Story-to-Song (STS) is a method of songwriting that takes a spoken story and turns it into a song. A songwriting guide works with a songwriting participant(s) to shape their spoken story into a song. The final product is a song that gives voice to an experience from a person’s life and can create empathy and healing for all who listen.
STS is a powerful and poignant experience for those who participate in the songwriting process and those who listen to the finished song. This kind of songwriting creates space for vulnerability, the sharing of stories, and emotional catharsis. There is often healing that occurs as a result of moving through the creative process. Participants have communicated the experience of clarity from working through sometimes difficult life stories, deriving meaning from those events, and being able to share their experience through the finished song.
The following is a detailed description of the STS method, which I use to guide songs into the world:
I. Spoken Story
This is a story that is shared by the songwriting participant in the spoken word. The songwriting guide types the story verbatim into a document. At the end of this first stage, the story looks like a block of single-spaced text.
II. Free Verse
The songwriting guide works with the songwriting participant to shape the spoken story into free verse. A poem tends to have only as many words for each phrase as a person can comfortably speak. The same is true for a song. Too many words becomes difficult to sing. The guide will ask the participant to imagine taking a breath, speaking or singing a series of words, and exhaling at the end of a phrase. Then, they work together to shape the story into the poem format by hitting enter at the end of each phrase that feels most singable. It is in this stage that the block of text begins to look like a poem.
III. Reading the words
The songwriting participant reads through their story, and the reading is recorded. This allows participant and guide to listen for the natural speaking rhythm and cadence. Many participants will read in a swing rhythm and then sing in straight time. The act of recording a person reading through their story also serves to capture a complete oral history for posterity.
IV. Shaping the Song
It is in this stage that the text of the story begins to look more like a song. The guide works with the participant to begin to create the text for verses and a chorus. The verses are active and denote the unfolding events of the story. They create a strong visual context that will help draw in the listener. The guide works with the participant to place visual spaces between each block of text that might become a single verse.
The chorus is the one part of the song that is repeated and can be written as a refrain that occurs in a line or two at the end of each verse or as its own entity. Either way, the chorus must communicate a deep emotion or call to action being expressed in the story.
The chorus is a pivotal component of the song. A participant once described the chorus as the soul of the story. It gets to the heart of the story, what is really going on emotionally for the protagonist. Many stories shared by participants can be lengthy and thus have several layers of meaning. In fact, it may be possible to pursue several different songs from just one story. What I have found is that there tends to be something particularly emotive being expressed and that it is so important to the participant that it will be revealed, regardless of the subject matter of the story. For example, if a person is feeling lonely or isolated from society, this will come out whether they share a story about their day or about a specific event. It is the feeling of loneliness that the chorus will communicate. This emotion is also a universal concept, meaning that it is something that people can universally relate to, whether they were raised in North American or somewhere on the other side of the world. The importance of honing in on this universal concept is that it will inspire the listener to feel a personal connection to the song and hopefully wish to sing along.
The guide and participant may choose several phrases within the story text to become possible choruses. Then, they will place them after the verses to see how well they fit within the context of the story and how they each feel to sing.
V. Shaping the Chorus Melody
The fourth stage tends to be the most uncomfortable for participants because it requires them to sing story words without any previous melody to draw from. This is important because the guide is hoping to draw forth the unique melody that belongs to the participant and that is derived from their personal connection to their story.
At its earliest stage, the STS method required the participant to sing through all or a portion of the words of their story, seemingly at random, with no previous melody in their mind. It has since shifted to asking the participant to sing through the refrain several times, sometimes with musical accompaniment (if this helps the participant to feel more comfortable). The guide tends to prefer to wait for musical accompaniment because even the simplest chord change can influence the melodies the participant sings.
While the melodies that are revealed may appear to be random, it is my belief that the participant holds deep emotion in connection with their story and that this emotion is communicated through the notes they sing. It is typical for the participant to begin by singing a similar string of notes over and over again. It may take more than one singthrough of the words for the participant to relax into the process. What tends to happen, even in the first recording, is that the participant will sing a completely unique string of notes at some point in the story, often at a place that holds particularly poignant meaning for them.
The guide and participant listen to the recording of the singthrough, often several times. The guide asks the participant to listen for the melodies they most prefer. They sing through the melody several times, and the guide will then introduce musical accompaniment. The guide will also offer different possible chord changes to demonstrate how different types of chords can create different emotional context.
VI. Shaping the Verse Melody
The participant is then asked to sing through the verses several times and both guide and participant work together to shape this melody into one that works with the melodic developed for the chorus.
VII. The Finished Song
A folk song may never be officially complete, for it takes on a life of its own and changes with each person who hears it and makes if their own. That being said, the final stage of the STS songwriting method is to make a recording of the participant singing through their song with musical accompaniment of their own and/or provided by the guide. This recording can then be shared with friends and family and beyond.