Zen and the art of songwriting
I was just thinking today that being able to write songs mostly depends on knowing how to get into a certain state of mind. Maybe that's obvious, but I don't know, for some reason I was thinking about it today. I was struggling with the music for a song that I already re-wrote a couple of times but it still didn't sound right. Sometimes you lose perspective, and you keep changing things and changing them back and it seems like you're getting nowhere. How do you know if something sounds good or not?
Songwriting, like many other things, is mostly subjective. Yes there are rules that you should generally follow to avoid sounding horrible. Follow the simple traditions for keys and chords and scales and you can avoid unpleasant dissonance. Although of course you can still easily fall into the horror of sounding boring.
That subjective part of it, which is most of it, can't be reasoned with. If I think "WHY doesn't this sound right?" I will never get an answer. It has to come from intuition, and you have to be able to turn on intuition when you need it.
The way I deal with this is to always have a lot of different songs I'm working on, and when I get frustrated with one, switch to another. But sometimes that doesn't work either. But it's better than getting stuck on one and not letting go of it. That happened to me last week and I just would not let go, and finally I thought it sounded good. Then this week I realized it doesn't sound good. I just thought it did, last week, because I spent all that time and WANTED to think it sounded good.
But today I worked on one that was driving me nuts. I like the words, but I didn't like the music. I kept changing things and hours went by, and then finally it started to sound good to me. I wasn't just kidding myself, like last week, I don't think. I recorded it and then went and did something else and half listened. That helps me get distance and perspective. And I liked how it sounded. Somehow I had been able to get into the right state of mind.
All of this can also be applied to archery.
Archery? You have many strings to your bow. 🙂
I don't know if there is a way to make yourself get into that state of mind you mention. I can go weeks without having an idea worth developing into a song. That's when I take a break or tinker with existing recordings. I'm not a believer (for me, at least) of churning out songs in the hope that one might somehow turn out to be good. On the other hand, I suppose I'm always writing songs in a way, in that melodies come to me all the time as I go about my day, sometimes with words. It's just that most of them don't seem worth inflicting on the world. Then sometimes, something will come to me in a flash that seems worth pursuing. I've even woken up with an idea and by the time I got out of bed had most of a song written in my head.
I totally get your point about how songwriting is subjective. Sometimes something just sounds good or works, not because of any "rules." There's a lyricist on another forum we both frequent who is such a stickler for the "rules" that he judges others' work entirely on how closely they stick to them, rarely even listening to hear how music and words work together. There is more than one way to write a song and sticking rigidly to a formula can produce results that are slick and polished, but dull. Sometimes you just gotta let it flow 🙂
I may or may not be an enigma
I think we feel similarly about songwriting. I have always heard parts of songs, all my life, but didn't have time to write most of them, when I was working. So I ignored them and they were forgotten. Since I stopped working, I am more likely to write the songs I hear. But I agree with you -- not all of them are worth spending time on. If a song keeps insisting on coming to me, then I figure it wants to be written, so I spend time on it. Very often, I only get parts of a song -- I make a text file for each of these, and I have hundreds of files with partial songs. Then if I hear more of that song, I add to the file. I keep adding to it until it has a lot of lyrics, and then weed them out and just keep the ones I like best.
I don't feel inspired to write songs all of the time either. But I am always trying to learn and memorize the ones I already wrote, and reviewing the ones I already memorized. Sometimes while singing already finished songs, I get more ideas for new ones.
And if I feel very uninspired or unsure, I spend time listening to famous songwriters I like. I also listen to the songwriters I know, at the open mics, or in facebook songwriter groups. It can be very inspiring to hear something I really like, and I can try to figure out why I like it.
Yes I agree -- following rules is not the way to write good songs. However, breaking too many rules can result in very bad songs. For example, when lyrics don't rhyme I always suspect it was because the writer was being lazy. Rhyming is one of the hardest parts of writing lyrics, but it is definitely worth it. When it comes to music, you have to follow some basic rules or it will sound like chaos. But simply following the rules results in bland muzak, not interesting at all. So there is some magic ingredient that I don't understand (maybe I will someday but I don't now) that makes music beautiful and interesting.
Those things that just sound great can almost certainly be broken down into mathematical formulae, but to good songwriters, certain combinations of notes just come instinctively and slightly differently, just as everyone's accent sounds a bit different, which could lead onto a whole other discussion about why some songs sound better in a particular accent 🙂
Rhyming for me is one of the most fun parts of songwriting. It seems to be looked down upon by many these days. You hear things like, "Don't use perfect rhymes. It feels amateur. Use near rhymes." I think that shows a disconnect from the preferences of actual listeners rather than songwriting fashion leaders. People love rhymes that actually rhyme. In fact, the more rhymes and the more ingenious or playful they are the better for some types of songs. The patterns trigger a pleasure response. That's why rhyme was invented in the first place.
I may or may not be an enigma
I don't see how math could create great music. If it could, then computer generated music could sound great, but it can't. Music has to not sound like anything else, but it still has to sound somewhat familiar. It needs the right amount of predictability and unpredictability. I am sure there is no way to program a computer for that (or for great literature, or great artwork). These things have to come from inspiration, from somewhere not in this world. Computers are just complicated tools, they have no ability to create, none whatsoever (I was a computer programmer when I was working, so I know how stupid they really are).
Yes I agree rhyming is important, it helps to give a song its structure. It also makes it easier to remember the words, and that might have been the original reason for rhyming. I used to belong to a songwriter forum where some of them thought it was more cool to not rhyme. But more likely they were just being lazy. Most poets don't rhyme anymore, I'm not sure why. But for songs, I think it is really necessary. I don't try to do any fancy rhymes though.
One other thing I decided about songwriting, several years ago, was to write as many songs as I can, because that increases the odds of writing something good. So I don't set the bar too high, at least for the lyrics. I care about the lyrics, but I think I care more about the music. And I NEVER start out thinking about what I want the song to "say." A lot of songwriters I know seem to think every song must have a message that is straightforward and understandable, and I definitely do not agree. It actually bothers me when songs are too straightforward and literal. And I had been criticized at that forum when my lyrics weren't perfectly "logical." For example, one verse says I am mad at him, then another verse says he kicked me out. Well isn't it possible for both to be true? Or sometimes I say "he" and other times "you." Well why not, the perspective should be able to shift. It isn't an essay for English class, it's more like a movie or a dream.
At a Pickin' Party, where each person gets to play a Song, then the next person in the circle gets to play one, etc., John Biggs, a very talented musician, mused that he hadn't written anything in a while, and opined that it was "...because I haven't been 'In The Zone'."
The Zone might be what I call The Creative Flow. It's that mode of mental state where you're enjoying creating. You're hearing something creative from your guitar, and a Line of Lyric comes to you.
That's my modus operandi; that first Line that intrigues me as to what the Singer-Character might be talking about.
"I got the word from Delacroix,
She'd be waitin' in New Orleans."
"I'm goin' back, to New Orleans.
My folk need, my helpin' hand."
"Back To New Orleans".
"There is no reason, for breaking up."
"Hey Long Gone".
"Mama don't you tell me what to do."
"Mama Don't Tell Me".
"I wrote your Number On The Wall,
beside the phone so I could call you."
"Number On The Wall".
Each of those first Lines 'hooked' me, hooked my interest. I wanted to know what the Singer-Character, the guy in the Song, was talking about. It sounded like there was more to the story, so I was entertained and kept playing and letting words come, ad lib, without knowing what the story would be by the end. The Creative Flow was not interrupted. |
I didn't know what THE Hook, the title, the main idea would be. It came when it was 'time' for it to come, when 'Enough' exposition of the storyline had been done and it was 'time' to get to that main idea, time to get to the Chorus, that Change of dynamics that breaks the Repetition, satisfying my sense of 'freshness', avoiding monotony.
An aspect of 'Enough' is 'Too Much', and another aspect is 'Not Enough'. I begin to sense that, to make that evaluation, that 'Enough/Not Enough/Too Much' has been accomplished and it is 'time'. Enough Lyrical exposition to set the scene, and now it is time to make the main point of telling that story. How much Chorus is 'Enough'? Is it succinct and specific Enough to serve its function? And now, is it 'time' to do more exposition in another Verse? Can Verse II advance the story, Lyrically, match the Melody from Verse I, and lead logically, Lyrically, back to Repeat the Chorus?
Can I go to a Verse III, logically, coherently in a storyline? Or am I frustrated in conceiving what the guy's story is? Sometimes I can get this far in and not quite 'get' the story. It may need to 'incubate' a bit more, for my imagination to catch up, for the Singer-Character and the Love-Interest Character or the Other-Man/Other-Woman Character, the 'Conflict' to occur to me.
That frustration is when it changes from fun, interesting, to not-fun, and not-fun isn't interesting. One can struggle there, and even force the Lyric forward, Rhyming, Repeating Melody and Rhythm. But that 'product' is likely to be weak. I've admitted I don't 'get' it, so fabricating something is likely to produce a weak product.
When I wrote "Take It For A Ride" I set myself up with a task. That first Line of inspiration was Rhythmically and in Rhyme, complex.
"Baby, maybe, it's just a passin' blue, but I love you more, than ever before, tonight."
For Verse II I had to Repeat that Rhythm and Rhyme-Scheme. I struggled with it. I took it from the top, played it again, sang it again, and came up to the end of Verse I again and again, unable to go on to Verse II.
I switched off, like you said Polly, and started another Song, "Leavin' You". Similar chords, same chords, but a different Rhythm and Rhyme and Storyline.
"Get out of the way! I'm goin' home!
That's what she said, and now she's gone!"
Wow! The Singer-Character is quoting the Love-Interest Character, telling the listener the story.
I was hooked! I wanted to know what she was mad about! What did this fool do to get himself left there alone with nothing better to do than to tell the audience about it?
"Leavin' You" bogged down in a bit, and I went back to "Take It For A Ride". With the Creative Flow still entertaining me, I got a Verse II.
"Darlin', don't you, let it hurt your pretty head.
You know you can bet, that I won't forget, tonight!"
It bogged down again, but rather than quit or suffer frustration, I went back to "Leavin' You", keeping the Creative Flow going.
You should be hooked the same way you hope other people will be hooked when they hear the Song. You, as the Song-Writer, are the first listener.
If you get bored, they probably will too. If you perceive a dull story, they will too, probably. If you don't 'get' it, they probably won't either.
If there's Not Enough or Too Much, and you perceive it, they will too. If it's right, if there's Enough, you should perceive that, and can be confident they will too.
Regarding math, music can be mathematically expressed, taken out of 'execution' and written on the printed page, whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, durations in time. And composers can study that and perceive reasons for designing those durations to accomplish effects. But Songs are more from the intuition, as you say Polly, the heart, the soul, the persona, the personality, the character of the Singer-Character. It may be you. You may have experiences that inspire Songs of a very personal nature. Or it can be that imagined Character, pulled out of the Creative Flow, given words to sing, a story to tell.
As for Rhyme, let him/her tell the story and the Rhyme is there, guaranteed, or your money back! When searching for a Rhyme there are 'Grab-A-Rhymes', 'insane' being a common one, 'What can I say?' being another. If you end a Rhyme Line with 'heart', there aren't many Rhymes for it.
If you search, run through the alphabet, looking for a Rhyme-Word, you can find them, but then you must assess the concept of that word. Does that concept fit the Storyline? Does it advance the Story? Sometimes you find a good one that bends the arc of the story in just the right direction to take it forward, or bring it to a satisfactory ending, a denouement'. Rhyme helps you hit the beat, makes it memorable, memorizable. Nursery Rhymes Rhyme for a reason; children, with limited vocabulary, 'get' the Rhyme sound, even if they don't know the word meanings. A child can sing "Jingle Bells" without knowing what 'bells on bobtails ring' means. More mature listeners know what the words mean, 'get' what the words convey explicitly or imply, implicitly.
But it sure is fun! As long as you keep the Creative Flow going, and stay entertained; you, the first listener.
Despite 1,000's of years of Songwriting humans have not exhausted the possibilities. There will always be another Song to be written. Someone will write it. Why not you? www.garyeandrews.com