One man’s view of the process of songwriting
There must be hundreds of different ways to write a song and I’ve read a number of books and watched a number of videos and attended a number of seminars on songwriting and will probably continue to do so. I’m always interested in how other folks approach the art and “craft” of songwriting. The way I see it approaches to songwriting sit upon something like a “spectrum” of sorts. At one end you have people that take a very disciplined, almost scientific approach while other end of the spectrum others approach songwriting in such a philosophical way, they treat it nearly like a form of spirituality. And all of this is valid and correct for the people that espouse each approach. This is because there is no “right” (or, for that matter, “wrong”) way to write a song. This is because songwriting beyond a certain point is really an extension of the mind and life experience of the songwriter.
For me, songwriting is first and foremost about music and groove, predictably composed on an acoustic guitar. I experiment with different keys, different tunings, capos (both full, partial and combinations of multiples) until I find a riff of musical idea that I find pleasing enough to expand upon. I then play that musical idea over and over again all the while asking myself (or even others if they are present) “What does this musical phrase suggest to you?” Or “What emotion does this reflect?” From that I develop preliminary melodic ideas that complement the groove being created that can support lyrics. I must confess that a number of the melodic ideas I’ve created became so intricate that they became instrumentals instead of songs.
Once I have the musical idea firmly enough embedded in my mind, I will turn to a list of hooks and song titles (metaphors, really) that I have compiled and update regularly to see if one of them might fit the groove of the musical idea. From there, it becomes a matter “filling out” the metaphor with lyrics.
One thing I have learned is that a song worth singing in public is one that has been allowed to “gestate” or age in the manner of a fine wine. And there is no rushing it, not if you want the song to be one that comes from your heart and not merely something “nicely commercial” in nature. The songs I am most proud of are those that combine my natural tendency for musical intricacy and elegance with lyrics that are true for me, reflect my viewpoint in its truist form, and that “fit” my voice. And that process just takes time to edit, re-write and finalize and tweak.
I believe that in the final analysis, singer/songwriters must approach songwriting as an intimate process which is why many of us do our songwriting in isolation. In some ways, this isolation is unfortunate because the point of “performable” songs is to create something that a listener can relate to on his or her personal level. So it would only make sense that the song be created with regular feedback. But like the canvas painter, the songwriter will not expose his or her song until “fully formed”. Also, it takes a certain level of “egolessness” to do something like this because of the intimacy of the songwriting process for many, including myself. So the struggle continues.
Yes, there are different ways to write a song. For some it takes 10 minutes and for others 10 years and each are equally valid because they are a reflection of that songwriter’s mind and spirit and everyone is a little different. This is my process and it generally works for me.
Food for thought
Yours in DADGAD