How to write a song—and live your life.
Step one. Gaze longingly in the direction of she (or he) who your heart throbs for. Or look up at the stars or into the tangled branches of a tree.
Somewhere in there is written every tale of love and war.
Step two. Grab an instrument. Strings are preferable because little instruments are mostly portable. You’ll never know when you’re suddenly in the throes of the muse. And something you can sing with, if it moves you to sing.
“Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string.” ~ Thoreau.
Have this quote in mind when you begin to ascend into the inspiration. It’ll look or feel like a blinding light.
Step three. Begin to plunk out some simple chords. C and G are always a good start. If you hear a melody first, chip away at that. Whatever chord you choose, find the melody around it.
The less chords you know the better. Leonard Cohen once joked that music critics early in his career underestimated him as a musician.
“They claimed I only knew three chords,” he said. “When actually I knew five.”
~ Leonard Cohen
Really that’s all you need. Because it has to be simple enough to reach out, through the speaker to a anguished heart and squeeze it.
Complexity is all that really gets in the way. When it gets frilly at this stage, reign it in.
Neil Young and Bob Dylan are flagrant minimalists. Some brilliant songs only consist of one chord. Aretha Franklin’s Chain of Fools for instance.
“If you can do it with three colors, do it with two. If you can do it with two colors, try to do it with one.” ~ Picasso
Paring down to the essentials makes a song great.
Stripping away what the heart doesn’t need. The head throws those pieces in. They’re to feed the ego—to “show off.” Any showing off cuts off the heart from the song.
Step four. Hum, howl or scream inarticulate lyrics. Let the sound move through your throat. Let the music move your lips and tongue. Let no thought enter here.
Step five. Repeat, repeat, repeat, six or six hundred times, until you hear the clearest, crispest voice.
Step six. Step aside. Glow in the aftermath. Welcome to the world of the living.
You are a beautiful thing and now the world can finally hear it. Thank you.
Step seven. Forget every f*cking rule.
How I write a song.
My eyes get wide.
I hear the faintest glimmer of a melody.
I scramble for a guitar or something similar.
My fingers start tickling.
The sounds tickle my heart.
Somewhere around this point I enter a trance state.
Sound pours out of my throat. Lyrics. Unconscious rambling.
I tweak. I adjust. It is virtually destroyed, the song.
Loses all trace of the original inspiration.
I limp to the finish line.
Pull it back together ever so barely.
Just enough to graze the original inspiration with my lips.
Something like this—which I wrote during the past few weeks and recorded this morning.
The way you know if your song is authentic, is if you get in touch with the original inspiration while singing it.
You may go into your head or have to remember a lyric. The song is just underneath that.
You don’t need to ‘”remember” it in the end, because you’re just there, in the thick of it.
Touch the rapturous highs when you’re vibrating. Delve into the depths when you’re heartbroken.
Let nothing come between you and your sweet freedom in these moments.
Become empty of the music. Let yourself be shattered, like a wave against the rocks. Like a dandelion against a gust of wind.
In that most empty space, full of endless possibility, go back to step seven.
Maybe it’s all too much. This frantic dance with a merciless muse, dancing naked on starlight, haunting your dreams—the lover’s face flushed red and eyes flashing tenderly.
If you’re lost in the rapture, gently go back to step one and begin again.
And remind yourself, life is a series of sumptuous moments like these.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Steven Budden
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock