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Filkin' Away

by Andrea Dale (adale@ix.netcom.comt)

Please note: This was first published in The Reluctant Famulus edited by Tom Sadler.

(A hearty "Thank You!" to Mark Berstein & Jim Yeomans for reviewing this article for me.)

Last January, as the Filk coordinator for ConFusion (Romulus, MI), I arranged a panel comparing songwriting and storywriting. As a filker, songwriter and SF reader, I was curious to see what similarities there are between these two mediums, as well as the differences. The ideas and conclusions presented during this panel are the topic of this column. To give credit where it's due, the panel members were: Nate Bucklin, Bill Roper, Steven Piziks, and Dave Clement. Three members of the audience that also contributed significantly were Mark Berstein, Pete Grubbs and Bill Rintz. I have also included some of my own ideas that have developed since the actual panel occurred.

For consistency's sake, I have made certain assumptions about the presentation of songs and stories and the audience that listens to and reads them. The songs are professionally recorded either on cassette or CD, usually by a fannish producer. The stories are published by a professional publisher. Each medium is read or listened to by a person, on their own. The audience is assumed to be the typical fannish reader and filk listener. (I know that "Typical Fan" may appear to be an oxymoron, but without a standard, comparisons are difficult to draw.)

I will compare the following characteristics: length, rhythm, phrasing and scansion, how the story/song is written by the author, how & what messages are communicated and the expectations of a typical audience.

In today's world of radio play, most songs are not longer than three minutes. This may be because the first established recording technology, a 78 rpm record, wouldn't hold more than three minutes of music. Thus forcing the songwriter, (who wanted to be heard on the radio) to adhere to this constraint. However, if you look at song length before recording technology existed, many of them (Mark Berstein mentioned Stephen Foster songs) are around three minutes.

Anyway, the attention span of today's listener seems fades after about 3.5 minutes of music. While there are ballads with many verses (i.e. Horse Tamer's Daughter), the majority of modern listeners still expect a much shorter song.

This is in direct contrast to storywriting. This audience will accept a much wider variance in length, from a page to up to a novel, giving the author a lot more flexibility. However, the author may be constrained by experience, what their publisher wants, and the market for short/long stories. A ballad could contain a full blown story. But the same audience that would lose interest at about the fifth verse, would happily read the same short story in under two hours.

Both songwriters and authors use meter (systematically arranged and measured rhythm in verse), phrasing (how words and phrases are grouped together) and scansion (how phrases fit to the meter and/or melody line) to construct and convey each message. The result depends on the individual style of each writer.

An author, over time, develops his/her writing style using these tools and others. The writing style definitely affects how readable a story is. If the meter and phrasing are difficult for the reader to become accustomed to, it hinders their ability to understand the story as well as to enjoy it.

Frequently, the words of a song will not mean a whole lot until the song is performed. The words need other characteristics, including phrasing, melody line, rhythm and volume to make them coalesce into an understandable whole. One aspect of phrasing is called scansion, which is how the words of the song conform to the music's melody line and rhythm. For example, sometimes a song that is awkward to sing has poor scansion. The syllables of each word may not fit the melody line poorly.

Obviously, it's kind of difficult to convey a lot in three minutes. Due to the shortness, a song's central message has to communicated fairly early, and should be reinforced throughout the song to insure it's effectiveness (possibly through the chorus). The songwriter uses many tools to deliver this message, including the characteristics mentioned earlier as well as word selection, the key selected, (key of C, E minor et.), and overall mood. A slower song, a minor key and minor chords are typically used in more serious and/or sad songs. A faster beat, and major keys and chords usually signal a more positive mood and/or topic.

Just like the songwriter, the author has to decide what central idea they are trying to get across and how they will do it. In one aspect, length, the author has more flexibility on how long they can take to communicate their message. A story's central message can be clearly stated, hidden, or developed throughout the plot line. How an author conveys a message could be through a specific character's actions, a particular situation, the observations of a character, and/or the overall result of the stories plot line.

The ease of producing a song or a story depends totally on the creator, and effort of writing is still 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. The authors of either medium can suffer from writer's block, or produce reams of materials they consider unusable. Editing plays a vital role in producing a quality song or story. Songs and stories both concentrate on the written word such as word selection, structure, point of view, etc. But stories are prepared for written communication and songs are designed for verbal communication.

The expectations of the reader/listener has been formed by their exposure to songs and stories. Neither medium can influence the frame of mind the audience brings to their listening and reading experiences. Each person has his or her own knowledge, personality, and set of morals. Obviously, these attitudes effect how a song or story is interpreted, and if they like it.

The author/songwriter has to make some assumptions about their audience's knowledge. Potentially, if the listener/reader doesn't know or isn't provided this knowledge, overall comprehension could be severally affected. Both mediums can choose to provide their audience with the appropriate knowledge, however the songwriter is once again constricted by time. The author has the options of using a prologue, appendices, inference, etc. to educate the reader.

Sometimes a song/story is targeted at a very specific audience such as computer enthusiasts or gamers. By doing this the creator can concentrate on the actual story/song versus and not worry too much about supplying background. This practice is particularly true to filk songs based on techie topics (computers, the affects of zero gravity), a specific SF or fantasy story (Darkover), a TV show (Star Trek) or possibly a movie (Star Wars).

And last, depending on the intended audience and what the song/storywriter is trying to convey, the song/story may need to be simplified.

As you may have already concluded, songwriting and storywriting have clear similarities and differences. Each creator must determine what assumptions they will make about the audiences knowledge. This is to ensure the overall understanding and enjoyment of the song/story. Both the author and songwriter use standard writing tools to structure their message, including meter and phrasing. However because these mediums are delivered differently, written and verbal, the creators work on very different aspects for the final product.

Due to the expectations of the audience the songwriter is constricted to about three minutes, which affects the level of complexity of the message. The author has more freedom in length, giving them the opportunity to provide background to their readers.

The major conclusion by the panel was: songs are a heck of a lot shorter!


Urban Tapestry -- ut@musesmuse.com