Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Rise and Fall of a Songwriting Partnership

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

The Rise and Fall of a Songwriting Partnership

Article excerpt

The working relationship of two novice songwriters is examined in this ethnographic study, which highlights the importance of common goals and values in a songwriting collaboration. Stemming from this core there are a number of sub-themes: the pair saw a popular song as consisting of melody, harmony, and lyrics; they played on the strengths and offset the weaknesses of each other's songwriting skills; both writers valued originality; and they believed songwriting had a mystical element to it. Finally, it will be shown how conflict in their status as writing partners resulted in the demise of the collaboration. The difficulty of being a "participant observer" researcher when only two people are being observed is also discussed. Key Words: Songwriting, Partnership, Ethnography, and Popular Music


Ethnographic studies of rock bands suggest that the composition of original songs is a collaborative process between band members (Cohen, 1993; Finnegan, 1989; Green, 2001; Shank, 1994; Shehan Campbell, 1995). As the composers are also performers of their own material, there is a fluidity between the acts of composition, rehearsal, and performance. This article reports on an ethnographic study of two songwriters, collaborating for the first time, who were not involved in writing songs for a particular band. It is the actual writing of songs, rather than the performance of songs that is their central activity, hence this study of songwriting collaboration provides a different perspective to that of previous ethnographic studies, where songwriting was a means to an end: that end being a recording or live performance of a song. In this case the end is the written song, which the songwriters initially intended to sell to performers to either record or play live. The aim was to examine how these particular songwriters worked and how they viewed songwriting as a creative process, as opposed to the performance

Working from Cohen's (1993) definition of ethnography referring "to data derived from direct observation of behaviour in a particular society" (p. 123), the present study involved observation and interviews with the songwriters. Thus I was engaged in fieldwork, the central activity of the ethnographer for what Cohen (1993) described as a "lengthy period of intimate study" (p. 124).

Ethnographic studies of popular music-making have employed similar methods of data collection: that is interviews with participants and observations (see Bennett, 2000; Cohen, 1993; Finnegan, 1989; McGillen & McMillan, 2003). The methodology of the present study was shaped by two of the challenges outlined by McGillen and McMillan in their study of cooperative songwriting with adolescents: 1) the need to be sensitive to the participants' world-views and 2) to make sure the voices of the participants were not lost: the latter means allowing the participants' voices to "speak for themselves" through direct quotation, rather than having me as the researcher summarise their words. Being sensitive to the two songwriters' worlds meant demonstrating sensitivity to their respective positions as musicians--one a novice, one a professional--and sensitivity to their musical tastes (i.e., music they liked which influenced their songwriting) and the songs they co-wrote.

Bennett (2000) points to two issues which have emerged from ethnographic studies of local music-making: (1) a focus on the relationship between "music-making activities and the micro-social spaces in which such activities take place" (p. 167) and (2) researcher reflection on the role of the researcher in the field. These studies include, but do not solely focus on musicians collaboratively writing songs. In conducting the present study I was therefore looking for relationships between the songwriting process the two songwriters were engaged in and their local context--this being Sydney, Australia. In terms of my role as researcher documenting their collaboration, I naively believed my impact would be minimal and I would remain in the background. …

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