The Art of Songwriting

What every writer can learn from a songwriter’s process

It’s interesting that no matter how much our blog tries to be broad in its scope and appeal, we inevitably end up catering much of our commentary and advice to novelists. This is rather hard to avoid considering most people who call themselves “writers” are those who write novels, short stories, or articles. Poets, lyricists, and even journalists often refer to themselves as artists and so aren’t often seeking advice or commentary from other people including writers. This is of course a generalization and perhaps an unfair one, but my point in writing this post is to argue that the more artistic types have much to learn from the more traditional writer types and vice versa.

Let me start by saying that I am for all intents and purposes on the proverbial fence when it comes to my writing. Mostly because I write more traditionally but also dabble in lyric and songwriting. I don’t ignore the fact that this does in a way bias me and prevent me from seeing both sides through an objective lens… but I’m bringing the more artistic perspective for the purposes of this post anyway, and “objective art” is an oxymoron for the ages (not unlike “jumbo shrimp”).

  The first phase I take to writing a song is what I like to affectionately call “Diddling.” During this phase I sit down at my piano and fumble around chord progressions until I get about 8-12 bars of something that has a good feel to it. This exploration is what some traditional writers don’t do enough. Just sporadic thoughts written on pages that you can circle, expand on, scribble out, or even cut out. I think it is an invaluable process because it is directly linked to the next phase.

The “Word Vomit” phase is probably the most enjoyable phase because it is literally just singing words and phrases that come to mind when listening to my freshly “diddled” chord progression. This is a lot like when I sit down to write a blog post or something that I eventually want to have more of a structure, but I know scares some of my friends who are more traditional in their writing. Just sit down an write. Don’t overthink what’s coming out, have confidence that it’s gonna be great eventually because well… you’re awesome.

The final phase is what I like to call the “Penultimate Cadence” Phase. It is this idea that one brilliant seed propels your ideas forward. I have found that once I’ve diddled and word vomited through the first few bars of my song, the two processes become interconnected and propel me through line and verse and chorus until the song is done. In writing, you can think of the cadence as the end of whatever you’re writing and the “penultimate” portions as those that propel you towards it. Those few ideas create an ease to completing that paragraph, article, or chapter that resembles that intrinsic need to resolve a cadence when you hear a penultimate note or chord. Don’t believe me? Listen to the clip below and tell me you don’t feel like something’s missing and you can’t help but fill it in with your mind.

That’s the power of song writing. Disclaimer: this is my own experience. Some songwriters like to have the entire set of lyrics first, or all the music. I have always been more of a fan of a collaborative approach between the text and the melody, and hopefully this approach helps with you writing, or at the very least getting going with your writing.

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