“Songwriting is easy” – an insult to the artist, or fundamentally true?


Songwriting is easy!” I heard someone remark recently. She’s a musician so it wasn’t one of those disparaging remarks you sometimes hear (like the classic “newspaper reporter – that’s just a glorified typist, isn’t it?” I was once subjected to when I was training as a reporter).

Her comment was about the fact that sometimes if you get a creative idea it just ‘comes’. Raw idea to written words (or basic melody, or rough watercolour sketch, or whatever it might be) with a rapidity that surprises even the lucky recipient of the idea.

I had a ‘flash of inspiration’ moment only the other day. I’d just read a quote by the philosopher Goethe and it sparked off an idea for a song. Here’s the quote: “Dream no small dreams, for they have no power to move the hearts of men”. An idea for a verse and chorus based on this started forming as I worked on the day job. Soon afterwards, I got a call from a musician friend, Keith, who fronts a local band I’ve worked with on a couple of other songs. Keith had just had an idea for a melody but needed some lyric ideas for it.

The ballad-style melody had gone, as he put it, “from brain to guitar to recording” in just 15 minutes. He whizzed the audio file over on email and in one of those Eureka moments I realised it was exactly the right mood and tempo for the lyrics I had in mind. I added another two verses and typed the lot up in about an hour and Keith is now working on developing the music and lyrics together. (I’m hoping this will be another co-write for his band, Pimlico Road, who are currently rehearsing for a headline gig at London music venue The Troubadour next month.)

The speed with which the basics of the Goethe Song (working title!) were constructed made me wonder whether good songs can be (or should be) written at such a pace, so I posed the question “Is songwriting easy?” on the LinkedIn Lyric Writing Collaborations forum, and got some interesting answers. “Nothing worth doing is ever easy,” says Texas-based country music writer Mister G. “If it was all this easy then the artists would be all writing their own and we wouldn’t be needed.”

Robert Call, a songwriter from Boston, Massachussetts, says most of his songs “just come”, usually from real life, but that the post-lyric work is the hard bit.

I do feel it is a special something you have in you, and if you have a gift you need to refine it,” he says. “I spend time arranging my songs; some I have redone five times. I wrote lyrics to one song but couldn’t find the right tune to it so I put it away and revisited the whole thing nine months later. Then it took just two hours and people love it, but it’s not true to say the process is easy – that’s an insult to the artist.”

Musician Nick Scott from Surrey, England thinks “anyone can write a song” but he qualifies this by adding: “Not many can write good songs; writing a good song is difficult. For example, I’m paranoid about the lyrics being pretentious. And there are so many other things to take into account: presentation, timing, delivery, the right tempo…”

Brian Mauer from Chicago in the US has his own take on this: “Writing songs is a fairly easy and enjoyable process when you are inspired. I have had epiphanies that have allowed great songs to be completed within a matter of hours. I have also written other great songs that have taken months of tweaking to dial them in to a state of reasonable satisfaction. Then there are others that came quickly, but seemed a bit too trite or contrived to be taken seriously. Others I have worked and reworked many times over the course of years only to abandon them for not being special enough to be in my catalog. In my humble opinion; satisfaction is an unjust reward, but well worth the pursuit.”

Songwriting is arguably easier than some genres of writing. I bet most novelists, whether successful or aspiring, would reckon Christmas had come early if all they had to produce was a few verses and a chorus, instead of 100,000 words to a carefully constructed plot. The musical parallel would be the composer who has to produce a two-hour opera or symphony – Beethoven would have had it easy if all his works had been only three minutes long.

Knowing the amount of time that can go into the research and interviews involved in producing 1,500 words or whatever of news or feature text, a lot of journalists would also agree that songwriting was comparatively easy; in what other field of writing can you come up with the essentials of the project while driving the car or sitting in a pub with a notebook and a beer for a couple of hours?

British songwriter Mark Smith, from the West Midlands, comments; “Yes, songwriting is easy, it needs a bit of effort to get it recorded, that’s all. As long you have the tools to do it then it should be a natural progression.” He adds, however: “I have made it sound simple but it is very complex on a deeper level.”

As Mark suggests, there’s a lot more to it than might appear. There’s getting the idea or concept in the first place; a lot of creatives complain of having fallow periods where absolutely nothing of value pops into their addled heads. And a lot of non-creative people never have an original idea at all – and that’s not an insult, because having ideas isn’t actually something many people think necessary or desirable.

For those who do value creative thought, that idea is often just the beginning. For the songwriter, there’s far more involved than just the lyrics: there’s the refining and rewriting of the lyrics to make sense, to scan, to rhyme, to tell an engaging, meaningful story. As Wally Henderson, a songwriter from New Brunswick, Canada, says: “It’s easy at times, when your framework is complete, but the more you write the more right you like to be.”

And of course then you need to get a melody and chords together and get the music arranged or scored – another tricky job. Brian Mauer of Chicago agrees. He says: “Where it truly becomes difficult is the arrangement phase of writing. This is where you take the same six chords that everyone else is using and making something truly unique to your DNA.”

Even assuming you’ve achieved that level of uniqueness, how do you get your song performed if you’re no performer yourself? How do you get it recorded and produced to a decent standard? These are all additional skill-sets that not every writer possesses. So songwriting can often be a collaborative kind of work, and finding collaborators who work at your pace, in your style, to your aims, whose skills complement your own, can be the hard bit.

Please leave your comments about the pleasures and pains of collaboration.

Or why not visit the Lyric Writing Collaborations forum to see if any new comments have been posted since I wrote this blog. 

Pic credit: www.morguefile.com

9 thoughts on ““Songwriting is easy” – an insult to the artist, or fundamentally true?

  1. Robert Call says:

    sue very good blog and alot of comments from both sides, I love your take and this is a very good discussion keep it up!!!

  2. Mark Smith says:

    A very well structured piece Sue, I bet you could have written ten thousand words plus on this topic and the depths it can take you in all disciplines. I congratulate you on tackling it.

  3. Sarah says:

    Really interesting subject – obvious when you think about it but yes if it was that easy even One Direction would be doing it 😉 Good comparison with feature writing but I suppose also similar as if it’s purely comment piece (or a trade show report like I’ve just done) you can “create” while standing at the kettle (then throwing yourself headlong at the laptop while it’s still fresh!!)

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