Songs Unmasked: Techniques and Tips for Songwriting Success

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Authored by Ben Camp

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Course Code: OSONG-597

Next semester
starts April 1

3-Credit Tuition

$2,817

Non-Credit Tuition

$2,615

This course will give you a detailed understanding of your own personal musical influences. It will teach you to write better songs, and refine your tastes by studying your influences. You will become a trained detective, examining and exploring the traits and techniques of successful songs, and applying them to your own writing.

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This course will also help you develop an internal visual language through which to interpret the subjective emotional qualities of objective musical events like tension, cadences, and syncopation. This visual language, based on gestalt principles of perception, will allow you to grasp musical events that take place over long periods of time: Song form, sectional structure, and thematic development. 

This course will review and reinforce fundamental songwriting techniques and vocabulary taught throughout the Berklee Online songwriting degree. You will discover, highlight, and imitate in detail, the contextual use of core songwriting curriculum.

This course stresses holistic and comparative analysis techniques. 

Holistically, you look within a song’s hidden and surface structures and themes to find the relative purpose(s) of each element in the context of that particular song/production/performance. This course will empower you to understand each element and structure in the context of the whole recording. How does the distorted guitar riff feel in the context of the lyric that’s being sung over it? What type of relationship is created when Randy Newman sings a lyric in the style of an unreliable narrator, and the music seems to give us exactly the opposite mood?

Comparatively, you look to other songs that use those salient elements in similar ways, and to songs that don’t use those elements, to determine the effect that each technique has on their experience of a song. How prevalent is dissonance in this hook, and how does it compare to uses of dissonance in other songs of its era or cultural context?

Each week will include an in-depth analysis of songs of your choosing and a writing assignment in the style of those songs. 

By the end of the course, you will be able to:

  • Identify a song or genre’s salient features and techniques.
  • Describe those features and techniques to others in detailed but understandable terms.
  • Apply those features and techniques in your own writing
  • Discuss and apply prosody holistically - between writing, production, performance, and presentation.
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Overview Syllabus Requirements Instructors
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Syllabus

Lesson 1: The Big Picture: Purpose and Prosody

  • Purpose: The ‘Why’ of Songwriting
  • Content, Context, and Prosody: The ‘What’ and ‘How’ of Songwriting
  • Narrator and Purpose
  • Assignment 1: Intention, Content, and Context

Lesson 2: Gestalt Ground: Context

  • Perception of Figure-Ground
  • Musical Ground: Rhythmic and Tonal
  • Shifting Ground
  • Conceptual Ground: Lyrics, Semantics, and Conceptual Themes
  • Assignment 2: Gestalt Ground

Lesson 3: Gestalt Part 2: Figure and Emphasis

  • Figure in Songs
  • Absolute and Relative Context
  • Tools of Emphasis: Pitch, Dynamics, Duration, Position, Contrast/Novelty, and Repetition, Relationship to Space
  • Assignment 3: Emphasis

Lesson 4: Relationships: Agreement and Disagreement

  • Types of Relationships
  • The Relationship of Agreement
  • Figure-to-Figure Examples
  • Figure-to-Ground Agreement between Melody and Tonic
  • Figure-to-Ground Examples
  • Ground-to-Ground
  • Assignment 4: Agreement and Disagreement

Lesson 5: Traits of Figures and Ground

  • Qualities of Structure
  • Discrete-Continuous
  • Qualities of Intensity: Volume, Duration, Pace/Pitch, Brightness
  • Tonal Brightness
  • Range
  • Parity and Balance
  • Assignment 5: Quality

Lesson 6: Small, Medium, and Large Scale Development

  • Narration: Development, Structure, Gestalt
  • The Human Instinct for Storytelling
  • Repetition, Variation, and Contrast
  • The ABCs of Repetition, Variation, Contrast
  • Order of Phrases
  • Subjectivity of Perception
  • Medium Scale Development: Phrases become Sections
  • Large Scale Development: Sections become Songs
  • Assignment 6: Small, Medium, and Large Scale Development

Lesson 7: Development: Position and Rhetorical Structures

  • Emphasis by Position
  • Rhetorical Devices: Position and Repetition
  • Epistrophe
  • Development: Position
  • Assignment 7: Position

Lesson 8: Home and Away: Structural Tension

  • PENTAD  and AA’BX Notation
  • Number of Lines
  • Rhyme Scheme
  • Line Length
  • Assignment 8: Structural Tension

Lesson 9: Home and Away: Musical Tension

  • Agreement: Consonance and Dissonance
  • Departure and Arrival
  • Tension and Resolution: Cadence and Closure, Musical Narratives
  • Open and Closed Structures: Balance and Symmetry
  • Assignment 9: Musical Tension

Lesson 10: The Shape of Melodies

  • Designing a Melody: Prosody of Shape and Contour
  • Song Design: Types of Melodic Motion
  • Song Design: Meta-Melodies and Structural Tones
  • Song Design: The Shape of a Dynamic Soundscape
  • Assignment 10: Melody

Lesson 11: The Shape of Songs

  • Song Sections: Developmental versus Central
  • Song Sections: Open versus Closed
  • Song Sections: Comparison and Prosody
  • Assignment 11: Song Shapes

Lesson 12: Wrap Up

  • From Theory to Practice
  • Form, Function, and Feeling
  • Co-Writing with Yourself - The Power of Ambiguity
  • Moving Forward

Requirements




Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements 

Prerequisite Courses, Knowledge, and/or Skills
Completion of Music Production Fundamentals for Songwriters, Lyric Writing: Tools and Strategies, and Songwriting Tools and Techniques or equivalent knowledge and experience is required.

Textbook(s)

  • No textbooks required

Recording

  • Students are required to submit MP3 files of their songs for assignments. You will not be evaluated on production quality in this course, but melody, harmony, and lyrics should be clearly present. In addition, you are strongly encouraged to implement arrangement textures, and use accompaniment styles that contribute to the vision of each song.

Software

  • Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Free options, such as GarageBand (Mac) or Cakewalk by BandLab (PC), are acceptable.

Hardware

  • Audio interface
  • One of the following studio monitoring options (both recommended):
    • Studio monitors (pair), such as JBL 305Ps or better, as well as necessary cables
    • Over-ear studio headphones, such as Sennheiser HD 600, Sony MDR-7506, Philips SHP9500, Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, etc.
  • XLR microphone (large diaphragm condenser recommended) and cable

Student Deals
After enrolling, be sure to check out our Student Deals page for various offers on software, hardware, and more. Please contact support@online.berklee.edu with any questions.


General Course Requirements

Below are the minimum requirements to access the course environment and participate in Live Chats. Please make sure to also check the Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements section above, and ensure your computer meets or exceeds the minimum system requirements for all software needed for your course. 

Mac Users

PC Users

All Users

  • Latest version of Google Chrome
  • Zoom meeting software
  • Webcam
  • Speakers or headphones
  • External or internal microphone
  • Broadband Internet connection

Instructors

Ben Camp

Author & Instructor

Ben Camp teaches songwriting at Berklee College of Music. Their songs have appeared in film and TV on networks like MTV, CBS, NBC, Fox, and more. They have written singles for Brice Fox, Tiesto, Victoria Justice, Sam Feldt, and others. Ben's mission as an educator is simple: Help you write the songs that only you can write.

What's Next?

When taken for credit, Songs Unmasked: Techniques and Tips for Songwriting Success can be applied towards the completion of these related programs:

Related Degree Majors

Questions?

Contact our Academic Advisors by phone at 1-866-BERKLEE (U.S.), 1-617-747-2146 (INT'L), or by email at advisors@online.berklee.edu.

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