If You Think You Can't Write a Song
I'ma boutta prove you wrong
We have a little river here in Cleveland. It's a little famous, a little infamous. Our river begins off to the east in Geauga County. It flows south and west to Akron. then it turns around and finally heads north into downtown CLE to flow into Lake Erie. It gets around.
The path the Cuyahoga takes may seem roundabout to us humans. But water knows where it's headed: down. And it flows naturally over, under, and around everything in its path until it gets where it's going.
Songwriting is like that.
There is no one way to do it. Even for me from one song to the next, I will use a different solution for a different song, because that is what is needed to get the music created.
Tools of the trade: a phone to record video or audio,
a book to scribble in (In my case I use a music notebook 'cause it helps),
an instrument for reference and for doodling ideas.
Songwright: yes I spelled it correctly, using the old timey word as in Wheelwright, Shipwright, Playwright. Because songs are things which we BUILD.
There is no one way to make a song. No one can lay out a bunch of rules or ideas or inspirations that will work for you, me or anyone else. That's because everyone thinks differently and everyone creates differently. Furthermore, each of us varies in how we do things, day to day, project to project.
To teach songwrighting you have to have done it, a lot. And you have to sense within your student what on earth they are wanting to write - what they need to get out - and help them find their own way over, under, and around all the little barriers between them and their brand new song. Below are some approaches my students have found helpful.
A Quick Game About the Art and Craft of Songwriting
First rule of the game: let go of your preconceptions of what songwriting is.
This is not about writing (insert title of famous song by a brilliant professional you idolize). Every one of your favorite songs is the result of multitudinous hours of work, by far more people than the one or several credited as composers. Your song will not be that. It is currently nonexistent, and you are calling it into being. Like anything it must grow. This must be done by you. Growth is not always pretty.
So. YAY! Pressure is off!! Please feel free to move forward with your desire to create music and feel
Make some ugly stuff. And then craft it - wright it - into something you enjoy.
That will be enough.
Here, try it:
This is simply an experiment in building something out of sound.
- Make a sound. Any sound: play an instrument, sing, sample, grunt, hit the table, stomp your foot, shake a bag of frozen peas. I don't care, just make your sound.
- Pause and reflect. Can you use that sound? Can you imagine it leading to another sound?
Now align your perspective here for a minute: This is not your one and only classic hit for all posterity - this is practice. Was your sound audible? Did it have volume and pitch? Did it have a time duration? (Hint: Yes, is the answer. Any sound has all of these things, by definition.). So the bar is pretty damn low. I just want you to make a noise.
- Revise. Is your sound ok? Do you want to hear this sound again? Cool. Use it. Or if you really can't stand it, or if you just feel like messing around a bit more, go ahead and try another sound, or two, or four. You are creating your sound palette.
- Pause and reflect. Be nice to you; you've begun and that's wonderful. Ask yourself: okay, what comes next? (Hint: you have only three options. Repeat your sound. Change it a bit in some way or other. Make a totally new sound.)
- Choose one of these and do it.
(Hint: try repetition, it is way way more important than you think. Consider how many songs you know that use one riff or one hook the entire song!)
- Pause and reflect. Did your little sequence of two sounds make any sense? any logical progression? Keep in mind that here 'logic' and 'sense' must be use very abstractly, it's not like 2+2=4, it's more like a rhyme or half rhyme makes 'sense'; or a color combination; or how pasta follows a salad.
- Repeat. Do these things once again, maybe even once more. You are now experiencing how we organize sounds into what is commonly referred to as Musical Structure.
You made a sound thing, aka, a song.
Obviously this is all very basic in terms of materials (your sound palette). A song normally uses way more formal musical logic like a meter, repetitive rhythms, a key, a bass line, chords, melody, a standardized song structure, and so on. But building with basic materials lets you in on this fun little fact:
It's not that hard. The concepts are simple. It follows a logical sequence. There are tasks. You can learn them.
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the work of teaching and learning songwriting
I love teaching composition, songwriting, songwrighting, whatever you call it. That little exercise above, it's about playing with patterns. You won't get a pop song out of the experiment, but you very much expressed yourself: problem solving, pattern use, are inlets into making original music. When you tried that exercise you solved it in a way that only you would.
That's it, right there! You are a composer, you have created. Now it's just a matter of increasing the sophistication of your materials and tools.
Creativity is a daily thing. It can be a simple as making a pbj on pita, bagel, tortilla because you're out of bread; or as complex as a full meal planned and made with refined chef techniques.
If you are on this page it's likely because you want to make your own new music. I love that. I've taught music composition to a range of people more vast than you would think;
- Elementary schoolers
- A whole elementary school class all at once
- Children with ADHD, social anxiety and other 'diagnoses'
- College music majors
- Adults of every background and experience level
- Professional musicians
- Seniors who never thought they were creative
You can read and watch many people discussing music, composing, creativity. Most of it sounds to me like guessing. Not much thought put into it. Anyone who says things like "musical creativity and expression can't be taught", what they are really saying is that they can't teach it.
I can teach you.
If you want to learn to be a songwright, you can.