Written by Gary Ewer (Follow Gary on Twitter)
It stands to reason that if you want to make great leaps in the fields of science, medicine, psychology or geology, you have to study those topics. A plumber is not going to be the one to finally figure out dark matter (at least, not that dark matter). Not unless that plumber is also a researching physicist.
For every great scientist, medical doctor, psychologist or geologist comes years of study and practical application. We don’t often use the words “talent” or “instinct” when we talk about those disciplines, but they are essential. Study gets you to the front of the class, but an initial set of instincts and talent is a crucial part of the formula for success.
Every great person in a specific field of study needs talent and instincts for the discipline. Your brain needs to be, as it were, hardwired to be a doctor. That hardwiring is determined partly by genetics (intelligence, an aptitude for study, etc.), and by environment. Doctors are more likely to come from families where being a doctor is revered.
But even in those cases — and this is the point — we don’t often use the word talent when talking about a doctor’s abilities, even though talent is a very important element. And when we do speak of a doctor’s talent or instinct, we would never assume that their talents are all that is necessary to succeed.
Talent without training in any of the scientific fields would be silly to contemplate. Even plumbers can learn their trade by simply apprenticing. But that, it can be well argued, is study of the most practical kind. I’ve seen enough plumbers, both good and bad, to know that the good ones have instincts, talent, and training.
And now to songwriting. And a simple question. WHY do so many songwriters put such a large emphasis on the value of instinct, and so little on the value of study and training?
Why is it that there are still songwriters who think that if a song doesn’t come together instinctively that it has missed its chance to be great? And why do so many songwriters throw out unfinished songs as failures, when those bits could be great works in progress?
There can be no denying that there is great excitement when a song comes together within minutes. It seems magical… meant to be! But that kind of spontaneous creation is rare, and as far as the audience is concerned, irrelevant. When was the last time you heard a song on the radio and asked yourself, “Wow, great song… I wonder how long it took to write?”
Exactly. You don’t.
If you don’t study songwriting, you could like the doctor, lawyer, or plumber who thinks they can do the job without training. Some do it for sleazy reasons, but others try to do it because they’ve got an instinct for it, and they think that’s all they need. They’re wrong, of course, and sometimes tragically so.
Studying songwriting does not require you to enroll in a university or college program, though such programs will usually be a bonus for your writing skills. Studying songwriting means doing some or all of the following:
- Read about the structure of music. Get your hands on any books that show you how and why music works, why good melodies, chords and lyrics are good, and how formal design is vital to a song’s success. It’s the theory of songwriting, and you’ve got to learn it.
- Read songwriter biographies and autobiographies. Let experienced writers explain what was going on in their head when they wrote their songs. Learn from the masters.
- Analyze good songs as a way of understanding why they work. If you don’t know how you might do this, read this article.
- Follow good songwriters on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites. You’ll pick up small tidbits of info that you won’t find otherwise. You can get a hint of the kind of music they listen to, the music that has influenced them.
- Talk to other songwriters. Ask questions about how they solve typical problems such as songwriter’s block, lack of initiative, and so on.
- Get involved in songwriters circles. Play your music for others, and take constructive criticism in the spirit in which it is intended. You will find that most experienced and successful songwriters love songwriting as an art form, and they can be an extraordinary source of valuable information.
And probably most importantly, never assume that talent alone is enough to propel your songwriting career forward. It usually isn’t. And if it takes you several months to get a song to the state that you’re finally proud of, that’s several months well spent.
Songwriters’ instincts are valuable and vital, but that’s only the beginning of the story. And if you take those instincts and use them as a launchpad for really studying your craft, it’s going to be an exciting and wonderful story.
Written by Gary Ewer.
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