Irving Berlin

What You Can Learn About Songwriting From the Great Irving Berlin

I mentioned a few weeks back that I was enjoying a book I had received as a gift, called “Let’s Do It – The Birth of Pop”, by Bob Stanley. I’m most of the way through, and am still hugely enjoying it. I highly recommend it — you won’t be disappointed.

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Stanley dedicates a chapter to the great early twentieth century songwriter Irving Berlin. I of course knew of Berlin’s songs, and you probably know many of them as well, even if you don’t know that he was the one who had written them:

…and many, many others. Berlin’s rise to fame began at the very beginning of the era/genre we know of as “pop music.” Stanley makes the point that if all he had ever written was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, he’d have been able to live comfortably on the royalties from that song for the rest of his life.

Irving Berlin encapsulated the job of the pop songwriter when he wrote this:

Meter, melody, and everything else that relates to the construction of a song are secondary. All that is necessary is to have something to say and to say it as quickly as possible.

It’s the lesson that most songwriters know. It’s Berlin’s way of saying “Don’t bore us; get to the chorus.” A good song needs to say something important to the listener. It doesn’t need to be overly profound, but it does need to express something that is relevant, and something that has the potential of creating emotion in the heart of the audience.

Pop music today bears little resemblance to pop songs of more than one hundred years ago. But that one job of the songwriter really hasn’t changed at all. The best songs today are still usually the ones that say something important, and say it quickly.

I was struck by one other part of Irving Berlin’s professional life: his fears and worries about writer’s block. Bob Stanley writes:

Throughout his life Berlin worried that the music would suddenly elude him, that he’d just wake up one morning and there would be nothing.

His fears came in part by his surprise that he could write at all, since he was not a trained musician, couldn’t read or write music, and he found himself worried that whatever magic spell created songs in his brain would someday be silenced. I know many songwriters who can sympathize with that fear.

And one other interesting tidbit — concerning Berlin’s writing process — will resonate with many songwriters today: One of his most favoured ways of writing was to start by writing a title at the top of a page, and then work on it until the song was completed.

It might be done quickly as in the case of “White Christmas”, or it may take days, weeks, months or years. If there was one thing he seemed to know, you can’t rush a good song. Whether it happens quickly or takes years has little to no bearing on whether or not the song is actually good.

The lesson I take from Irving Berlin is that good songwriting is an instinct, but if a song doesn’t happen quickly, stick with it! Sometimes they just need time.

And then this: when you’ve finished your song, you should be able to look at it and see that you’ve said something relevant that has the potential of touching the heart of your audience.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter

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