Songwriting Wisdom from Camp: Songs with Characters and Plots, Huh?

Editor’s Note: This originally appeared as part of a series of Camp Chronicles or Letters from Sierra Surf Music Camp.  Because we are working on writing some songs and mentioned Ferenc Dobronyi in our last post, we needed to revisit it.



12:00 p.m. -- noon -- meant gathering on the sofas, airplane seats, benches, and chairs in the living room of the Lodge.  The living room provided warmth, intimacy and a resting place for the campers.  There, Ferenc Dobronyi presented his class on songwriting.  It was attended by professionals (real musicians) and us wannabes alike.

The attendance was a tribute to his demonstrated skills as both a songwriter and a presenter.  He was well-prepared for his recording class on Saturday and even provided  a helpful, information-filled, and thought-out handout.  If his songwriting class was similar, everybody knew that it would not be on the fly, off the cuff, improvised, ad libbed, or whatever term you might use for unprepared, disorganized babble.

A look around the room showed that songwriters like Paul Johnson, John Blair, Paul the Pyronaut, Bob Bitchin’, and Tim Stephenson were interested in another songwriter’s process.  Everybody listened attentively.

Ferenc began by drawing on a flip chart sized tablet.  He analogized a song to a table held up by four legs:  Lyrics, melody, chords, and groove.  An instrumental song has three legs as lyrics need not apply.  The question is where do you start building the table.  The upcoming answer was obvious.  But it might have been a bit disappointing to some folks in the room. 

“I can’t tell you.  It varies from writer to writer and from song to song.”

Ferenc continued.  He offered those who cannot write songs a life ring.  Some people are great or exceptional musicians, but try as hard as they can, they cannot write a song.  Some people are not skilled at all as musicians but can write songs.

He demonstrated how a song might begin with a couple of notes.  With the assistance of Paul the Pyronaut, Ferenc showed how different chords affected the feeling of the two notes.  They even threw in a bit of music theory as Paul went through the chords in the diatonic scale. 

Used a lot of diminished 7ths lately?

With the help of John Blair, Ferenc went over his thought process for and what he was conveying in “Ewa at the Beach.”

Songwriting for Ferenc is an amazingly creative endeavor.  It is like writing or telling a story.  He thinks in terms of plots and characters.  He portrays them through sound, not words.

I thought, “Wow, this is way more complicated than the simple melodies that bang around in my brain.”  Then I remembered how Paul described what he got out of the different parts of “Lava Tube.”  Was I the blind squirrel or no musical skill guy who lucked out?

Ferenc also had a plan for generating wind when in the doldrums.  Learn different scales and modes including the Hungarian Scale.  Listen to all kinds of music.  Explore musical differences.  Fill up your smart phone and GarageBand with ideas whenever they come.  Walk the dog for the quiet time needed to hear what is playing in your brain.

After the class ended, I sat and mulled over what Ferenc said.  The hour had been jam-packed with information.  Could somebody go out and write a song armed only with what they heard in that hour?  Paul Johnson, no sweat.  We mortals, probably not.  Will I look at those simple melodies differently in the future?  Probably.  Do I now know why so many songs are better than my “these are catchy and fun” songs?  Maybe.

Memo to Self:  Hey, how about some simple plots and characters in the next batch of songs you write?


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