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How Good Is Your Song, Compared to the World's Finest?
Put Your Song to the Test with Song Audition Matrix ("SAM")


Page Index

Could Your Songwriting Skills Use Some Improvement?

The Song Audition Matrix ("SAM") Tests the Excellence of Your Songs Against the World's Greatest


Could Your Songwriting Skills Use Some Improvement?

Some aspiring songwriters who have not had a lot of success realize that their songwriting skills need to get better. They have the insight and motivation to want to improve.

Others believe they already possess strong songwriting skills,,,but what evidence do they point to?

  • Positive feedback from family members and friends;

  • Positive feedback from fellow aspiring songwriters;

  • Positive feedback from band mates and the band’s fan base;

  • Positive feedback from songwriting instructors who have had some commercial success (and whose own delusions of superior songwriting skill stem from a cognitive bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect);

  • A certificate or degree in songwriting from a college or university.

 

And Then There's Live Audience Response

Positive live audience response may be a songwriter's single greatest source of self-delusion about song's emotional appeal. An audience applauds after the performance of a song for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with perceived appreciation of high calibre songwriting:

  • Usually they applaud simply because it's the convention to applaud and vocalize at the end of a live performance of a song -- any song. They are applauding simply out of custom and habit.

  • Sometimes they applaud and vocalize enthusiastically (often during the performance) because a solo performer or the whole band is demonstrating amazing instrumental or vocal skills. They are expressing appreciation of performance, not songwriting proficiency -- unless the performance was a cover of a bona-fide classic, in which case they are applauding both the performance and the song.

  • Sometimes they applaud because they feel obliged to encourage a diffident or nervous performer. They are applauding to support the performer personally.

  • Sometimes they applaud vigorously when a long or confusing original song has come to an end. They are applauding out of relief from tedium.

  • Sometimes they applaud because the live music is contributing to a party atmosphere. Everybody is tossing back drinks and having fun. They are applauding good times.

A mistaken belief that favorable audience response to original songs is an objective indicator of fine songwriting creates a dangerous positive feedback loop. It inspires and encourages bands and singer-songwriters, whose songwriting abilities are actually only average, to keep working at it. So they continue composing, recording, and performing their original songs in the erroneous conviction that, judging by live audience response, their original songs are good ones, better than the songs of others, worthy of larger audiences, and bound to lead to professional songwriting success.

The Song Audition Matrix ("SAM") Tests the Excellence of Your Songs Against the World's Greatest

Many years in development, the Song Audition Matrix, or "SAM," is a tool for songwriters, to be included in the forthcoming book, SongMatrix: How Songwriting REALLY Works!

SAM enables a songwriter to objectively test the excellence of a song, the way an audition tests the excellence of a musician's skill. As a musician, when you audition to join a band or try out for a part in a show, your skill either passes the audition or fails it. With SAM, it's your song that either passes the "song audition", if it's high in emotional appeal, or fails it, if it's not.

A Lofty Standard

Empirical research, discussed here, has provided ample evidence that the writers of the world's greatest songs composed them using a different set of musical and lyrical techniques than contemporary songwriters use.

A great classic song -- one that has attracted large numbers of cover versions, multiple cross-genre recordings and performances, and the love of new generations unborn when the song was written -- sets a formidable benchmark for excellence and long-term commercial value. And that lofty standard has everything to do with the details of the musical and lyrical techniques that the writers of those great classics brought to bear in creating those songs.

When you put an original song of your own through SAM, you are measuring your own songwriting techniques against the very techniques of the world's greatest songwriters.

How SAM Works

First and foremost, SAM is not a piece of technology. It is neither an app nor a unit of hardware. No automation is involved. Also, SAM is not an online service.

SAM is a kind of questionnaire. Or, perhaps more accurately, a test -- not unlike a high school or college test. It's a series of specific technical questions about the music and lyrics of your original song.

SAM works by enabling you to identify and exploit advantageous variables, or songwriting techniques. Certain songwriting techniques work far better than others in capturing the emotional attention and imagination of listeners. SAM enables you to learn and use the techniques that work well (as proven by the enduring success of the world's greatest classics), and to avoid techniques that do not work.

Each SAM question has an associated numerical score. That's because, if you can measure the quantity of something, you can improve it. That's what SAM empowers you to do: quantify the value in your use (or lack of use) of numerous musical and lyrical variables or techniques, as you have applied them in the music and lyrics of your original songs. What these techniques are, and how you have applied them, directly affect song's emotional appeal.

The higher the overall measurable value of the advantageous techniques you have applied in your song, the greater the probability that the song will connect emotionally with an audience. Songs with high SAM scores are songs that audiences want to hear again and again.

Answering SAM's Questions

You, the songwriter, supply the answer to each of SAM's technical questions. Each response is either a number or a yes-no binary choice. For example:

  • What tempo does the song begin with, in beats per minute?

  • If the song has a bridge or "middle eight," does it modulate for the duration of that section before returning to the previous key?

  • If the song has an instrumental introduction, how many measures is it, to the nearest measure?

  • Including all repetitions, how many instances does the lyric have of the following words: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been?

  • Including all repetitions, how many instances of anaphora does the lyric contain?

SAM provides detailed instructions on how to get an accurate answer to each question, and includes explanations and examples, as well as definitions of terms that may be not be familiar to you. ("Anaphora," for example, means starting lyric lines with the same word or words, as in the song "Every Breath You Take" by Sting).

Each question has its own scaled numerical weighted range. That's because some variables are more important with respect to the song's overall emotional appeal than other variables. For example, some questions have a weighted maximum of only 2 or 3 (which means that variable has only a small effect on the song's overall appeal), while others have a weighted maximum of 12 or 15 (variables with a substantial effect on the song's emotional impact).

SAM's Total Score: How Does Your Song Measure Up Against the World's Best?

Once you answer all of SAM's questions about your song -- which may take several hours per song when you are first learning to use SAM -- you then need to tally up the weighted scores.

SAM's questions are divided into two broad categories, music and lyrics, each with several sub-sections. The maximum total score for music is 130, and for lyrics 140. (This may change in the future. SAM has been tested and revised a number of times over the years.)

Research findings show that the higher the total SAM score, the more likely an audiences will find your song compelling and emotionally powerful.

For a great classic song, a typical combined SAM score (music + lyrics) ranges from about 160 to well over 200. By contrast, a typical song by an aspiring songwriter, or a typical contemporary song charted on Billboard, scores in the range of 20 to 60, seldom breaking 100. This is the range you can expect for your own songs when you initially start auditioning them with SAM, because you have not had the benefit of an education in masterful songwriting techniques. (It also means that, if you are an unknown aspiring songwriter, your songs are probably equal in merit to today's Billboard-charted hits, which attract lots of remixes but seldom covers, and tend to vanish from collective memory soon after having their chart run.)

So, initially, you can expect your songs to have low total SAM scores. That's the bad news.

The good news is that you can learn the masterful techniques that will improve the emotional appeal of your songs immeasurably. There's nothing stopping you. As you learn SAM, you learn what the most advantageous techniques actually are -- the ones weighted as most valuable -- and how to apply them to your own songwriting. And you learn how to avoid using certain techniques that are disadvantageous and weaken a song's emotional power.

As you learn these skills and become proficient over time, your songwriting should soar to first-class level -- IF (and it's a big IF):

  1. You devote the time it takes to learn the techniques documented in the SongMatrix book and its companion, Words with Power: Essential Lists and Style Elements for Writers of Prose, Poetry, and Lyrics; and

  2. You learn how to apply SAM accurately. In testing SAM over the years with many songwriters, it has been found that songwriters initially tend to introduce a "favorable" bias in their SAM scoring. They inaccurately inflate the scores they assign in answer to individual questions, causing a song's total SAM score to be substantially higher than it ought to be. Sometimes this is the result of not understanding how to score various questions. Sometimes it's just a natural tendency to give oneself the benefit of the doubt. Whatever the case, it's vital to learn how not to over-score when administering the SAM questionnaire to your own songs. The last thing you want to do is delude yourself into thinking you've written a brilliant song by inflating SAM scores. SAM can only be as accurate and helpful as your own technical knowledge and ruthless objectivity.

What to Do About Low SAM Scores

Once you have accurately completed the SAM questionnaire for your song, even though the total score may be low, you possess something of enormous value if you want to write great songs: a complete record of all of the nitty-gritty technical details of the music and lyrics that make a difference in determining whether or not your song will resonate emotionally with an audience.

The answers to SAM's questions reveal, variable-by-variable, technique-by-technique, precisely what you did when you wrote the song, that:

  • Yielded high scores because they aligned well with the proven techniques of the masters. When you first start using SAM, high scores will be few and far between;

  • Yielded middling scores because they aligned only partly with highly effective techniques;

  • Yielded scores of zero (or perhaps one or two points), because effective, proven techniques were not used at all, or used ineffectively. When starting out, this will be the result for most of your answers to SAM's questions.

If a song you have written gets a low SAM total (below, say, 100), it fails the audition. It's probably a good idea to scrap that song and focus on learning the effective techniques before writing another original song.

If your song's total score ranges from, say, 100 to 130, it might be worth revising and improving. Fortunately, you have all that SAM data to point the way. Using SAM, you can repeatedly audition the same song, changing various musical and lyrical components, improving the song's SAM score each time.

If your song's total score exceeds 130, it's probably worth revising. Aim for a total of at least 200.

Does this mean that any song you write that passes the SAM audition with a total score of more than 200 is guaranteed to be of "classic" excellence? Not necessarily -- not any more than every solo played by a guitar or keyboard player who has passed an audition with flying colors is guaranteed to be an excellent solo. But the probability of excellence will be high -- much, much higher than the outcome of a failed audition.

Instead of writing only one song that scores higher than 200 and promoting it, you will increase the probability of becoming a recognized and rewarded songwriter if you write a small catalog of songs (one to two dozen) that each scores 200 or higher on SAM, before you start recording them, uploading them, and promoting them to the industry.


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