I was asked today in an interview about my writing process. Hmm, I said, trying to look studious or something. Let me think about that. Well first I research, then I write, then I edit vigorously. So simple, I wonder if it was the answer they were looking for.
This got me thinking about a certain kind of writing I love; songwriting. There must be a million ways to write a song, I thought. I am hesitant to tell someone how to compose music. I do not believe there is a “right way.” I think if everyone stuck to the same formula we would have pop songs that all sound the exact same (oh wait that is happening right now on the radio as we speak). Songs become formulaic and rigid if everyone adheres to the same code of conduct that has been scientifically tested to sell records.
So my first piece of advice is to break from the mold.
Perhaps we need a new song structure – different from verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge. One of my favorite rappers often does not write a chorus. In his words he says he “can’t force it.” If you have a different method for telling a story, and it sounds good, or authentic, or original, or fills the listeners ears with something new and exciting, then go for it.
Think about all the forms of music and how they started from something else.
We are constantly building and creating new ways of communicating emotions through sound. I mean look how many sub genres have spawned from the blues. Some waspy neo-nazis still think rap is not music and what I say to them is…nothing. They have every right to not listen. I wouldn’t call them my friends, but in America if you don’t like a sound then change the dial and as long as you don’t complain then it’s all good. “Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.” Remember that Youngbloodz joint? And when Lil John sang the hook on every song? I digress.
Let’s get back to creating music. Here is a short list to get the creative juices flowing on your next project.
- Immerse yourself in a style different from your own
- I have been listening to a lot of James Brown lately. What is Mr. Brown known for? Soul. A whole lot of it. The man was seriously dripping with the blues and R&B. I looked at the kinds of chords that he used in his songs and noticed a lot of 7th notes. I had never written a song using only 7th notes before. When I tried it something beautiful came out. Something I didn’t know I had in me about a woman who works late nights just to keep on the lights. Sometimes, a sound different from your own can bring out a freshness. “Like if you put a welder to designing dresses.” – George Saunders
- Find an artist you would love to sound like
- For me it’s Gregory Alan Isakov. I think I could just learn all his songs and play them in public and make a career out of covering his stuff. His style is amazing. His voice is amazing; soft and subtle yet engaging. Get a feel for how they put words together, what kind of chords they use and repeat frequently, what kind of tuning they’re in, and the like.
- Jam with people
- This might sound cliché, but you have to play with other people and learn from them. Other players and singers have something to offer you; something new. I was really scared of playing with other people when I first started on guitar. I was afraid that I would bring people down and render them incapable of jamming. Don’t be me, be bold. Do it with grace and a thick skin. If you are a guitar player play the drums in a jam session, you might learn something new about rhythm and song dynamics. Never be afraid to mess up or fail.
- Read and write poetry
- Songs are not the only place from which I draw inspiration. I read and write a lot of spoken word poetry and short stories. I am always amazed at how frequently an idea from a poem, or just one line, births a new song. I wrote an article once about a girl who committed suicide. A line from the article about the swirling colors of the porch lamp attached to an empty house turned into an eerie and haunting song that I love to play. Also, don’t be afraid to write about difficult or hard situations.
- Start with the chords
- Honestly, this is how I start most songs; with the chords. I mess around on my guitar until I find something I like. Then I ask myself if the whole song could keep to a similar pattern or if the chords should change with each section of the song. It’s good to mix it up and not get bogged down by one method.
- Find a key that you like and look up chords patterns within that key. Johnny Cash wrote in the key of E a lot (think Folsom Prison Blues). A “I – IV – V” progression in the key of “E” would be E followed by A followed by B. It’s all just a fancy way of saying that these chords sound good together. A “I – VI – IV – V” progression in “E” would be E followed by C#m followed by A followed by B.
- Start with the lyrics
- For a while, I didn’t think I could write the lyrics first because I had started with the chords every other time I wrote a song. Sometimes changing your approach can yield a creative result. My old boss always used to say, “A change of pace, plus a change of place, equals a change of perspective.” I think this applies to song writing too.
- Be a good listener
- Brilliant lines to a song can come from anywhere. From your mom calling to check up on you, from a conversation overheard between a teenager and a police officer, from a passionate sermon or speech. Other people are always crafting words – sometimes thought out for months in advance, sometimes spur of the moment in a fit of anger. Notice what people are saying around you and see if it strikes a match in your mind.
- Play in public
- Over the last few months, I played an open mic once a week. I got to know the people I was playing with and got used to performing in front of people. The more I did it, the better I got. The more confident I got. You start to learn what songs resonate with people and how they react to your music.
- I have also played in the subway in New York City. Be careful though, in some places, you can face a fine for playing in an “unwanted area.” I think this is one the best venues to test your music. People are running from one subway to the next; so busy. So, if they stop and listen to your music, you must be doing something right. Play your heart out for the walls if no one stops to hear you. Also play in parks. It’s relaxing and people might stop and sing with you.