Whenever anyone asks me how long it takes for the average song to be written, I usually tell them that it takes as long as it takes. That’s my way of saying that there is no norm. A song might come together in fifteen minutes, and it might take weeks or even months or more.
The speed with which you’re able to write a song has practically nothing to do with how good it winds up being. Sometimes we think that if a song happens quickly, there’s something magical going on, and that kind of song is going to be amazing.
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But songs are only good if all the elements act as powerful partners for each other. That can happen with a song written quickly (Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, which apparently only took him a few minutes to get the basic form) or it can a long time (like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, which took him five years.)
Regardless, there is something to be said for speeding up your songwriting process, which is something slightly different from simply writing quickly. Sometimes, your process can get stuck, or at least slowed down, because you can’t think of the right word for the lyric at that moment, or the best chord happens to be eluding you.
In those cases, there are things you can do to speed up your songwriting process, if only for the reason that it keeps the flow of ideas moving. So if you find yourself constantly getting creatively stuck as you try to work out a song, consider these ideas:
- Use nonsense syllables. If the best word for a given moment in your song is not happening, sing anything (“doo-bee-doo…” “la-la-la…”) that allows you to keep your songwriting process flowing. You can do this with entire verses or even your chorus. (“September” (Earth Wind & Fire) uses the chorus lyric “Ba-dee-ya”, intended originally only as placeholder lyrics, but eventually kept.)
- Worry about the best chord later. Can’t think of the best chord? Throw in any chord that happens to work with your melody, and take some time once your creative flow as slowed down to then consider a better one.
- Improvise melodic ideas for miscellaneous sections. If you’ve got half your verse written, but not sure what to do next, improvise something melodic that can get you from the written part that you do have, to the chorus. Sing it through several times, and change your improv if it’s not working for you. Just that act of moving from the verse to the chorus several will often allow ideas to solidify and establish themselves.
Regarding that “Ba-dee-ya” lyric in “September”, co-writer Allee Willis has said, “I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from [Maurice White], which was never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.”
And I’d expand that thought and say, “Never let anything get in the way of the groove, or in the way of your process.” You may need a better word, but it’s never worth it to stop your process while writing to find that word.
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