We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand close to the rumble of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tyres sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.
This excerpt written by American crime writer Raymond Chandler comes from a review of his biography by the contributing editor James Meek in this year’s first edition of London Review of Books, (5 January 2017).
Meek points out that Chandler ‘has a genius for the rare and obscure prose skill of putting exactly the right number of atmospheric elements in place to enable the reader to both grasp a topography and feel a mood’
And that ‘between the dialogue, the action, the fierce eye and ear of Chandler fastening on each cadence and fingernail and accessory of his characters, there are moments of intense experience of place that are both sensual and precise’
What on earth has all this got to with songwriting? Well, basically, everything!
Berklee College of Music’s Professor Andrea Stolpe points out in her book Popular Lyric Writing, that a songwriter’s objective is
‘to cause a significant experience in the mind and heart of our listener. As writers, we have the power to determine the intensity of the experience we cause…. Any idea can succeed or fail in causing an experience with the listener. The effectiveness is not contained with in the plot itself but in the ability of the story to connect emotionally’
She asks the challenging question ‘Are you connecting with your listeners or providing background music to their busy lives?’
This is a great benchmark to use to measure your songwriting success.
An audience has to feel something to connect with your song. Telling them to feel won’t work, but showing them how to see what you see, hear what you hear will help them feel what you feel.
This means using your senses as points of connection, just like Raymond Chandler did so effectively. He told us what the tyres sounded like (they sang), what he could smell (kelp) , what the colour of the window was (yellow), where he was leaving from (Las Olindas), what the concrete felt like (moist), what the weather was doing (fog, moist, dank) and how he was travelling (driving) – in other words he employed every sense he had, plus movement. This increased specificity makes us literally reconstruct his experience for ourselves.
Same in memorable songwriting. Not just any shoes, but blue suede shoes - not just a car, but a little red Corvette, not just a road but a dark desert highway, with the smell of warm colitas rising up through the air. Senses are being seriously stimulated here – sound, visual, smell, taste, touch and movement.
Incorporating sense-bound writing into your material enables your listeners to experience what you want them to. They can connect with your songs more fully through the choice of specific details you provide.
When next you write, intentionally think about what your characters look like, sound like, what they smell, or smell like (!), how they're moving, what or who they're touching, what they're drinking or eating. You might start to unearth some new images and lines you hadn't previously thought of, taking your song from good to great.
Talk more soon.
ps sense-bound writing is something we look at really closely in our song clinics.
Hi, I'm Charlotte Yates and I can help you get better at writing songs.