I’ve been lately spending a lot of time trying to write songs to “satisfy” my interview goal. Here’s a basic summary of my process with some relevant samples to a song I’m currently working on:
- Play around on the guitar until I have a few ideas.
- Imagine some melodies that go on top of the guitar ideas that were created in step 1.
- Write lyrics to go along with the melodies that were created in step 2.
Everything after that comes down to arranging and orchestration.
It’s a pretty traditional process used by many people. And although it’s the only real “process” I have, out of the dozen or two songs I’ve written in my life so far, only a minority have been written this way, but it’s still the largest portion. The rest was written mostly on the back of moments of inspiration and luck over the course of years. I choose “the process” more often than not these days because I don’t want to wait around years to write a song. And I think a song has better cohesion when it is conceived and written entirely around the same time.
That’s easier said than done, however. To write like this, you have to trust your intuition, and for whatever reason, it’s always been hard to trust my intuition. I guess I’ve always thought that my intuition wasn’t developed enough or sophisticated enough to use it like that. But at this point in my life — at the age of 29 — I feel way too old to think that way. Most of the people I look up to artistically had already made their greatest creations way before this age.
I’m starting with trying to be less judgemental about the music that I create. When I was in college studying music, there was an implicit order that one should try to be as original as possible. While I still think originality is up there in importance, if I personally think about it too much, it’s too stifling; I may never create anything at all.
I approach songwriting like meditation. During meditation, I try to focus on allowing my natural random thoughts to be acknowledged non-judgementally. Similarly, I try not to criticize a musical idea when I think of one. Whereas I used to often reject it because it was “too simple,” “too weird,” or “not original enough,” I now spend a bit of time humoring the idea — working out complimentary parts/sections/melodies/etc.
At the end of the day, the initial idea of a song is only a small part of it. If a room full of songwriters were given the same small musical idea, no matter how simple, they would all come up with a different song.
Writing music is a practice where lots of problems must be solved. Problems like: You have one bar of music, but how do you make the second? Will there be other ideas? Other sections? Is there a form? What’s the form? Who’s performing it? Who’s singing it? What are they singing? How does it end? Etc. “How” a songwriter answers these questions / solves these problems is their “style.” More specifically, one’s education and training molds their intuition, this intuition informs their decision making, and those decision-making processes is what makes their style.
At least that’s the way I see it. I could be full of shit.
Most of what I feel is essential to making good songs comes from listening to and reading about Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan, and Dave Matthews. The main takeaways from each are:
- Cobain: great melodies with sincere lyrics
- Corgan: superior dynamics, form, and song order
- Matthews: engaging acoustic guitar accompaniment and general joyfulness
Composing pieces vs. writing songs
Although I studied classical music composition in college, I prefer writing simple songs these days. Songs are easier to write, more manageable to produce, and ultimately allow me to express myself to a higher degree.
A song form is traditionally simpler than other forms of music. The length is shorter, and there is a lot more repetition in the melody, harmony, and rhythm than say a Beethoven Symphony. This means that songs are easier to conceive and flesh out. The whole thing can “fit in memory” so-to-speak.
I find songs are also easier to produce. Because there is a lot more repetition, you don’t usually have to make much of a score. You can easily remember the whole thing or write it down on a napkin. Also, art music is historically practiced and recorded live, whereas a song is generally recorded one track at a time in a DAW. The latter is infinitely more forgiving.
Finally, mostly because there are words involved, I can express myself better through a song. I’ve always felt like I had something to say, but writing a piece for solo piano or string quartet doesn’t really allow me to say it. I used to carry a notebook and write experimental poems every day in high school. Although I slowed down quite a bit in college, I stopped doing that completely when my backpack got stolen on the Venice beach in March 2013. I lost a lot of material that afternoon. I never got that upset over it, though; it was all trash, to be honest. For better or worse, these days I just write on-demand.
In other news, it’s hard to believe it’s already December. While I’m close to hitting my blog post goal (52 posts in a year), I’m still a little behind. I’ll probably sneak a few random posts here in there about whatever.
We are really pushing hard in Sizable-land to make this last album. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we should be done by the end of the year.