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Review: Songwriting MOOC from the Berklee College of Music

Pat Pattison, the instructor of the Songwriting MOOC from Berklee on the Coursera platform has  substantial experience in online courses and seminars. (More information on his work and publications can be found in his personal webpage.) But I wasn’t familiar with him, so the reputation of the institution was crucial in my decision to take this course,which leads students from concept to recording. The Coursera platform may be facilitating the offer, but the brand name college behind the course still plays an important role for many.

Berklee College of Music is a prolific institution of musicians, singers, producers and songwriters, a lot of whom have succeeded in the music business. They count numerous Grammy winners like Steve Vai among their alumni. (If you don’t know who that man is, I suggest you visit Youtube and make amends to rock fans immediately).

Pattison’s way of teaching was quite original, theatrical and occasionally very funny to watch. We also got a glimpse  of previous classroom workshops he led. (Beware: this student’s catchy lyric “I can’t find you now, you‘re hiding in a big rain cloud” will get stuck in your head like a bad Carly Rae Jepsen song. Nevertheless, it’s way better than “Call Me Maybe”).

Why songwriting?

If you are part of academia, you primarily focus on scientific data, research and writing an effective thesis. But personal inspiration needs an escape valve, and you are not going to find that when you struggle with MLA citations. So this course is a decent way of having creative fun.

I will pause one second here to remind humanities students of creative writing in general. Songwriting can be perceived as a kind of poetry, and so in turn literature. You may not acknowledge it as such, but by the end of the course you will realize songwriting has nothing to do with keeping little love quotes in your diary; it has rules, it takes practice and a considerable amount of time and, on top of it all, talent. Still in doubt? I dare you to try analyzing “Stairway to Heaven” or “Eleanor Rigby” without an understanding of prosody that serious study of songwriting provides.

Course logistics

The course is comprised of six weekly modules, each building on the previous. This course was similar to most on the Coursera platform where you find embedded pop quizzes of no credit value within the small video lectures. Additionally, the Songwriting MOOC has one or two weekly multiple choice tests and a weekly peer assessed assignment. To get the certificate of accomplishment, you need a minimum average score of 70 (with the lowest score dropped).

During the first week we were introduced to some clever hints on what makes a presentable storyline in general; thus we created a backbone idea of a song. The second week was all about “prosody”, meaning stable and unstable feelings you evoke based on the number of lines you have in your song; it was time for our first verse and a matching chorus.

In the third week, rhyming schemes were evaluated as to whether they cause stability or instability once again. A new verse and chorus was produced. By the end of week four, we dealt with stressed and unstressed syllables. To me it seemed we were actually engaging in linguistics: morphology, syntax and phonology were all there, given in a non-scientific context.

Weeks five and six were the most demanding. With the help of a rhyming worksheet and other tools of the trade, we were asked to write a complete song,  but the real challenge was to match our lyrics with melody. That, my dearest reader, meant we actually had to record our song. The course syllabus stressed the use of recording software like Audacity or Garageband right from the start and provided ample instructions in how to save our work on audio filesharing sites like Soundcloud. We were also given loops of pre-recorded backing bands to “dress” our songs with.

Criticism

Up until week four (maybe five) the student body was seemingly treated equally, but I was disappointed that singing talent influenced so much of the last assignment. In the early part of the course, you could recite your verses to match the beat and avoid singing. The final song was something entirely different. You really needed to sing in order to match certain assessment criteria in melody versus rhythm. A songwriting course is one thing, singing and exposing your voice to thousands is another. Particularly when you sound like a chicken cackling or you are completely tone-deaf. (Imagine the horror my peer reviewers had to face.)

I was lucky enough to have five gems assigned to me to assess in the last week. I am talking “pro” work, the kind of songs you could listen to on the radio (as opposed to what we are actually being bombarded with), although they only required a guitar and someone’s plain voice to be created.  (These people didn’t need loops, trust me). I sincerely hoped some hot shot producer was out there listening. They ought to have a chance at least.

It also occurred to me that unfortunately I was not up to par and I was probably not the only one (judging from the forum discussions). I was praised for my lyrics — shameless self-promoting, I know — but a cat could have sounded better performing them and loops couldn’t save my poor soul. I cannot help but wonder what it would be like if we didn’t engage in recording. Can you really have songwriting without the singing? Which one is doable within six weeks, learning the basics of writing lyrics or learning to sing like Adele?

I cannot point fingers at anyone, since — I repeat — it was explicitly stated in advance that singing was required. I am only highlighting the obvious: People with  music skills were much more in favor than amateur (song)writers. When you read claims such as “No prior songwriting or musical experience is necessary” on course pages, be sure to double check.

Summary of the Berklee Songwriting MOOC

Overall, the course was not discouraging. You do learn how to write better lyrics, and you get to write songs of your own, so the Berklee Songwriting MOOC delivered its content effectively. If you do opt for Pat Pattitson’s course be sure to spend time using technology to your benefit. There are numerous synch tools out there (for example UJAM,) and with a bit of fine tuning you will minimize the risk of sounding horrendous. That is, unless you are the next Paul Simon in terms of songwriting and singing combined, of course.

 

Editor’s note: For another take on this class, see Niall Tracey’s review “Harmony and Discord in Berklee’s Songwriting MOOC”.

 

 

 

 

Rozalia Zeibecki (5 Posts)

Teaching English and German as a foreign language, working on MA thesis (German language acquisition through MMO RPgames)- gamer, gamification enthusiast, Vin Diesel movies fan (haters can hate), food addict. Student at Coursera, EdX and other #MOOCS, I blog about my experiences in http://rozoua.wordpress.com/ - Also tweeting @rozoua about #edutech among other stuff. Proud to be Greek