On Songwriting

I was talking to one of my guitar-playing coworkers about music and he asked me about how I find inspiration to write. I told him it’s both way easier than he might think, and also much harder than he might think.

Partly, it just takes time. Thomas Edison is famously quoted as saying that he never failed when perfecting the lightbulb; he learned things that didn’t work.

One of my favorite songwriters is Dan Wilson, of Semisonic fame. In an interview he did on the SodaJerker podcast, he talked about how he will go a month or six weeks and make himself write a song every day. Not a long song or a complicated song. Just a song about something anything. At first, it’s a little intimidating, but the point of it is just do it. Along the way you might end up with one or two songs you actually like and keep, but you may also end up with snippets or ideas you hold on to and rework later.

A more condensed version of this process is the 24 HR Records video series, in which they get three to five musicians to volunteer to lock themselves in a studio for 24 hours and write and record three songs. I totally suggest checking that out.

When I start songwriting, I find it’s easiest to pick one sentence that is the essence of some conversation I had that day or some clever turn of phrase, then I repeat it (quietly) to myself until the repetition starts to turn my natural speech pattern into a melody and basic rhythm. It sounds more complicated than it really is. Children do this all the time. One benefit of doing it this way is that it’s easy for you to sing, since it’s based on your natural speech pattern; it’s not too high or too low, and (usually) the words aren’t misparsed (like you might imagine William Shatner does). Step two is coming up with something that rhymes with the first sentence or phrase. Step three is figuring out what chords fit with your melody, and even that is optional.

And there you go. You have a song. Sure you might want to add to it, but if you start with the essence of what your song to be about, you don’t really need any more. If you want to add more complex elements to your songs, I recommend checking out the Composer Quest podcast. It seems like every episode has great stuff and at least one or two practical takeaways.

I don’t do well with unlimited possibilities. My creativity works best under constraints. In the past, I’ve taken musical ideas, like the ones discussed in Composer Quest, and tried writing a whole song around that one idea. Or writing a song based on a genre I haven’t tried before, or movie style. It focuses my efforts.

Those are some of the insights I have into writing. Of course there are others. Mason Williams writes melodies based on words (each letter changes the pitch/rhythm), which I’ve tried and think works best for instrumental pieces.

Of course, writing a song is only 1/3 of the process. Step two is learning your song well enough to record it (where you can cut and splice). Step three is learning your song well enough to play it in front of other people. Part of it is confidence, and having other musicians play with me helps me feel not so exposed. But part of it is practice; putting in the time to perfect what you’ve written. That’s the subject for another blog post, but here’s something to get you started:

Feel free to post what tactics, tips or tricks you use when songwriting – or any podcasts or interviews that inspire/direct your writing – down in the comments section.

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