Songwriting is a fascinating process. Some of the most popular lyrics and melodies were written in minutes. Others, like Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah” have taken closer to five years, and then many years to find an audience. Some songwriters create something in their childhood, look at it again in their adolescence, rework it and revisit it as adults.
It’s a beautiful fusion of art and craft; a process that transforms emotions and stories and experiences into trainwrecks or masterpieces depending on the artist and audience. It can be an independent exploration into the soul of an individual or a collaboration of ideas.
In this blog post, we will explore the creative and technical aspects of songwriting and how you can incorporate some of these techniques into your own practice.
1. Finding Inspiration for Lyrics, Rhythm and Melody
Some songs start with a spark, some need time and patience to take off. There are musicians who need to move into nature or travel to another city to find inspiration. But most seasoned songwriters find inspiration more intrinsically or appreciate that it might take work. Keeping a journal with you at all times and writing ideas as they come and reflecting on them later can really help.
A helpful exercise when it comes to creating lyrics, is to take a very simple item, like a fallen tree branch. Stare at the leaf branch for an hour and write down all the words and ideas that come to mind. Notice the colour, the scent, the detailed lines. Every day for a week, revisit the same tree branch for an hour, notice the changes, and find new words to describe what you see.
Rhythm and melody can be found anywhere, not just in traditional instruments. Close your eyes and listen to the sound in the environment around you. The beeps of a microwave, the whistle of a kettle, the laundry machine rolling. Hold your fingers to your wrist and feel your heart. That heart beat. Start where you are (take your pulse) by beating a steady rhythm, then gradually slow it down to 70 beats per minute or even 60 beats per minute.
2. Start Writing Haikus
A Musical Mentor alumni, brilliant musician, educator and friend, Bob Wiseman, taught me the wisdom of writing haikus as an introductory exercise to writing music. The haiku has a disciplined pattern of five syllables in the first line, then seven, then five and the structure is excellent for giving us a sense of direction in our songwriting. It also teaches us how to say more by saying less.
Read it forwards and then backwards and see which one you like better. We have had amazing success in our JamLab curriculum programs teaching children how to write songs from haikus and our more advanced song writers can use it to help with the writing process when they get stuck.
3. Collaborate with Others
Simon and Garfunkel. Lennon and McCartney. Ashford and Simpson. Some of the greatest songwriters work with partners. You don’t necessarily need to fully collaborate on a piece to benefit from finding other musicians to support your process. By sharing your ideas, opening your mind to the thoughts of others, new ideas might come and serve as launching pads for your creative process. Try to come prepared with some ideas, a riff or an inspired mood. Give positive feedback and be encouraging and let the song flow into something of its own.
By finding inspiration in the environment around us, paying attention to ourselves and others and using some structured exercises, we can all benefit from the therapeutic and creative process of song-writing.