
- Curiosity. You question your own creative powers. You wonder whether working alone is the best way for you to create.
- You have a desire to increase your creative powers by trying new methods.
- You like the idea of creating something beautiful through collaboration with someone else.
- You are curious about other people.
- You’re empathetic.
- You’re persevering.
- You’re willing to guide without controlling.
- Music speaks to you deeply.
- You are willing to switch between being intuitive and being analytical.
Documentary songwriting requires both interpersonal and musicianship skills. Since both areas seem to take a lifetime to master, there is no test to take before venturing into the field. Because the work can be challenging, however, you may want to take a course or gain practice through an internship.
- Introduce oneself with humility
- Let go of identity preconceptions and personal preoccupations
- Nod and show facial expressions consonant with what is being said
- Attend to another person’s emotions
- Win another person’s trust
- Type a person’s spoken words on a laptop while occasionally providing cues of attentive listening
- Internally build a core reflection of what you are hearing
- Wait in silence while someone else thinks
- Sense when to propose options and make suggestions
- Identify sung pitches with the aid of an instrument
- Determine the tonic note and the key a person is singing in
- Draw on knowledge of scales and keys
- Draw on and vary archetypal chord progressions
- Recognize and draw on melodic archetypes
- Expand and vary melodies
- Recognize rhythmic feels, or “grooves,” implied in a person’s singing
- Play common chords in all keys on an instrument
The reward for developing these skills is the chance to meet extraordinary people and to create music that expresses the human experience. A documentary songwriter may see beauty and possibility in the smallest of events. By creating a song from a spoken story, a documentary songwriter honors another person’s life.