Mark S. Meritt continues our series on songwriting, discussing some guiding principles and idea-generating approaches he uses.
Legendary musical theatre composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim noted some fundamental principles that guide his work, the primary one being Content Dictates Form. He also said that his principles served a single overarching goal: Clarity.
These are two big ideas that can make a huge difference in your songwriting. I’m going to talk about some ways they came into play when I wrote “Do It (Duet).” You can visit the song’s link to read the lyrics (and to learn more about the story behind it), and you can listen to it right here in this music player:
It feels like a good song choice for a few reasons. First, I like it a lot! But it also demonstrates a unique process I thought would be helpful to tell you about.
Appreciative Inquiry is a method of organizational development, and by its nature it’s a creative process. Years ago, I experimented with adapting it to create art, and it worked. Since then, I’ve used AI for a number of creative endeavors. I’ve written many songs with it. I also used it to develop a number of services for helping others with creative works, including coaching for any creative project and tailoring custom-written songs, music and writing. AI is also the basis for a unique facilitated songwriting workshop I developed, in which I help people write a song in a single session, even if they have no experience writing songs or playing an instrument. This is the power of Appreciative Inquiry, and AI thrives by first helping you to gain clarity about what you want.
Clarifying the Idea
As part of a songwriting challenge, I had to write a duet that’s not a love song. Since typical love/pop duets usually have both singers expressing a similar perspective, I started thinking about people with conflicting wants. This led me, as I’m generally wont do, to think about resolving their conflict by having them come together in the end. Somewhere in this, it occurred to me that “do it” and “duet” would be a great and relevant pun, since each of the characters would want to *do* something different at first, and later they’d find that they could work together, i.e., *duet* together. This duet was to be about duets themselves.
I started thinking about one person wanting to do something fun, and the other wanting to get some work done — there was a rhyme, fun and done. Another notion that popped into my head was the Reese’s peanut butter cup, whose classic commercials had two people upset that their respective chocolate and peanut butter had gotten mixed together, until they actually tried it and realized it tasted pretty great — an ideal metaphor for conflict giving way to collaboration.
I still didn’t know specifically what the song would be about. Luckily, Appreciative Inquiry works great when you have no idea or only a vague one. In AI, you start with a topic, and you engage in particular kinds of questions about it. Work proceeds through a combination of imagination and structure — in this case, a song structure. Taking the ideas I had so far, and knowing that I wanted to do something all-ages appropriate, I set my main topic as a kid-friendly resolution to work vs. play.
My inquiry led me to the movie “Mary Poppins,” with its classic song “A Spoonful of Sugar,” about making it fun to do the work of cleaning up a nursery. As the song says, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and snap, the job’s a game.” Here, there was something about the work that lent itself to being done playfully, since the cleaning up involved toys and could be done as if playing with them again.
Pretend and role-playing had also come up separately as something worth looking into. I thought about how my daughter had even more fun riding her bike one day when she pretended it was a horse that she was riding. This reinforced the “Poppins” notion of layering pretend on top of another activity to increase its enjoyment.
Having clarity about my general topic, and exploring connected ideas, gave me clarity for moving forward. The whole idea for the song basically just popped out. A kid has played with toys, wants to play with something new, but doesn’t want to clean everything else up first. Someone does want to clean — a parent, another kid, even just another side of the playing kid’s personality. They each want to do one thing and have the other go along with it — “Just do it.” And they each want the other to stop trying to do the conflicting thing — “Don’t do it.” At some point, they try to get what they both want, together, at the same time. They combine clean-up and play just like in “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Their previous opposition gives way to “Let’s do it,” phrased as “Let’s duet,” reinforcing that they’ve become a team.
Content Dictates Form: Lyrics
While the basic story more or less took care of itself, the lyrical challenge became about structuring the dialogue so that both characters could equally have their say, and so that the tension could be made clear and then give way to resolution. The content of their opposition and resolution had to be reflected in the form, the structure of the lyrics.
In the first verse, the first half is sung by the “Player,” who sets the scene and the playful desire. Then it’s all back-and-forth between the “Player” and the “Worker,” highlighting the conflict between them. The volley continues through the chorus, with the Player saying “Don’t do it,” don’t clean up, while the Worker says just the opposite, “Just do it.” The chorus ends with them singing together that they really want to do what they have in mind — opposing each other is all they have in common.
The second verse and chorus are an exact mirror image of the first in terms of who talks when, who gets more or less say at each point, who is imploring whom to “Just” or “Don’t” do something. Two equal sides, reaching a stalemate.
The bridge has them singing together, wondering if they can find common ground by accomplishing both their goals at the same time. Rhyming sufficiently with “common ground” and nodding to the “Poppins” inspiration, the bridge ends with them asking each other, “Could some sugar help the medicine go down?”
Moving past their impasse, the third verse appropriately changes things up. Where the first two verses started with their respective monologues, the third verse starts with dialogue, showing them working together. In the third chorus, they evolve their imploring to “Let’s duet.” Throughout this chorus, there’s now more complementary dialogue and simultaneous singing. One line sung together is the Reese’s reference, which is reinforced by the rhyme depicting how the puzzle of their situation is now complete, integrated, collaborative, “where before there were pieces.” And unlike most lines sung together, these puzzle/Reese’s lines are sung not in harmony but in unison, showing them to be truly on the same page.
Being clear about the thematic content allowed the lyrical form to arise.
Content Dictates Form: Music
The story, the content, dictated that the music be playful but not overtly childish. I also wanted the music to do in form what the lyrics did, conveying how opposition gives way to collaboration. What came to mind were songs like “It’s the Hard Knock Life” from “Annie,” “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles, and “I Hope I Get It” from “A Chorus Line,” all of which have rigidly rhythmic chords played over sporadic bass notes. This seemed to convey nicely the separation between the two characters’ initial stances, while also offering an opportunity for a feel that was both fun and appropriate for a mini-musical.
Just as “Love Song” has choruses that increase the “groove,” something similar could be done later in this song as the characters come together. The first two verses and choruses are piano solo, with some building rhythmic elements. As the bridge hits, the piano opens up stylistically, followed by bass guitar coming in, then some light percussion. With the third verse, the bass, drums and subtle aspects of rhythm and harmony increase in color, giving way to the final chorus where everything hits a really big musical groove. This shows the characters finding their collaborative groove together.
Another way I wanted to convey the distinction between the characters was through harmony. The Player would be more obviously major/happy to reflect the desire for fun, the Worker more minor/sad for the seriousness of working and cleaning up. Verse 1, where the Player seems to be the protagonist, is harmonically fairly pleasant and innocuous, revolving mostly around the chord progression G Am D, with some light variations. In verse 2, with the Worker coming to the fore, the first two chords flip their tone, becoming Gm and A, with new, more tense variations. When the characters are finally getting on the same page in the final verse, the chords are based around G A D, all major chords. Each character/verse on its own had a bit of happy and a bit of sad. Only working together does everything become positive.
One final way I incorporated the character conflict through composition was in melodic phrasing. Though it’s unusual for a single song to have both straight and swing rhythms, this one does. Throughout the heavy conflict before the bridge, the Worker’s lines are mostly straight and rigid. The Player, on the other hand, is mostly swingy and bouncy. To mirror the flipping lyrical themes later in the song, the characters’ rhythms mostly switch in the third verse, showing them each taking on the other’s perspective. In the second half of the third verse, when tension seems to reappear but is then resolved, each character has a tense straight-rhythm line followed by a fluid swing line. This shows simultaneously that they each have incorporated both sides and that, fundamentally, tension is now resolved from rigidity to their flowing, collaborative groove.
As with the lyrics, musical form emerged from clarity about content.
Regrets, I Have a Few
Leonard DaVinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I’m not sure if I’ve abandoned this song for good or may someday pursue revisions. What I do know is that the song has some sloppiness I regret. This was one last important reason I felt this would be a good song to talk about here.
In music, prosody refers to how well the music and lyrics fit together. A melody’s rhythm should fit with the natural flow of loud and soft syllables of the words. Here are some poor examples I shouldn’t have allowed through to the recording:
- “Just wait, not so fast” — “not” should be stressed, but I stressed “so”
- “When will we ever learn” — the first syllable of “ever” should be stressed, but I stressed the second
- “When we leave a mess” — “leave” should be stressed, but I stressed “a”
- “it might break our stuff” — “break” should be stressed, but I stressed “our”
There’s more, including the worst offender, a great example of structure getting the best of me:
“The puzzle’s now complete where before there were pieces
Like peanut butter and chocolate makin’ a Reese’s”
In the parallel spot in the first two choruses, the two lines had the exact same rhythm. Even though the rhythm here in chorus 3 is slightly different from the earlier choruses, I felt I should make the lines at least match each other again. The rhythm of the “puzzle” line is:
Initially, the second line was, “Like chocolate and peanut butter makin’ a Reese’s,” since that’s how the candy is always described, but that rhythm is:
I saw that I could swap the two ingredients to make the lines rhythmically identical, and the same four syllables would be on numbered counts, which I thought would be sufficient.
But here’s the thing. All numbered counts are not equal. Just as count 1 typically has the most weight in a measure, count 3 is typically the next most important. When I rewrote the line, I got the matching rhythm, but instead of the second ingredient landing on count 3, I put the less important word “and” there. I came to feel that it would have been better to compromise the precise rhythmic match. The two ingredients would have been listed in their commonly heard order, and they would have landed on the two most important rhythmic moments, counts 1 and 3.
I hope you’ll learn from both my successes *and* my mistakes! Obviously you may not often write about the same themes as I did in this song, but perhaps you’ll get really clear about your topic, your content, its themes. From there, you may find all sorts of interesting ways that they can play out in how your write your music and lyrics.
Mark began playing the piano at age four and composed and co-wrote his first musical while in high school, his second a few years later. He’s played at clubs, events, theaters and on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” As Musical Director of the Mopco Improv Theatre, he improvises underscores, songs, musicals and operas, and he develops and teaches classes on improvised singing. As a Master Simply Music Teacher, Mark created the two-volume Tune Toolkit Composition & Improvisation Program, available exclusively to Simply Music students, and he co-created Play with Simply Music, a self-study introduction to the Simply Music Piano method. Much as he loves creating original music, probably Mark’s favorite thing to do as a musician is to take sing-along requests for hours on end.
You can check out Mark’s Songs By You facilitated songwriting workshop, as well as his creativity coaching and custom-written works services, all of which are based on Appreciative Inquiry. You can also purchase his AI-created album Everyone’s Invited on CD or MP3 at CDBaby.