The Subculture of Belmont Songwriters
I will never forget the first time I was captivated by a song. I was twelve years old, frustrated with the world around me. While I was passionate about school, my peers did not receive the same amount of satisfaction from learning. Discouraged, I ostracized myself from my surroundings because I could not cope with the world. In the midst of my seclusion, I watched a silent movie that used background music to convey the words, actions, and emotions of the various characters. The music created visceral reactions that invigorated me. I could not look away from the screen; I was consumed by the movie. It was only afterward that I realized that the movie's music was the catalyst of my reaction. The music brought me so much pleasure that I forgot about my frustration. Lost in the wonder of the music, I was no longer disappointed because I had found sanctuary from my surroundings. Therefore, I wish to become a songwriter someday so that I can attempt to captivate others in the mystery of music and provide refuge to troubled souls.
My Positionality and Objective
Although I am ignorant to songwriting, I studied the classical, baroque, and romantic styles of music in elementary, middle, and high school. Interested by the mystique of music, I leapt at the chance to play in a jazz band and, as a result, learned how to analyze musical styles and improvise. Improvisation led me to instrumental composition because it made me cognizant of the structure of a song, the importance of dynamics, and complex music theory. I may be an outsider, but I am aware of some of the rules. Consequently, it may seem that I already know how to write instrumental compositions and that my study of the songwriting culture is unnecessary. However, I have only created instrumental compositions, not lyrical songs. As an outsider to the songwriting culture, I am looking to understand the processes and techniques songwriters use. Thus, my study of Belmont songwriters concentrates on the songwriting process, writer’s block, and the attempts of songwriters to connect with their audience.
To learn more about the songwriting process, I decided to write lyrical songs and develop my own process further before interviewing Belmont songwriters. I reasoned that my active participation in the subculture of Belmont songwriters would provide further immersion and insights. The first song I wrote was entitled, “Why Did You Leave.” My song was inspired by the uncontrollable circumstances of life in which people are torn apart. After I selected my topic, I chose to use my song as an informal address, as many people have been brutally hurt by their lovers’ fated departures and can connect with the idea of unresolved love. As I began to write, I tried to envision an object that would disappear upon individual perceptions of its presence. I thought of the wind, and I began to write. My lyrics flowed continuously, as if they were solely produced by the tactile stimulation of paper and pencil. While completing my song, I thought of a confused soul who is left with unanswered questions. Thus, I decided to address said soul’s lover by concluding my song with two questions: "Where did you go? Why did you leave?"
During my initial writing session, I isolated myself from the world around me to prevent distractions and peer judgment from influencing my work. As I wrote alone, I felt comfortable because I could express my thoughts freely. I did not experience writer’s block in this session, but I did revise my work to refine my expression and to include more creativity in rhythm and rhyme. Subsequently, I inserted first-person and second-person pronouns to invite listeners into my song. Following my initial writing session, I recorded a background track and listened to it as I read my song aloud. I again made further alterations to my lyrics to create better flow and improve my expression. After recording my song, I used audio software to enhance my performance.
Why Did You Leave
You were like the wind;
at first surprising, but your departure left me numb.
Your trajectory was dictated,
thus I could only marvel at your tempestuous nature and, to me, that was enough.
Young and foolish, we made terrible decisions for
we were blind to the world's attempt to manufacture galactic balance because we had already established our equilibrium.
But our creation was as finite as its creators and
I thought otherwise, but I was wrong.
Your fate was determined and I could not accept that for we were free, unrestrained from the mental chains of lost souls, but I became a prisoner.
And in my cell I remained here reminding myself of my inability to cope asking,
"Where did you go? Why did you leave?"
The second song I wrote was entitled, “Sympathetic Oscillation.” In this song, I ruminated on the implications of geographical distance on love. I chose this topic because many of my friends have experienced this situation due to college, occupations, and military obligations. As such, I thought my song would resonate with a large audience. While developing my idea, my mind fixated on the image of two intersecting sine waves oscillating between their maximum and minimum points. I decided to use oscillation as my theme because it accurately reflected the situation I was attempting to describe. Accordingly, I brainstormed terms relating to the physical vernacular that I could incorporate into my song. I thought of words that related to sound and space: bodies, gravitate, orbits, curves, ellipses, transients, resonation, harmonics, overtones, and oscillation.
During this writing session, I experienced writer’s block but my previous brainstorm eventually spurred my inspiration. To mirror my previous songwriting attempt, I decided to establish the audience of my song by incorporating first-person and second-person pronouns. I completed my song shortly thereafter and made some revisions to include alliteration and rhyme. Following my writing session, I again recorded the background track and listened to it as I read my song aloud. Afterward, I recorded my song and improved my performance via audio software.
As we sway to and fro,
our bodies gravitate towards one another.
Our orbits coincide in the curves of intersecting ellipses;
thus, our encounters are brief, but your perennial proximity incites sagacious sentiments of satisfying stringency inside of me.
Our spatial separation sprouts sinister
seedlings of sorrow and disseminates sadness sporadically,
but I am resilient for my experience through space and time has taught me of a day's increasingly reciprocal impression.
Yet, I cherish every second with you.
As we converge transiently,
our bodies resonate with one another.
Our sonority creates harmonics and overtones so potent
that it overwhelms others stereophonically.
It releases emotions untamed into these cerebral membranes that lay atop of our shoulders,
and we sway.
There is neither you nor I, but rather us.
So trust my motions for I trust yours.
I await our sympathetic oscillation.
Preparation for Interviews
I chose to schedule interviews with multiple Belmont songwriters to listen to their songwriting experiences, learn the techniques they utilize to write songs, and compare our songwriting processes. For two years while attending Belmont, I have frequented concerts at the Massey Performing Arts Center, the Curb Café, the Curb Event Center, and the Neely Dining Room to watch my peers’ performances. I have been overwhelmed by the amount of talent and passion exhibited by my fellow students, and I have taken notice of exceptional performers and songwriters. Thus, when I decided to arrange interviews with Belmont songwriters, I already had some individuals in mind. My preliminary choices were Rayvon Owen, Jenny Wolfe & Jordan Ruiz, Cameron Bedell, Keayana Robinson, and Levi Gordon. Every songwriter I chose had written multiple songs, performed at multiple venues, and achieved recognition on Belmont’s campus.
To schedule interviews with the aforementioned songwriters, I used Facebook to send messages to each individual. In my messages, I introduced myself, explained my project, and asked if I could arrange an interview. Shortly after messaging my chosen Belmont songwriters, I received their enthusiastic responses and we started to arrange times for interviews in the atrium of library, outside the Lila D. Bunch Multimedia Hall. I sent interview times and dates to all of the songwriters to position all of my interviews in the same week. In some cases, I had to make changes to my preliminary interview times due to scheduling conflicts, but I eventually finalized interviews with each songwriter.
Consequently, I started to assemble questions for my interviews with each Belmont songwriter in order to prevent awkward moments caused by my lack of preparation. I also decided to make my questions unavailable to my interviewees to ensure spontaneous responses and honest findings. During my preparation, I chose to begin each interview by asking each songwriter about their experiences with music and songwriting to learn about their backgrounds and promote further discussion. I then formulated questions under the three foci of my paper: the songwriting process, writer’s block, and attempts to connect with an audience. For the songwriting process aspect of my paper, I was curious about the songwriting routines and practices of Belmont songwriters. In addition, I inquired about the length of time they needed to write a song and their preferred social environment. To investigate writer’s block further, I asked Belmont songwriters’ about their experiences, techniques, and the social conditions regarding their writers’ block. Finally, I developed questions to examine the attempts of songwriters to connect with an audience via song content and performance interaction.
Before each interview, I arrived early to reserve a table in the atrium of the library outside of the Lila D. Bunch Multimedia Hall. As I waited for my first Belmont songwriter to arrive, I decided to conduct my interview freely by using my questions as a guide, rather than a script, to inspire conversation. The rationale for my interviewing style was that my questions would address the aspects of my paper and our resulting discussion might produce valuable insights.
Observations of Interview Space
After reviewing my questions, I documented the sounds of the atrium in my field notes. There were people entering the library doors, conversing with friends at the café, listening to music, and laughing. The sonic elements of the atrium created a friendly social environment that promoted interaction. Similarly, the atrium made me feel comfortable due to its ample space and numerous couches.
Reflection on Songwriters’ Interviews
While walking to the library for my last interviews, I reflected on the many insights Belmont songwriters revealed in our conversations. I recalled Rayvon, Jenny & Jordan, and Cameron emphasizing writing in a calm, comfortable environment and using structural, emotional elements to connect with an audience. To me, a calm, comfortable environment seemed natural because tranquility would still one’s mind, allowing clarity, and comfort would aid one’s relaxation, facilitating the expression of self. In addition, the uses of structural and emotional elements were brilliant because they transported their listeners through their songs by noting the surrounding circumstances. Using the aforementioned elements in songwriting, songwriters could improve their sessions and retain their listeners.
Secondary Source Research
Following my interviews with Belmont songwriters, I conducted secondary source research to gather general information about the culture of songwriters. Proceeding with my investigation, I scheduled an appointment at NSAI, Nashville Songwriters Association International, and read Murphy’s Laws of Songwriting by Ralph Murphy and “William James” in The Chronology of American Literature.
While visiting NSAI's website, I learned that NSAI is a not-for-profit trade association that is “committed to protecting the rights and future of the profession of songwriting, and [serves] to educate, elevate, and celebrate the songwriter” (NashvilleSongwriters.com). By scheduling an appointment beforehand, I was able to take a tour of NSAI’s headquarters and obtain textual artifacts noting songwriting lingo and the songwriting opportunities at NSAI. During my tour, I noted NSAI’s writer rooms, studio, and administrative offices and received information about the benefits of NSAI membership.
I chose to read Murphy’s Laws of Songwriting because Ralph Murphy is a prominent songwriter whose songwriting commentary is used as “curriculum at colleges, universities, and songwriter organizations” (Murphy 8). Additionally, Murphy's Laws educates aspiring songwriters how to craft songs and lure listeners. Recognized by professional songwriters, Murphy's analysis of his experiences as the head of publishing companies, the president of NSAI, and the president of numerous boards for performance right organizations has yielded insights for amateur writers. In addition, I decided to read “William James” in The Chronology of American Literature to research stream-of-consciousness writing.
Analysis of Findings
After collecting data via my experiences, interviews, and secondary research, I began to establish some conclusions about Belmont songwriters' musical experiences, songwriting processes, writer's block, and their attempts to connect with their audiences.
To begin my analysis, I reviewed Belmont songwriters' responses regarding their initial musical experiences. Noting similarities, I realized that all of my interviewees were introduced to songwriting in educational settings. While some Belmont songwriters discovered their craft in school, others developed their songwriting under the direction of their mentors. Rayvon first developed his musical abilities in church and school while growing up in Richmond, Virginia. He indicated in our interview that these educational experiences in Richmond incited his interest in songwriting. Similarly, Jenny & Jordan experimented with songwriting after forming their group, Bluejays, during high school in Austin, Texas. In our interview, Cameron noted that his involvement in vocal ensembles during high school improved his singing and sparked the creation of his first song. With their mentors’ guidance, Keayana and Levi learned many techniques to develop and refine their songwriting.
My songwriting attempts and secondary research supplemented my realization as well. Reflecting on the circumstances surrounding my initial songwriting attempts, I recognized that my songwriting experiences were prompted by the requirements of my high school and college courses (i.e. Orchestra, Music Publishing, and Third-Year Writing). With respect to the larger songwriting culture, my research at NSAI supported my realization because it conveyed NSAI as an association that educates its members via “Nashville Workshops”, “Online Forums”, and “One-on-One Mentoring” (“Making the Most of Your NSAI Membership”). As previously noted, teachers at colleges and universities, like Belmont University, incorporate Murphy's Laws of Songwriting into their curricula to expose elements of songwriting to their students. While I saw correlations, my findings could not concretely assert that Belmont songwriters are solely introduced to songwriting via educational settings.
Trying to synthesize my data, I noticed that Belmont songwriters have tendencies to write in isolated spaces. During my interviews with Rayvon, Cameron, Keayana, and Levi, each songwriter noted their preference for writing in solitary spaces to prevent distractions. Additionally, said songwriters mentioned that an isolated environment liberated their artistic expression. Free from their peers' judgments, they could fully express themselves. Likewise, my songwriting attempts and my tour of NSAI supported the common use of secluded locations by the larger songwriting culture. During my songwriting attempts, I withdrew myself from my surroundings to feel comfortable and concentrate on my song. Equipped with acoustic treatments, the writer rooms at NSAI provide a tranquil space for professional songwriters. Although I only sampled a few resources, I maintain that Belmont songwriters have predispositions for writing in isolated locations.
Secondly, my data displayed the importance of the refinement process among Belmont songwriters. Reviewing my field notes, I confirmed that my interviews with Rayvon, Jenny, Jordan, Cameron, Keayana, and Levi conveyed that improvements in artistic creativity and clarity resulted from the rarefaction of one’s work. While they may write a song in one sitting, Belmont songwriters usually complete their songs over a period of time. In my interview with Keayana, she profoundly stated, “When you write about something that is personal and close to you, it takes you longer. You refine your work because your writing is an extension of your self. It's significant” (Robinson). As such, Belmont songwriters refine their songs to represent themselves accurately. My tour of NSAI, Murphy's Laws, and my songwriting attempts demonstrated the significance of refinement. Offering workshops, song evaluations, and mentoring services, NSAI acknowledges that the concision of one’s artistic expression is a significant aspect of the songwriting process. Murphy’s Laws also emphasizes the necessity of succinct songwriting by informing its readers of songwriting’s “land mines” (Murphy 115). In chapter fifteen, Murphy lists common errors such as repetitive words, contrived rhymes, and changing pronouns (115). He also details why these “land mines” prevent listener retention, and provides suggestions to aid his readers' songwriting processes (Murphy 115). The revision of my preliminary songwriting attempts taught me to concisely rephrase my songs because my initial writing needed improvement. Despite its small sampling population, my data illustrates that Belmont songwriters recognize their obligations to provide a refined song.
Analyzing my findings, I discerned that Belmont songwriters utilize social interaction to stimulate their songwriting. In our interview, Rayvon noted that his inspiration naturally springs from listening to his friends' experiences. Rayvon then writes his songs to explore their situations and develop an insight. Emphasizing their spontaneity, the Bluejays stated that their songwriting resulted from the impromptu discussions in their writing sessions. To detail his songwriting process, Cameron informed me that his songs are derived from his experiences with others. “[B]uzzin' in [his] brain,” Cameron's inspiration boils and eventually he writes his songs to channel his thoughts (Bedell). In our interview, Keayana mentioned that she tries to interact with others at the beginning of her songwriting process. Stimulating her mind with social experiences, Keayana uses her songwriting to provide reflection. In addition, my secondary research at NSAI indicated that interaction is a common aspect of the songwriting process. During my appointment at NSAI, my tour guide told me that many successful songs begin as the product of artistic collaboration. As such, NSAI provides each writer room with multiple couches and guitars to provide synergetic options for songwriters. Although I tried to manufacture inspiration, my findings demonstrate that social interaction is a common catalyst for the songwriting processes of Belmont songwriters.
Attempting to unify my data, I found that Belmont songwriters experience writer’s block in individual writing sessions. In our interviews, Rayvon, Cameron, Levi and Keayana noted that their experiences with writer’s block were prompted by solo songwriting. Providing an explanation, Keayana explained that collaborative environments excite exchanges of ideas and swift completion, while independence creates unique products and hinders inspiration. My initial songwriting attempts support my assertion because I experienced writer's block while writing alone. Consequently, my findings claim that writer's block occurs during Belmont songwriters' individual songwriting.
In addition, my data displayed that Belmont songwriters use social interaction to overcome writer’s block. To eliminate his writer’s block, Rayvon converses with his friends to refresh his mind and energize his songwriting. Similarly, Keayana tries to have a conversation with someone, listen to a friend's story, or witness an interaction. Keayana's discourses with her peers spark profound thoughts and reflection. “Your great idea is out there,” she said, “you just have to be in its presence” (Robinson). While Levi also reflects on social observations, he documents his friends' enlightening thoughts in his songwriting notebooks and on his computer. By incorporating “cool words and phrases,” Levi stimulates additional creativity for his songs (Gordon). Likewise, NSAI’s writer’s rooms suggest that collaboration alleviates writer's block among professional songwriters. Although my brainstorm overcame my writer's block, my evidence suggests that Belmont songwriters participate in social interaction to relieve their writer's block.
Furthermore, Belmont songwriters exercise stream-of-consciousness writing to assuage writer’s block. To eliminate his writer’s block, Cameron writes anything he can, whether it is a shopping list or a mailing address, to actively manufacture creativity. Comparing writer’s block to a brick wall, Cameron said, “You can either walk away or try to climb over it…, so I write” (Bedell). While developing her songwriting, Keayana's mentors instructed her to practice stream-of-consciousness writing. She noted that her continual writing amalgamates multiple ideas and creates cluttered descriptions. After some refinement, Keayana creates her song's message by crafting beautiful expressions of wisdom from her raw prewriting. Employing stream-of-consciousness writing, Levi also organically spurs inspiration and develops the foundations of his songs. Intrigued by their responses, I decided to conduct additional research regarding stream-of-consciousness writing. According to The Chronology of American Literature, stream-of-consciousness is noted as the result of William James’ chapter “The Stream of Thought” (279). From James’ writing, American writers began to employ “[a] literary technique employing a nonlinear, fluid conception of thought and consciousness” (279). From further readings in The Chronology of American Literature, I discovered that many writers, such as James Joyce and William Faulkner, used stream-of-consciousness writing to develop their inspiration and provide authentic descriptions. After my interviews and research, I assert that Belmont songwriters exceptionally apply stream-of-consciousness to alleviate their writer's block.
Attempts to Connect with Audience
Harmonizing my data, I noticed that Belmont songwriters try to impart meaningful messages to connect with audiences. In our interview, Rayvon said, “I try to think about the impact of the song...I try to create songs that leave you with a feeling, an insight, or something that aided your life” (Owen). He asserted that illuminating songs persist throughout time because listeners perpetually relate to their messages. Similarly, the Bluejays noted that imparting a message helps to convey a genuine experience that “people will want to make a piece of their lives” (Wolfe & Ruiz). To resonate with her listeners, Keayana incorporates eloquent messages into her songs. In my songwriting attempts, I tried to capture substantial perspectives that could attract multiple demographics. As such, my findings support that Belmont songwriters attempt to communicate insights to connect with audiences.
Additionally, my data displayed that Belmont songwriters employ song structure to connect with their listeners. Rayvon, the Bluejays, Cameron, Keayana, and Levi create verses, choruses, bridges, and outros to outline the structure of their songs. By providing a roadmap, the aforementioned songwriters guide listeners through their songs. In Murphy's Laws, Ralph Murphy emphasizes the importance of song structure. Before denoting common song forms, Murphy writes, “If you suddenly change [your song structure,] you will divert my attention from the message of the song and any distraction, even momentary, can spell disaster” (97). Thus, Murphy asserts that proper song structure enhances one's audience reception because it captivates the concentration of one's audience. After reviewing my evidence, I noted that Belmont songwriters develop their songs' structures to lure their audience's attention.
Finally, Belmont songwriters utilize their performances to connect with audiences. While performing, Cameron dances and invites his audience to dance as it removes the pressure from the situation, which enables him, his band, and his audience to enjoy the experience. Emphasizing the importance of presentation, Keayana stated that she informs her audience beforehand of a song’s circumstantial details to provide context for her audience. Keayana also ensures that she can reproduce her songs with vocal clarity so that her audience can understand her lyrics during her performances. Levi noted that he uses honest, personal lyrics in his songs to attract an audience by providing a familiar tone. In addition, Levi tells listeners about his accomplishments as a poet to establish his credibility as a new songwriter. During my tour of NSAI, my guide told me about NSAI’s exclusive events, such as Tin Pan South, at which songwriters can receive criticism of their performances from professional songwriters. Listening to advice, aspiring songwriters learn how to execute their songs and connect with an audience. To attract listeners, Belmont songwriters incorporate presentational elements into their performances.
Application of My Findings: “Beauty Lies in Imperfection”
After the synthesis of my data, I decided to write another song to apply some of my findings. While creating my song, I wrote in an isolated environment and tried to brainstorm a topic. As I experienced writer’s block, I experimented with stream-of-consciousness writing to develop ideas for my song. Documenting my thoughts for ten minutes, I observed that my writing fixated on the word “captivation.” To strain my creative exercise, I underlined interesting words to filter my thoughts regarding captivation.
I later returned to my thoughts about captivation and encountered writer’s block again. Frustrated, I decided to interact with my friends to refresh my mind and acquire inspiration. As I conversed with my friends, we discussed the relationship of beauty and perfection. After hearing the responses of my peers, I impulsively responded by positing that beauty lies in imperfection. At that moment, I knew that I had found the title for next song.
Writing in an isolated environment, I completed my song the next day. My songwriting experience was dramatically different. My lyrics again flowed as if they were stimulated the tactile stimulation of paper and pencil. Satisfied with my work, I made some revisions to include omitted words, remove phrases, and enhance my expression. To define my song’s structure, I created instrumental sections, a chorus, two verses, and an outro. While recording my song, I concentrated on my pronunciation and breathing to ensure lyrical clarity. After multiple takes, I used audio software to enhance my performance.
Beauty Lies in Imperfection
I've been traveling down this road;
oh, oh, I'm just a lost soul.
My teachers are my destinations,
and I've learned that beauty lies in imperfection.
While many have pursued prototypical paths,
fate has guided me elsewhere.
Throughout my travels, I have fallen with my fellow man,
and we have rejoiced in our drama.
Our comedies and tragedies remind me of the authors of antiquity who crafted fallible mythos.
The lies, the guilt, and the aftermath captivate our attention and we are trapped for the tragic flaws resemble our own.
Our voices cling to our throats, but our eyes gaze upon the events before us and we cannot abandon the beauty.
Have you heard the tales of vulgar poets?
They call upon muses whose content is supposedly
too controversial for sensitive ears to stumble upon.
Many reject their poetry, but their lessons hold truth.
Their works are not in accord with
the established horde's doctrine.
Thus, their attempts at observation are deemed sins,
instead of dialectical resolutions.
The situations they portray reverberate with the layman.
Their lyrics become the gregorian chants of millions,
and the resulting excitations brings about reactions profound.
The listener is transported to a world in which
each measure is a sustained emotion, and notions of right and wrong disappear.
The world is dangerous. The world is beautiful.
Stand with me as we rise above conventions.
With knowledge and passion,
one foot keeps passing the other and we start the beginning of our journey.
Reflection on Songwriting
While meditating on my ethnographic study of Belmont songwriters, I realized that songwriting was a satisfying exercise of one’s expression. Throughout my experiences, I had fun trying to elucidate my observations of the world to others because it was a creative challenge. Trying to present eloquent songs, I was forced to question my message, create an audience, and make appropriate editorial decisions during my songwriting process. Although it was difficult to refine my songs, I found satisfaction from molding my thoughts into a cohesive message.
By fixating my thoughts onto paper, I cleansed my mind. My songwriting attempts removed thoughts that were chaotically reoccurring in my mind, and provided mental peace. After my songwriting experiences, I was no longer troubled by my previous experiences and observations. My songs seemed to provide refuge for my troubled mind.
During the application of my ethnographic findings, I found that stream-of-consciousness writing, social interaction, and song structure aided the development of my song. As I wrote continuously, I explored my mind by asking myself questions. Interrogating my thoughts, I learned what I desired to impart to listeners of my song. Assembling long lists of related adjectives, I could use my documented vocabulary in my later songs. Additionally, I found that social interaction spurred inspiration and alleviated writer’s block. While conversing with my friends, I inadvertently happened upon my song’s title. Although isolation provided a comfortable environment, my social experiences facilitated the creation of my song’s title and incited my songwriting. As I created my song’s structure, I observed that each section had a purpose. The instrumental section set the tone for my song, the chorus provided my message, the verses supplied the context of my song, and the outro extended an invitation to my listeners. Even though my preliminary attempts were stanzaic, they lacked the necessary transitions (i.e. chorus, outro, etc.) that would enable coherence.
Concluding my ethnography of Belmont songwriters, I reviewed my experiences by perusing my ethnographic portfolio. While noting my reflective memos and lyrics, I realized that I became a Belmont songwriter as I conducted my investigation. Chuckling at my newly acquired title, I confirmed that I would continue to pursue songwriting as a hobby to satisfy my soul.