Writing Music by David McCabe
People who don’t write music are often at a loss to understand how songwriters do it. Many songwriters themselves don’t understand it, and go through lean periods when they lack inspiration and wish they knew how to turn it on. In this article I will put forward my thoughts on the process to hopefully shed some light on it.
Any great work of art comes from inside. It is not a response to an intellectual assessment of what the market wants or what we think will be successful. Songs written from this standpoint may well enjoy some success, but they will not stand the test of time as great songs do. Hence my principal message would be ‘write what pleases you, not what you think will please others’. This is all about believing in yourself, and anyone who has written anything any good, or for that matter done any great work of art, has had to do this. They may have been ridiculed at the time, but the value of their work shone through in the end. Music and other art forms get stuck in ruts, but the types of music that are prevalent at any one time eventually get refreshed by new waves as we have seen in the past with The Beatles, Hendrix, punk rock, the new romantics and others. They changed music because they had something different and believed in it. Self-belief is essential if any art-form is to move forwards. It is difficult to produce something totally new because your brain is full of a lifetime’s influences. Hence things usually change in small steps. Musical styles have accepted forms, such as the 12-bar blues form which also crosses over into rock, and the ‘intro-main theme- hook-chorus’ type patterns of pop. Whilst these are all very well, they are constraints – a bit like painting by numbers, and are never going to allow as much creativity as a blank canvas. I’m not saying we should throw them all out, just that occasionally we should think outside the box, or at least build on these forms to move things forward.
I would also argue that the best art is stuff that is positive – that is uplifting rather than depressing, that is beautiful rather than ugly, that is worthy rather than just clever or different, that makes people feel good, that has a positive message, rather than, for instance, about slapping one’s bitch up. I reckon the rest of the human race would broadly agree, which means negative songs will probably be less successful than positive ones. Songwriters who are inclined to the negative should therefore think about whether they ought to look to getting some different influences.
So how do we come up with music from inside? Most people ‘hear’ it in their heads. Obviously to be able to do this it helps if your head is quiet. That is, not swimming around with worries, thoughts and tunes that annoyingly seem to be stuck in a loop. Hence I would suggest that meditation in its broadest sense can benefit the songwriter. This can take the form of just doing something different to switch off, getting out into the park, going for a run, or more direct self-quietening of the mind by visualizing being in a quiet place, and imposing silence on it by force of will.
The starting point for creating music is usually some kind of trigger – an event, something that makes an impression on you, something you care about, something beautiful. I find nature to be an endless source of inspiration – the sea, the mountains, the woods. It all depends how you’re made, and what kind of person you are. If you are a ‘people’ person, you’ll probably find most of your inspiration there. Songs about the human condition stand a good chance of standing the test of time, because they will always be relevant. The serious writer will carry a Dictaphone as often as possible, because when that great tune comes into your head you need to be able to save it, and you can’t rely on your memory for something so important.
So how do these things translate themselves into music? I think that with people who are interested in music, who listen to lot of it and think about it a lot, their subconscious minds soak it all up and process it, associating particular types of sounds with types of events. So, at the obvious level, we associate, for example, fast beats with fast activity, and slow beats with slow activity. Incidental music in films is the best example of this, with almost clichéd types of music for particular situations. When presented with a particular situation, the well-soaked-in-music subconscious mind can hopefully reflexively produce an appropriate tune. To some extent we can consciously think about what kind of music a situation needs, such as soaring high notes suggesting the mountains, and bubbling spangly notes for the surf. Making sounds that to some extent sound like the thing we are writing about, whilst not the only way, is probably the easiest way to evoke it. Writing for specific situations is, I think, easier than having a blank canvas, because it focuses the mind. I think this is why there have been so many great pieces of music written for films and shows. Being open to using instruments that you are not used to is also beneficial. There have been some notable successes with crossover from classical to rock, such as The Verve’s use of strings in Bitter Sweet Symphony, and The Beatles’ in Eleanor Rigby. I use a guitar-synth that enables me to experiment with a wide variety of instruments, which are admittedly not always as good as the real thing. When writing you should also hear in your head not just what notes to play but how to play them – with slide, hammer-on, palm mute, tremolo scoops, bends, pinch harmonics etc. If you don’t have some knowledge of these techniques then the options for writing will tend to be narrowed. You are also limited if you can’t play a riff as fast as you hear it in your head.
As well as being open to using other instruments, we should also think about broadening our influences – the music we listen to. If the brain is like a computer that absorbs data, processes it, then churns out something new, then what comes out depends to a large extent on what goes in. If the same old stuff keeps going in…
Ideas for songs usually start simply, and have to be developed. When I write, I first ‘play’ the tune over in my head, including developing it with lead variations. This enables it to sound ‘right’; if you try to develop it on the fretboard before you’ve got it pretty well sorted in your head, it’s easy to lapse into mechanical phrases from scales and riffs the fingers have learned in muscle-memory. Sometimes you have to make an effort not to play the riff that your fingers want to.
It may be said that the truly gifted artist can produce works of genius with the most basic materials. That may often be true, but if they had decent equipment they would produce something even better. Most of us need the better equipment anyway. You need the right equipment to produce the sound you are looking for. Years ago, I packed up playing guitar because the music I was making wasn’t doing anything for me. I had written some good pieces, but at the time I had only an electric guitar and basic amp, and couldn’t afford anything else. I didn’t even realize that to make my music sound right I needed distortion, reverb and delay, with a synth backing. Equipment is now much cheaper than it was, so hopefully this kind of situation should be less of a problem, but I would highlight the importance of getting the right equipment to make the sound you are looking for.
I have saved something controversial for the end. Please have an open mind about this, and do not just assume I am nuts. People sometimes get fully-formed tunes, sometimes even with lyrics, just popping into their heads. The best example is McCartney who said he woke up one morning with Yesterday fully written in his head. I reckon that this kind of finished article is a product only of conscious thought, so must have been crafted by someone else. Before you start jumping up and down, let me clarify what I mean. I reckon it was written by someone in the spirit world, and communicated to him in that in-between state of consciousness when on the verge of waking. When this happens, the songwriter is effectively acting as a medium. I’ve had personal experience of this. I was parked up at the roadside out in the countryside a while ago and nodded off for a few minutes. When I woke up the title track for my album Emerald Land was running through my head. There were no lyrics though – that took effort and several drafts. But the point is, I think we are influenced more than we know by spirit beings in all aspects of life, like when you are about to step off the curb in front of a truck you haven’t seen and you inexplicably decide not to at the last moment. Whether you believe this or not, it’s a good idea to keep the Dictaphone by the bed because you could wake up in the middle of the night with a cracking tune going through your head. If the Dictaphone isn’t there, the chances are that you won’t be able to drag yourself up to fetch it, and will fall back to sleep again. By morning, that tune will have evaporated like a dream.