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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Unraveling the mysteries of the immortal songwriter

By Ted Slowik

Sometimes my life as director of PR and media relations at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., collides with my other life as a musician and songwriter in ways I couldn’t imagine.

On Tuesday I attended and wrote about a research symposium keynote address by Dr. David Fuentes, professor of composition and theory at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. His talk was called, "Do You Hear What I Hear? Listening as Research.” Dr. Fuentes is a good speaker and he’s no doubt a great teacher. One of his books is called “Figuring Out Melody” and it’s a guide for songwriting novices.

I’m no novice, but I’ve not formally studied music theory or composition either. I’ve been writing songs for 30 years, mostly for the sheer pleasure of it, and if you do anything long enough eventually you don’t suck at it. Besides, songwriters like Lennon and McCartney had no formal training either. I write honestly, from the heart.

In the past 18 months, my approach to music performance and composition has shifted from hobbyist to aspiring professional. I’ve applied my energies in earnest to figuring it out and becoming a great songwriter and guitarist.

What struck me most about Dr. Fuentes’ talk today was his point that music isn’t magic. It can be figured out. Music makes people laugh and cry and is used to great effect in creating emotional sequences in films. But music isn’t entirely subjective, he said, and it can be studied scientifically in an effort to understand its emotional power.

“Every time we notice an effect we can find a cause if we take the time to look,” he said.

Allow me to quickly digress for a moment and talk about my father, Jozef. He was a mechanical engineer. He would take things apart and put them back together just to figure out how they worked. He invented the surgical staple and designed an android that’s in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He built it to test space suits used by astronauts.

I inherited none of my father’s mechanical inclination, but all of his curiosity for how stuff works. For me, though, I’ve always been driven to figure out how stuff works organizationally. First it was radio, and how DJs play music and read announcements. I became program director of my high school radio station.

Then I was determined to figure out how journalists made newspapers. I became editor of my college paper and eventually managing editor of a daily newspaper. I learned a lot about writing, editing, storytelling, managing deadlines and most of all, people.

Now I’m all about songwriting, and I’m immersed in figuring it out and writing the best songs I’m capable of writing. Songs that will make people laugh and cry. Songs I hope they will remember and continue to play, even after I’m gone.

Because if you’re good enough at something like songwriting, you can hope to achieve some measure of immortality.

Photos for North Central College by Steve Woltmann