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Group Songwriting Strategies Part I: Building Songs

Dr. Sarah Gulish • January 2023Modern Band • January 15, 2023

Nothing is more incredible than watching students unlock their creativity and develop their musical voices in your classroom. Watching students write songs for the first time is a type of magic I look forward to every year as a high school teacher. But writing songs can also be incredibly vulnerable. It’s one thing to work on perfecting a pre-written song but a completely different experience to make something from scratch. 

I often find my students are afraid to dive into songwriting independently, especially those who have been playing music for years with little to no experience creating or improvising. Yet, young children and new music learners are often open to understanding their musicianship through newly generated ideas. So how do we meet students where they are and ease them into this creative craft? 

Group songwriting is a great way to collaborate to generate musical ideas in a low-pressure environment. This is a strategy that I use to introduce songwriting in various classes, from my classically trained string orchestra courses to my commercial music classes like music production or beginning guitar. Not only is group songwriting a great way to ease into creative work, but it’s also fun. 

There are so many ways you can create a song collaboratively within a group, and one of my favorite exercises is what I call “build a song.” Of course, you can adjust this process to fit the level and abilities of your specific group. But the main idea behind build-a-song is that each group member is responsible for one small decision that contributes to the overall song. I love this approach because it helps break down the creation of a piece into small, meaningful choices that work together to form a final product. 

Getting Started
Before you craft this experience for your students, start with what your students already know. For example, if I do this activity with my beginning guitar students, I’m confident in their ability to play a few basic chords. Or, if I’m working with a choir, I’m confident in their ability to sing a melody. If working with a popular music collective, I know they’re used to common popular song forms. Start with the students’ comfort zone and move from there. 

Scaffolding the Process
Once I have a starting point for my students, I create an order of operations for building a song (think of this as your creative assembly line). In this assembly line, each student will have just one creative choice to make that will contribute to the overall song. This assembly line can be edited to fit the needs of your students, but the most essential points to consider are the following: 1. Keep it simple, and 2. Keep it fun. Remember, our goal is to demystify the creative process in a supportive, collaborative environment. If students are struggling to make a creative decision, I move on! My goal is to make our first songwriting experience a positive one. 

While your song could be constructed in any order, try to think about scaffolding the following elements: melody, harmony, lyric, mood, and rhythm. Start with the familiar and move to the less familiar. In the end, you’ll ideally have a good amount of a song with input from each student in the class. 

For example, if working with my beginning guitar students, we’ll start with harmony (chord selection) before moving on to mood, rhythm, lyrics, and melody. The BAS process might look something like this, with a new student completing each step of the process: 

Select a starting chord (harmony)

Select two other chords to complete a progression

Select a mood

Develop a strumming pattern to reflect the mood (rhythm)

Pick a topic

Create one line of lyrics on that topic (lyrics) and speak it in rhythm

Create another line of lyrics (and so on)

Develop a melody for the lyrics that fits with the harmony

Choose a phrase for a repeating chorus

Develop a melody for the repeating chorus

It can be especially fun to continue making music throughout the entire song-building process. It takes a bit of practice but involving students in both the decision making and playing of the song helps them feel and hear what fits and what doesn’t. I encourage students to have fun and not worry about whether their choice is the “perfect” choice but focus more on what serves the group and the song. 

In the end, we have a song. Students can see the process unfold from start to finish and feel more empowered to move into small groups or solo work to create another song using a similar approach. And by exploring creativity in a fun and safe space, students develop creative habits that can become central to their musicianship. 

Dr. Sarah Gulish is an educator in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in creativity and popular music. She co-founded the fair pay publishing company F-flat Books and teaches courses and supports educators at www.songwritingforme.com. 

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