Write A Song With These Ten Weird Tricks
It's all subjective, really
So. I have been away from writing songs for myself for a bit now. I have been mostly writing songs for other people to sing. I’ve also been working on a book. But I am now writing songs for myself again.
It’s been a very long time since I compulsively wrote songs. There was a time when that was my main preoccupation, the thing I would do with every idle minute — or at least that’s my memory of it. Things changed when I was no longer just writing songs to play for myself and my friends. Suddenly I was writing songs for people to hear in concert, to hear on recordings. My relationship with songwriting changed and so did my practice. I started writing in phases, I started writing when new material was needed. Which is not to say that one practice is better than the other — I would’ve burned myself down to a stub if I’d kept up my old songwriting ways.
But here I am, writing songs for myself and my band again, and I’m realizing that there are some things that I’ve learned over the years, in regards to writing songs, and it might be a good thing to put them down — as much for myself as for you.
So these are just tips. Strategies. Exercises. And they may not work for you, but maybe they’ll lead you in a positive direction.
Sleep begets sleep; songs beget songs.
People with children may remember that old saw, “sleep begets sleep.” The more your toddler naps, the more they’ll be likely to sleep through the night. This doesn’t really apply as we get older, but it’s a real thing for the sub-four set. Similarly, you’d be amazed at what happens once you just get a song down on paper. Suddenly the idea of songwriting doesn’t seem so impossible; it seems very doable! It’s happened a lot to me that I’ve felt blocked for one reason or another, and the idea of getting a single song down — let alone more than one — seems like the most impossible thing. You manage to get something down, though, and you stand back and you look at it and you say, “Yeah, I guess that’s a song.” And then suddenly another one arrives — and it’s better than the first. I’m sure this is some kind of psychological thing; I imagine it really comes down to building confidence. But it’s bizarre how it works.
Work under a time constraint.
I’m a very lazy person who doesn’t like schedules particularly, so I don’t know that I use this tip very much anymore. But time was, when I worked a day job, there was this incredible phenomenon where I had maybe fifteen-twenty minutes before I had to leave for work and I would sit down with my guitar to pass the time. And suddenly I would strike on some exciting song idea — some catchy verse and chord progression would just arrive out of the ether and I would have to scramble to get it down before I had to leave. It happened often enough that I don’t think it could be a coincidence. Now, these days, I don’t have places to be that often, and if I do, filling the moments before I leave with idle guitar-strumming is not something I’m particularly inclined to do. But you should try it: next time you have to be somewhere, maybe fifteen minutes prior to your leaving, sit down with your instrument and try to write a song. I think it may have to do with your attentions being elsewhere; something about removing the ritual or the spotlight from a songwriting process that can sometimes free up that creative muscle.
And it is a muscle.
This is something my sister has harped on before, that imagination and creative inspiration is a kind of muscle. It needs exercise. If you are the creative equivalent of a couch potato, don’t expect much when you suddenly decide it’s time to run that marathon. Take small steps and a lot of breaks; don’t pull a hammy. That atrophied muscle will get toned in no time.
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Step away, step away.
Now this, this is something that has become more profound and useful to me as I’ve gotten older. I might’ve thought, at one point, that time away from the guitar was songwriting time lost. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m very aware, these days, about how much work I’m doing while I’m away from my studio, away from the guitar and the notebook page. I’ll sometimes deliberately put something down and step away from it, even if I feel like I could just keep working. You’d be amazed at the things that occur to you while you’re washing dishes. Invariably, the songs, or what fragment you’ve done so far, will be running on repeat in your head. Things half remembered will reconstitute themselves into transformed lines; dead ends will suddenly reveal themselves to be illusory walls. I’ve referred to this practice as “don’t handle the meat too much,” which is kind of gross. During the pandemic, when I was making a daily loaf of sourdough bread, I arrived at a better adage: “don’t knead the dough too much.” Less gross and just as true. Kneading is an essential component of the bread-making process — it develops the gluten structure — but equally important is the dough’s resting time. The challenge is to create the right balance between those parts of the process.
Follow Winnie’s example
From Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne:
One fine day Pooh had stumped up to the top of the Forest to see if his friend Christopher Robin was interested in Bears at all. At breakfast that morning (a simple meal of marmalade spread lightly over a honeycomb or two) he had suddenly thought of a new song. It began like this:
“Sing Ho! for the life of a Bear!”
When he had got as far as this, he scratched his head, and thought to himself “That’s a very good start for a song, but what about the second line?” He tried singing “Ho,” two or three times, but it didn’t seem to help. “Perhaps it would be better,” he thought, “if I sang Hi for the life of a Bear.” So he sang it … but it wasn’t. “Very well, then,” he said, “I shall sing that first line twice, and perhaps if I sing it very quickly, I shall find myself singing the third and fourth lines before I have time to think of them, and that will be a Good Song. Now then:”
Sing Ho! for the life of a Bear!
Sing Ho! for the life of a Bear!
I don’t much mind if it rains or snows,
’Cos I’ve got a lot of honey on my nice new nose,
I don’t much care if it snows or thaws,
’Cos I’ve got a lot of honey on my nice clean paws!
Sing Ho! for a Bear!
Sing Ho! for a Pooh!
And I’ll have a little something in an hour or two!
He was so pleased with this song that he sang it all the way to the top of the Forest, “and if I go on singing it much longer,” he thought, “it will be time for the little something, and then the last line won’t be true.” So he turned it into a hum instead.
Try a different instrument.
Sometimes we get stuck in the patterns that come out of a particular instrument; everything’s sounding the same, nothing new seems to be coming off of the strings. Switching to another instrument can be pretty illuminating. It doesn’t have to be a radically different instrument — no need to seek out a harpsichord if you’ve been composing on a zither or whatever — even the slightest shift can kick out some of the obstacles. Move from a six string guitar to a twelve string; try out an electric guitar. Go to your local used instrument shop; pick up something weird and broken. Write a song on that. Suddenly G, C, and D will feel very different.
If in doubt, just get it out.
Sometimes if I’m feeling really stuck on a song idea and I can’t really determine if it’s any good, I have a tendency to leave it half-finished, hoping that somewhere down the line I’ll have the insight to make it work. But don’t let this hang out for too long. Sometimes it’s best to cut bait and just finish the goddamn thing and get it out of your life. Call it finished and move on. It may be shitty, but shitty songs are important. They provide much needed contrast to the good ones.
Look for patterns. Try things inside out — minor to major, major to minor.
Songs are nothing if not elaborate patterns. They are puzzles and mazes. We humans like organization and echo in our songs, we like end rhymes and repeated choruses and familiar melodies repeated. Find those patterns and tinker with them. What if the chorus was an inversion of the verse? Where is there opportunity to call back to earlier phrases in a different way? If you’re stuck, try switching the key to its relative minor and see what that reveals — or vice versa, minor to major.
Listen to other peoples’ music.
Nothing is done in a vacuum. Listen to other peoples’ music. Listen to old music and new music. Listen with intention; wonder why songs work and don’t work. Wonder what you would do differently. Guess what the next line or melody will be in a song; maybe your version is better. Write that version. Nod and allude to inspirations and influences; walk that fine line between stealing and borrowing. There are no truly unique songs — each song borrows from the ones that came before it, builds on what its predecessors began. If you can’t see what was built before, how do you expect to create anything?
Demo, demo, demo.
Even if it’s a voice memo, get the whole thing down so you can listen to it outside of your own playing. Take some time away from it and return to it — it will undoubtedly sound different, new things will be illuminated. Recordings allow us to look at a song in a 360 degree view; we can hold it up to the light and rotate it slowly, scrutinizing it. Take a drive and listen in your car. Listen to it against other songs — what is surprising about it now? What is rote or expected? What can be changed?
There you have it! Ten weird tips that may or may not help you in your songwriting practice. Feel free to throw in your own tips in the comments. Songwriting is an incredibly personal and subjective thing; everyone’s practice will be different. Good luck!