Sorry, but Songwriting Is Not a Magical Process

Songwriting has been compared to a lot of different things. But the truth is that songwriting is not some kind of magical process. It’s work. It’s hard work. And for the greatest songwriters, a lifetime of hard work.

I’ve often heard songwriters talk about how songs just materialize out of thin air. Some suggest that there is some kind of higher power planting the ideas in their heads and that they are simply conduits or recipients. I call bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe there is a sense of mysticism in all of the arts. I believe there is a spirit, or muse if you will, that might turn the faucet of ideas on and off. But in the end, I think songwriting is hard work. It’s not magical. Songwriting is more like designing and building something architectural.

It’s taken me a lot of years to come to this conclusion.

I’ve been writing songs since I was seven years old. I’ve written more than 1200 songs in my lifetime and a few hundred other pieces of music. There might have been a time when I’d have claimed that there was some kind of magic involved in the process. But let’s consider how a song comes to someone, and the steps it takes to completion.

  1. The idea: Every song has to start with an idea. Where do the ideas come from? Just about anywhere. You might get an idea from a life event, a movie, or even another song. But every idea, in reality, is coming from your conscious or subconscious mind. Those ideas are directly related to everything you do. Your experiences, in essence, build your character, and in turn, your ideas for songs.
  2. The design: Once you have an idea, just as with a building, you must start to design your song. This might include basic themes, rhyme schemes, musical styles, and rhythms. Sometimes, you zip right through this process. Other times it’s more thought out. In either case, it’s not really magic. You have to work.
  3. The foundation: I would argue that there are three parts to the foundation of a good song. First, the story/lyric. Second, the musical treatment. Third, the hook. Again, these things don’t come to you out of thin air. You have to work at them to develop what works well. Sometimes, that is an almost instantaneous process. Other times, there is more development involved.
  4. The structure: This is where it all comes together. I’ve written songs in many different ways. I’ve written words and music at the same time. I’ve written music first and then shaped words around that music. And I’ve written words first and then built the music to fit around the words. I’ve also built songs using digital audio workshops. Without structure, you really don’t have a song. You might, however, have an ambient composition, a poem, or spoken word.

Here’s where the magic really happens.

But Dan, you said there is no magic. I lied. There is.

The magic to creating great songs, or any kind of great artwork for that matter, lies in one’s ability to be an alchemist.

Meriam Webster defines alchemy as:

the medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy whose aims were the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for diseases, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life.

Alchemy requires experimentation. Great songs come from experimentation. Try this note, or that instrument. Use a minor scale here but a major scale there. Mix two instruments or genres that are not often combined. This is where the magic happens. And that takes work.

So from the very start it’s all about building something. Some songs might just be a tent or a fence. Others might be houses, churches, or grand theaters. But a song is built.

The process may be fast. Someone like Joe Henry would say he lets the song come to him. That might be a fast process. On the other hand, Leonard Cohen was known to write dozens of verses to get the best ones. Is there a right way or a wrong way. Not really.

But I find this idea that songs and music magically form through us from a higher power to be either superstitious or pretentious. It’s not magic. There is work involved.

My entire life has been a platform for song ideas. My conscious and subconscious mind develop those ideas. Then I work hard to build and shape each song. And sometimes, I tear them down and start over. That’s songwriting. – dse

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