How songwriting is like experience design (part 1)

Formally writing down how I write songs in order to see if there are any parallels with the way I design experiences. First the songwriting process.

In a previous iteration of me, I spent many many hours crafting songs. Many songs were written in conjunction with other people, but here I am looking into the solo-songwriting process. There are enough variables there to gnaw on for now.

This is… was… is my personal songwriting process:

Generally speaking, there are four key ingredients to a song that need to be developed. Words, rhythm, music, and melody. Words are less important for classical music, but even they need some sort of narrative thread.

Creating a song is as simple as combining these pieces in a particular format. Yes. There are ‘rules’ when writing songs and de facto structures that many songs adhere to. The structure allows you to tie the song together like the way movies and novels have a certain arch to them. This allows the song to build drama in the right areas and be more interesting. Many songs do not follow any common structure. The difference between good and bad at that point is whether or not the writer has already mastered the structured process or not.

How does one learn the structure? You can read it in a book… or, even better, you can listen to those before you who have mastered it and taken it to new levels. My primary inspiration was the Beatles. They began their songwriting by teaching themselves hit songs by their favorite artists. They then played that stuff over and over until they started hearing songs of their own. They had the blueprint for their inspiration set.

Five types of inspiration bring together the ingredients and the recipe:

  1. Slow build (about a day or two to complete)
    Songs need a few ingredients and I never know which one is going to trigger inspiration. Some start with a rhythm that I can’t get out of my head. The rhythm just keeps repeating until music and or words begin to form around it. I generally hear some combination of the melody and the rhythm together though. If you hum any song that exists, you can see why. Tough to have one without the other. I then will try out new, or existing lyrics I’ve written and see what kind of rhyming pattern feels right. Then it takes a little bit to flesh out the sections of the song. This is the average process. About 75% of my songs are written like this.
  2. Complete package (5-30 minutes to complete)
    This happened once in a blue moon. The song is in my mind as a complete package and I feel like you can barely keep up with it in order to get it recorded or written down. I don’t know what makes this happen, but it usually occurs when I am not really thinking about music at all. This type makes up about 5% of the songs I’ve written. A lot of unknown variables need to come together for this to occur.
  3. Pick and pack (weeks, months or never to complete)
    Sometimes you just get a morsel here and there. You hear a line on the guitar and you play it for a while. maybe you put a few words to it. A cool line that you have been thinking of or even just a drum beat you use to warm up sometimes. Every once in a while a couple of these parts reach a critical mass and they form something cool together. One develops into a verse, another a bridge or a chorus or some other change. The pick and pack is when you suddenly realize that you’ve got the perfect fit and viola, a song is born. About 10% of my songs are  pick and packs.
  4. Conscious sit down (a night to ‘complete’)
    This is where I sit down with the intent of writing a song. No pre-inspiration exists necessarily, but I know I want to try something new.  This would sometimes yield a new song, or at best, some pieces to kick around. It is tough to say “I am going to write a song today” when the forces of inspiration aren’t present. About 5% of my songs are conscious sit downs.
  5. I want that (about a day or two to complete)
    Every once in a while I’ll hear a song that I just really love. Sometimes it is a new song. Sometimes it is an older one in which something strikes me. I once wrote a song that I wanted to sound like a particular Bjork tune. It was outside of my singer-songwriter comfort zone, but it was in my listening sweet-spot. It was a ‘Slow Build’ type with a slightly different inspiration source. About 5% of my songs are those that I just wanted to work.

Then the work begins

The final 10% of crafting a song is harder than the first 90%. Even when you hear someone say ‘I wrote this hit in fifteen minutes on a napkin.’ (Complete package) they are only talking about the first 90%. Steps involved here include honing the lines and the melody, playing it for audiences, crafting the timing, adding additional instrumentation, recording and production, etc… The list goes on and on.

After all of this, the song is usually altered very little from the original, but it takes on many more dimensions. Of a few hundred songs, I would say 25 got this treatment applied to them. The reason – it is hard work and only some were strong enough to warrant that level of my attention. I always looked at the catalog and considered what would be a good addition to a set.


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