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For composers, it’s an amazing feeling when you imagine all or most of a song all at once. You just pick up your guitar to do a little harmless noodling, and bang… great ideas suddenly appear in your mind and under your fingers, and within minutes you’ve got most of a great song worked out and practically ready.
That doesn’t happen a lot, and you shouldn’t worry if most of your music is the result of hard work over days, weeks, or even months. In fact, that’s the norm in the songwriting world. You may imagine a great hook, but getting the rest of the song happening usually takes work. In songwriters’ terms, “work” usually means “time.” It also means many other ideas tossed out, and very few kept until you’ve got the completed song.
Because “instant songwriting”is rare and exciting, it gets a lot of attention when it happens that way. And it sounds so magical to be able to say that you’ve written a song in less than a half hour. So it can make you nervous that a complete song might (and usually does) take considerably longer to write.
I think speedwriting is a great songwriter’s tool, because it forces your creative mind to get to work, and it also means that your instincts will take over a bit. But you can do even better: combine speedwriting with analytical ability. The best metaphor for this is to think of your musical mind as a kind of conveyor belt.
If speedwriting means thinking of musical ideas on an unstoppable conveyor belt, your analytical ability equates to your ability to stop that conveyor belt and closely examine the ideas you’ve created.
For successful songwriters, the first “unstoppable conveyor belt” step happens with experience. The more music you listen to, the more songwriters you speak with, and the broader your past musical experience, the more your musical brain will have been guided, shaped and honed to create unique musical ideas.
The second “stop the conveyor belt” step happens with your own analytical abilities. Analytical ability comes from all the things listed above that shapes your experience, but it also involves other things, chiefly your understanding of how and why good music works: the nuts and bolts, so to speak.
Knowing why good music works allows you to look at your own music with a good measure of objectivity, allowing you to make modifications to the music based on that understanding. Analytical ability develops every time you read a songwriting text, read an interview with a songwriter, read up on a bit of music theory, and so on. Every one of those experiences increases the likelihood that you’ll be able to listen to your own music with an objective ear.
Every composer will find their own way to combine speedwriting with analytical ability. Here’s one way to do it:
- Get your instrument out and try writing a song as quickly as you can. Work out the lyric, create a chord progression and melody, and try to do the whole thing in ten minutes or less. (Or try the insane method described in this post.)
- Put that song aside, and work out a second song within 15-30 minutes of the song you just created. The difference with this one: choose a new tempo, new key, and preferably a new performing style. Make it as different from the first one as you can.
- If you’re up for it, create a 3rd song. As before, choose a new tempo, new key, etc.
What you’ll have if you’re incredibly lucky is one song that really sounds great, and two others that have lots of problems. What you’ll have if you’re normal is three songs that don’t necessarily work yet, but have some great ideas.
Now it’s time to put your analytical abilities to work. Sit down and start giving the songs you’ve created a good listen. Listen objectively. Toss out what doesn’t work, and fix up bits that can be fixed. Work on one song at a time, or move from song to song if that’s a comfortable way of working for you.
And don’t be surprised if this kind of process takes time. You may work out the skeletal structure of a song in minutes, but it can take weeks or longer to get a final product.
This way of combining speedwriting with analysis produces great music, as great as your imagination combined with analytical skill can muster.
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