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Songwriting As a Problem-Solving Activity

It’s easy to see songwriting as a kind of problem-solving activity. The problem? Well, coming up with a finished song of course. And every decision you make – in a sense, every problem you solve – moves you closer to the end product: a completed song.

But this kind of activity differs from most other problem-solving activities in the sense that the entire process is the fun part. We supposedly enjoy writing music. We hopefully look back on the entire process as having been rewarding, fulfilling, something positive, and something we’d do again.

When we think of songwriting as a problem-solving activity, there is an important difference between that and some other kind of problem-solving activity, like perhaps solving a mathematics problem: with songwriting, there’s no correct answer. Musical answers are simply what we come up with at any one given time. Every time we write a song, we come up with new ideas, new approaches, and new results.

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And now we’re getting to the biggest problem we have as composers of music: the inability to “see” (hear) the end result before it arrives. Like a mathematician looking for the answer, we don’t know what the finished song might sound like, because it hasn’t been written yet. Every time you start your next song, you’re peering into a foggy abyss. Writing the song is like clearing out the fog until you can clearly see the song in its final finished state.

Two different songwriters might have the same kind of song in mind, but no two songwriters will come up with the same end product as a solution. They’ll both come up with different processes that result in two completely different songs.

Here’s a set of tips that can help make sure that songwriting remains a fun, rewarding problem-solving activity:

  1. Try to identify as much about the finished song as you can, before you dive into the process. That’s going to help speed up the songwriting process and minimize bouts of writer’s block. So even as you generate those first hooky bits that will go together to form your song, get a sense of structural things like formal design (will there be verses, choruses, bridges… that sort of thing); time signaturetempokey, and so on. Also, what kind of groove or feel do you imagine this song will have? These are decisions that might change along the way, but getting them sorted early on, even if just temporarily, helps define the steps you need to take to get writing.
  2. Problem-solving can cause frustration, so take breaks. You’ll know when it it’s time to take a break, because you’ll feel the frustrations beginning to rise. As you find yourself tossing out as many ideas as you’re creating, you’ll benefit from clearing your head and staying relaxed. Don’t let frustration build to the point where the writing process feels unsatisfying or stifling.
  3. Keep several songs on the go. Because every song is different, you can minimize writer’s block by switching from one song to another. Some songwriters can juggle as many as four or five songs at the same time.
  4. Avoid starting consecutive songs the same way. Because every song is different, you must assume that the steps that lead to finishing it will be different as well, with different solutions along the way. So don’t write every song to be in verse-chorus-bridge format. Don’t write every song to be in 4/4 time, at a quick 126 bpm, and always in the key of G. Starting two songs the same way makes it difficult to come up with something unique.
  5. THINK like a problem-solver. At any point along the journey of writing a song, you should be able to identify the problem (“I’m trying to finish this verse melody;”), identify the specific issue of the moment (“I’m trying to build some musical energy to match the start of the chorus;”), and then apply some of the principles you’ve learned about songwriting (“I need to find a way to move this melody higher.”)

By treating songwriting as a kind of problem to be solved, you can make more efficient use of your time. It also allows you to put the solutions you’ve found into a kind of mental vault, solutions that you might borrow and modify for your next song.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

chordsfirst_smGary’s most recent eBook, “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression, is now available. 

It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle”.


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One Comment

  1. Interesting post. Similarly, I like to approach songwriting like doing or solving a puzzle. Like doing a jigsaw puzzle, writing a song requires fiddling with bits and pieces and finding ways to fit them together. But unlike a jigsaw, which has existing pieces and even a picture on the box to guide you, songwriting is much more amorphous. As you note, there’s no one way to fit the musical/lyrical pieces together, and in many ways you’re inventing the pieces as you go. But there are stronger and weaker ways to make the pieces work together.

    Bottom line, I totally agree that the process should be fun and rewarding. Even when songwriting is frustrating and the ideas don’t flow, there’s nothing like seeing a song come together in real time, recording it, and then listening back to its latest iteration.

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