- Constraints make you more creative.
- Learning the melody on an instrument other than voice is surprisingly helpful
- Writing for volume instead of quality paradoxically leads to higher quality.
- The same volume approach also allows you to stay in creation mode instead of derailing into editing mode, which makes it easier to finish a draft in the first session.
In the past few weeks I’ve made what feels like a breakthrough with songwriting. I’ve always had a fairly easy time coming up with musical bits on the guitar that were appealing to me, but it would take me FOREVER to write the lyrics, I’d never quite be satisfied with the song, or I’d pass that duty off to some one else. “Time to market” has always been way too long for me.
But recently I’ve written two of the best songs of my life (and finished a third that I’ve been trying to write for three years) with none of the hair-pulling, self doubt, or disappointment in the finished product.
And I think I now have a duplicatable process for doing that each time.
Here’s What Changed
I was driving home, and a bit of a melody, coupled to a few words, popped into my head. I turned off the radio and started riffing on some words and fleshing out the melody. When I got home, I sat with my guitar and wrote one verse with decent lyrics and a chorus with subpar lyrics. I liked the melody though, and picked it out on guitar.
I brought it to band practice the next day, and the guys immediately expressed interest in it. I told them I didn’t love any of the lyrics so much that I’d be sad to lose them in the final edit, but that I thought the melody and the rhyme scheme were worth keeping.
So we set out writing, using the melody and AAAB CCCB scheme from my dummy lyrics. Three of us sat with our respective notebooks, furiously scribbling lyrics that would fit those constraints. Dave suggested writing more lyrics than we’d use, keeping the best ones while at the same time waiting to see what narrative would emerge.
In the end, we wrote roughly twice as many lyrics as we ultimately used, and stumbled onto a really dark, almost biblical theme for our chorus by cobbling together some of each guy’s lines. It was a revelation for all of us.
- Writing with constraints paradoxically made us more creative.
- Writing more than we planned to use shifted us away from the protective mindset that oftentimes accompanies the act of creation.
- Learning to play the melody on an instrument (and not just voice) made the parameters/constraints from #1 more concrete. It also informed our choice of melody notes––ie. when we’d play a chord from outside the key, we’d at least try using the outside note(s) there.
It Happens Again
Then not a week later, I was at my parents’ house when inspiration struck again. This time, I had a few words with a melody. I went into a spare room with my guitar and started grinding away at the tune. This time, I used what I’d learned from the previous tune:
Figure out the melody on both guitar and voice. In this instance, I wrote the chords and the melody at the same time. I found the chord that went with my first few notes, and slowly picked out where the melody and chords were leading me. This took nearly an hour of scat singing something, finding where that melody was on guitar, picking out the chord that went with it, getting a feel for which chord should come next, extending the melody out just a little bit further, and on and on.
Writing for quantity led to better quality. Once I had the melody solidified, I sat with my notebook and wrote way more lyrics than the tune required. Something about knowing that half of what you’re writing will be discarded frees you up to write more, and eventually better. I didn’t get bogged down trying to rewrite a mediocre verse; I just started a new one. And frequently I’d go back and poach the best line from an earlier verse and put it in a much better setting.
I finished the first draft before quitting. I wrote enough material to boil down into one solid song before stopping to take a break. A few hours later in the day, I pulled the notebook out again and within 30 minutes I’d revised a few things and called it a day. Having the editing phase be completely separate preserved my momentum in the creation phase.
This, one of my fastest-written tunes, is easily on par with my best ever. Though I’d now done it twice, in both solo and group settings, I still needed to know it wasn’t a fluke. So I pulled out a tune that I’d started writing three years ago which, after a dozen-plus attempts to finish it, still refused to be tamed.
Taming The Beast
I had 30 minutes to spare before my next lesson, so I ducked into a coffee shop with notebook and pen and got to work. I went over what I’d written so far (two verses and two distinct choruses) and almost immediately I could see my biggest problem: not enough constraint. While I was happy with the two verses I’d written, they didn’t quite follow the same melody. Rather, they emphasized a few key notes on the same strong beats.
I did my best to map out the bits that lined up between the two, and began riffing around those. 30 minutes and one cup of coffee later, I’d finished the song that had been eluding me for three whole years.
So to recap:
- Writing within the constraints of a set melody, form or rhyme scheme makes me more creative.
- Writing for volume improves quality.
- Staying in creation mode (and resisting the urge to go back and edit) is far easier when I know that half of what I’m writing will end up on the cutting room floor.
- Learning/writing the melody on my guitar and voice made for a better melody and a stronger sense of what to do when writing lyrics.
I’m going to test this further. I’ve tried it with top-down (melody first), bottom-up (chords first) and center out (both at the same time), but only within rather standard forms. Some other ways I plan to try this:
- Beginning with someone else’s song, writing lyrics to their melody, then turning it over to a friend (or not) to write new music to. If I bring it to a friend, I of course won’t tell them what the original was. edit: Did this. Incredibly painless writing. Fast too. I seriously doubt anyone could identify the song I piggybacked on.
- I’ll be writing with my friends’ band. In contrast to my own stuff, theirs is full of unconventional song forms, odd time signatures, shape-shifting textures and jam sections. Should be a good challenge. edit: That fizzled out before any writing got done. But I’ve been writing with some other folks and this method seems to be well-received. further edit: a couple of years passed, but that band called me a week ago with an mostly-recorded song that needed melody & words. I wrote several melodies before settling on one, then the lyrics came fairly quickly.
- I’ll be ruthlessly attacking the collection of musical ideas I have growing in my iPhoto. For years I’ve been taking video of little guitar & ukulele bits I’ve come up with, or vocal melodies that have occurred to me while driving. There’s a whole lot of material to work with there. edit: Mostly I’ve been writing brand new stuff, but there’s been a massive (positive) change in the way I feel about songwriting.