Technology can make you a better songwriter – Part 1

By Ben Halim

I can see how this title, “Technology can make you a better songwriter, “can raise questions, eyebrows, and even blood pressures in certain ‘acoustic music purists’ circles. No doubt, it is a controversial statement but still a valid one. According to Wikipedia, A songwriter is a musician who composes musical compositions and writes lyrics for songs. So, we can say that songwriting is the act of creating original melodies and the words of a song. Most do, but not all songwriters create both the musical themes and the lyrics, some songwriters only produce one or the other. The songwriters who only write song lyrics are known as lyricists, but they are still songwriters, nonetheless.  Like many other art forms, songwriting does not have any set of defined rules to follow.

If you ask a dozen songwriters, what is the RIGHT way of writing songs? Most likely, you will get more than a dozen different answers. Interestingly, every answer to this question, no matter how contradictory to other answers it may be, still a correct solution. Why do we have all these so drastically different approaches to songwriting? Again, because there are no set rules in songwriting. Songwriters globally do not agree on anything, especially any set provisions of how to write a song or even what is a good song!  In songwriting, one man’s diamond is another man’s useless stone. No point in arguing, the taste in songwriting is hardly universal. Except, we all seem to agree that.

  1. Most of the music of our parent’s era was lame!
  2. The music kids are listening to these days is pure trash!
  3. Of course, the best music humanity has ever created was popular during our teenage years!
  4. And yeah, we also utterly despise stubborn and narrow-minded people! 😊

Luckily, one thing most songwriters will agree upon is that the songwriting process is a combination of both creative and procedural efforts utilizing both the left and the right sides of the brain in the Songwriting process.  Generally speaking, a successful songwriting experience is a result of having the right mix of Inspiration, Songwriting Skills, and Focus. Let’s try to define each one of them;

Inspiration – An inspiring musical or lyrical idea, maybe a lyric or a vocal hook, a chord progression, or even an instrumental riff to spark creativity in a songwriter’s mind.

Songwriting Skills – Musical skills needed to understand the emotions/message behind that snippet of Inspiration’. Not necessarily an in-depth knowledge of music theory is necessary; Songwriting skills are more about having a musical sensibility, aka a ‘musical ear.’ This ability helps a songwriter in coming up with suitable song parts/lyrics that can work together to turn this short-inspired idea into a complete song.

Focus – Focus is how long a Songwriter can keep his/her interest alive while struggling to complete the song. Focus is usually associated with the degree of organization in a songwriter’s songwriting process. Better organized Songwriters tend to retain a more profound and longer-lasting attention span, and the Lack of organization is distracting, so counterproductive. Organization and well-defined procedures help in maintaining the songwriter’s attention during the time it takes to turn this little inspired idea into a complete song.  So, the organization in the songwriting process = Better focus = More completed songs!    

Once in a blue moon, we all get lucky, and we get blessed with a ‘Golden Ticket’ of Inspiration. Through some magic beyond our powers, we get to maintain this inspired state longer than usual and end up completing the song, quickly sometimes even in one seating. This strange phenomenon is experienced by almost all songwriters in their lifetime at least once, and we say, ‘the song wrote itself.’ But even the most prolific songwriters have no control over when and how to get that kind of rare magical moment when ‘song writes itself!’ For most of us, and most of the time, the Songwriting process is an out of control mix of utter joy and crushing despair. But still, no committed songwriter will ever consider giving up because songwriting is a higher calling than something you do to pass the time or even to get rich and famous.  The common understanding among songwriters is that “Inspiration can start a song, but hard work, persistence, and skills are needed to finish a song.” That is why professional songwriters with catalogs of hundreds and sometimes thousands of songs are known to write songs regularly as the labor of love instead of waiting for inspiration to hit them. Also, these same songwriting professionals seem to rate the value of hard work and discipline equally as the magically inspired moments we call inspiration.

The main difference between a hobbyist and a successful songwriter is their approach towards the process of songwriting. Usually, it is the hobbyist who preaches the idea of songwriting as a pure magical link between man and God, the universe, or whatever supreme being or source of energy of he or she believes in.  These same hobbyists also have known to make statements like “Nah…dude forget songwriting process… songs come from magical moments” interestingly, these believers in magical moments are also the most significant source of UNFINISHED SONGS globally! 😊

I have the good fortune of knowing many professional songwriters and as many hobbyists, and  I could not help but notice the commonality in the shared values of Pros and the stark difference in their views from the believer of pure magic, hobbyist. No doubt, all songwriters (even pros) believe in the magical moments of inspiration and agree that we don’t know when and why or even how inspiration hits us when we can write hits, and these songs also complete surprisingly quickly! But all most all professional songwriters with the successful track record and a substantial catalog of songs, write consistently with or without inspiration else they cannot amass such massive archives of COMPLETED Songs!

Apart from strong work ethics and the correct value they put in inspiration driven songwriting, the Professional Songwriters also seem to be more open to new ideas and tools that can help them to be more efficient/useful in their craft. On the other hand, hobbyists seem to have very rigid ideas and are very hard to convince when it comes to opening to the possibilities offered by new tools and techniques.  Yes, there are some examples of old school purists in the Pros who stick to processes they have been following for decades, but most Pros seem to adapt new tools once convinced of their value that tool adds to their Songwriting quality and productivity.

Let’s talk about Problems

Problem # 1, we all been there where we suddenly get hit by a musical Inspiration in the form of a clever lyric, a melody line, a hook, a chord progression, or even a slick instrumental riff.  In this inspired moment, we feel the creative energy flowing through our bodies, we can do no wrong every word, and every note we create is solid gold, and then it suddenly stops. Then all the power and the flow of ideas we were experiencing because of our inspired mental state fades away as suddenly as it entered our hearts and minds!  Once the inspiration is gone, we are left to struggle to turn this fantastic idea into a complete song without the holy spirit of inspiration speaking through us.  😊 After a little struggle, we usually decide to store this idea for future recall into our paper notebook or software, or audio recorder of some sort, hoping to come back to it another time and complete it. Sometimes we succeed in doing so, and after a few attempts, we finally figure out the missing parts, and we end up with a complete song. But most of the time, after little trying and failing, this idea joins the long list of dozens or even hundreds of other beautiful but incomplete songs we plan to complete SOMEDAY!

Sounds familiar? It is not the Lack of Inspiration; it is a combination of both weak Songwriting skills and the Lack of needed Focus. With strong songwriting skills, an experienced songwriter is quickly able to translate the inspiration into a musical statement with meaning and direction to promptly create other matching song parts to make it into a complete song before losing the focus. Songwriting skills do not require college-level Music theory knowledge or even decades of experience. Musical skills develop by an intentional exposure to good music of many genres and styles. Songwriting skills are not dependent on just the knowledge of music theory, but it sure helps if you understand music theory even at its very basic level. What helps improving songwriting skills is intentional listening to great music far beyond your limited taste in your favorite genres and styles. As a songwriter, one must listen to great music in other forms to broaden the subconscious musical style vocabulary. Regular listening with deep focus means listening to those songs to identify different musical components and musical ideas within each song. 

This in-depth study consists of the study of musical elements such as rhythm, melodic phrasing, lyrical contrast between sections,  length of song sections, how musical changes to create novelty and interest, and the use of repetition to make a melody more memorable. The more types of songs we analyze, the better songwriters we become with or without knowledge of formal education in music. Do we know where the musical inspiration comes from and why? Not really, It’s a mystery. None of us will ever get any melodic ideas from melodies composed in unfamiliar exotic scales and tonal temperaments unless exposed to those styles of music. The variety in our musical inspiration is dependent upon the range in our exposure to different musical styles and forms.  It is safe to say that we cannot control the timing and the quantity of inspiration. Still, we can surely control the ‘kind’ of musical inspiration we receive by expanding our exposure to genres & styles of music we familiarize ourselves with intention.  That is why songwriters who have either lived in big cities with a multi-cultural music scene or have traveled extensively show bits of stylistic fragments from many musical styles and genres in their music, and it is usually unintentional.

Problem # 2, Other times, we have all experienced the infamous creative DRY SPELL, and no matter what we do, we cannot get inspired to write A song, let alone a GOOD song! We try, and then we try some more, but no amount of experimentation with chords, melodic motifs, deep lyrical ideas, or riffs create that spark of divine energy in us that we all call, inspiration!  We cannot activate the inspired state in our minds on demand; it is truly a heavenly blessing and very challenging to understand how it empowers the temporary mental state of a creative being. Many self-proclaimed musical Gurus (mostly in their 20s) love to sell PDF books and online training content on the topics of how to stay inspired 24/7! Even with the 100% money-back guarantees (with few loopholes of course) 😊 to make you the master of your inspired state and be able to get inspiration on your on-demand controlling, timing, frequency, and quality of inspiration for as little as $49.99!

But all that they are selling are some commonsense ideas already known to most experienced songwriters, and it never results in a claimed outcome. Inspiration IS on the subconscious level, and it is beyond our conscious of controlling it. We can only improve upon the variety of musical inspiration by exposing our conscious mind to those styles and genres. For example, a songwriter who listens and enjoys both Latin dance music and Hard Rock, he or she frequently gets inspiration inspired by either one or both styles mixed in the form of fusion music. Occasionally we start writing melodies in the methods of Walt Disney Classics. Still, we can credit this phenomenon to exposure through our toddler who watches those classics films non-stop in-a- loop all waking hours! Pay close attention, and you will find hidden fragments of ‘Hakuna Matata’ and ‘A Whole New World’ in many Death Metal Jams written to summon the Dark Prince, Lucifer!  😊

Technology can make you a better songwriter – Part 2 (coming soon)

So, what is the solution, and where does Technology fits into this songwriting Puzzle? The short answer is Everywhere! There are specialized tools that can help you improve and provide needed support in the areas of Inspiration, Songwriting Skills, and focus. In Part 2, I will focus on those Music software tools, and share specific details on certain devices and their technical features.  Part 2 will answer the following three questions

  1. How can Technology inspire a songwriter?
  2. How can Technology help in improving songwriting skills?
  3. How can Technology improve organization and focus needed in songwriting?

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Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article are NOT RULES or the ONLY CORRECT WAY. There are many ways to reach the same destination. Views and ideas expressed are just opinions of the writer based on personal experience, interaction with both Professional and Hobby musicians, and the conclusion drawn from the study of music both in formal and informal setups. Feel free to comment and correct if you find a factual error, hey, we are all students until our last breath!  One more thing, no domestic or wild animals were hurt while writing, researching, or testing this article. 😊