It’s exciting when a song seems to happen spontaneously and easily; within what seems to be a few minutes, you’ve written something that is, for all intents and purposes, a great song that’s ready for prime time.
As you hopefully know, that’s not the norm. It usually takes a lot longer to write songs, anywhere from a day or two to a year or two. There’s no rule that says the longer it takes to write something, the less likely it is to be successful.
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So putting aside the argument around how long it should take to write a song, I want to describe something related: the benefits of purposely writing a song as quickly as you can.
Speedwriting is hard because all good music needs good structure. We might be able to come up with words, melodies and chords relatively quickly, but structure? That sometimes takes a little longer. Structure involves smooth transitions between sections, giving lyrics a sense of chronology, and pulling melodic fragments together using melodic and rhythmic motifs, etc. That usually takes a bit of work.
There can be some benefits to forcing yourself to write a song quickly, in real time. Mainly:
- There is a sense of creativity that comes forward when you don’t have time to evaluate and critique your process. You might be impressed with what you come up with so quickly.
- You learn how to expand beyond your comfort zone. If you keep using the same word combinations over and over, that’s important to know as a songwriter.
- You very quickly end up with a song that, even if it’s filled with weak moments, can serve as the framework for a better attempt later. In other words, a song that’s thrown together in 3 minutes gives you something useful that you can edit and fix.
There are many ways to speed-write songs, but I think the best way is to just sit with your instrument and start playing with little or no forethought. It’s best if you’ve got a chord progression as a starting point, so if you need, take a few seconds and sketch something quickly.
Then: just start. Imagine that you’ve been asked on the spur of the moment to sing at a local show. You don’t have a song ready, but you don’t want people to know that. So you just start.
Be sure to have a recording device rolling so that you have something you can go back to later on and listen to.
Some tips for spontaneous speedwriting:
- Don’t stop. Keep the flow!
- Repeat melodic ideas. Remember that most good songs use repetition, whether it’s exact or approximate.
- Use nonsense syllables if lyrical ideas are abandoning you. Nonsense syllables have a place in songwriting; many good songwriters will mumble and mutter as words are hard to find. You can fill in the blanks later if the song has possibilities.
Speedwriting allows you to see your musical instincts in action, and the results might surprise you (in a good way!) You might be tempted to always default to a slow tempo because it gives you time to think. But challenge yourself. Each time you try, choose a new tempo, a new key, and a new performance style.
You’ll discover that it’s not easy to do this, and you may wind up with nothing particularly useful for future songs. But forcing creativity in this way is a great mental exercise. No one has to hear your results, but every once in a while you’ll create a gem of a moment that can find its way into a future songwriting attempt.
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