Writing Music is Hard Work

I’ve been trying to get back into writing again because I wanted to start a recording project with some good friends of mine who also happen to be wonderful musicians. I haven’t really written on my own in quite a few years and I’m finding it to be a challenge to get really rolling but it’s also a lot of fun…when things go well. I thought it might be worthwhile to provide a few tips that have proven useful to help me be productive and to stave off the biggest enemy of songwriting…procrastination.

Sometimes the best writing comes from just playing

Rather than trying to write a particular thing I’ll often just start playing things either on one of my saxes or my EWI. I’ll just pick a key and start noodling around and see if anything strikes me. Once I get a fragment of a line I like I start to play permutations until I have something that really flows. That’s when I hit record (if I haven’t been recording the whole time which I often do – I mean digital recording is practically free) and start trying to fill it out, playing around with it in different tonal areas, figuring out where it might go for a bridge, etc. Later, I can cut and paste parts together to spell out whatever melody I have in mind. At this stage I don’t worry about chords or bass lines or drums because all that stuff can come later…I just want the melody to be something I can believe in and I don’t want to step on parts that other people will most likely play. That brings me to my second point.

Leave the parts to the guys who know them best

There are several reasons I think this is important. First, I can play some keys but I don’t play bass or drums or guitar. Things I come up with for those parts might make no sense to people who actually play them and I also don’t want to adversely affect how they feel about playing their own stuff. Second, anything I come up with would probably pale in comparison to something a real player could come develop. Third, I’ve seen it a lot where someone spends a lot of time working up a part for some instrument they don’t play but when the time comes to bring the actual player in it becomes apparent that they are now so “in love” with the part they wrote they just can’t hear anything else played except what they’ve been listening to and obsessing over for so long…this seriously hamstrings the player and is a disservice to their talent and creativity. Finally, it wastes a lot of time that could be spent more productively and often gives you reasons to procrastinate…which brings me to my next point:

Don’t waste time

Writing music is fun, fascinating, and fulfilling but it can also be darn hard and as such is a ripe environment for procrastination. It comes in a lot of forms whether it’s getting lost in the minutiae of recording techniques or spending hours making the “just perfect” drum part or losing focus to mess with your reeds or mouthpiece or whatever. Finding ways to combat these all too easy to fall into traps will be the ticket to making sure you make the best use of your available time. Here are a couple of hints:

Make sure you are ready to go as quickly as possible – Nothing wastes time like trying to get yourself ready to do what you’re supposed to be doing whether it is writing, or practicing, or whatever. Try to get yourself set up so there is very little barrier to entry. I use my laptop for recording so it’s just a matter of opening up a blank song in Reason and either pulling out a sax or plugging in my EWI. I have a microphone ready to go on a stand and I only have to make two connections to be ready to record live.

Don’t waste time on arranging save it for actual writing – I mentioned this above when I talked about leaving the parts for the experts but there’s another reason. It’s incredibly easy to waste time messing with drum parts and bass parts and whatever else. I’ve gleefully spent several hours messing with trying to find the exact right patch for a keyboard part before realizing it was past time for bed and I hadn’t really done anything. Go with your gut, take a sound that’s close, and stick with the stuff that’s really important. If you really do want to take time to work on parts then just make that the point of your session rather than trying to accomplish both things.

Sometimes the magic happens and sometimes it doesn’t – When things click it’s a great feeling but even the greatest writers have bad days. Don’t beat yourself up. Be thankful you took the time and made the effort and try to learn from what you did. Also save everything because you never know when the kernel of an idea from a non-productive day wil turn into magic on a day when you are firing on all cylinders.