Written by Aaron J. Shay and originally posted on his Medium.com profile. Reposted here with kind permission.
Music requires life. You have to put your breath into the mouthpiece. You have to put your fingers to the strings. Music requires life in order to be fully expressed. After all is said and done with the composing and the writing, it must then be played. Life must be added to the mixture.
I’ve been writing stories since I was 10, writing songs since 16, and writing good songs only within the past few years. I have studied the craft theoretically as well as practically, discussed it with many artists both like-minded and dissimilar. I’d like to share some perspective from my low perch on the mountain of artistic success, to describe what little I can see of the landscape. This essay is the first volley of ideas.
You are going to write trash. So will I.
But before we get in too deep, let me tell you that I have never found anything in songwriting that could be called a “rule,” any sort of fixed instruction that holds true over all music that can reliably describe it’s quality. When you consider how vast the spectrum of songwriting and composing stretches, from folk songs to experimental orchestral pieces, from the warm, droning erhu to the distorted beats of dubstep, how could we ever expect to create something objectively true about all of it, to define what is good about all of it?
For me, the only thing that could be called a rule of songwriting, or for any other kind of art, is this: If it works, then it’s good. That’s it.
Sometimes, it won’t work. I’ve written countless songs that saw only one performance and then were immediately shelved, for any number of reasons. Maybe the audience didn’t respond, or didn’t respond in the way I wanted, or maybe I realized that the words could be easily misinterpreted in a negative way. It happens to everyone, no matter how talented and experienced.
Sometimes, it will work, but in an unexpected and beautiful way. I once wrote a song for the Seattle Bushwick Book Club about Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow,” and it was a very specific song for a very specific character from the story. I honestly did not expect it to live past its debut. However, after that Bushwick show, I played the song for a few friends and was surprised at their response. For one friend in particular, the lyrics were very personal and poignant. She went so far as to hug me and thank me for writing the song, saying that it reminded her of a friend. It’s since been recorded on an album, which I wouldn’t have done had I not played it for that specific group of friends that specific night.
Sometimes, it will work, but in an unexpected way and it is not what you want at all. I remember going to an outdoor concert a few years back, and one of the acts was a young man on guitar. He was playing sweet, pleasant country-folk tunes and the crowd was enjoying it well enough. And then he played this song about his dog dying. Very sad subject, as anyone who’s lost a beloved pet knows. But for some reason, the way that one song was written made it tip over the line between tragic and maudlin and the audience couldn’t help it: we started laughing. Quietly. It wasn’t as if we all thought it was a joke; I could certainly tell it was unintentional, but in spite of that, we laughed anyway. The pendulum had swung too far, it had gone all the way through sadness and had come out the other side as funny. It worked, the audience responded positively, but it was clearly not how the writer wanted us to respond.
Ideas are not a finite resource. You will never stop having ideas.
You can’t always predict or control how an audience will receive your work. Any sort of creative expression is, after all, a collaborative process with the audience, and you have little to no control over who the audience is (which is great). All you can do is finish it and then either continue to develop how you perform the finished piece, or else move on entirely.
But where does it all start? How do ideas happen?
There’s no easy answer to this question, which is why most artists hate it when it gets asked of them. Each idea is very personal and specific to the time and place where it happens, and to the person it happens to. There isn’t one answer. For every song written and every story told, there is another new answer.
However, there are a few practices that can encourage ideas to happen. I’ve taken these from my own experience, as well as learning about the behaviors of others more talented and notorious than myself. These aren’t quick fixes, but tools most effective in the long-term. They create a good field for future ideas to grow in, but at some point, the seed’s got to stick in the ground and the seasons have to change.
1. Seek out works of art and media that excite you and interest you, especially the kind of stuff you don’t personally make. Books! Movies! Plays! Dance! Poetry! Music! This can free you from the constraints of your own medium by being exposed to wildly different creative methods. How many songs have been inspired by great novels, and vice versa? What is it about this dance piece that excites you? What about that sculpture offended you? What relationship in your favorite serial drama inspires you? Think critically about the things you enjoy.
2. Keep up with current events in culture, science, politics. Keep up with current events regionally, nationally and internationally. Choose to know what’s happening in the world. Your work doesn’t have to be topical, but we all must accept that art has never been made in a vacuum. Knowing about what’s going on out there can help put your own experiences into a larger context and connect them to the experiences of others.
3. Get into the habit of creativity. Set yourself a certain time of day or day of the week to work on your craft. Even if it’s not songwriting that you’re working on, it can help. Practice your craft, work on your technique, be it sketches or scales or learning someone else’s song. Get challenged. Sometimes you’ll get distracted, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are times when we need to be distracted from our main focus in order to let ideas come, unpressured. And maybe nothing will come to you, no ideas will happen, and that’s fine; you can take some satisfaction from the work you did accomplish. We all have off-days.
4. Find ways to let your mind wander. For some, this mind-wandering happens when taking a walk, engaging the body and changing one’s surroundings and freeing the mind from relentless focus. This mind- wandering also happens just before sleep, when the mind is disengaging from day-to-day concerns but hasn’t gone all the way into dream-state abstraction. Many artists have told stories about ideas that came to them in dreams or in the liminal state just before the dreaming.
5. And when an idea comes, a melody or a phrase, whatever you’re doing, record it then and there. Do not wait. Put a voice memo into your phone or sketch it down on a notepad, but document it in some way. Keep a notepad or a recording device close to your bed or in your pocket as you walk. You never know when it will come in handy. It may seem weird to sing or talk into a cell phone while you’re walking down the street, and maybe you’ll feel awkward and people are going to stare at you, but if you do feel awkward or anxious about looking weird, just focus back on the source of your inspiration and remind yourself how awesome it’s going to be when it’s finished, and then use that excitement to force yourself to record it. Find the bravery you need to capture that idea. If an idea comes to you at night in bed but your romantic partner’s already asleep, well… That’s a call you’re going to have to make on your own.
6. I put a lot of emphasis on recording ideas because it’s an urgent thing, and inspiration can be flighty, but I want to make one thing clear, lest I be misconstrued: Ideas are not a finite resource. They may be fickle and frustrating or few and far between, but you will never stop having ideas. When you lose one, forgive yourself and move on to the next.
Okay, so say you’ve got an idea. How does one begin?
First and foremost, if you’re sitting down to work, turn off the Internet. Don’t turn it back on until your satisfied with your progress.
Many lyricists take a music-centric approach, constructing chords and melody and establishing the song’s anatomy before applying words, if indeed words are needed at all. I once read David Byrne describing a process wherein he sang nonsense over finished compositions until he was satisfied with the arrangement, and then found words that fit the rhythm and melody of the nonsense.
As for me, I’m more of a text-based player. Most of the time, I finish most of my words first and and then find the musical parts later, adjusting the words as the tune evolves. I’m a slave to the language, always trying to make the pieces fit together just right.
At this point in the process, though, regardless of how you are approaching the idea, you must allow yourself time to play around, in the true and childish sense of the phrase. Mess with the pieces, try things out just for fun, and of course, allow yourself to fail a little bit. Playing around is imperative. Playing around helps muffle the voice of self-doubt that can cripple new work before it’s finished.
Once you start, finish as soon as the piece allows you to finish.
One specific technique that I sometimes use to extrapolate on existing ideas is one I call “shit-mining.” If I get a short lyrical idea and don’t know where to take it, I take the idea and free-write for as many pages as I can, emphasizing continuation over quality. Any idea that allows me to keep going. I follow whims that orbit the original intent, creating a large body of words about that one rough idea. I call it “shit-mining” because 90% of what comes out of this session is truly shit writing. I expect it. I accept it. Even though I will try to make the words good, there is no escaping the fact that during this free-write, I will be writing lots and lots of shit. But it’s usually not all terrible; there is often hidden amidst the Bad a little bit of the Good, and that bit of Good may never have come to me otherwise.
It’s worthwhile to make a mountain of creative trash for the sake of one sparkling nugget.
Shit-mining is all a matter of controlling that critic in your head that tells you to stop because an idea isn’t good enough, when, in fact, it doesn’t know that yet. It can’t know. Turning off the internal critic is vital to brainstorming ideas. However, turning our internal critic back on is necessary to identify the good ideas after all of the brainstorming is done. That’s how you find the good stuff. The critic can be a vicious bastard, but he doesn’t have to call the shots. Leash him up and put him to good use.
Shit-mining is useful for another reason, and that is because it helps you get over the fear of writing trash. Because you are going to write trash. So will I. And so will Robyn, Beyonce, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Leonard Cohen, and any artist you can name. Now, most of that stuff will never see the light of day (thank goodness), but sometimes you have to write a load of absolute shit before you can get to the good stuff that’s waiting on the other side.
But the thing I’d recommend most about songwriting, more than anything?
Don’t wait to start. Do what you can with what you have (resources, skill, experience). And once you start, finish as soon as the piece allows you to finish. It might take 10 minutes or 10 weeks or even 10 years, but finish it. We learn far more from the works we complete than the works that stand waiting in the wings, hoping and waiting for perfection to show up.
It rarely ever does.