Songs and songwriters

page of sheet music

© Louis Johnson

Songs have existed in most musical cultures throughout history. Their connection to the human voice arguably makes them simultaneously the most accessible and immediate musical form. The process of songwriting takes many forms and the number of different song forms is almost infinite.

For a significant part of human history songs have been a central part of oral folk traditions. In such traditions songs are remembered, adapted and changed through people singing and passing them on to different groups and generations. It is therefore difficult (and in fact inappropriate) to talk about songwriters and songwriting as songs tend to be fluid and open to change over time. Songs within these oral traditions should not be regarded as static compositions but as evolving entities which change over time and across locations.

Nevertheless, from the 16th century many of these songs were written down as broadsides (cheaply produced one-sided pamphlets sold by street traders). It was not uncommon for several versions of the same ballad to be published at the same time. This popular trade in broadsides went on to provide the foundation of the music industry. As new forms of commercialised leisure emerged in industrialised nations during the 18th and 19th centuries, writers and composers emerged producing songbooks and sheet music for a growing "domestic market and for performers working in popular theatres, pleasure gardens and (in the United States) minstrel shows" (Middleton 2003: 202).

In the earliest days of music publishing, composers concentrated on writing melodies, while lyricists were employed to write the words to the new songs. These songwriting teams were employed by music publishers in a manner which often resembled a nine-to-five job. In renowned centres such as New York's Tin Pan Alley (1880s to the 1930s) or the Brill Building (1950s and 1960s), songwriting teams would work out of offices. This system was the predominant method of songwriting within the music industry until eventually new styles of popular music came to challenge the standard song formats of music hall, musical theatre and the Hollywood musical film. The distinction between composer and lyricist began to break down, as did the distinction between songwriter and performer. Songwriter-performers emerged in various genres, such as Hank Williams in country music, Louis Jordan in rhythm and blues and Buddy Holly in rock 'n' roll, all writing and performing their own material. With the advent of rock in the 1960s, performing songwriters such as Lennon and McCartney, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix became stars, setting an example that is still influential today. At this point the performer/composer became predominant within the music industry.

The songwriter nevertheless continued to thrive and many classic hits of the 1960s onwards were written by renowned songwriting teams or individuals. Holland-Dozier-Holland, for instance, wrote and arranged many of Motown's hits; Chin and Chapman wrote a string of UK pop hits in the 1970s for acts such as Sweet, Suzi Quatro and Mud; and Diane Warren has written songs for hundreds of US pop artists since the 1980s. In fact within many contemporary genres, such as pop and electronic dance musics, there remains an industrial split between the differing elements of the songwriting process that mirrors songwriting before the rock era. Within songwriting teams backing tracks are often initially produced in a studio before been given to a 'top line' writer (or team) who comes up with the 'top line' of melody and lyrics. The hit songwriting team Xenomania for instance, have used this method to write a string of hits for pop acts such as Girls Aloud and the Sugababes. The company have a team of writers who produce initial backing tracks inspired by the latest in contemporary dance and electronic musics, which in turn are given to a team of trusted top line writers. Existing bands are often sent to work with such writers in a search for the elusive 'hit' recording.