Apr 12, 2017
by Scout MacKay.
We all know the feeling. Whenever “Every Morning” by Sugar Ray comes on at the grocery store, we are filled with nostalgia and transported to the back seat of our mom’s car with our best friend from 6th grade, fumbling with our shin guards on our way to a soccer game. When I teach my students the songs they can’t take off of repeat, like “Dangerous Woman” by Ariana Grande and “Magic” by Coldplay, I take myself back to those moments to recreate the goose-bump-raising feeling for myself of what they are experiencing. They’re crazy about a song because it triggers a tangible feeling of self expression.
If you can revisit this same kind of nostalgia but in a new light, you can create your own masterpieces. Through your craft of composition and songwriting it will transport you and your listeners to a feeling of freedom, peace, and being understood.
Throughout my teaching career, I have stumbled on many songs that help bring this out. Here are three of the more abstract songs that chose themselves, though never failing to introduce my students to some of the most powerful aspects of songwriting.
Eleven-year-old Anika was halfway through the second verse, accompanying herself on piano singing “Pure Imagination” and both of us were tearing up.
There is no
Life I know
To compare with pure imagination
You’ll be free
If you truly wish to be
Anika is new to singing in front of anyone but her own reflection, new even to the concept that she is a singer. Her voice is gorgeous and she is beginning to give herself the space to explore it in her piano lessons.
Even though the chord progression can be simplified and taught to beginner students, the tonality of the introduction is very abstract. It quickly becomes a flowing melody with piercing lyrics.
A song like this can give permission to be brave and explore something that sounds out of the ordinary. It teaches the student to embrace the abstract in music and dare to combine fluid vocal lines with a meandering modal landscape.
The message in this song is to explore, and to embrace one’s imagination as the most important aspect of oneself: a prerequisite for songwriters.
I first heard “My Stupid Mouth” by John Mayer on a long bus ride between the border town of Sixaola, Panama and San Jose, Costa Rica when I first started teaching music in 2006. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to put more songs on my iPod, and I was left with just twelve songs to shuffle through as we made our way through the muggy banana plantations and hot jungle hills.
A decade later, in the middle of a lesson with a songwriting and piano student in which we were moving a bass line in the left hand and keeping the same inverted chord in the right hand, looking for a new place to go for a bridge or another verse, and I recalled this song.
There are three essential parts in this song that make it work in a unique way. The descending baseline carries the verse, the bridge takes you somewhere musically unexpected, and the third verse brilliantly comes after a long pause as a surprise. I often have this song at the ready to encourage movement outside of the ordinary in budding singer songwriters.
Country singer Nancy Griffith’s song “Trouble in the Fields” is as good as it gets when it comes to creative songwriting in a common structure that is adaptable to pop, rock, alternative, and folk loving students.
The chord progression is extremely easy to follow, teach the movement to, and to simplify or recreate in one’s own songs. When I was seven years old, this was a favorite of mine to listen to on my family’s trips across the country on an old cassette tape that I’ll never let go of. This song works, so, so well, for it’s outstanding lyricism and storytelling and singable chorus. I often bring it out for demonstrating a lyrical structure.
What is the purpose of a first, second, and third verse? What does the bridge need to say and how does it take you to a simple, memorable four bar chorus? How do you use imagery poetically to tell a story to any audience about a very specific thing that they may have never experienced and still receive a universal response?
To me, Nancy Griffith is one of the absolute greats who can make any story turn to musical gold. I encourage my students to write songs weekly and one day they’ll be able to do the same.
Of course, there are heaps of songs I haven’t mentioned from my abstract basket of tricks. There’s “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You” by Lauryn Hill, “Us and Them” by Pink Floyd, and “Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap.
I encourage fellow teachers to share their nostalgia for music with the growing songwriting students and fill their toolboxes with ways to unleash their own creative freedom and take it in new directions.
Scout MacKay teaches more than 40 students piano, voice, guitar, songwriting and composition in the Seattle area. She also travels annually to Latin America where she provides instruments, art supplies and music lessons as tools for developing communities.