Songwriting at BMF: Questions, Not Suggestions

The times that I write best are when I’m thinking about what I want to say, not what I want people to hear. It’s when I am listening inward, not outward, that I write from my most honest place.

But how do we teach that at the Brooklyn Music Factory? If songwriting is about expressing one’s self, how, as the teacher, do we not become simply part of the external noise? As musicians, we all have our own ideas of what defines a song. We all have our own notions of what the final stroke on a finished piece may look like. There are individual rules, that whether we intentionally made them or not, we abide by. For the child who has never written a song before – a clean slate – how do we set free our own personal rules?

At the Brooklyn Music Factory, we have found that the key is to not be a teacher but to be a guide.  You want to find out what the students’  thoughts and ideas are, and simply give them the tools to turn those thoughts and ideas into songs. Whatever that may look like.

What are the tools we use?

1. Lyric inspiration games.   
BMF games such as “Paint a Picture,” where we draw inspiration from various photographs, and “Lyric Brainstorm,” a free association lyric exercise, ainspire kids to create their own lyrical stories.

2. Melody and Chord Games. 
BMF games such as “Mood Jam,” where kids draw inspiration for different musical moods from their own drawings, teach students how to experiment with melody and chords.

3. Most importantly, we avoid making suggestions and instead ask questions.  
For lyrics we ask questions such as:
Who is this song about? 
What is he/she feeling?  
Why is he/she feeling this way?
Where is this story happening?

For melody and chords we ask questions such as:
Should the music sound happy, sad, or something else?
What kind of chords and melodies sound that way?
Do you imagine the tempo to be fast, slow or somewhere in the middle?

Letting the student freely answer questions like these leads us teachers to musical and lyrical places we would have never imagined. I often find that through this process I am actually the one who ends up learning. Thinking to myself, “Wow, I would have never thought of going there.”

Ultimately, the goal in songwriting at the Brooklyn Music Factory is to shed light on what a child wants to say, instead of teaching or telling him what to say. Kids come up with ideas we would never dream of, if we simply let them.

– Peira
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