Song Assessment & Feedback Exercise (SAFE)

A 5-step process for songwriter learning groups

Songwriters can often work without much idea of how to develop song ideas, complete songs, or write better songs. They may not have many ideas on how to identify in a song what works and is worth saving (for that song, or a future one), and what might be improved by editing / re-writing. Songwriters may not receive feedback on song material – especially work in progress – very often. What feedback they get may be unclear, inaccurate, uninformed, discouraging, or miss key points that need to be addressed. Co-writers want their partnership to work, but they may feel that the way they assess each other’s contributions or give feedback to each other is putting their songwriting process or their relationship at risk.

At best, a songwriters learning group can provide opportunities for songwriters to swap experiences and ideas, to support each other, to find co-writers, and to learn from and with each other. In particular, such a group could provide a valuable space for songwriters to learn together how to assess song material and give feedback on it, as well as to benefit from assessments and feedback they receive on their own song material.

However, there are challenges to creating a group feedback process for songwriters. Giving feedback and critique, especially on creative work, can be hard to do well. Unskilled, poorly judged, or ill-timed feedback can be confusing, and can hamper the songwriter’s skill development, and do long term damage to a songwriter’s confidence. Moreover, copyright and intellectual property are major issues. Participants would be sharing unpublished ‘work in progress’, which could be, at worst, plagiarised. Participants in a songwriters learning group are not official co-writers – there is no clear ‘split sheet’ (a written agreement of ownership percentages). But group participants would be giving and receiving creative advice and input on each other’s songs. Unclear agreements, or the absence of agreements, on ownership rights on songs or the different elements of songs could lead to interpersonal tensions, or, at worst, to legal disputes.

Given the challenges outlined above, there are two key questions. First, what could be a (psychologically and emotionally) safe and constructive process for helping songwriters learn together how to assess song material, give feedback on it, and use assessments and feedback they receive on their own songs? Second, how might intellectual property questions be resolved before song sharing, assessment or feedback happens?  In particular, if participants present their own song material to the group, or participants, presenters or teachers share other copyright material of their own, how might their intellectual property rights be asserted, respected and protected? And if participants provide creative input during a group session to help develop another participant’s song what should happen about writing credits, ownership percentages, the distribution of royalties, and the ways in which the song (or its components) should be exploited?

This document outlines a process and framework for a new ‘Song Assessment & Feedback Exercise (SAFE)’. The process is easily learnable and repeatable, enabling participants to present song material to the group, assess other people’s song material, and give and receive feedback. The process is designed to inform, empower, and encourage participants in their songwriting, and includes a framework that addresses intellectual property issues. The process consists of six steps that can be repeated in a loop:

  1. Remind everyone of the SAFE framework on intellectual property.
  2. Facilitate presentation of song material to the group.
  3. Ask participants to write feedback on assessment slips, in response to two questions, using a guiding framework.
  4. Use the completed slips for shared learning.
  5. Facilitate presentation of the song material again.

NB If you leave out any of the steps, sub-steps, or principles in this document, you are not using the SAFE system that I have designed, and put at risk the confidence and motivation of both the songwriter and the songwriting group.

1. Remind everyone of the SAFE framework on intellectual property

Intellectual property and copyright area major feature of the worlds of songwriting, performance and recording. Participation in this SAFE session implies consent to the SAFE framework on intellectual property. Rights of copyright owners must be upheld, and the intellectual property rights of people offering creative input to songwriters must be waived.

i. Participants must uphold best practice in intellectual property and copyright law

Participants of the songwriters learning group place a mutual expectation on each other to uphold best practice in intellectual property and copyright law, which may mean having to take an active interest in learning about these in their own time. Upholding best practice both trains songwriters to work to high professional and ethical standards, and models these standards for the wider community.

The intellectual property rights of songwriters in the songwriters learning group must be respected. Copyright infringement of other people’s written or recorded creative output is:

    • morally unacceptable,
    • a betrayal of the mutual trust, supportiveness and goodwill necessary for the songwriters learning group to be a safe, nurturing and learning space for songwriters,
    • prosecutable under law.

ii. Assessors waive writing credits for feedback and advice they give during group learning sessions

Songwriter participants need to feel empowered to act on advice and creative input  from other participants, without the fear or possibility of being challenged at any time by other participants for a share in any royalty split or collaboration agreement. Therefore, it is a condition of attendance at the songwriters learning group that participants agree to forgo claiming writing credits, royalties or collaboration rights for any feedback and suggestions they make on other people’s song material (music or lyrics) during a songwriters learning group session.

    • As a condition of participation in the songwriters learning group, participants waive any claim to writing credit for feedback and advice – especially creative ideas on other people’s songs – they give during group learning sessions.
    • If a participant wants to receive a writing credit or royalty on an idea s/he has in response to hearing or seeing another participant’s material, s/he should not share it in the group, with another participant, or with anyone else.
    • If a participant incorporates or adapts a piece of feedback or a suggestion from another participant into her/his songwriting, s/he, rather than the originator of the feedback or suggestion, is entitled to the full writing credit, and royalty for the feedback or suggestion that is incorporated or adapted.
    • If a participant gives advice or creative input on another participant’s song material outside a songwriters learning group session, those two people must reach their own solution about writing credits and any royalty split or collaboration agreement.

2. Facilitate presentation of song material to the group

The convenor or facilitator of the group presents song material, or invites a guest presenter, or a participant in the group to present song material.

i. The song material can be music, lyrics, or music and lyrics combined, and in one of three categories:

    • great and/or commercially successful song material that is already published or in the public domain and not written by a participant,
    • song material that is published or in the public domain and not written by a participant, chosen deliberately because participants are likely to consider it offers opportunities for development, or
    • song material written by a songwriters learning group participant.

ii. The presentation can be a live performance, a playing of a recording, or sharing visual material.

    • Ideally, the presenter shares a visual representation of the song as well (e.g. lyrics, lyrics with chords, a lead sheet). S/he can also share a visual representation of all or some of the song material (e.g. lyrics, lyrics with chords, a lead sheet), without audio. NB Participants do not have the right to keep handouts from the songwriters; songwriters reserve the right to collect their song material sheets at the end of the session.
    • If the song is performed, listeners may like to hear it twice. The facilitator, group and songwriter can come to an agreement whether to make this part of the process.

3. Ask participants to write feedback on assessment slips, in response to two questions, using a guiding framework.

Songwriters need to learn the practical skills of analysing what works and doesn’t work in a song, and also to understand why it works or doesn’t work; they also need to understand what to do to make a song work better. The two questions and guiding framework offer a way to hone assessment skills.

It is a willing act of vulnerability to share song material or work in progress. It is an even deeper act of trust to invite feedback. The two questions and the guiding framework are key to helping assessors make the feedback process emotionally and psychologically safe, and a positive experience, for the person sharing her/his material.

i. Participants have a few minutes to write down their responses to two questions:

    • “What worked for you, and why?”
    • “What opportunities do you see for development?” Sub-questions could include:
      • “What, for you, is missing? What do you want to see, hear, feel more of, or (in the lyric) know more about?”
      • “What could be left out, and how might this improve the song?”
      • “What could take this song to the next level?”
      • “What could be done differently – not necessarily better, just differently – to open up other possibilities?” This is a useful question if you think the song is great, and you can’t think of anything that needs improving. Your answer may help develop your imagination, and the imagination of the songwriter and other group participants. 

ii. Participants use a guiding framework to assess the songs, and to word their answers to feed back to the group.

    • Listen to your emotions. What did you like/enjoy, or not like/enjoy?
    • Be as specific as possibleRather than saying, “I loved the song title”, try, “I loved the song title because…”.
    • Own your responses and feedback, and word them accordingly in your feedback. These are just your subjective responses, observations and opinions.
    • Be solution-focussed. It is empowering for the songwriter to emphasise actions and what a songwriter can do. If you don’t have the knowledge, skills – or time! – to offer a clear solution, it may be useful if you can give an idea of what aspect of the song might benefit from closer inspection, but bear in mind the earlier point about the value of being specific.
    • Be respectful to everyone in the group, and to songwriters and performers who are not present, whoever they are (or were).
    • Be encouraging to other members of the group.
    • Use a wide range of criteria. These can include:
      • Alexander Massey’s Songwriting Pentagon © and it’s sub-categories
      • Other models, tips, books, websites articles, workshops etc on songwriting
      • What you learn from other participants
      • What you learn from people teaching and presenting to the songwriting group

4. Facilitate shared learning using the completed slips

Songwriter empowerment is a key purpose of SAFE. The two questions and guiding framework focus on what can be of practical use for songwriters, and what will also make the feedback emotionally positive and encouraging. However, it takes practice to be able to assess well, and give feedback well, and participants will complete the slips with different levels of songwriting knowledge, analytical skill, and diplomacy. After the two questions and guiding framework, the facilitator provides a second layer of protection and support for the songwriter. The facilitator selects and makes minor edits to the comments, thereby mediating between the group and the songwriter in the public space. Participating in a SAFE session is implicit consent to the facilitator playing this mediating role.

By hearing feedback from other people, mediated by the facilitator, participants can learn from how others are responding to the song, assessing songs and giving feedback. What people write for private consumption by the songwriter, and how the facilitator handles the comments in the group space has a major impact on the group culture, the level of mutual trust, and the willingness of songwriters to offer their material for a SAFE session in the future.

i Select edit, and share comments and ideas from the slips

    • Receive slips from the participants.
    • Take a few moments to privately read the comments on the slips.
    • Decide which comments to share with the group and the songwriter in the ‘hot seat’, including how to edit or gently re-word assessors’ comments to align with the principles of the two questions and guiding framework. Respect assessors’ work, and change as little as possible in the comments.
    • Share out loud what you have selected and edited.

ii Invite participants to choose what to do with assessment slips after they have been read out

    • For song material by a participant, invite assessors to give her/him their assessment slips. NB There is no obligation or pressure to do so.
    • For song material not by a participant, remind assessors that they can choose to keep the assessment slips they have written, give them to someone else, or discard them.

5. Facilitate presentation of the song material again

There are limitations to this rapid assessment and feedback process. Analysing and re-writing songs is normally a long, detailed process. The group may well want to discuss and choose together how to deepen their learning, or give a song a longer, and more considered response. The material can be presented a) straight away, b) at a later date after a re-write (if the song material is by a participant), or c) both.

i. Audio material is played or performed again straight after the feedback process, so that people can listen with greater awareness as a result of the group’s feedback.

ii. Re-written material (presumably incorporating some of the feedback from the this session) is presented again at a later meeting, for new assessment and feedback.

[Version 7 of SAFE]