How I Write Songs

This year, 2011, has been the year of songwriting for me. Despite a crazy life, and busy work, I managed to get out over two dozen songs during those "in-between" moments we all have throughout the week. I've figured out a few things that are helping me write more music than I ever have before, and I thought this would be worthwhile to share on the site, especially if you are interested in the process another artist uses. I'm sure it will evolve over time, but this is what works for me now and it has become a habit.

1. I keep a notebook handy literally that can fit into my pocket. I carry it around everywhere. Dollar General has plenty of $1 pocket notebooks. What's handy is that the spiral bound books can neatly hide a pen or pencil. I use a red tip felt pen.

2. I add something to it every day. Sometimes I'll drop in a date at the top of the page. This usually starts with a series of words. For example, I might notice the dust on the counter top. I'll write dust on a counter top in the notebook. That's it. I may or may not close my notebook at that time. But it may lead to other words or images. If so, I'll keep adding. But at this point I am not really thinking of it being a song, or a part of a song even. It's something maybe I can explore with more words at some point in the future. Plenty of pages end up orphans. That's totally fine!

3. When I see a concept for a song forming -- that is, I have a story to tell (and I think all good songs are short stories, really), I scratch down as much as possible WITHOUT filtering myself. One recent example I'll share: Last week I saw the phrase Wizard of Oz on the Internet. I immediately wrote down the following words: "Behind the curtain, hidden eyes / graying skin, human time" which ended up becoming the first part of a song about the Wizard himself. I didn't finish the entire song right then and there, but I knew there was something I could do with it, and end up telling the story in a way that I think is interesting. 

4. I think about the music later almost all of the time. Sometimes I'll use my iPhone to tap out a melody if I don't have a guitar or piano handy, once I have some words to guide me. I enjoy the process of emphasizing the words with music interpretation. If I have a chord progression or melody that comes to me after writing some phrases, I'll definitely put them in the notebook as well.

5. After I have the start of what I think may be a song, I type it all in to a computer, double space it, and then sit down with an instrument and create some music. Usually this results in lots of revision. My trusty red felt marker then comes to play and writes in notes about chords and melody, etc. on the paper. I then put this all back into an electronic document and then I print out a "final" copy.

6. I play it several times to myself and then find a place to play it in front of other people. The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago has great songwriting classes, and this is one place where I worked through a lot of material this year. And this is also where I learned in practice that the key to making really great songs is the ability to completely be willing to rewrite and throw away something I've fallen in love with. 

7. After that I make a demo recording of the song to file away. Hand-held MP3 recorders are perfect for this. It is just a way to archive something I've created, so I can keep on creating and not just get stuck thinking about once song forever perhaps concerned that I'll forget how it goes.

Final comments...I've used this sequence of steps to produce many songs this year. A handful of them will end up being good songs, and the rest will just be learning experiences, and sometimes disappointing failures. But each one of those weak songs will lead, eventually, and perhaps very indirectly, to a new song. And since I keep writing, in some form or other, every day, I know I will get some really great things (at least great to me!) now and then. 

In summary, I write songs using stubborn persistence largely enabled by a pocket notebook I carry with me at all times. That's how I write songs.

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