The Best Method for Writing a Good Song

From a recent interview with John Mayer:

“Whenever I want to write a big song, I can’t. And by “big” I mean spatially…the glacially large space inside the heart, that’s when I get writers block…trying to write a song to fill the entire galaxy. But if I write a song about the size of a glass of water, and I do it right, I notice a week later that it’s got the universe in it. I’d rather have the universe inside a glass of water, rather than try to make a glass of water fit in the universe.”

You can see the whole interview here (I’ve tagged it at the point where Mayer is talking about detail in songwriting.

This idea radiates into other forms of storytelling, which are really all connected—all trying to convey something that is simultaneously personal, drawn from the details of one’s own life, but also with a universal connection that creates communication, not just catharsis.

This idea was reiterated to me when I went poking around Matthew Dicks’ YouTube channel. Matt is a master storyteller—52-time Moth StorySLAM winner, and 7-time GrandSLAM champion. He made a lo-fi (and highly excellent) video outlining a storytelling game he plays in workshops and classrooms, called “3-2-1”. When explaining why he uses random concrete nouns as prompts, rather than something massive and emotional like “struggle” (or we could sub that for equally glacial concepts, like “loneliness” or “climate change”), Dicks says:

“It’s hard to tell a story if someone asks you, ‘Could you tell a story about a time when you struggled’. That is hard for a lot of people, including me, because ‘a time when you struggled’ is a very broad concept. There’s many, many times in our lives when we struggle. And so pick out the right story—to pick out any story—is really challenging. The odd thing is, the more specific the lens that you’re forced to look at your life through, the more likely you are to find a story.”

(My emphasis added)

You can see Matt’s whole video on his storytelling exercise here:

Matt was also kind enough to share with me the website he uses to generate the random nouns in this video, which is HERE (and on perusing it for a minute, it has other amazing filters that will generate other random lists for you, like cliches, emotions, ‘speech-verb’).

For a songwriter-specific writing exercise that will help you forever tap into the details, check out Object Writing in this video (I’ve tagged it right at Object Writing):

Pair this with 120 Sense Writing Prompts.

The Most Beautiful Chords in Songwriting

Hi friends,

I’ve recently made a short series of quick videos that cover two of the most beautiful modes in songwriting: the Mixolydian mode, and Dorian mode, as well as how to use that knowledge to pick out the most beautiful chords, in a chord technique called Modal Borrowing. Here is the series this far. Enjoy!

This is Your Brain on Metaphor

When I teach lyric writing, the first concept I introduce in any class is the power and impact of sense-based language. I usually start with a sort of psychological magic trick: I read a list of words, then ask people to recall as many as they can. Without mentioning this to the class, I have deliberately made half the words concrete and sense-based—koala, tomato, thunder—and the other half are abstract or conceptual—task, idea, sound, for example. 

Here is the magic part: without fail, the vast majority of people (about 90%) recall more of the sense-based words. 

How is this possible? Why isn’t it more random? Why don’t we see, over a large sample, that it’s more like 50%? I randomise the words; I make sure the words are not more complex in one category versus the other…the magic (and science) here is that there is something special about sense-based language. Our brains wrap themselves differently around it. In the field of psychology, this has a name: “The Concreteness Effect”. People’s memories (and here we’re talking at a population level) stick like glue to things we can attach our senses to. 

As lyric writers, we are tasked with creating mansions in the mind of a listener with very limited real estate, so anything in language that comes pre-loaded with emotion, impact, and connection is gold.

Here’s a dirty little secret though. I have, for years, been a bit tripped up by the logic of this. Just saying “cinnamon” is not the same thing as actually smelling cinnamon…a word is a concept, even if it’s describing a sensory thing…isn’t it? Why should we expect that sensory language isn’t actually just another kind of concept? Why believe (even in spite of the hundreds of mini-experiments I’ve run, yielding the same result, and even all the experiments done by psychologists) that sensory language should have a different emotional impact than any kind of language?

Well! I am very thrilled that science has once again come to the party, gotten tipsy, had a snog with art, and the two are now dirty dancing, showing us how one moves the other. 

In Fiona Murphy’s gorgeous book, ‘The Shape of Sound”, she talks about a piece of research that,

“demonstrated how words can rub and burn just as much as they can soothe. Test subjects lying in an MRI machine were read metaphorical and literal descriptions—the operation went smoothly (the operation went successfully), his manners are coarse (his manners are rude), she is a bit edgy (she is a bit nervous)…The results were conclusive: textured metaphors caused the brain to react as if it were being touched.”

Our brains aren’t just processing these words as language—mere concepts, solely representations of the thing; the brain actually responds as if that sense is being activated!

The power and complexity of language never ceases to astonish me. There is magic in there too. To quote, perhaps, the leading authority on words and magic:

Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.

Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2)

120 Sense Writing Prompts

If you’re already familiar with Sense Writing (aka Object Writing), feel free to skip ahead to the prompts below. If Sense Writing is new to you, here’s a little primer.

What is Sense Writing?

Sense Writing is a timed 10-minute writing exercise, in which you take a prompt, and use that prompt as a gateway into whatever association arises for you based on the prompt. It is like free-writing, in the sense that you write continuously for 10 minutes, without editing yourself, and without ‘writing lyrics’. So no rhyme, no rhythm. Just sentences. The difference between Sense Writing and free writing is that in Sense Writing, you stay focused on using the senses to describe the scene, situation, or moment that arises in response to the prompt.

Sense Writing is based on lyric writing teacher Pat Pattison’s ‘Object Writing’. You can explore it in more detail here.

Why Sense Writing?

Sense Writing is the single most useful writing exercise that I have ever come across in my life as a songwriter. I use it on days when I have no idea what to write about. I use it when I’m in the middle of a song, and I’m looking for lyrics to furnish a particular idea. Sense Writing has the beauty of being a tool you can always default to when looking for ideas, as well as being a tool that strengthens your ability to convert ideas into specific, sensory imagery. And, it only takes 10 minutes or less.

Prompts

Starting with objects is a good strategy, as it keeps you grounded in the physical world. As you progress, dip into the prompts in other categories, understanding that the goal is ALWAYS to use the prompt as a springboard into a specific scene, situation, or moment, and to use vivid, descriptive sense-bound language to explore that moment in writing.

Enjoy!

OBJECTS:

COFFEE CUP, OLD T-SHIRT, FIRE PIT, MILKSHAKE, WALLET, PAINTING, MARBLE, SANDWICH, ANKLE, CABINET, BITUMEN, SUMMER RAIN, DUCT TAPE, FUTON, MOON, WEED, SKETCH, FINGERNAIL, TICKET, TOOTH

PEOPLE:

FARMER, DANCER, OLYMPIC BOXER, GRANDFATHER, SURGEON, TEACHER, FIRST LOVE, QUEEN, RETIREE, MIDDLE CHILD, MAGICIAN, CLEANER, PATIENT, LIBRARIAN, ACTOR, WAITER, ROCK CLIMBER, NEIGHBOUR, LAST PERSON TO LEAVE, BULLY

PLACES:

MALL, COUCH, KITCHEN, CLASSROOM, ALLEYWAY, TRAIN STATION, AIRPORT, GRANDMA'S HOUSE, UNDER THE BED, SUPERMARKET, GRAVEYARD, HOTEL, TUNNEL, HOSPITAL, FRONT PORCH, CAMPSITE, CANYON, OUTER SPACE, FRONTLINE

TIMES/EVENTS:

WEDDING, FUNERAL, 7TH BIRTHDAY PARTY, GRADUATION, FIRST KISS, NEW YEAR'S EVE, 3A.M., AUTUMN, SCHOOL BELL, LUNCH BREAK, CONCERT, MOVING OUT, FIRST DAY, SUNRISE, FAMILY HOLIDAY, SWIMMING, MIDNIGHT, SAYING SORRY, PROTEST, WILDFIRE

EMOTIONS:

DELIGHT, BOREDOM, HUMILITY, NOSTALGIA, ENVY, DEFENSIVENESS, CONFUSION, UNCERTAINTY, CONTENT, SCHADENFREUDE, LOVE, RELIEF, SURPRISE, IMPATIENCE, DENIAL, ANXIETY, ANTICIPATION, NERVOUSNESS, REMORSE, SATISFACTION

CONCEPTS:

STUCK, CONNECTION, IMPRESSION, RESPONSE, CHEMISTRY, AFFAIR, COLD, CELEBRATION, FORGIVENESS, GROWING OLDER, ELECTION, TRADITION, PRIORITY, DEPARTURE, ECONOMY, OPINION, COUNTRY, NEWS, REPUTATION, OPPORTUNITY

Can you learn to be obsessed?

There is so much advice out there for writers about the importance of habit and ritual in your creative practice. But lately, I have become—frankly—a little suspect of it.

The insistence on habit as the conduit of creative output is embodied by the American painter Chuck Close, who famously said, “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

John Cleese gave an extraordinary lecture in the 90s, talking about the vital importance of carving out 90 minutes for creative work. Don’t leave the chair after 30 minutes. The first 30 minutes are basically the opening credits. Nothing happens. Nothing is meant to happen. All the action comes after 30 minutes. The key message here was that creativity is not a special talent, but a discipline.

But I often wonder if this ‘advice’ isn’t really advice at all. It’s more of an observation of what highly productive, creative people tend to do. By framing it as advice, it assumes a causal direction: that if I sit everyday and apply myself to my creative practice, that something will happen. It’s prescriptive. 

But there is a line between what is prescriptive and what is descriptive, and I think the two often get confused. Someone can describe what they did to get where they got, and then offer that as some kind of prescriptive method for others, even though it would never work if you weren’t that person, with their passion, their motivation, their invisible networks and threads of connection to others who move their careers along.

I think it’s important to add in a detail here. As Austin Kleon puts it, persistence is much easier “when there’s obsession behind it. (And likewise, discipline is much easier when it’s fueled by desire.)” It’s not habit that drives creative work; it’s obsession. The chain of causation begins with that drive, that motivation, not with the habit itself. The habit is an outcropping of the obsession; it’s a necessary extension of it. It’s a vehicle to cultivate and harvest that obsession, but there has to be obsession at the root. 

The question then becomes: can you learn obsession? Can you practice it? Is passion a feature of disposition, or like so many things, is there a range in which we each individually fall by genetics and circumstance, and our effortful acts of will can only move us around within those limits?

Hubris and Humility in Writing Pop Songs


I am totally tickled to have co-written a song, ‘Fruit’, that has just been released by Australian pop artist, Sayah. Working with Sayah was alchemy – seeing an idea come to life is a special kind of magic. The song was produced and co-written by Taka Perry, who is a wizard space genius. Seeing him work is like watching Peni Parker control her robot spider.



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It is such a joy to hear it out in the world.

It’s also a song that has taught me a great humility as a songwriter, that I am still grappling with. The idea for this song came out fast, for me. The lyrics to the chorus came out in one little crack of inspiration; I set them to melody in about 20 minutes, and then wrote the first verse in another 30 or 40 minutes, all the building blocks clicking together. 

The ‘easiness’ of this is totally misleading—and it has startled me that it’s a trick of my own devising that I fell into. Because this one felt ‘easy’, it filled me with a sort of hubris; that I could basically pump out a bunch of songs like this on any given day. But it turns out that I have tried, and it hasn’t happened quite like that.

I was relieved to hear John Mayer talk about this in a zoomy interview thing that I stumbled on in a recent youtube rabbit hole. 

They key moment here that resonated for me was this:

“Once you’re done writing an A+ song, you once again know nothing about it. You once again know nothing about writing. At the beginning of every song, you don’t know anything. You’re a baby. You’re an infant.”

I’ve heard him talk about that specifically with the song Gravity—that after writing Gravity, he expected to be able to write another Gravity…but couldn’t. The glittering hubris of a good song is so quickly turned into humility. 

It’s a lesson I learn, and need to learn, again and again. There is (I hope) knowledge and experience that accumulates over time and practice, but there is also this deep humility and gentleness that needs to hold their hands. Without the humility to accept that a song cannot be replicated even when it felt easy, there is a rough bump against the expectations that we mount for ourselves, and the inevitable feeling of failure when we can’t meet them. 

I’m working on embracing the open sense of unknowing before the songs I’m currently working on. I’m practicing being gentle when they steer off in unexpected directions. I’m trying to bring my craft onboard without letting it steer, and also being open to having written one banging pop song, and being open to whatever comes out next. 


You can hear the here! Language warning, friends.

Can you really teach someone to write better songs?

I so often get asked whether it’s really possible to teach someone how to write a song. There still seems to be a mysterious veil of magic and witchcraft about it, that is very fuelled by interviews with songwriters talking about channeling the muse.

It turns out that songwriting is really like anything else. You can name the parts and elements, see how people have used them in the past, and use that vocabulary to understand how songwriters are currently using and innovating on those elements, as well as possibilities for other innovations. The same is true in visual art, design, creative writing…and there appears to be no cultural attachment to the idea of the muse—or pure inspiration—as the singular route for successful creation in those domains. And yet, somehow (sigh), it persists in the realm of songwriting.

I thought I’d offer a glimpse into the inside of the songwriting classroom. This is an exercise I posted for my Songwriting Workshop group at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Open Academy recently. We had a lengthy discussion about the importance of reflecting a lyric’s natural syllabic stress pattern in the melody. Melody—like language—has strong and weak beats, and if we don’t match the pattern between lyric and melody, whacky (and generally yuck) things start to happen. At best, you get Katy Perry’s unCONdiTIONallY. At worst, you start to erode the intelligibility, and therefore emotional resonance of your song. Lyrics become wallpaper. And in my experience, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy in the life of the songwriter: if you believe lyrics are mere wallpaper, you will write lyrics that end up as wallpaper. But as soon as you believe that people might listen to and care about lyrics, you suddenly start writing lyrics that people listen to and care about. Part of this is making sure they can be understood, and that they are conveyed with the full force of expression and emotion, which in English, is conveyed by patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables.

So this Songwriting Assignment first sets out to take a lyric, and set it melody, taking care to set the lyric to a melody that retains that natural pattern.

Secondly, the task here then hones in on 3 melodic tools for creating contrast between sections, ensuring that when you move to the Chorus, it will be felt emotionally.

Without further ado…

You can grab a lyric to work with by heading over to the YouTube channel here—it’s posted in the description under the video. And yes, please subscribe to the channel!