C.M. Bowra’s book Primitive Song is an examination of songs from stone age cultures — cultures in the world today that remain very close to nature, very insulated within their traditional cultures.
In other words they offer a look at the deep roots of poetry and songwriting — these are not cultures that grew up influenced by the radio, or by so-called music television. They didn’t even experience the sheet music printing revolution, when suddenly you could make fistfuls of money by selling a popular song as sheet music for people to play at home on their upright pianos.
The passage I’m sharing today is paraphrased from Bowra’s Primitive Song, page 86. It’s about how poetry probably begins at the dawn of humanity with a simple repeated rhythm… and slowly grows into long, meaningful poems that tell the stories, myths, and teach the ways of a culture.
Be aware that I’ve translated Bowra’s writing from 1962 academia here and recounted his ideas in terms we can relate to as present-day songwriters.
Bowra believes poetry might have started with a rhythm, like walking, dancing, or some other activity. Then, with that rhythm in place, poetry emerges like this:
- Meaningless lines (la la la)
One meaningful line, repeated (what we’d call a refrain line, the core of the song’s meaning and feeling)
Additional lines (lines that set up, complement, or otherwise relate to the first meaningful line)
Lines grouped into stanzas (in our case, that’d probably mean lines arranged in a series so they rhyme and make sense in order)
Stanzas grouped into sections (multiple lines might make a chorus section that gets repeated. Or might make verse or bridge sections that relate to the chorus in some way)
Songs grouped into cycles (in our case, usually grouped into singles, EPs, or albums)
The “Primitive Songwriting” Method
We could use this as a guide for writing our own songs. In fact, every step of the process Bowra outlined parallels how songwriters work even today.
Start with a rhythm: use a metronome or a drum machine, or just tap your foot.
Sing nonsense. Next you can just hum, whistle, shout, or mumble over the beat to find a melody. Nonsense syllables or random words in no particular order work fine, too. A certain song by the Beatles began with the words “Scrambled eggs,” by the way.
Replace one line of nonsense with one meaningful line that’s worth repeating. This will be your song’s title or refrain line. In this way, the song “Scrambled eggs” and the rest of its “dummy lines” became the song “Yesterday” by the Beatles.
Write more lines. Since you can’t just repeat that first line all day, use whatever knowledge of music composition and lyric writing you’ve got to feel out new words and give them melodies. Lines stack up and soon you’ve got whole sections ready.
Arrange the sections into a complete song, and you’ve got one complete draft of a song.
Repeat the process to create another song, and you’ve got the beginnings of a set list, an EP, or an album of original tunes. Nothing feels better than writing a new song.
Credit to James Anderson Winn for his book titled Unsuspected Eloquence: *, which first pointed me toward *Primitive Song.
Dead Can Dance will Dazzle You with Deep Mediterranean Rhythms. This is a post I wrote with Rhylan Dane at Armorbelle. Lisa Gerrard sings in her own made-up languages, called glossolalia.