Monthly Archives: January 2008

Heart But No Brain

When it comes to songwriting, I’ve got heart but no brain. At least that’s how it seems to me.

I can come up with musical ideas– chords with a rhythm– no problem. I’ve got over 100 of those ideas recorded, not to mention all the ones I didn’t record, lost forever (perhaps). I could come up with new ones daily, if I wanted to. No problem. That’s easy for me.

I can free-write about all sorts of topics. My grandmother’s house. How I felt about a breakup with a girlfriend. Observations of my neighborhood. I’ve got notebooks and file folders of papers full of that stuff. And I can easily write more. No problem. That’s easy for me.

But putting the musical and lyrical inspiration together into a structure–writing a song–now that’s different. That’s not easy–at least for me. I’m still trying to figure out how to do that. That is, how to take the raw material from inspiration, and convert it to a first draft of a song. Something with flaws, to be sure–musically and lyrically– that needs editing, but it has structure; there are verses, there’s rhyme (for most songs), there’s the same number of lines in each verse, etc. Needs polishing, but it’s a song.

What I’ve done up until now, is to go back over the free-writing, and circle words or phrases that, for whatever reason, are interesting to me. I then list those phrases on a new sheet of paper. Those become the building blocks of lines. But they’re not in a logical order, they don’t rhyme, etc. Converting those phrases into lines of the song is the part I don’t really know how to do yet. Or at least not well or easily. I have probably two dozen songs in this phase right now.

I’ve finished a handful of songs, so obviously I’ve gotten through this stage, but it’s hard, and frankly not a lot of fun. I think it’s because to organize a bunch of creative ideas takes craft; it takes the logical side of the brain. That’s like work–and it’s work that I’m not good at, so I don’t like doing it. Plus, I don’t want to work. I want to have fun. It’s the child in me rebelling when dad says “go mow the lawn” when I’d rather play baseball with my friends.

I think I need to figure out a way to make this stage fun instead of work. I need to figure out a way to engage the fun, creative part of the brain–the heart–at this stage of the process. A songwriting mentor told me “less brain, more heart”. I just don’t know how to do that yet. It just seems to me that to go from a collection of organized musical and lyrical ideas to a structure of a song, you need to use the logical side of the brain, not the creative side. Maybe this stage requires some percentage of both.

I’d be interested in hearing what other songwriters do at this 2nd step of the process–getting from raw ideas to a first draft. I guess the answer to this is what’s called the “craft” of songwriting. It’s what I don’t have much of yet. A lot of heart, but not much brain.

P.S. – I even started writing a song about this, called “Heart But No Brain”. But of course I’m stuck in the 2nd stage; I can’t get a first draft. 🙂

Which came first, the music or the lyrics?

Ah, that old question. I’ve deliberately done it differently for different songs, to see which works best for me. I’m still experimenting. Here’s the order I got the ideas for the songs on my EP “Some Songs I Wrote”:

1. “Let it Go” Chords and rhythm first, then the hook line (“Let it go”), then the theme, then the melody. (By “theme” I mean what the song is about).

2. “A Special Request” Theme first, then some lines, then rhythm and style, then melody, then chords.

3. “Bipolar” Rhythm first, then chords, then melody, then some lines, then theme.

4. “When They Go” The music and the theme were developed independantly. After going through my library of music ideas for the song, I remembered this chords/rhythm idea, and decided to use it. Then I found melody for the initial lines I had.

5. “Invisible Prison” Theme first, then melody and rhythm, then lines, then chords.

6. “The Screwup Song” Melody and rhythm first, then lines, then theme, then chords.