Documentary Songwriting is an outgrowth of the oral tradition of people’s singing about their experiences. In this section you'll find a range of readings that explore the theory, practice, and evolution of the method.



Sunflower and the Birth of the Documentary Songwriting Method

An excerpt from Malcolm Brooks's 2013 Dissertation
Autoethnography of a Composer with a New Composing Method 

Sunflower marks the birth of the Story-to-Song Method (now most often called the Documentary Songwriting Method) and the culmination of the first stage of evolution of a creative method. In retrospect, I am amazed at how long I had stumbled along trying to help people build songs from titles based on phrases in spoken stories. I had overlooked the stories themselves. I had been looking for a story within a title rather than a title within a story. After the completion of the song, I began to consider a new lesson: All parts of a song – melody, rhythm, chorus, verses – may lie within a spoken story.

In 2009, Hannah Batley, a local composer, and I had collaborated successfully on a choral song for the Rockland Unitarian Universalist Church, of which she was the musical director. We decided to collaborate on another piece, and Hannah showed me a melodic and lyrical idea that she had been exploring. She had written:

So hold me and sing to me songs
Of the Sunflower
With God in its seed.
 (Batley & Brooks, 2010)

We discussed where the song should go next. I asked her about the origins the sunflower idea. She told me about a deceased man in her community, a friend of the family, who had played a grandfatherly role for her during her childhood. As she described him through anecdotes, I heard myself saying, “Hannah, that’s the song.”

She repeated the anecdotes and, this time, I typed down every word she said. From there we began breaking the story into paragraphs and the sentences into phrases, one to a line. Her spoken words began to look like a poem in free verse.

Our session drew to a close Hannah and I reviewed what we had done. I felt that Hannah’s chorus now fit well in between the rough verses that her spoken words had provided. I also felt the desire to add three lines to the chorus with hopes that Hannah would not object. I felt that one more line might make Hannah’s message even clearer. I sang the chorus as:

So hold me and sing to me songs
Of the Sunflower
With God in its seed.
Remind me life is beautiful.
Remind me of the sunflower.
That’s all I need.
 (Batley & Brooks, 2010)

At our next session, Hannah and I completed the song. As I played guitar, based upon the chords she had originally written, Hannah improvisationally made up a melody to the words she had spoken, now in verse format. We were surprised and pleased with the outcome. There were more anecdotes than we needed, so Hannah chose which ones to keep.

At the time, I did not think that Hannah and I were following a method. We were merely trying to a complete a song. Yet the transition from spoken word to finished song did imply a process, even if it was an explorational one. To provide a sense of this transition from spoken word to song, I present below both the original words that Hannah spoke and the lyrics that were shaped from them.

While reading the history of Sunflower above, you may be interested to hear the very first sing-through that marks the birth of the documentary songwriting method. It is available below. Hannah Batley reads back her spoken words and improvises a melody. The skeleton of the final melody is evident in this first sing-through.


Documentary Songwriting Papers & Projects



Looking Forward


The pandemic provided an opportunity for us. While collaborative music is always most inspiring in person, our songwriting method and programming pivoted well to a virtual world. Our community truly spans the globe. DocSong has Teaching Artists in five different countries, songs from more than twenty different countries, and an audience that is even more widespread. This report highlights a year of growth, flexibility and learning for our organization and features updates and reflections on the accomplishments of 2021.


DocSong Podcast: The Making of the Song Kindness

Rohan Edwards
Chloë Isis
Malcolm Brooks

How do documentary songwriters actually make a song? Rohan Edwards shows an abbreviated process through the birth of the docsong "Kindness," as Chloë Isis and Malcolm Brooks design its lyrics and melody. Their collaborative approach is used throughout the world by teaching artists.


DocSong: Five Signs of Impact


Every life has a story. Every story deserves a voice. Connecting with others is paramount to health. In the U.S. and across the globe, we are divided by political, racial, and socioeconomic boundaries, and loneliness is recognized as a public health epidemic. Documentary Songwriters believes that personal stories and music combined together can transcend boundaries and overcome emotional isolation.


Did She Change: Exploring Cello in Documentary Songwriting and Expanding the Role of a Classical Cellist


A problem plaguing all classical music music students today is how to find a job and shape a career. Through an exploration of documentary songwriting, this thesis investigates the benefits that classical training can bring to other genres.


Responsible Songwriting: Problems of Ethics and Negotiation in Collaborative Autoethnographic Composition

Alex Wilder

We only hear about a very narrow range of experiences when we listen to popular music. In that realm, we could use some new voices. Documentary songwriting is an autoethnographic, collaborative songwriting method that provides a potential solution to this problem.


Proceedings & Summary from the Documentary Songwriters Conference

Bay Chamber
Concerts & Music School,
Rockport, Maine

The overview from this gathering of DocSong enthusiasts highlights common personal goals, professional growth targets, areas of potential process improvement, ongoing educational opportunities, storycraft approaches, continuing education, insights into composition and arrangement, plus numerous additional topics.


Stages and Breakthroughs: An Illustration of the Story-to-Song Method

Marieke Slovin
Malcolm Brooks

The introduction of Story-to-Song (STS) — a collaborative musical process in which a participant and a musical guide work together to create a song from the participant’s spoken story. Within this process can be found stages that progressively transform a written text into a song. Includes insights into how to create a sustainable, collaborative partnership.


Individuals to Contact About DocSong Training

United Kingdom and Europe
Jonny Westhorp, Bristol, England

Europe and Middle East
Melodi Var Öngel, Adana, Turkey

Midwest & Western United States
Nora Willauer, Cleveland, Ohio
Joaquin Contreras, Houston, Texas

Mid-Atlantic & Southern United States
Khalid Taylor, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Mimi Bornstein, Alexandria, Virginia
Alex Wilder, Nashville, Tennessee

New England & Canada
Zach Arfa, Mystic, Connecticut
Chloë Isis, Brunswick, Maine
Malcolm Brooks, Rockport, Maine
Will Foote, Rockport, Maine
Caleb Edwards, Camden, Maine
Chris Finn, Camden, Maine
Hazel Delehey, Lewiston, Maine
Whit Arau, Somerville, Massachusetts