How To Start Writing A Song: Unpacking The Creative Impulse

Why Songbooks Are Evil...

A few months ago, I was in need of a notebook for scribbling down ideas. So, instead of scrubbing my way through the newsagent aisle for a wad of recycled crepe, I spent the best part of £20 on a beautiful leather-bound songbook and a wonderful Parker Pen. My reasoning: if you want to do this, you should do it proper.

I know. How very British. Worst thing is that 3 months on, that leather-bound book is virtually untouched, and the Parker is gathering dust in some University corridor. Not only that, but half the notebooks in my room are filled with scrawled song lyrics, and my iPod’s voice memos are full of half-finished melodies. That songbook remains – and this is a man who has an unplayed saxophone under his bed – my silliest purchase.

So, why did I go for the crappy notebook over the Ottoman beauty? Because I was trying to impose filters on my creative impulse. To write something in there, I first had to think: ‘Is it good enough for the book?’ ‘Mustn’t spoil the book!’ And a lot of stuff didn’t make the cut.

There’s a lesson here: I once heard that luck is where preparation meets opportunity, and inspiration is the same. You have to gather your raw materials in any way you can, because it’s out of these materials that you create your songs. It’s like the old lady and the bit of string: ‘Just in case I need it, darling, just in case.’

Once you’ve got a scrapyard of half-ideas, sit on it. David Brooks, in a recent TED Talk, said that the way to decide on how to choose a sofa is to study the sofa of choice, then let it marinate in your mind for a few days. When you go back, go with your gut: your unconscious mind will have figured it out. Songwriting is the same: take this raw material, and hoard it in the backwaters of your mind.

As you continue to write, you’ll start to see combinations emerging between old and new material. That’s your unconscious mind headbutting its way into the creative process. Go with it: It’s the combination of this material that throw up interesting songs.

So, what’s the answer to that foreboding title? Where to start writing a song? Well, just like an athlete is prepared long before he hears the gunshot, you must be constantly preparing yourself to write. Keep a notebook; write down anything that comes to mind. Keep voice memos of your melodies: don’t assume you’ll be able to remember them when you get home. Gather all the string you can, and someday you’ll sew a tapestry.

And, for crying out loud, don’t buy a Parker. Buy a big stack of biros and use them every day you can.

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5 Comments

Filed under Lyrics, Structure

5 responses to “How To Start Writing A Song: Unpacking The Creative Impulse

  1. Great post–and it applies to fiction writing as well, I think! I love the description of your journey away from the Parker and what it taught you about your own process. Let’s not make the task of creation more daunting for ourselves, right?

  2. I have found for me a simple notebook works great for recording lyrics and then I just memorize the music in my head and on the piano. Later I put it into the computer to create the sheet music. I used to hand write my piano solo stuff out and I do have a touch for that, but it is so time consuming. I have too much to write to waste time like that anymore even if it is fun to handwrite. Somewhat like an art piece to me.

    • Have you thought about quickly recording your song ideas? It would save you tons of time writing it all out and it would be more productive than trying to memorise it. Thanks for commenting, JP.

      All the best,
      PP x

  3. Haha, that’s a country song right there…

    Up in the plane, with my leather-bound notebook,
    Flyin’ across the churnin’ sea
    Out to the heart of Tennessee

    Myself, I haven’t hand-written a lyric since ’07. They all go into my iPhone notes, which sync to my Mac. The audio is also recorded with the iPhone, going straight to iTunes. It’ the easiest way I know of to keep everything organized. Keeps ya from climbing under couches, searching for lyric sheets!

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