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Are the Songs You Write Too Long?

2:41 pm Songwriting

Have you seen any of those “Director’s Cuts” DVDs featuring a slightly different version of an already-released movie? These “cuts” are almost always longer than the original film (sometimes much longer), usually because the director has restored beloved scenes or pet subplots that had been excised in the editing stage.

American poet Walt Whitman continuously revised his classic Leaves Of Grass from its initial publication in 1855 right through the “Deathbed Edition” of 1892. The original version had 12 poems in 95 pages. The Deathbed Edition contains almost 400 poems and runs to 488 pages.

In 1989, Stephen King released an updated edition of his classic 800-page novel The Stand. The new edition had over 1100 pages. King explained that the extra space gave him more room to tell the story he had in mind.

The 1968 song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly is 17 minutes and two seconds long.

I mention these examples to demonstrate two characteristics of highly creative people:

* They love to create (and create, and create, and create).
* They hate to un-create, i.e. to omit or destroy anything they have created.

The problem is that it is often difficult for the creative person to realize that the movie, or the book, or the song, has become too long and needs to be trimmed back before it collapses under its own weight.

It’s the Ideas, Stupid

Turning specifically to music now, it seems to me that the main factor that determines whether a song is “too long” has to do with the rate of introduction of new musical ideas. If a song offers verse after verse of acoustic guitar and vocal with no variations at all, it’s likely to get boring within the first two minutes unless there is something very compelling about the lyrics or the vocal delivery.

This leads to the idea of development, in which the second verse has, say, a keyboard part and a harmony vocal that weren’t there in the first verse. The function of different song segments, like choruses and bridges, is partly to allow for the introduction of new musical ideas (new chord patterns, new instrumental or vocal textures, etc.) that will maintain the listener’s interest.

In this connection, it is helpful to think of your listener as resembling a baby or other small animal with a limited attention span. You have to keep showing him (or her) new shiny things as interest in the old shiny things wanes! And never let up.

A song can be quite long and still remain interesting throughout, as long as the flow of new musical ideas never stops. Need proof? I give you “Stairway To Heaven.”

I have listened to so many songs online that sound great and start out fine, but then go on and on, way past their “end by” date. Songs that are effectively over at the 2:30 point clock in at five minutes. Just like those “Director’s Cuts”! The old showbiz adage “Leave ‘em wanting more” is just as true in music as in any other real-time art form.

Mend Thyself

The key is to never lose the song’s momentum, even for a moment. Here are some potential momentum-sapping trouble spots to watch out for in the songs you write:

* The overly long intro. If the intro is longer than four bars, be sure some melodic part is playing over at least the second half to draw the listener into the song. This also applies to links between verses, etc., except that the threshold length is two bars. (These can often be omitted - at least try it that way.)

* The double bridge. In a song with a bridge, sometimes it’s good to have the bridge occur twice, perhaps with a solo segment in between. But once is usually enough.

* The overly long solo. This is another good place to lose momentum. Always do less than you think is called for. Solo to one verse instead of two or three. Bag the long mid-song jams (it’s not 1971). Take control as the songwriter and indicate the specific length of the solo segment on your chord chart. Don’t leave it for some lead guitar guy to decide later!

* The final verse. You’ve got a couple of verses and choruses early in the song, plus some links, a solo, and a bridge or two. The temptation is to put one more verse at the end of the song. But the verse is “old news” by then. Coming back to it late can give a “but we heard this” feeling that you don’t want to be felt!

I have to admit, people often tell me that one song or another of mine is “too short” or “over too soon,” so obviously I tend to err in that direction. But to me, that’s much better than having a long song lose its momentum and become (gasp) boring.

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One Response
  1. Jay :

    Date: January 21, 2012 @ 9:00 pm

    Right on my man!

    Brief and to the point is always best!

    In a gada da vida baby… withstanding!

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