After attending Pat Pattison’s seminars at the TAXI Road Rally a few weeks ago, I’ve been much more aware of the stability (or instability) of my songs. In his phrasing class, Pat begins by stating that 7% of communication is words, 35% is tone of voice, and 58% is body language. He then teaches that melody, chords and rhythm are the nouns, adjectives and verbs in songs. Pattison has effectively cracked the code of songwriting by reverse engineering songs and sharing his insight on what makes a great song great. There’s so much to talk about, but let me tell you about un/stability…
Stable vs. Unstable
In a nutshell, phrases that start on the downbeat are stable, and those that don’t are unstable. Even-barred phrases are stable, while odd ones are unstable (a 4-bar phrase vs. a 3-bar phrase). Stable phrases are like statements. You say something, and then you’re done. Unstable phrases leave the listener wanting something else, a resolution.
The melody needs to support the lyrics (obviously). But even more crucial, the phrasing of the melody needs to support the lyrics. You wouldn’t just state “My dog just died” and walk away. If you were to speak that, you’d probably be pretty upset—perhaps even crying. Most likely, you’d follow it up by something like “He got hit by a car” or “He was too old and lost his mind, so we had to put him down.”
Okay, now for the exercise. Count off in four: “1, 2, 3, 4” and tap your foot. Sing “My dog just died” placing “my” on 1, the downbeat.
Sounds happy, doesn’t it? Well, depends on if you sang it in a major or minor key, what the tempo was, etc. But I think we can all agree that it can stand on its own, and it feels like a finished line.
Now try the same thing, but don’t put “my” on the downbeat. Instead, put it later.
“1, My dog just died”
“1, 2, My dog just died”
Keep putting it later and later and see what you get. Feels like something needs to come next, no?
Trust me, it works. I’ve started to mess around with it and analyze my songs to see where I’ve placed things in the past. When I write, it has to sound and feel right. There’s something inside me that says it feels good or just seems out of place.
Pat Pattison has helped me realize the “why” and “how” something feels the way it does. He’s given me an advantage over other songwriters who haven’t cracked the code. When I’m in a situation where something doesn’t feel right, I can just apply Pat’s songwriting theory and quickly move on knowing why the phrase feels right and how it makes sense. I’m not saying that I can write a song solely based on his formula—I’ve still got to feel it—but now I can hopefully write better songs that convey the emotion of the lyrics and go on to make me successful in music!
Pretty heady stuff, Pat Pattison. Thank you. Pat’s a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston where he teaches lyric writing and poetry. He has taught Grammy winners John Mayer and Gillian Welch (maybe one day I’ll be a Grammy winner too!). Be sure to check out his website, patpattison.com, and be sure to email him and ask him for an unstable t-shirt (because its cool and I have one and I can’t find it anywhere online).