Teaching the Tools of the Trade

Berklee's Songwriting Department Moves into its Third Decade

By Susan Lindsay

  Professor Pat Pattison
  Mark Small

Before she came to Berklee a few years ago, Songwriting Department major Sarah Tollerson had studied at a college music school in her native Georgia and was dissatisfied with her educational experience. An aspiring singer/songwriter in a classically oriented program, Tollerson wanted more. Everything changed when she crossed paths with an old friend who studied songwriting at Berklee. He told her about the "tools" he was learning. "That changed my songwriting tremendously after just the few days I spent around him," Tollerson says. "I realized how much he knew and that I needed to come up here." Now in her final semesters at Berklee, Tollerson says that her songwriting has steadily progressed.

Tollerson is the kind of student for which the Songwriting Department was designed more than 20 years ago. Department faculty members recognize that its 150-plus songwriting majors share a common goal: self-expression. The department's mission is to give students "tools not rules," offering songwriting techniques that open doors to expression, not dictates that might hamper creativity. This "toolbox" is the buzzword at the heart of the Songwriting Department's approach-and a concept that has been continually refined over the department's two-decade history.

Though the department formally began in 1986, songwriting at Berklee really started more than 30 years ago, thanks to the efforts of a student-teacher team and, in particular, to the forward-looking efforts of late faculty member Tony Teixeira. In the early 1970s, Jon Aldrich '74 (then a student, now an associate professor) told Teixeira that the school's primary focus on jazz should be expanded to include a pop songwriting course.

Songwriting Chair Jack Perricone (left) and Associate Professor Jon Aldrich. "The tools that we teach are general enough to be applied to many styles," says Perricone.  
Nick Balkin  

"Tony waltzed me up to President Larry Berk's office," says Aldrich, "and said, 'This student has a good idea. I think we could do a great job on this together.'" After hearing their proposal, Berk gave them the green light.

Teixeira and Aldrich offered the first songwriting course in 1973, which analyzed successful songs in a variety of styles. Less than 10 students signed up, but word spread quickly, and additional sections were added in subsequent semesters as students shared their successes. In the early days of the program, students wrote songs that ended up on the PBS show Zoom and elsewhere. To help these first Berklee songwriters get exposure for their songs, Teixeira, Aldrich, and fellow student Doug Leess '74 began organizing songwriting showcases that attracted standing room-only audiences.

In 1975, Pat Pattison came to Berklee to teach English and poetry. Noting students' interest in songwriting, he proposed a course that used literary criticism techniques to analyze the lyrics of such artists as Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, and Leonard Cohen. "The course became so popular that it quickly expanded to several sections each semester," says Professor Pattison. "Who knew that the tools of literary criticism would work? This really opened the whole arena in songwriting." Soon Pattison developed a second lyric-writing course, and it took off as well.

By the early 1980s, songwriting had attracted increasing interest among Berklee's student body. President Lee Eliot Berk invited Pattison to his office and asked whether songwriting offered viable career options. "I lied and said yes," Pattison says, chuckling. Under Berk's direction, Pattison organized a committee that included Aldrich, Ted Pease, and Rob Rose. For more than a year, the four worked to create a new department and major built on the foundation established over the previous decade by Pattison's and Aldrich's music-centered courses.

In 1986, following a national search, Songwriting Department Chair Jack Perricone came onboard to help develop the curriculum for the new major: the first college-level songwriting major in the world. Perricone, who has a master's degree in composition from Indiana University, had worked in the music publishing industry in New York and cowrote songs, including the 1975 David Geddes hit "Run, Joey, Run" as well as songs for Angela Bofill and Lou Rawls. Expanding the curriculum, Perricone helped develop the "Business of Songwriting" and "Survey of Popular Song Styles" courses and design the first MIDI Home Recording Studio lab facility.

Today, the major includes 15 courses, covering topics in song composition, lyric writing, survey of popular song styles, song demo production the business of songwriting, singer/songwriter workshop and arranging for the songwriter. In its writing classes, the department focuses less on determining what will be commercially popular and more on craft. "We try to move things away from the intuitive approach and more toward the craft of songwriting," Pattison says. "Getting better isn't a matter of simply writing more songs; it's a matter of having more tools."

After two decades, the curriculum continues to evolve as it meets its goal of preparing students for the demands of the music industry following graduation. Consequently, no stylistic boundaries are placed on students; they are encouraged to write in the styles most meaningful to them. "The most important thing is not constraining the students so that they feel handcuffed creatively," Perricone says. "That means teaching these tools and techniques within a larger scope, not locking them into writing a country or hip-hop song. Usually students gravitate towards a particular style and don't feel authentic in others. The tools that we teach are general enough to be applied to many styles."

According to Pattison, analysis of successful songs remains central to the process of teaching songwriting. "We aren't trying to figure out what the writer intended, but what makes the song work," he says. In songwriting courses, students are encouraged to study the relationship between music and words and how every element of a good song supports the writer's central intent. Students, for example, observe how different sorts of phrasing create a feeling. By noting specific techniques, they acquire tools to express the emotional content of their material.

Berklee's tool-based approach is unique in the world of songwriting, and as a result, the many songwriting books and online courses penned by Songwriting Department faculty over the past two decades have become go-to resources for aspiring songwriters within and outside Berklee (see "From the Toolkit" sidebar to the right).

To supplement classroom learning, the Songwriting Department invites working professionals to talk with the students. Over the years, the department has hosted clinics with such diverse writers as Barry Manilow, Richard Marx, Billy Joel, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Mike Reid, Barry Eastman, Patty Larkin, and John Mayer. During these visits, faculty and students learn what it's like to work in the trenches.

Perricone strongly encourages students to get in front of an audience. Even if students don't think that they are great performers, playing publicly is an important way to expose their songs and build a career. "While they may be barely eking out a living performing in addition to teaching guitar, voice, or songwriting, all of these things add up to paying the rent and staying with music while they're waiting to be noticed."

Perricone notes that students don't simply graduate with a major from the Songwriting Department; they are a product of Berklee as a whole. "We aim to provide students with the skills needed to play well, write in various styles, and notate music so that others have no problem understanding their intent. They need to be professional and qualified as players and-today more than ever-qualified in music technology."

Teamwork and collaboration are important aspects of songwriting, and students develop relationships cemented during performance workshops where they play their songs for one another. Often these friendships become the basis of a professional network.

"I see camaraderie among students in other majors, but I'm guessing there's none closer than songwriting majors," Aldrich says. "They get to know each other from being in classes and hearing each other's songs-which are probably vignettes about their love lives. A lot of them follow one another to Nashville or some other music center, working and writing together and helping each other up the ladder of success."

Success has indeed come to many such alumni. Berklee-educated songwriters are staff writers at numerous music publishers and frequently dominate songwriting competitions. An impressive number have established careers in Nashville, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including Gillian Welch '92, Greg Becker '95, Dillon Dixon '91, Jesse Terry '04, (country), Stacy Allyn Baker '04 (r&b), Makeba Riddick '99 (hip-hop), John Mayer '98, Juliana Hatfield '90, and Melissa Ferrick '90 (alternative folk-rock).

Perricone takes pride in the department's collective successes. "I am proud that we've stayed buoyant for the last 22 years," he says. "Berklee was the first to offer a college-level major in songwriting. We've had students and successful alumni telling us that the curriculum gave them what they needed to learn. It's great to hear that what we've taught has brought positive results in their lives."

Susan Gedutis Lindsay is a music writer/editor and is the author of See You at the Hall: Boston's Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance.

Pull Quote: The department's mission is to give students "tools not rules," offering songwriting techniques that open doors to expression.


1. From the Toolkit

Here are some notable songwriting publications by Berklee faculty members:

Perricone, Jack. Melody in Songwriting. Berklee Press.
Pattison, Pat. Writing Better Lyrics. Writer's Digest Books.
Pattison, Pat. Songwriting: Essential Guide to Rhyming. Berklee Press.
Pattison, Pat. Songwriting: Essential Guide to Lyric Form and Structure. Berklee Press.
Feist, Jonathan, and Jimmy Kachulis. Berklee in the Pocket: Essential Songwriter. Berklee Press.
Kachulis, Jimmy. Songwriter's Workshop: Melody. Berklee Press.
Kachulis, Jimmy. Songwriter's Workshop: Harmony. Berklee Press.
Stevens, John, Jr. The Songs of John Lennon: The Beatles Years. Berklee Press.

2. Berklee Songwriting Department Faculty Members

Jack Perricone, chair
Jon Aldrich, associate professor
Susan Cattaneo, associate professor
Henry Gaffney, associate professor
Jimmy Kachulis, professor
Scarlet Keys, assistant professor
Ivan Sever, associate professor
Mark Simos, associate professor
John Stevens Jr., associate professor
Pat Pattison, professor, Liberal Arts Department
Michael Wartofsky, Associate Professor, Harmony Department
Dennis Cecere, Associate Professor, Ensemble Department