For many, songwriting is cloaked in mystery. There seem to be certain stereotypes about the people who write songs, and certain preconceptions about the process itself. I’d like to think it is not as complicated as all that, and need not be so mysterious.
One of the most dreaded questions an interviewer can ask me is, “Which comes first, words or music?”
This seems to imply that songwriting is locked into those two approaches. Indeed, many people do write from one of those perspectives or the other, but I think deep down – at least for vocal music – all songwriters have a sense that the two are intertwined.
So my answer to that question is “Both, neither, and it depends.” There’s no correct way to write a song, and I do not usually subscribe to the three-minute rule for song length (even if some of my songs do end up at that mark).
I write (or improvise) much more musical (non-vocal) content, but that is just a function of being a multi-instrumentalist and studio nerd. Sometimes those instrumental elements will trigger a lyric idea, which will be the birth of a song.
Then there’s the topical side of my writing, where I select a subject and decide “I want to write a song about X”. That may or may not involve having a musical concept in mind, except in the case of a blues song or some other genre that may suggest itself at the outset. More likely, I have a verse/chorus structure of lyrics on paper that lends itself to (hopefully) a musical idea in my archives.
Other times, everything comes together at once, just from doodling with the guitar.
Aside from the obvious personal relationships and political happenings, past inspirations for songs include anything from Overhearing a conversation at a Chinese restaurant to movie characters.
Any song that is forced or written about a topic where I lack experience is going to show. I have several songs on the backburner that simply need more research to really come together. I’ve become more interested in crafting songs more carefully as the years have gone by, mostly because I like the process of getting things to work more tightly together, particularly for recording. Occasionally the first idea will be the best, but not always. It helps to take a step back an realize that nothing is sacred.
Tools of the Trade
Pencil, paper, Word processor. I usually go analog with pencil and paper until the idea warrants actually spending time in front of a computer. As much as I use computers, I don’t care for staring at them to write songs. After the song is fleshed out, I’ll type it and perhaps tweak it on screen if needed.
It’s more likely that the song idea will be put to tape/disk before it’s written up. Then I can go back later to pull the chords and words together. Over the years I have used just about every recording medium out there for capturing song ideas…
Pros – portable, easy to use
Cons – batteries need to be charged often, sometimes unclear due to self-noise, limited recording time, labeling/cataloging can take time. Tapes are susceptible to heat damage and deteriorate over time (usually not the best quality tape to start with).
Cassette (2-track & 4-track)
Pros – portable, easy to use
Cons – batteries need to be charged often, sometimes unclear, limited recording time, labeling/cataloging can take time.
I’ve used various digital formats, including DAT, MD and portable voice recorder.
DAT is nice, but though digital, it’s still linear, like cassette tape. So archiving/labeling stuff can take more time. MD is a big mistake for anyone who wants to be sure they don’t lose anything (see my Sony article elsewhere). Voice recorders can be very good, but you have to look for ones that take standard media, are easy to use (not too big or small) and have a decent interface and battery life.
These days, I am moving to WAV format for everything as it is the most reliable in terms of archiving ability and transition to other formats or platforms.
Next installment: More thoughts on inspiration. For now, see my YouTube video, The Birth of a Song.
If you are unable to find a teacher in your area (or even if you can), and you want to expand your mastery of guitar, then I highly recommend the videos that Stefan Grossman puts out on his Guitar Videos web site. There’s also a YouTube component if you want to get started right away or test drive this learning technique.
Mr. Grossman’s teaching style is easy going, firm and encouraging, without being too academic.
The Songwriter’s Chord Book is a wonderful resource if you are looking for an idea generator for chord progressions.
An innovative tool to get alternate tunings and put yourself in experimental territory to come up with new ideas.