Guitarist - Singer - Songwriter

How Pretending Can Help Your Songwriting Process

I’ve seen a quote online, attributed to James Taylor, that goes, “I started being a songwriter pretending I could do it, and it turned out I could.”

It’s worth thinking about that statement, because there’s a positive aspect to it, pertaining to one’s basic zeal for songwriting: “If I just dive in, acting as if I know what I’m doing, it often works out..”

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There’s also a negative side, pertaining to the notion of being a “pretender” in the world of the creative arts: “I wonder if anyone else notices that I don’t really have a clue what I’m doing?”

You need to stop worrying about the negative aspect of “being a pretender,” because in a sense, everyone is a pretender in the arts. When writing a new song, no one knows what direction it’s ultimately going to take.

So as writers, we all play the role of being a kind of artistic guide, allowing songs to move in whatever direction seems best. If you haven’t thought of it this way before, be assured: there’s a lot of “pretending” that we know what we’re doing as that process works itself out.

James Taylor’s observation that he’s a pretender, though, I think pertains more to his basic zeal — his energy and desire — to get something written. And it’s amazing how powerful and how useful that drive can be.

The Positive Power of Pretending

It also points to a mindset that I think you’ll find useful, and it goes something like this: As you sit down to write your next song, try to make the assumption that it already exists, and that you’re simply getting something committed to paper, or recorded.

It’s something I do practically every time I write. I just assume that I’ve already written it, and that I’m simply getting it down on paper. Thinking that way has several benefits:

  1. It speeds up my writing process.
  2. It makes me feel artistically excited.
  3. It helps keep writer’s block at bay.

Here’s how that might work for you. Turn on a digital recorder, and then:

  1. Work out a 2- or 3- chord progression, with an accompanying rhythmic groove.
  2. Start singing or humming a complete melody that goes along with your chords. This can sound a bit messy, but keep going!
  3. Try not to immediately correct what you’ve done. Don’t over-analyze, and don’t evaluate as you go. Just sing.
  4. As you get to the end of your melody, try going back and re-singing what you just sang. You’ll find that you’ll automatically start correcting bad moments.

Getting this far into the process should take you 1 or 2 minutes. If it’s taking you longer, you’re spending too long. Remember, you’ve got to get your mind in a place where you’re pretending that the song has already been written, and you’re just recording it.

This is a kind of stream-of-consciousness writing, and it takes a lot of energy and trust in your own musical abilities. What you wind up with, at least most of the time, is part of a song that sounds… not so good.

But that’s just the start. From there, you begin to apply your musicianship, changing, editing, fixing what you’ve just written. As I’ve mentioned on this blog many times before, it’s impossible to fix silence. If you’ve written nothing, you’ve got nothing to fix.

If you’ve never tried this sort of speed-writing before, I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by how effective it can be to get something written quickly. Your next step, of course, will be to get lyrics working, so if you can, you might also throw in words as part of this speed-writing process.

Remember, don’t get discouraged if your first melodic ramblings aren’t up to your usual standards. Use what you’ve just created as a starting point, and within a day you’ll have something close to a completed song.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. Hi Gary,

    I think you touch on something pretty profound here when you talk about pretending that a song exists before you write it. As a person who is interested in quantum physics and philosophy (specifically Buddhist philosophy and the notion of interdependence) I think that our division of time into past, present, and future is just an illusion, as Einstein once said. If they all do coexist with one another then it might be the case that every song we will write has already been written and it’s just a case of channeling into whatever it is that we channel ourselves into to capture it. In that sense music (and creativity itself) is one of those beautiful mysteries of life because it’s difficult to argue that it’s all either internally produced (meaning all of our creative ideas are generated in the brain) or all externally produced, and just fed to our minds. It seems to be a combination of the two in my opinion, and the balance of the internal factors and external factors is different with each song we write. It’s no wonder music is considered one of the Divine arts in India and other eastern cultures.

    I could go on and on about this but it would be beyond the scope of this article. I just thought it would be worth mentioning my thoughts on this because I remember you wrote article about the importance of thinking about music on a more abstract and philosophical level.

    It could therefore be the case that when we pretend a song exists before we write it that we are in fact acknowledging it’s existence before we perceive it’s existence, regardless of how long it takes before it reaches it’s state of completion.

    I’ll leave a link to an article about more on this subject for anyone who’s interested, although I must say that I don’t agree with the writer’s summary at the end, where he says that past, present and future all exist at once, because this implies that they are fixed or set in stone, whereas another implication of the research in the field of quantum physics is that there seems to be an element of randomness to the universe, or at least an element of randomness on a quantum level (which interestingly is an idea that Einstein could not accept as he famously said that “God does not play dice with the universe”). The Buddhist notion that everything is interdependent I think solves this problem as it implies that the past, present and future affect each other without being set in stone.

    Here is a link to the article:

    And for the sake of clarity I’m also leaving a link to an article about the Einstein quote because it can easily be misinterpreted

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