Songwriting and Great Expectations

It’s not hard to get completely bogged down in the songwriting process. How familiar is this to you:

  • You come up with an idea or two for a melody, you put them together… sounds good.
  • You improvise a new idea to stretch the original one a bit, but that doesn’t work.
  • So you keep at it, but you don’t feel happy with anything you’re writing.
  • Within a minute or two, you’re bogged down and you’re out in the kitchen making a cup of coffee.
  • You dread going back to your guitar because you feel that you’re not going to be successful — not today anyway. But you go back and have another go at it.
  • You succeed in adding some chords to your melody, but you’re just not excited by what today’s session is providing.
  • You write some more, but you toss what you’ve written because you don’t like it.
  • So you stop for the day. You’ve got a short melody with some chords to show for your session today.

Does that scenario sound familiar to you?

Approaching Writing From a More Positive Angle

That way of writing that I’ve just described has a very obvious downside: You don’t tackle the job with any particular expectation of what the outcome could or should be. With every step, your evaluative process slows you down and eventually stops you in your tracks.

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So here’s a different way to look at a writing session, and it has far fewer steps:

  • You determine that you’re going to write a song today from start to finish, and you’re not going to get bogged down with wondering if what you’ve written is “good enough.”

That’s pretty much it. You sit down, knowing that when you’re finished a few minutes to an hour or so later, you’ll have a complete, new song to show for your efforts.

The thing that gets you bogged down, as in the first scenario at the top of this article, is that you spend (waste) a lot of time assessing your ideas, and throwing out bits you think don’t sound very good.

So if instead you suppress your need to critique everything you write, you wind up with a song in pretty short order. It may not be a very good one yet (and likely won’t be) but you’ve at least got something written down.

So why is this at all better? For a few reasons:

  1. You’ve got a song that you can then critique, assess, and otherwise fix. (It’s hard to fix a blank page of paper.)
  2. You’ve got the benefit of the shot of inspiration that comes from the fact that you actually got something done. You’ll find that you’ll focus on the fact that you finished something, and not so much on how good (or not) it is.
  3. You’ve been able to take advantage of your sense of musical spontaneity. That’s practically impossible to do if your inner critic is always having something to say about every line of music you write.

So here’s the thing: writing quickly, with a pre-determination that you’re not going to stop until you’re finished, means you likely won’t have the song of your dreams in front of you by the end of that session. It’s going to take some time after writing this way in order to polish it up, edit things, change words, choose different chords, etc., before you’ve got that song the way you want it.

I call this the “Great Expectations” method of writing, because unless you expect great things when you’re songwriting, anything great is a random occurrence. And random just isn’t going to work in the creative arts.

The greatest songs written almost always need reworking and editing in order to make them great, no matter what the composer of it tells you about how quickly it all came together.

But getting that first step done — the actual words and chords along with a melody — speeds everything up. And as I’ve said many times on this blog before: you can’t edit a blank page.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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