I’m always curious about how other songwriters approach their craft. Maybe they’ve got some clever tricks I could use. Or maybe I’d just like to be reassured that we all do things basically the same way, that I’m not out on some weird, lonely trail all by myself.
So a while ago, I started asking other songwriters the question: “When do you write songs?” I got a wide range of answers – some expected, some not.
The “happy accident” approach
The largest number of songwriters basically said: “I write when I feel inspired.” No surprise there. When an idea hits you that’s obviously a good time to write.
Many said they try to write at least one day per week. Pro songwriters write more often than that, usually every day. Even if you don’t have gobs of time to spend on your songs, you can do something related to your songwriting every couple of days. Here are some ideas…
- Learn the chord progression of a recent hit song.
- Listen to a few of the songs on the current music charts at Billboard.com.
- Notice one melody, chord, or lyric technique you could use in a song of your own.
- Write down a few potential lyric lines.
- Create a title from a news headline or conversation.
- Hum a melody and record it. Spend a little time developing it.
It’s all songwriting. Keep it in the back of your mind as you go to work or school. Just that little bit of awareness is enough keep the creative switch in the ON position.
Time of day
Many creative people prefer to work late at night when things are quiet. The confidence of knowing they won’t be interrupted gives them a sense of release and encourages creative thought. I find late nights are good for relaxing and opening up to new ideas but hard for developing them. The development and rewriting processes take a lot of effort and energy. So, for me, mornings and afternoons are better for that. But take whatever you can get!
If you have a job, then evenings may be the only chance you have to write. Try watching fewer TV shows to give yourself more time to write. Do take-out for dinner to avoid cooking and clean up time. Choose one or two nights per week to give yourself the gift of songwriting. Just be sure it’s not a night when your favorite show is on. The temptation may be too strong. 😉
Make use of ALL the time available: A lot of writers get ideas while driving in the car, cleaning house, at work or school, or taking a walk. When your conscious mind is engaged in familiar, repetitive tasks, it sometimes allows inspiration from a deeper level to bubble up. Keep a notebook handy or a cell phone with memo recording to capture these ideas. Then you’ll have something to start with when you finally grab an hour or two of concentrated work.
On the other hand, if you’ve got some songwriting time available but you’re fresh out of ideas, try a few of these song starters to get you going.
Certain seasons of the year can be inspiring. Singer-songwriter James Lee Stanley says he finds the fall and early spring are the most creative songwriting times for him. I’ve talked with others who feel that the winter months force them to fall back on their own creative resources and they get more songwriting done.
In general, a change in the air seems to open up emotions and memories. Every season has its own beauty and emotional feel. There are summer romances, winter sorrows, and the chilly coziness of fall. Seasons have always been associated with emotions. Let them speak to you and suggest song ideas.
Songwriters are moms and dads, too
Songwriters with children have to come up with creative solutions. Everyone I spoke to agreed that once the kids are old enough to be in school, then you can get an hour or two of focused writing in during the morning or early afternoon. But errands, friends, and phone calls can quickly eat up that time. Try to set aside a couple mornings a week dedicated to songwriting. Schedule errands, appointments, and visits on other days. Your songwriting time is valuable and in short supply so you may need to make an extra effort to protect it.
One writer lets his kids contribute ideas and phrases that he turns into songs just for them. Then he encourages them to go off and write their own songs, stories, and cartoons. It doesn’t buy him a whole lot of time but as the kids get older they have an understanding of what creative work means, and maybe they’ll give Mom or Dad a little more space.
Writing on demand
My favorite answer came from Michael Leahy who says he writes “after I get the phone call.” In case you’re not familiar with this famous quote: When asked which came first, the words or the music, Academy Award-winning songwriter Sammy Cahn answered “Neither. The phone call.”
A songwriter with a successful career is one who can write on demand whether the demand is for a TV show theme song, a radio hit for a Country superstar, a song for a friend’s wedding, or five new songs for the EP your fans are waiting for. You want to be able to sit down and write a song when you feel like it and, more importantly, when you don’t feel like it.
Practice writing on demand.
Here are a few ideas:
1. The TAXI listings are a great resource for current industry projects. You don’t have to be a TAXI member to read the listings. (You do have to be a member to submit to them.) Choose a listing in a genre you want to write in and go for it. Use the referenced artists as a guide for style, production, and mix.
2. Pick a successful, contemporary artist whose style is similar to yours and write a song you would pitch to that artist.
3. Stream or rent a movie or TV show. Choose an emotional scene and watch it a few times. Then write a song that could be used as “song-score” under that scene. You don’t need a fully produced recording. Guitar/vocal or piano/vocal will work just fine. Play your recording softly under the scene to see if it enhances the emotional effect. You can find a list of current TV shows and the songs used in them at www.Tunefind.com.
Keep a little corner of your mind dedicated to songwriting and it’ll become easier to find the right time to write. The right time could be any time! 🙂
by Robin Frederick
This post is based on my songwriting books: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.