I’ve spent a great deal of my life trying to formulate principles for writing songs. Learning them from people further down the path than me. Getting those flashes of inspiration when I look at someone else’s work or when I create my own.
By now I’ve been writing songs for fifteen years, virtually all of my musically literate life. And through most of that I naively imagined that there would come a day when I felt like I knew what I was doing. I hoped that just like riding a bike, shaving my adolescent face, or navigating the New York City subway, despite rocky beginnings I’d eventually feel like I’d got a handle on things and everything would become comfortable and expectable.
Nope. Songwriting doesn’t work like that.
Of the handful of things I’ve learnt over the years, here’s by far the most important: no one really knows what they’re doing. Ever.
In fact, this not knowing is kind of the whole point. Creativity is a reckless, primeval thing. It comes from a process science doesn’t fully understand, and my money is that it never truly will. How can something be innovative if it’s based on a process we understand completely? How can it be new if it comes from a totally tried-and-tested routine?
You’ll pick up tricks and tools along the way – we’re trying to share as many as we can on this site – but it’s important know these tricks and tools for what they are: something that worked for a particular person in a particular piece of work at a particular time. Know them, love them, stick to them more often than not. Many of them will be useful 99% of the time. But since so much of what we do is subconscious, furtive, untameable, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice if you pretend creative work is borne of any kind of rules.
Keep an open mind to what people say when they try to formulate principles – and this includes us at The Song Foundry. If you agree with us, work out why we’re saying what we’re saying. If you disagree, argue with us. Use the comments section to tell us why.
But most of all, understand that when we or anyone else offer you tools, you don’t have to take them. Those tools might be 99%-useful principles to those people, but if they’re no use to you there’s only one thing to do: be merciless in ditching them. They’re dead weight to you. And you don’t need to justify your choices to anyone.
The more you develop your toolbox of principles, the better equipped you’ll be to face the new hurdles each new song presents. That’s the game. That’s how you get better. Yes, it’s nice to imagine that one day you’ll pick up enough tools to fix every problem in a snap. But the truth is we’re always fixing by trial and error however much experience and knowledge we accrue. The blank page holds as many answers to a beginner as it does a seasoned pro. The difference is that a seasoned pro has learned principles around to lighten the load when they get into difficulties. But those learned principles are only a guide. They’ll never be the answers in the back of the textbook.
Writing becomes much easier when we’re comfortable jumping out of the plane and assembling the parachute on the way down. We have to accept and trust that we know what we’re doing as much as it’s possible to – we’ve written before, we’ve picked up some principles, we have all the songs we know and love running through our subconsciouses. And that’s plenty good enough to get going. Which is convenient, because it’s all we’ve got.