I’ve been enjoying a wonderful little book called Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. In the book, Kleon points out that no work of art is truly original; all great artists are referencing those who have come before.
As I was reading, every page made me think about my own songwriting process. My next thought was: I really want to share this with YOU.
Stealing like a songwriter means…
Suggesting that someone “steal” sounds pretty awful. But no one here is suggesting that you actually crib someone else’s test answers or intellectual property.
I’m also NOT suggesting that you be anything less than your creative, authentic, wonderful Self. David Bowie used to refer to himself as a “a tasteful thief” and in an interview with Cameron Crowe he boasted, “The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.” I don’t think anyone could call David Bowie unoriginal.
What does “stealing like a songwriter” mean, then? It means using your knowledge, experience, intuition and, yes, really good taste to choose which techniques and ideas in someone else’s song you want to use as a foundation or inspiration for something new and different in songs of your own.
Stealing like a songwriter, doesn’t necessarily make creative work any easier. But you can use it to point the way forward or show you a star to reach for.
You might be “stealing” even when you think you’re not.
When we write our own songs, often we unconsciously lean on the melodic or lyric style we embedded when we were younger. People recall the songs that were popular when they were in their teens more easily, and with more emotional attachment, than music they hear at other stages of life. I’ve always assumed it was a matter of listening more intensely during those years, or associating the strong emotions of youth with those songs.
But science is finding more and different reasons why these songs stay with us throughout our lives. Oliver Sacks, Daniel Levitin, and Anthony Storr all have excellent books that deal with music and the brain. If you’d like a Cliff notes version, check out Mark Joseph Stern’s online article in Slate Magazine Neural Nostalgia: Why Do We Love the Music We Heard as Teenagers?
What we’re really doing, without realizing it, is “stealing” from songs lodged in memory, using the rhythm, melody patterns, and lyric language that feels most accessible and emotionally natural for us.
There’s nothing really wrong with this. As Austin Kleon writes: “All creative work builds on what came before. ” But drawing solely on what you’ve already heard can limit your choices and lock you into repetitive habits. Once you understand what’s going on, you can choose to build your songwriting on a broader base by making a conscious effort to embed a range of song styles – some new, some old – to create something uniquely your own.
That’s why, if you’re a teenager, you don’t have to work too hard at sounding contemporary. If you’re older than 25, you do.
IT WILL SAVE TIME: There’s a difference between being original (which is good) and reinventing the wheel (which is not so good). No single lifetime is long enough to rediscover all the elements of song craft and all the ways to apply them that have been refined by songwriters ever since the troubadours. In other words: If someone already invented the wheel, don’t re-invent it. Steal it and invent the wheelbarrow!
YOU CAN LEARN FASTER: A blues guitar player starts out by learning licks from great blues players who have gone before. This is the quickest way to master this skill. Then the player can adapt the licks to his or her own style.
The same goes for songwriting. You can study hit songs that do something you like, learn the technique by singing and playing the song, then adapt it to a song of your own. It’s the quickest way to pick up a new songwriting skill.
YOU’LL FIND SOLUTIONS TO PROBLEMS: Studying the work of others can help you discover new ways to solve old problems. You don’t have to keep writing that same tired transition once you hear other ways to do it. Steal and adapt.
YOU’LL STAY FRESH: One of the best ways to keep your songwriting exciting is to be inspired by other people’s ideas. Check out what listeners are into on the music charts. Find out what your local college radio station is playing. Get out to a live concert or go to a club. Go anywhere you can hear new music. Challenge yourself to hear, understand, and study new ideas.
How to steal like a songwriter
1. STUDY SUCCESSFUL SONGS YOU LIKE
- Look for songs that excite you.
- Look for songs that make you say, “How did the songwriter create that effect?”
- Look for songs that connect with listeners you want to reach.
2. CHOOSE A HIT SONG AND LEARN TO SING IT
- If you play an instrument, learn to play and sing it. (Chords are online.)
- If you don’t play an instrument, clap or tap a steady beat as you sing it.
3. LOOK FOR THE USEFUL BITS
- Notice something about the melody, lyric, vocal, or production that you might try.
- What is the song structure? How can you tell ?
- What is the lyric about? How is it developed and expressed?
- How does the chorus lyric convey what the singer feels?
- What are the melody patterns in the verse? In the chorus?
- How does the instrumental arrangement change between sections?
- How does the singer make the vocal expressive and interesting?
- Above all, what is the songwriter doing that makes you like this song so much?
Keep any creative ideas that come out of these sessions. Record your ideas and put them in a file you can easily flip through. Write down your lyric ideas in a notebook and keep them handy. Using these ideas as a springboard, write a song of your own. Don’t copy the original; adapt the ideas. Write a song that could be on the same album.
Two steps forward and one step back
It can be hard to change a habitual way of writing melodies, lyrics, chords, or singing a vocal. Keep a list of the songs and artists you study. When you find yourself slipping back into old habits (and we all do), go back and play one or two of these songs. It’s a quick reminder and an easy way to reinforce those new skills.
Can you still be authentic and original?
It’s impossible not to ask the obvious question: If I let myself be influenced by someone else, won’t I end up sounding like them? In the beginning, you might, especially if you’ve only studied one artist or band. So don’t stop there. Embed more artists, more techniques, more ideas.
Austin Kleon calls this a “genealogy of ideas.” Although you are basically a collection of genes from your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, those genes, when mixed together, become a unique person that is YOU. The same holds true for musical “genes.”
Who did you inherit your musical genes from? Take a moment to write down a list artists or songwriters who have influenced you.
Unlike your real ancestors, the cool thing about your musical genealogy is you can choose who is in it! Don’t let your musical family tree become static. Keep adding new songs and artists. Keep it growing. Keep taking, adapting, learning, and building. Keep stealing like a songwriter.
by Robin Frederick