Ben Camp, Assistant Professor of Songwriting

Ben Camp, Assistant Professor of Songwriting

Ben Camp is an assistant professor of songwriting at Berklee, and author of He is signed to Sony/ATV as a songwriter and has written for artists on Columbia, Sony, and Universal. In this post, Camp details his innovative methods for increasing students’ ability to gain—and remember—new educational concepts.

Songwriting isn’t rocket science.

But these unlikely bedfellows do have one thing in common: they both require a firm grasp of the fundamentals—whether it’s song form and similes, or algebra and calculus.

So, here in Berklee’s Songwriting Department, we teach those very basic building blocks of Songwriting—rhyme schemes, metaphors, song form—right from the first class we offer.

But teaching something once doesn’t mean that it’s been learned for life. I’m less concerned what my students remember on the midterm, and more concerned with what they remember three months, three years, or three decades after my class.

As a student at Berklee, way back in [clears throat] I took several upper level songwriting (SW) and lyric writing (LW) classes. Typically, half of the class time was spent reviewing concepts from LW 1 and SW 1. We were going over material that half of us already knew because we did the homework.

I knew something needed to be done. But it wasn’t until I came back to teach in 2014 that I had the platform to make change happen. And the key to that change is a concept known as “Spaced Learning.”

In 1967, a researcher named Geoffrey Keppel did a study (PDF download) on memory retention, and found out that students who “cram” for a next-day test will only score 36 percent of their test grade when retested a week later.  Students who “space” the same amount of studying over time will score 91 percent of their test grade when retested a week later.

To reiterate: 36 percent for cramming, and a whopping 91 percent for spaced repetition!

I’m sure you’re all thinking “Wow! I should have used spaced repetition for my 12th grade calculus midterm. Then I’d still be able to figure out the acceleration needed to put a rocket on trajectory for Mars!” Right?

Okay, maybe you’re not a rocket scientist. But maybe you are a songwriter. And to help you be an even better songwriter, I took an idea from Pat Pattison’s online Coursera course, and designed weekly quizzes to help students review and self-assess. And the best part? These quizzes would have that 91 percent spaced repetition built in!

Week 1: 10 metaphor questions. Week 2: 10 rhyme scheme questions and five metaphor questions, and so on. Students take the quizzes online, at their leisure, and the computer grades them. Let’s give the students more time to review, and the teachers more time to teach. It’s a win-win!

I patted myself on the back. Then I wondered “How can I actually apply this to the entire curriculum?”

And that’s when the real work began.

I spent weekend after weekend dissecting our core lyric writing curriculum, point by point, diving deeper until I had at once a 30,000 foot perspective, and a molecular-level perspective, of every single topic in every single lyric class we offer.

Watch a time-lapse video of the lyric writing organization process:

Finally, I had to determine which topics could be quizzed. We’re talking about songwriting after all—you can’t create an online quiz for a students’ creativity or passion. But, you can quiz a student’s knowledge of rhyme schemes, metaphors, rhythmic scansion—the fundamental vocabulary needed to excel in Berklee’s lyric writing curriculum.

And now, by the time the student has completed the course, for each topic, they will have:

  • Learned it in a lecture.
  • Applied it to their song.
  • Forgotten it.
  • Taken a quiz.
  • Forgotten it a little less.
  • Applied it to their song.
  • Taken another quiz.
  • Forgotten it a little less.
  • And the cycle continues.

Now, if we educators have done our job right, our students will have a much stronger grasp of the fundamentals—knowledge that will stick with them for years after their graduation, through a long and prosperous career in the music industry.

After all, how much of your crammed-for-in-high-school calculus do you remember?
Probably quite a bit if you’re a rocket scientist.