I was asked a few questions about songwriting in an email this week that got me typing uncontrollably. So I posted my response here because I thought it might interest some of you also.
The email came from my friend, Nicole James, who will be in Tennessee with us for the Urban Worship Symposium at New City Fellowship. Here’s an excerpt from her email:
“I was wondering if it were possible to have a session or “lecture” or something on song-writing at the symposium. You guys probably have everything set already. I just find myself regretting not seeking you and others out more on that topic while in STL. Also, do you have any recommendations on learning more about the song-writing process? Books, people, etc? How did you learn? School, dad, trial-and-error?”
Here’s the main tools that I use for songwriting:
-a journal to keep fragments of ideas
-a recorder of some kind. (my recorder of choice these days is my iPod that I use a little microphone attachment with, but for years it was a hand-held tape recorder.)
-Finale notation software
I will usually start with a lyric fragment or a fragment of chord changes, then I will sing melodies to the fragments to see what I like. If something strikes me I will grab the recorder and get it on tape. Otherwise I forget about it. Sometimes that fragment gets me motivated to finish the song right then, other times, it sits for a while until I listen back to my collection of song bits and then it catches my interest again.
I use Finale in the last stage of composition to work out the precise melody, to establish a form and to revise my lyrics. Writing out the notes will sometimes make me change the lyrics to better fit the melody or to change the melody to support the lyrics better. Sometimes writing it out makes me see visually how boring the melody is, and I will change it up to have a better contour. You can download a free version of Finale called “NotePad” on their website.
Another method of composition that I sometimes use is to start with a concept or a goal like “I want to write a song for our youth group that will address the need for absolute truth found in God’s word.” or “I want to compose a song based on this Sunday’s sermon text that has an uptempo feel.” I usually go straight to Finale in those cases. That’s a little more difficult, but it can be a good exercise.
After you write a song, sing it a lot in private to decide whether you like it or not. Next, share it with your husband who will tell you that it is a gold-record masterpiece (that will give you a confidence boost). Next, share it with a trusted critic who will give you honest feedback like, “the verses need to develop the idea more” or “you need to find the hook in the chorus.” Finally, share it with an audience to see how it plays in performance. Not every song will immediately connect with the audience; some of the songs you write will be a little more complex and require multiple performances before they sink in.
The best advice that my dad ever gave me was that for every 30 songs that you write, you might get one keeper. This should not discourage you; it should give you motivation to write often and without self-censorship. If you think that every song that you write is going to be “one for the ages” then you will become paralyzed with unrealistic goals. It takes a lot of stirring up your creativity before you get in a good head-space to respond to the muse, so think of yourself like a painter who does pencil sketches of a landscape over and over before she even gets out the paints.