10 Songwriting Tips from the Berklee College of Music Masterclass

Special guest from Berklee College of Music and industry professional Pat Pattison recently visited JMC students to impart his songwriting techniques and teach the students how to utilise them to bloom as a songwriter. 

As Berklee's only Australasian Partner School, JMC Contemporary Music Performance Student Katrina Bui went along to hear Pat talk, and has put together a quick summary of his imparted wisdom. From sensory imagery, song structure, to unstable tones, here is Pat’s advice to help you become a better songwriter! 


Pat had lyrics displayed on the screen as he played John Mayer’s “You’re Gonna Live Forever”- a mellow Disney-esque song, adorned with the simplicity of heart-warming tones from piano, string drones and whistling leading into a set of poetic lyrics. After playing it, he asked us if anything stood out and if there was anything you could visualise from just the verse.  He then explained that the first two lines are dramatic and very eye- catching i.e.
A great big bang and dinosaurs
Fiery raining meteors
It all ends unfortunately 

The above is an example of powerful sensory imagery which conveys a “Disney-like appeal”. The song opens with spell bounding imagery, from the “Great Big Bang and Dinosaurs” to the “Meteors”. Whilst both images are powerful, they are juxtaposed by the nature of their intensities. The fiery meteors are more power over the vulnerable dinosaurs as “It all ends unfortunately”. Such descriptive sensory imagery allows us to immerse ourselves into the atmosphere and experience the journey of the song.


Similarly, Mayer cleverly used sensory imagery besides the metaphoric imagery as well. 
 The moon's got a grip on the sea
Here, this line is depicting metaphors of the relationship between the Moon and Sea. It cleverly simplifies the idea of the moon’s control of the tides – when they rise and fall. Once again, it’s something that’s uncontrollable, as the Moon controls the Sea. The song’s narrative begins to flourish as the listener becomes absorbed into the narrative conveyed by the imagery and emotions.

After John Mayer’s melancholic lyrical masterpiece, Pat took us on a journey with Ride by Lana Del Ray whilst he also introduced his fellow musician. She then played the piano to show how the song can have different moods depending on how the piano is played. The use of song structure, repetition, unstable tones, harmonization of instability and unbalanced melodic phrasing was explored.


Embrace your inner #songwriter 🎶 📸 @Bree.rawson

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A song’s structure can add emphasis to the aura of the lyrics and the message being conveyed. Every section of a song will have either an even or odd amount of lines; even lines emphasises stability and a sense of resolution, whilst the effect of an odd amount of lines emphasises hardship and uncertainty. This is illustrated through the juxtaposition of the even amount of lines in the open verse alongside the odd amount of lines in the chorus. 
I've been out on that open road.  Just ride, I just ride, I just ride 
The song starts off sounding stable however the song transitions which results in the rest of the song becoming unstable. Overall, the song “Ride” has a very unstable and tragic tone due to clever manipulation of the lines in each section.


Another pointer shared by Pat was that the messages conveyed in a song should be clear. If there is something for the audience to takeaway, then the song is working. Lana did this in the chorus.
I’ve got a war in my mind
In doing so, she communicates with the audience instead of just of just catering her emotions to the audience. By keeping things simplistic yet also concise, the audience can get the meaning of what the song is about.


When analysing songs, it is significant to work with degrees in relation to the tonal center or the key instead of focusing on the notes individually. The chorus of “Ride” is based on chords built around the tonal center of C Major. However, the chord progression is rather restless as the chords do not resolve as seen through the iii IV.

I F Am I G Dm I Dm Em I F 
I IV  vi I V    ii   I  ii     iii   I IV


During the chorus of the song “Ride”, a melodic line that consists of stable notes whilst an unstable harmonic chord progression sustains it, is used. To elaborate, the melody goes from the V ii  iii whilst an IV chord is sustained. Thus, the Lana Del Ray portrays the effective use of harmonisation of notes through the sense of instability of using unstable melody and chords.

G D E (Melody) + F (Chord) = Unstable Tone


Throughout the song, there are two main time signatures used- being 2/4 and 4/4. Below is the metre changes prominent in the chorus.

I   C  I   F  I   C   I  C I AmI   F   I   C   I  C    I
I 4/4 I 2/4I 4/4 I  -  I   -  I 2/4  I 4/4 I 4/4 I

The occasional transitioning to the 2/4 accentuates a change of pace and a sense of uncertainty; Lana doesn’t know where she is heading but that doesn’t halt her progress or ability to move on. To contrast this sense of uncertainty, The section below features a sense of acceleration within the chord progression. This juxtaposes the instability and restlessness envoked through the chorus time metre. The chords are played in common time( 4/4) .

I   F  I   F  I   Am   I  Am I  F   I   F   I   G   I  G    I
I   F  Am I G  Dm I D  Em I   F  I   

Ultimately, if a song effectively features something memorable to the audience: A catchy hook, the morals portrayed through the message of the song, then the song is doing it’s job. These songwriter’s tools listed above are not aimed to be analysed and identified by the targeted audience- they won’t pick them out. It is up to the one who wants to achieve the mastery of  songwriting to understand the mechanics behind them and how to implement them into their own songs


Pat Patterson shared two thought provoking  analogies that conveyed the process of the mastery of Songwriting. 


The funnel analogy visually explains “flow” and expression in music. Visualise your emotions being collected into a funnel and slowly dripping into the tools that you use to write your music. In other words, the emotions should be expressed gradually throughout the song. This analogy depicts the balance between expression and the technicality behind songwriting. An effective song should both reflect your creativity in terms of expression of feelings yet also strategically implement the elements that you found interesting in a song.


The gym analogy involves visualising the progress of the mastery of songwriting as a gym.  To master songwriting, one should “exercise those tools that allow you to put together a song”. This can be achieved by simply categorising what you need to work on then just working on one section at a time. For example, working on a song with sections based just on melodic rhythm. 


Create a list with connotations. Words, rhymes, ideas.

Overall, the workshop was mezmerising. It was truly inspirational and very well presented. It was a pleasure to attend and the process of the mastery of songwriting was broken down in simpler terms and left me in wonder and awe. 

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