Songs As Buildings

One of the endless and enduring fascinations of my life has to do with the structures of songs.

Songs are like little buildings: some of them are airtight and graceful with smooth lines and a floor plan that makes practical sense. Beatles, Motown.

Some songs follow a dramatic arc rather than a traditional song form because they’re in service to a story. LeMis and all its brothers and sisters. And you can call me crazy, but I think of Buffett and Springsteen as the bridge there. They create what are essentially miniature short stories using simple song forms.

Some songs are more on the hodge-podge plan, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, among others, have written some songs whose floor plans meandered about like a crazy gingerbread house or the country cabin in Wheeling that your uncle has been adding on to for years. They were great songs, of course. YES or Bela Fleck? Forget about it. Greater still, and you needed a map to get through them. As a matter of fact, it’s not a coincidence that musicians refer to the form of songs as the road map.

After all, if you’re a musician and you find yourself in a playing situation where someone puts a new chart (musician speak for sheet music) in front of you, what’s the first thing you do? Scan the road map.

You want to see where the various sections lie, which parts repeat, and whether there might be any unusual little signposts along the way, or maybe a musical snare or tricky turn to trip up the unwary.

It becomes second nature after a while, and for a working stiff musician like me who’s spent much of his life playing pop, rock, jazz and country music in a bunch of situations, a knowledge of the architecture of songs is an essential.

Did I just mix my metaphors? Never mind — architecture, road maps, it’s all good, and the rules of songwriting are more like the pirate’s code from those Johnny Depp movies. You know, more like a guideline, really. Shit, I did it again.

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