One of my mottos is: “Vocals and arrangements should enhance a melody, not replace it.” Think about it: Is a song good because the singer hit high notes? If every song on the album had high notes, is it a good album? Or is a song good because there’s a cool guitar solo? If that guitar solo was found on a different track, that would likely be your favorite song instead? Is it really that interchangeable? Vocals and arrangements should enhance a melody, not replace it; the vocals and arrangements and other facets of the song are merely contributors and enhancers to a song that was solid in its own right. There’s a big difference.
The famed Gershon Veroba would tell me how it’s often apparent when the essence of a song is a chord progression or if the song developed around a certain repeated consonant sound, leaving the melody - and certainly the lyrics - as merely secondary or even tertiary plug-ins. That’s unfortunate.
I’ve also heard the act of sharing musical ideas likened to water and a conduit. The water is what each of us have to offer to the world by using our voices and talents to create. The conduit is the delivery system for the water. Both are required to get quality content out there. You need to have a steady flow of ideas but also have a clear, consistent path and a destination for the stream. The conduit is what enables the refreshing, nourishing content to gush unobstructed, maximizing its reach and its impact. The water is what’s essential.
So, what’s a “song” at the most basic level anyway? Rhythmically tapping a shtender or writing out one’s feelings can be valid forms of expression, but what’s the core component that makes something a song? A song is an original piece of music intended to be performed vocally or instrumentally. The identifiable measure of what makes something a song (as opposed to merely sounds) is the melody. The melody is the note sequence: the length of notes, the range of notes, the gaps, the repetitive patterns, the variations, etc.
[An important tangent here for the sake of us becoming familiar with terminologies that will be frequently referenced. People who conjure up these new melodies, at least in the Jewish music (JM) world, are referred to as “composers.” This title of “composer” tends to be dispensed too flippantly, in my opinion. A composer is really the person who creates new compositions, which often entails much more than just the melody. When I think of a composer, I envision a master performer (wearing a chasuv frock, of course) who has also written out all of the orchestral nuances of his/her newest musical piece. As such, when Velvel the fisherman has a tune pop into his head on the way to work one day, is it a bit over-the-top to call this person a composer? Probably. Nonetheless, “composed by” is referring to the one responsible for making the melody. Another name given to someone who writes songs is…songwriter. Creative name, right? Like composing, “songwriting” also doesn’t always feel accurate. I envision someone scribbling lyrics on the back of a restaurant napkin and then working those lyrics into a song they’ve been working on. Again, when Velvel the fisherman, who possibly can’t read or write music, has a wordless tune come to him, is “songwriter” an apt description? Seemingly not. Alas, songwriting and composing tend to be used interchangeably and as a way of describing one who conjures up and crafts an original melody.]
In general, when you come up with a new idea, where does it come from? Are you capable of creating something from nothing? If G-d is reading this, I’m flattered. For everyone else, the answer is no. It’s really something new created from one or more old things. Creativity is often mixing and matching previous influences but incorporating them in ways that are individual to the creator. I often compare it to any other “chiddush.” Suppose someone has a question on the parshah and wants to offer an original answer. Forcing an answer would make your piece uninspiring and quite forgettable. Suggesting an outlandish answer based on unconfirmed assumptions and an unprecedented train of thought would be rejected by anyone who was actually listening. Relaying a well-known answer and pretending that it’s your own is distasteful at best. And of course, if you have very minimal exposure in these areas and you rarely contemplate these topics, it’s exceedingly unlikely for you to make a coherent, compelling contribution. However, if you are someone who is often engrossed in these thoughts and have been heavily influenced by certain s’farim or drashos or various divrei Torah you’ve heard over the years, it’s natural for you to subconsciously adapt one aspect or line of reasoning from what you’ve been exposed to and be able to incorporate that angle into your chiddush.
Now to plug all the parts into the nimshal: 1. A forced composition will often be uninspiring and forgettable. (I like to periodically knock on the door to see if there’s “something there” that day, but I do not bust through the door.) 2. A song that’s wild and quirky to the point where it defies all laws and standards of music will be difficult to digest. 3. Regarding ripping a song off from somewhere (outside of JM, let’s say) and duping the innocent, loyal JM listeners… I’ll need to be cautious here. I like to say: If herring or lox is too heimish for you and you want to make mock crab salad instead, make mock crab salad. Please don’t call it Yenta Pesha’s fish casserole and receive accolades for your new composition. Let’s leave it at that. 4. If you haven’t listened to lots of music or spent time analyzing song structures, it’s exceedingly unlikely for you to make a coherent, compelling composition. However, if you are someone who has developed an inclination towards a particular style and you possess a good sense of melodic structure and can instinctively discern which song ideas or progressions are familiar but not predictable, you’re more equipped to create an original melody. When you’re able to fuse your wide array of inspirations and influences with your distinct melody and unique tilt, you’ve got yourself a song.