Songwriting, Art Or Craft?

Is writing a song an art resulting from divine inspiration or is it a craft accomplished by technical know-how and repetitious practice? Arguments can be made for both concepts and numerous examples given of inspired songwriters with limited technical training. But for the young aspiring musician of today with a modern arsenal of digital music making tools at hand, what if inspiration falls short? Wouldn’t it serve young musicians to put inspiration on hold for a moment and explore the craft of musical construction in order to build a more powerful vocabulary. Then, when the coconut of inspiration cracks open a head full of ideas, the aspiring songsmith will be able to decide which of the many available options are most suited to convey artistic intentions most effectively.

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in becoming a songwriter is the notion that every note issuing from the pen is sacrosanct. One must come to grips with the idea that out of a hundred songs, maybe a handful will be meaningful. Writing the rejected material however, is far from a waste of time. Indeed, it is precisely the time spent writing embarrassing garbage which results in the ability to recognize and sort out what works from what doesn’t. Think of it as doing a computer search. The first step your computer takes in looking for a file is to eliminate the irrelevant files and narrow down the areas to search effectively. In other words, if you are searching for toilet paper, you already know that the frozen food aisle is a waste of time. Yet it is not uncommon for inexperienced songwriters to waste time and energy digging under the frozen peas and pizza for something being displayed for half price with a coupon in the paper aisle.

Here is a simple exercise in songwriting that is painfully basic but time well spent. It is an exercise in simplicity and exploits the fact that many popular song structures are much simpler than we would care to admit. Let’s take three basic chords for our harmonic vocabulary. E Major, A Major and D Major. If we write the three chords in every possible sequential combination, we have the following results:

1) E, A, D    2) E, D, A    3) A, D, E    4) A, E, D    5) D, A, E    6) D, E, A.

Write each chord sequence on a piece of paper and throw all six pieces into a hat. Now take one piece of paper from the hat as you would in choosing the winning raffle ticket. Play this combination of chords in the given sequence for at least five minutes. Don’t try to make anything more out of it than it is. Just set the drum machine, sequencer or egg timer to five minutes and let the chords decide the groove. After five minutes, try singing a simple melody over the chords. Let your ears do the thinking and don’t try to come up with something that the world has never heard before. If you have a short lyrical idea in mind, go ahead and try to incorporate it but the idea is to build a melodic vocabulary inspired by three simple chords. You can sing “Granny wears army boots” for all I care, just explore as many melodic ideas as possible.

Now, choose another piece of paper and repeat the exercise until you’ve gone through all six chord progressions. If you can refrain from thinking too much you should be able to get through the entire hatful in an hour. Then, to make things more interesting, choose two pieces at a time and start your timer.

For young bands slugging it out in the garage as to whose idea has the most value, this exercise will not only expand everyone’s abilities but also serve to let every band member contribute to the group’s musical vocabulary. Each member can pull a sequence and the whole band can play the sequence as a unit. In this way, every member has the chance to direct the band through their sequence in turn. Whoever pulls the paper out of the hat gets to produce the track so to speak, and the combination of everyone’s input will increase the band’s ability to write as a unit.

“Three chords” you say. And I answer emphatically, “Yep! Three simple chords.” As a matter of fact, if you do the exercise, you’ll find that about a million songs will come to mind. And the reason they will come to mind is that they were hit records…and that is the whole point, isn’t it? To learn how to write a hit song. Artists like Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, CSNY, Bob Dylan on and on and on haven’t been embarrassed to express their artistic inspiration through the use of just three chords and neither should you. And when the times comes to get really tricky and need to say your piece with five or six chords, you won’t be rummaging around in the freezer wondering where the damned toilet paper went.

9 Responses to “Songwriting, Art Or Craft?”

  • Pieps

    heya Bro , great reading … hehehe , I always love it when “songwriting ” gets demystified 😀 😀 😀 . First thing that always come up when I hear about songwriting or composing is Frank Zappa’s definition of a composer : ” A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians. ” .
    Okay , that’s for “active composing ” … mostly the evolution of “something that might become a new song” starts for me by just playing some chords , changing patterns , and trying 5ths , 9ths and 11ths instead of the majors and minors … and in this proces of trial and error sometimes some things survive . It’s a bit like Pete says in his A-E-D story … sometimes I even start with just one chord I like a lot , and try out what fits next to it . So it mostly starts with paterns , schedules , a melody , finding variations … but to be honest I wouldn’t know when it becomes a song .
    To be on the safe side , I always say : that I don’t make songs … but that they are brought to me by the wind and the silence … and it really feels more as ; just being lucky “finding thngs ” that might eveolve to a song , than that I’m actively creating something .

    HAVE FUN !!! yours Pieps :-)

  • Actually, as all fans of James Brown know, you don’t even need three chords…

    Or, as Paul Hindemith said, “There are only twelve tones and they need to be treated carefully.”

    JB & Hindemith in the same comment? Don’t tell me I’m not eclectic. :p

    Groove Duke

  • Genius! Agreed Frank Zappa true composer.

  • Nice one Pete, I still remember some songwriting and improvisation lessons/tips from my old guitar teacher over here in the Netherlands, a zillion years ago. It was about translating music from your mind to the instrument. What he meant was… that people can talk with each other without having to read the words from a piece of paper. That’s also improvising but… with words and sentences using a language code. Young children mostly start with their first spoken words ‘mum and dad and bla bla bla’. They don’t know anything about the existence of the ‘alphabet’ before going to school. They are just copying the sounds they hear, like a parrot. But man …most children can talk the whole day long without knowing how to read or write a single word.
    Some famous songwriters/musicians/singers can’t read a note as big as an elephant but they sure can translate their creative thoughts/fantasy into music.
    Old fashioned music schools start with the theory first, notes and some boring songs… I think it’s a good way to de-motivate and to kill children’s natural creativity and fantasy. Let them have fun first. Teach children to use ‘their ears’ and encourage them to copy, play and learn their own favorite music. That’s motivating to continue learning.
    Of course music theory is quite handy and necessary but it’s not the first priority. I’m still laughing about a saxophone player who couldn’t play anymore after the keyboard player turned on his fan. All the poor guy’s sheet music flew through the air like leaves from a tree in the middle of a tornado. That guy started his playing with learning the theory first and could not play/improvise without his sheet music.


  • Michael Clouse

    Great blog!
    “First you learn all the rules and only then can you proceed to break them”

  • As a young band slugging it out in the garage, clubs and small theaters, we have employed these techniques and they work or we just write what we are thinking about at that moment! lol
    Thanks Pete for all your help!

  • Nice work Pete!

    Here’s a little twist to Pete’s exercise…

    Take out the third from each of those three chords A,D,E and you get the 3 basic chords (power chords) of a Blues progression. Just use those 3 chords in a typical 12 bar blues progression and then take 2 simple phrases like:

    “I woke up this morning” (pause in between to breath) “and had a nice surprise”

    Select only one note from the A minor pentatonic scale (a,c,d,e,g) and sing that single note along with the phrases above. Experiment with different rhythms and feel how the contours of the same note change over the different chords. Some notes work better than others but if you phrase it out right, you have some instant blues melodies.

    Try it out, should be lots of fun for some basic constructs. Cheers – Clemens

  • nice one indeed…. song wrighting….

  • Hi,

    Some handy basics to make life easier;

    Example 1.
    Key Amin or C
    All notes and chords sound perfectly together in any order
    notes A B C D E F G, on these chords Amin, B dim., C, Dmin, Emin, F, G.
    Amin pentatonic notes A C D E G (blues rock scale)

    Example 2
    Key A or F#min
    All notes and chords sound perfectly together in any order
    notes A B C# D E F# G# on these chords in any order A, Bmin, C#min, D, E, F#min, G#dim
    A maj/pentatonic notes F#, A, B, C#, E. (blues rock, country scale)

    Example 3
    Some other possibility’s in rock/blues/country
    Key A
    Amin pentatonic notes A C D E G (blues rock scale)
    A maj/pentatonic notes F#, A, B, C#, E. (blues rock, country)

    Now try to add and practice the following notes but play/sing them short over these 3 example chords A, D, E (blues/rock feel)
    D# (that’s a nice but mean blue one!)
    A, (B), C, C#, D, E, F#, G, A + add the blue note (D#) but play it short cause this one bites.
    Guitar players start on the fifth fret on the low E string.

    Of course you can mix both scales Amin pentatonic & A maj/pentatonic and start writing a zillion songs.