Here’s a little essay I wrote about songwriting some time ago but it still holds true today … it was published on the US Music website Middle Tennessee Music
Songwriting is a different art it is writing, story-telling, poetry, even journalism, then it all gets colored up with music. Or if it is done in reverse a musical painting is done then written all over with language. You can’t paint a short story neither can you verbalize a water color.
Songwriting is unique in that way and again unique in that each artist does it in an individual manner. There is no Songwriting 101, oh there are books, articles, websites, classes, seminars, conferences and “how to” advice galore but not one of those can tell you how to write a great song, there are a few reasons for this;
- There are no facts in music just opinions so one man’s great song is another woman’s eh… not so good.
- No instructor can explain to you how to see inside your heart, mind, soul, intimate feelings or perceptions of the world around you.
- None but another songwriter can explain the frustration of the lost chord or the missing lyric …and they can’t explain it either they can only bear witness to it.
- There are no lessons, classes or exercises in finding inspiration.
There is of course a gap, an artistic line between commercial production and art. A five gallon plastic bucket formed by a plastic extrusion machine can come in all shapes, sizes and colors but it can hardly be compared to a hand-crafted pottery bowl or a fine marble sculpture. The same can be said in the art of songwriting, commercial assembly line pop with a catchy repeated hook or your commercial country fare of beer, bars and jilted women are like “plastic buckets” produced by machines.
There are rooms full of pop catch phrase composers like so many jingle ad writers assembling pop songs while the new world of A&R is all about finding a “marketable product” … talent can be created in the studio. Nashville is awash with people sitting at desks writing the “next big country hit” over and over and over.
Songwriting in its true art form requires three things, some understanding of music theory, a deep grasp of the language one chooses to write in and inspiration. The first two can be learned the third must be felt.
There is an oft touted songwriting methodology called “song a day” it demands that one sit down and write a song every day. I suspect the general outcome of this is three hundred and sixty three bits of wasted time and paper and maybe one good song. It would seem that one would be better served seeking inspiration for that one good song when it comes along…and using the rest of the time in a more productive pursuit.
Ask the greatest of songwriters “how do you write a great song” and the prevailing answer will be “I don’t know”. Neil Young once said when asked “I don’t know but when you find out will you tell me”. They can tell you why, who, what, where and when but few will venture in to “how”.
I myself don’t think about it, in my younger days I attempted to strain out a song…a fruitless waste of time. As I got older the three vital components began to gel and mingle, I just left the door open and songs were delivered. I prefer not to delve in to the mystery of, from where they come, and just relish in the fact that they do. I am just a conduit, a delivery system as it were.
Songwriting like all art is a delivery mechanism, there is no sense in delivering an empty package, it is meaningless to both the sender and the receiver. Find the inspiration, tell the story make the point, apply the appropriate color and brush strokes and deliver with care and passion. Songwriting is so simple in its essence…but not so much in its practice.