I write songs, poetry, novels, stories, and essays – for publication, not for my own amusement. And I’m old. Really old. So it’s inevitable that over the years I’ve discovered that when I write a song, I am influenced by the kind of thinking that occurs with prose or poetry; and when I write prose or poetry, it’s inevitable that the writing is influenced by music.
Here’s how it works.
I believe there is a muse, or muses. But you don’t wait for her. If you do that, she will ignore you. You have to pick up the laptop, or the guitar or the piano or whatever, and stare at a blank page, or listen to the silence, for a while. It might be quite a while. But you just go with it. Even if nothing happens, you have started the writing process. You are waiting with a purpose. You are not impatient, no matter how long the silence continues. If it goes on too long, you go do something else for a while, then come back to it.
To move it along, inevitably you strum a chord, or play a melody, if only in your head. Say it’s an E-minor chord. That’s always a good chord. But when (on a guitar, say, in standard tuning) you put your small finger on the 2nd fret of the first string, you change it, magically, to E 9th – a really cool chord.
Now what do you do? Well, you can either strum that E-9th for a while, experimenting with your rhythms. Or you can go back and forth between your 9th and your regular E-minor. Or you can shift to a C chord – but you’ll find your C chord is more interesting if you leave the 5th string open, and then (after the C-6th) slide your two fingers up two frets to the D position, but still with the 3rd and 5th strings open for an easy D-11th. Now you’ve got something really going. Close the cycle by going back to your regular plain old E-minor chord. Great sequence of four chords, with a great resolution. Play with it, with its rhythms, with how long you stay on each chord between changes.
And now, if you want, you could try breaking up the chords, into little arpeggios, with some basic finger picking. It’s easy. Just get the thumb going up and down like an old stride piano-player, and lay some simple finger work on top if it with the first, second and third strings. It’s all happening. It’s feeling good.
You can stop there if you want – either flat-picking or finger-picking over that basic chord structure, designed any way you want – and wait for the muse to give you her words. Or, if you want to get fancy, you can go up the neck for a few sevenths or whatever, just to spice it up. Up to you.
Now … you just keep doing this for half an hour, an hour, two hours, 10 hours, whatever and whenever you want. And this is when the muse will reward you. You deserve it. You’ve put in the time, and the brain. The muse loves that. Start humming over your chords. Keep humming. A melody will come, following the chord progression. It just will. Honest.
And keep rolling with that wordless melody, rolling and rolling above the chords, slow, fast, doesn’t matter. And a vocal sound will come to you, phonetically. It may not be a sensible sound. It may not be a word or a name. But it is the beginning of your lyrics. Once you have that syllable, or those syllables, you can’t be stopped. If it’s a name, the song is her song or his song. If it’s a word, it’s probably a noun or a verb, and it will tell you the mood of the song, the era, whether it’s energetic or sad or both.
Maybe the sound is … ‘Hannah’. It explodes. Nothing else would work – not Susan or Greg or Caroline or Clarence. It’s her song. And just listen to the muse as you say her name, over and over again, at just the right time when the chord comes around. “Hannah”. And your song will come. And the first words you write down will not be your final words, because you will change them over the next few days or weeks until they are exactly the right words, but you have to write and write and write to get the words down, to get them started, then to cross them out and re-load.
And you won’t write ‘Baby’ or ‘Honey’, and your song won’t be about how misunderstood you are or about how much you miss somebody or about how bad you feel or how sorry you are. It will be about someone you see in your mind who will set her own direction and make her own decisions. She will tell you what she wants – you won’t tell her.
And when you perform your song, every word you have written will be clear and easily heard by your audience, big or small, and you will pronounce the consonants at the end of every word crisply and sharply, you won’t drown them out in some petulant, inarticulate fade-away. You will want your words to be heard and understood.
And the marriage between your chords and your melody and your lyrics will be perfect – in the sense that nothing could possibly change, the song is the song. Where before there was nothing, now there is your song. And it is perfect because it is organic, it has been born, it has been a natural birth, not an imposition of the controlling corporate mind.
And the Sioux Indians, the Lakota, have a name for this process. It’s the same name they have for the Creator of the Universe, unlike the Christian God of Whimsical Power, but the Plains God who is beyond human understanding. They call it Wakan Tanka – ‘The Great Mystery’. And that is where your song has come from.