“The greatest gift you can give the world is to tell your truth.”
~ Cheryl Walters
Everyone has a story. Each person walks a unique path. They have value just by virtue of existing. Sharing a story can be empowering and cathartic. Guiding Song is a folk music tradition that gives voice to the human experience by giving people the opportunity to shape their stories into songs.
Every person is a culmination of thousands of experiences over the course of a human life. Some of these experiences become memories we hold onto because they affected us in some way, either joyful or painful. While it may seem that the world is becoming smaller through the rise of technology and social media, many people feel increasingly isolated and alone. The act of sharing our stories is a way to transcend isolation and fear in order to build empathy, connection, and understanding. Sharing our stories is a form of resistance. It is empowering, giving voice to those who may feel they are helpless to change their life path.
There are myriad ways to give voice to the human experience. One method is through music. Music is a universal language. It can evoke emotion and open the heart and mind. Writing a song from a story is a way to use the universal language of music to bring people together and build empathy and understanding. People who have never met can listen to a person’s story in song and see them as another person moving through the world, seeking love and connection.
To write music, I use a method called Story-to-Song (STS), which begins with a spoken or written story that is then shaped into a song. It is most often the collaborative work of two people. One person shares a story that holds meaning for them. The other person acts as a creative, musical guide. I have used this method to write songs from my own experiences, oral histories, and written histories as well.
Though the journey from story to song is unique to each experience, the method follows these general steps:
- A story is shared in words and phrases. The guide may capture the story through a recording application, a document on a computer, or old-fashioned pen and paper. The person(s) sharing the story may also choose to write the words, a process can be empowering in and of itself.
- The guide works one-on-one with the storyteller to search for the universal message from the story. This is a theme, universal concept, emotion, or call to action from the human experience that all people can relate to. This theme is communicated specifically in a one line refrain that is repeated at the end of each verse or in a chorus, which is repeated between verses. One participant referred to the chorus as “the soul of the story.” People from all life experiences can relate to the universal concept being expressed through the chorus. In this way, whether or not they have been through the exact experience being communicated in the song, they can still feel a personal connection. It is through the personal connection that empathy and understanding is created for another person they may never have met.
- The lyrics for the verses are shaped from the original words to communicate the events of the story as they unfold. The verses are action-oriented, meaning they are often expressed through the use of verbs to illustrate what happened in the story. The melody is structured to follow a pattern that repeats from one stanza to the next with slight variations and a rise in tension prior to the refrain or chorus.
- A bridge may be developed to communicate an element of the story that holds particular tension (the melody echoes this tension). Resolution is derived in returning to the chorus as the song draws to a close and thus a return to the melodic resolution as well.
To read a more in-depth description of the STS method, visit “How a song is created”