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Songwriting Workshop 3: Rules

Welcome to our third session on Christian songwriting. We are almost half-way through already!

Today we are looking at song structure, specifically focusing on rules.

We may drive along busy roads every day, not always thinking of every little rule we are following. Yet if we don't understand the rules, or are careless in following important rules, disaster is probably just around the corner.

Musical rules - we are going to call them 'conventions' - let us have shared experience we know as music. If we don't share a common idea of what a musical scale is, or what rhythms are, it is likely that we cannot fully share a musical experience.

Beyond shared conventions, there are important rules that affect Christian music. We are going to look these rules too, but we'll start by looking at musical conventions.

Some conventions may be very strong for you, almost to the point where you can't imagine another convention as music at all. One convention that affects all our music is scale - a good place to begin.

A Question of Scale

One great example of conventions is the musical scale of notes we use. Wherever we are in the world, each of us will likely have heard more of one particular type of scale than any other. We're not thinking of just keys like A major, or C# minor - we're talking here about completely different notes or pitches, and even numbers of notes per octave.

Maybe you were pretty much grown up before you became aware that there even were different tonal scales. You might have been ingrained with a 'western' scale, which is technically one version of a heptatonic (seven note) scale known as diatonic. Some might think that is most common, but it is only most common in their own experience.

Many music experts would say that pentatonic (five note) scales are actually more widely used than any other, most especially in the Far East, but also in some European folk music. And there are others. Even in western music, some composers and musicians use 1/4 step tuning, giving 24 notes per octave instead of the more common 12.

For most people, what we grow up with will be what sounds 'right' to us. Other scales, microtonal tuning, or other variations may sound quite foreign and exotic, If they are from the other side of the world from us, they are indeed foreign and exotic. But some of them may clash very discordantly with what we are familiar with, especially the first time we hear them. After a time, we may program our brains to fit into the new system, and even fall in love with another musical way of doing things. And sometimes not - sometimes we will never be able to really understand or appreciate another musical system.

It is clear that one system is neither right nor wrong, they are just different mathematical ways of creating sound. Each is understood and appreciated by the millions or billions of people that have grown up with it. And our ability to understand and enjoy one or other system is neither right nor wrong: Our brains have just learned music differently. As some can learn new languages easily even when older, some of us can learn new musical languages too, and some can not.

If we want to communicate musically with the billions of people that are used to listening to a far east pentatonic scale, we may well need to write our music using that scale. If our intended audience is used to a diatonic scale, that will likely be what we need for our music. On the other hand, if we want to create something for a 'western' ear that sounds exotic, we may deliberately include elements from outside 'western' music.

The point is that we all approach music with expectations based on our background. We need to be aware of our own expectations and preferences, and we need to think about those of our listeners. They won't be exactly the same. Let's move on to the next section, and look at how our music must bridge that gap.

Next part: Whose expectations are most important?

Rules can prevent disaster: We need to know when we can break them, and when we can't.

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