I don’t have to choose, do I?

Professionally, I identify as both composer and songwriter. I don’t have to choose, do I? I can have both, yes? What is the difference between songwriting and composing anyway? When does a songwriter call herself a composer, or the other way around?

Written By

Gretta Harley

My love for music always seemed clear to me, regardless of the style or form, but there was a disconnect for me as a young writer. I had the desire to compose, having an opera and another multi-media project in my head at age sixteen, but I had massive anxiety over not knowing how to make the music come to fruition. I was overwhelmed by my insecurity, thinking I didn’t know how to do it “right.” I had no mentors to guide me in compositional vision. I didn’t even know what to ask for. I was a suburban teenager with no family background in music, attending piano lessons each Tuesday and practicing four to five hours a day in secrecy from my rock-n-roll friends. The training I received was very traditional and I loved it, but it also intimidated me. Perhaps that intimidation is endemic to the culture? A lot of feelings weren’t clear to me until many years later when I analyzed my own relationship to music.

Professionally, I identify as both composer and songwriter. I don’t have to choose, do I? I can have both, yes? What is the difference between songwriting and composing anyway? When does a songwriter call herself a composer, or the other way around?

Typically the word composer refers to a person who writes notated music on paper—or using software, as the case may be. Music that is composed is usually thought of as concert music of the Western tradition and is commonly referred to as “classical music.” The ol’ Wikipedia states, “In broader usage, ‘composer’ can designate people…who create music, as well as those who create music by means other than written notation: for example, Blues or folk singers and guitarists who create songs through improvisation and recording and popular music writers of musical theatre songs and arrangements. In many popular music genres, such as rock and country, musicians who create new songs are typically called songwriters.” Fairly broad, indeed. Let me try to break it down from my perspective.

Music has a long history and many traditions. New generations of composers study the music of composers who came before them. Because humans tend to organize and categorize, many forms in music have been built and coined over centuries. Form is basically the shape, order, or architecture of a piece of music. There are most likely a hundred or so recognized forms in Western music, for example: symphony, opera, oratorio, fugue, mass, string quartet, piano trio, sonata, etc.…and song. Each of these forms has their individual identity and structure. Composers typically study these forms, filling their compositional toolboxes, using standard historical contexts, putting their own signature on the music, and taking pleasure in the tedious analysis of music. They study the ranges and capabilities of various instruments and often compose according to logistical performance opportunities. They sometimes stretch sonic possibilities and procedures, forging new sounds, creating new techniques for voice and instruments, this changing current practice.

Song form has a long history and diverse cultural contexts. Songs can be complex or simple in their form. They are shaped with repeated melodies and harmonic structures organized into verse, chorus and often a bridge, in various orders. The lyrics of a song often speak the language and reflect the heart and mindset of the songwriter. Songs can be heard in musicals, on blues records, in rock, country, standard repertoire and other genres. Typically songs are reflective of popular culture. The accessible melodies become recognizable to the listener. Throughout history, songs have been written to encourage, accompany, reflect and tell stories of the human condition. Even simple songs composed of just three chords can have a lasting effect on generations because of their catchy and accessible melodies. (I am choosing not to discuss here the specific topic of formulaic songs written for the sole purpose to sell records.)

A songwriter writes songs. Some songwriters read music, and some do not. Some do analysis of their songs; some don’t analyze the chord progression or think about form. Songs are typically between 2 and 5 minutes in length. Some songwriters write lyrics and others work in collaboration with a lyricist. Regardless of the songwriter having formal music education or not, writing a good song is a well-honed craft.

Photo by Angela Castañeda of a group of scores and leadsheets and a pen.

Photos by Angela Castañeda

Music is not the notes on the page. Music is what we feel when listening, what moves us; and since we are each little snowflakes, different music will affect each of us in different ways. When working with musicians who are not fluent in the language (“What is a I IV V chord progression for chrissakes? Just play the song!”) I’ve often thought of the countless classic stories written throughout history by storytellers who don’t read or write. Ya don’t have to write the words down on a page in order to tell a great story! And you don’t have to be musically literate to make great music. Beloved folksongs that have survived through generations have been created and taught by ear.

All through my studies of traditional Western music­ starting at eight years old, practicing classical piano all through high school, attending college at a jazz school as a piano major, and later as a composition major­, I always listened to a lot of rock-n-roll. Songs. I was a serious piano player and a lover of sloppy guitar licks. While I basked in the beauty of Beethoven and Chopin melodies, I equally rocked out to Aerosmith and Janis Joplin. In high school, I was excited to learn of Frank Zappa who merged concert music with song.

Improvisation. There is a stereotypical understanding that the so-called classical musician does not improvise. Jazz musicians improvise. Rock musicians improvise. Songwriters improvise. But classical musicians do not improvise. But they used to be adept improvisers. Many of the composers in the 18th century were incredibly prolific. Haydn, for example, wrote more than 100 symphonies, approximately 75 string quartets, operas, oratorios, etc. His responsibility to entertain the court on a regular basis would only be possible through the improvisational talents of the musicians who played his work. He most likely had something akin to lead sheets at times, not totally unlike what jazz musicians read today. (A lead sheet is a page with a short hand map of the music: melody, rhythm, and harmonic progressions). Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms were all adept improvisers. In fact, the cadenza, a common indication in a piece of music, was for the player to improvise­ to show off his virtuosity. I heard a story once that Beethoven was not fond of any ol’ musician interpreting his music, so he began writing out the cadenzas. Other composers followed suit and eventually the art of improvising was lost to the average classical musician. So I did not learn how to improvise as a young student. I only learned to read what was on the page. And I learned in a very traditional manner, steeped in a mindset of hierarchy, vigorous, competitive, intimidating hoopla that resulted in insecurity.

Everyone has the right to sing and make up melodies without feeling judged.

Music, like dance, is primal to humans. Why are we not dancing and singing like we did as little kids? Because our puritanical culture dictates that only the very good, educated artists have that right. This thinking hurts our collective psyche, our mental and physical health. It breaks my heart when an 8-yeard old piano student says she can’t sing. Someone told her that. Everyone has the right to sing and make up melodies without feeling judged. But tradition is so engrained in us that only the great musicians get to do that. Of course musicians do earn the credit and praise that come with countless hours each day over years to become virtuosic at their instrument and compositional skills. But experts should not intimidate the right to create music out of people.

So I taught myself how to play guitar. At first I bought a few chord books of songs by Neil Young, The Kinks, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I learned how to position the chords on the neck, and I started writing my own chord progressions. Then I took a page from Joni Mitchell and began tuning my guitar in all sorts of ways, until I didn’t really know what chords I was playing. I allowed this instrument to be my creative compositional outlet. To this day I don’t know the neck with anywhere near the understanding I have with the keyboard, and I have always liked it that way. (Although I am trying now to become more proficient.) I do improvise on the piano now, a lot, which is how I most often start writing a song. I combine both my love for song and my knowledge of composition to guide me in my music writing.

I know I am not alone when it comes to the intimidation factor of improvisation. A lot of my composer friends had to undergo serious reprogramming after years of undergraduate and graduate study, as I had done earlier in my life. I think a great balance can be achieved by marrying the creative impulses with a plethora of tools in the composer’s toolkit, not unlike a painter who studies how to mix color. More knowledge can lead to various options, making music richer, more compelling. Intimidation has no place in creativity.

On the other end of the spectrum, I grew up during second wave punk, and the mantra amongst most rock and punk musicians I knew was: “I don’t wanna know too much about what makes music,­ the theory behind it; I just wanna play it.” The energy of the music was what was important. The fear of knowing or thinking too much was endemic in the punk rock movement. I think disengaging from the macro­, that puritanical­ culture, played no small role in this mindset. The beauty of not having to know a lot about music theory is that more people are able to play and write music. This mindset broke down the wall of music being only played by well-educated musicians.

A lot of my composer friends had to undergo serious reprogramming after years of undergraduate and graduate study, as I had done earlier in my life.

At extremes, there is a prejudicial intolerance between these two mindsets of musicians that has always bothered me. I see that as a misunderstanding between non-literate musicians (meaning they don’t know the “language” or theory of music) and traditionally trained musicians. I see this rift as a bit of ego getting in the way of appreciation. I’ve experienced this conflict first hand at the college I first attended and later taught at for a cumulative 15 years. The school’s excellent composition program focused on 20th century standard practice, but in the early 21st century the school was inundated with contemporary songwriters in the genres of folk, hip hop, and electronic music—and the faculty had little idea of what to do with them. Some schools have started songwriting programs in the last few years, but the influx of young people wanting to study composition for songwriting is a fairly new thing. Questions arise. Should songwriters learn to write fugues? Should they care about John Cage and Edgard Varèse? Should departments limit their rigorous expectations to accommodate one form of writing? Should all composition students study all musical forms knowing they only want to write in song form? These questions also play into attitudes about music composition and literacy that can get heated on both sides. I think there’s room for all, but academia is going through understandable growing pains.

We are products of what we are exposed to and what we let into our lives. My record, Element 115 (Uup), is a hybrid from a composer and songwriter. I am sure that the experiences I’ve had playing hard rock and composing for chamber ensembles and theater have played a significant role in my songwriting and arranging, just as concert music and pop songs are intermingling more today than ever before. My piano students are reminded regularly that the Mozart piano sonata and the Chopin prelude they are learning are not “songs.” Composers and concert musicians who grew up with a heavy diet of pop songs are bringing those songs into their concert repertoire. In his residency at Town Hall a few years ago, cellist Joshua Roman presented chamber arrangements of Radiohead alongside Messiaen. He intentionally introduced the audience who came to hear Radiohead to acoustic instrumental arrangements and, more importantly, to a 20th century music great. At the same time, he enabled concert hall subscribers to openly hear music by artists they may not have otherwise known about. During Ludovic Morlot’s inaugural concert year at the Seattle Symphony he programmed Frank Zappa next to Beethoven, speaking to the audience and instructing them on how to listen to Zappa. Although Zappa’s Perfect Stranger is not in song form, the artist is widely known for his songs for The Mothers of Invention. This cross-disciplined programming is exciting, and a natural product of the current generation of concert artists’ exposure to pop and rock songs.

Songwriters may or may not have knowledge of the written language, a.k.a. notation and theory, but music is not on the page. It’s what and how you communicate. Good music is good music. A simple three-chord rock song can move me just as intensely as an Arvo Pärt symphonic work. Young songwriters are influenced by the multitude of music available online, and young composers are appreciative and knowledgeable about simple and not-so-simple songs and write in both forms. Amen.

Photo by Angela Castañeda of Gretta with a group of scores and leadsheets.