My wife and I today completed the last assignment in Coursera’s Songwriting course, created in coordination with Berklee College of Music, and starring Berklee professor Pat Pattison. I would like to offer a brief review from the point of view of a beginning songwriter who aspires to be better.
The Good Parts
Clear Instruction and clearly building topics
I have to admit, I haven’t had a writing class since college. I’ve always had an underlying interest in writing and I appreciate clear, step by step instruction. The class consists of 6 weeks and each week focuses on a particular topic, and includes a series of class videos starring Professor Pattison, a series of quizzes, and a peer-review assignment to see how well you can apply your knowledge. Week one begins with the most basic questions in writing of any kind:
Who is talking?
If you can answer these questions, you’re already miles ahead of where you would be otherwise. I find asking these questions will help you find your way through your work without losing your point and your audience. Weeks 2 – 6 add layer upon layer of the technical details of songwriting – how rhymes, numbers of lines, length of lines, phrasing, and melody help create a certain mood in your song. If you can master those skills, you can come up with some truly exceptional music.
Maybe it’s my tendency to be sentimental that helps me enjoy watching the videos, but I do truly enjoy watching Professor Pattison explain things. He really does know his topic and is everything you’d expect a rock-n-roll professor to be. Dorky, sarcastic, intellectual, and of course, wearing a leather jacket instead of tweed.
Truly tangible and practical assignments
Every week’s peer-review assignment is completely practical. You’re creating original work almost every week and are learning to analyze it. By the last assignment, you’ve had the opportunity to write several songs in various stages of completion, with at least one complete song by week 6, and you’re able to adjust your existing work to enhance impact.
You get a free sample of Berklee’s full songwriting courses
Professor Pattison and many others teach full 12-week courses online through Berklee College of Music’s online school. The difference is, you pay a substantial amount of money (at the time of this writing, $1,400 per course), and instead of peer review assignments, you get real interaction with a real professor, and can pursue a Master’s Certificate in Songwriting, among other programs.
The Bad Parts
Peer Review Assignments have limited value
Although the course creators obviously make every effort to create peer-review questions that have clear goals, I believe there’s a limited value in having peers who may or may not understand the goals of the assignments reviewing your work. I found myself scratching my head several times when I would receive a low grade for work I could clearly see met the goals of the assignment. On the other hand, I found that reviewing other peers generally helped me think more clearly about my work, and the knowledge gained through the videos and simply from doing the assignments has value whether your peers understand it or not. If I’m truly not doing my best work, I’d prefer to have the expert on the topic helping me figure it out, rather than someone who knows just about the same amount as I do, and in some cases considerably less, apparently.
The course only scratches the surface
I guess you could say this about any class, but this course condensed the topic WAY down. Arguably, you could pick up one of Pat Pattison’s books and may get more out of them, though I think it is fair to say that having some form of interactive assignment helps you learn in a different way than simply reading a book and trying to make yourself follow the assignments inside.
Overall, I loved this course and would recommend it to anyone who’s just starting out as a songwriter. If I were you, I would go to the course page, listed above, and add it to your watch list. I believe they run the class 2-3 times per year. I think I learned plenty, and was able to put out a couple decent songs as a direct result. Once you’re in the class, pay attention to the recommended materials, the song assignments, and keep an eye on due dates so your schedule doesn’t get away from. Once you miss a deadline, you lose points automatically. I already own a copy of Pattison’s book ‘Writing Better Lyrics”, which has chapters corresponding to the course, and I plan to make better use of it going forward.