What is documentary songwriting?

Documentary Songwriting is a unique step-by-step method of collaborative songwriting that builds empathy, connection, and a shared sense of humanity. The Documentary Songwriting Method breaks down the creative process to allow anyone, regardless of musical background, to transform a personal story into an enduring song.

Documentary Songwriting has been used to enhance understanding between Turkish and Greek Cypriots at the UN Buffer Zone on Cyprus, to tell the stories of refugees from the Middle East seeking asylum in Belgium, and to share women’s #MeToo stories. Our projects have been featured on TEDx and on NPR’s Morning Edition

After writing a song with the support of a teaching artist, our storytellers report an increased sense of pride, self-awareness, and appreciation for their life experiences. A participant says of the process: “It was a glimpse into real human experience and emotion, unfettered by script and censorship. It was one of the precious moments in life that I truly felt I was witnessing (and a part of) something real.”

“It is a fascinating process to see one of my very personal stories transformed into a song. For my refrain, every time I sing it, I become more grateful. Hearing other people sing along with me makes me feel more connected to them.”

Meiyue Liu, Camden, Maine

What is a documentary song?

A documentary song always begins with someone's story. The story becomes the lyrics of the song and the melody communicates the emotions of the experience.

Three qualities of a documentary song:

  • Authenticity: The song is written using the spoken words of someone's personal story.
  • Accessibility: The melody and words can be sung by people without musical training.
  • Artistry: The song expresses a shared exploration of ideas and suggestions from the storyteller and the teaching artist.

Two Roles:

The Storyteller:

  • recounts a personal experience
  • generates the very beginnings of a melody
  • contributes ideas and feedback throughout the complete writing and arranging proces
  • helps ensure that the song that emerges conveys the emotions of their story

The Teaching Artist:

  • listens deeply to the story source
  • leads them along the documentary songwriting process
  • contributes ideas and feedback throughout the complete writing and arranging process
  • provides songwriting expertise and perspective to ensure that the general listener might understand and feel the emotional message of the song

Both the Storyteller and the Teaching Artist provide ideas and collaborate. Together, they explore different ways to shape the song and give it an identity that is authentic to the story source and accessible to future listeners.