When used wisely, technology can be an incredibly effective tool for creating new music but it can also become the biggest hurdle in creating music that still feels musical. We're living in a world where the available technology is off-the-charts crazy with the potential to automate, expedite, and better manage our everyday workload. As a musician however, your work also requires methods that will spark and foster your artistic talents. There must be a balance between efficiency and originality if your music is still going to connect with your audience.
Now more than ever, we need to find tools to enhance our creativity, not to restrict, and certainly not to replace our creativity.
I am far from being anti-technology but there is something to be said about being selective and rather intentional with how you use it create art.
I've posted here before about tech tools for making music but let's focus now specifically on our songwriting—honing our musical ideas to tell a story through a creative blend of words and music. Before we start performing, before we start recording and mixing, we have to begin by writing the song itself.
How does today's technology influence the way we collect our thoughts and organize them into some structure to form a new song?
How does tech then impact our ability to further deepen and refine our best ideas to complete the song by realizing its basic sound?
Regardless of whether you start with the words or the music, technology can have its place in your creative workflow without sacrificing your imagination. In this first part, we'll start with the overall story and lyrics. Next time we'll explore the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic sides of crafting a song in the 21st century.
Part One: Thoughts & Words
Pulling Song Subjects from the Ethernet
While an idea for a new song can start with a particular phrase or a specific line, many others will often begin with a much broader subject in mind: falling leaves, what I saw on the news last night, my brother's new relationship, and so on. One tip I recently grabbed from Martin Sutton is to search Google Images for quotes about a subject related to your main theme. If you're writing a song about sunshine, type sunshine quotes in the search box and take some inspiration from what you find as a starting point for your own ideas. These initial thoughts can then help you find the story you want to tell, who will be telling it, and to whom. This simple example shows how technology can be a useful part of your creative process but still require your unique input to make it effective, personal, and therefore more interesting.
Using our sunshine example, one of the more prominent search results is the quote, "Keep your face always towards the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you." Attributed to Walt Whitman (although not part of his written works), the poetic words alone may be enough to spark some imagination for your song, but the visual elements found in the search results can also stir up some memories or feelings you might have about sunshine, shadows, and who needs to hear about them.
The point being you wouldn't want to just steal the actual quote itself as your hook; instead, you can put your own fresh spin on the meaning that you find behind the quote to make it uniquely yours as the songwriter. This is why we can listen to several songs about the same subject but still enjoy each one as a different story and an individual experience.
Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone, Walking On Sunshine, Sunshine of Your Love, and My Girl all talk about sunshine in their lyrics and all tell a story about a relationship—but each one connects with us differently for different reasons.
“Siri, Write Me Some Good Song Lyrics…”
Apologies to Siri and Alexa, but they really don’t make for strong co-writers, although the songwriter splits might be easier to negotiate. There are mobile apps and online song generators that will take a few key words or short sentences you provide to stitch together related phrases that (may or may not) loosely rhyme into a verse and chorus for you. I won't list any here simply because I personally don't recommend them. They may have their place in overcoming severe writer's block but they can also mislead someone into believing they're a songwriter as soon as they click the Submit button to get their new "song" delivered to them instantly. If you really need to have a song delivered to you, I'd suggest hiring a songwriter or lyricist because art is not always meant to be that easy.
The labor of love that we put into our art is what truly provides its value to us as musicians. What gives lyrics their impact is the personal connections we have to them as the writer, and the personal connections our listeners will hopefully form when they hear and interpret our lyrics for themselves. Even the obligatory "Oh Baby, Baby" lyric has to have some meaning behind it in order to connect.
If you succumb to writer's block or struggle with lyrics in general, consider collaborating with another writer whose tastes compliment your own. There's no rule that says you have to do everything by yourself, and bouncing ideas off of another musician or lyricist is going to be more effective than forcing random words to connect.
Analog or Digital? Which Does Your Brain Prefer?
When it comes to songwriting, many musicians simply rely on their trusted pen and paper to sketch ideas for a new song. Along with the song's subject come the lyrics, often handwritten in a physical notebook. While not very "techy" this analog method is often quite effective in engaging our creative mindset because there is a credible link between the way our brain processes the information we are capturing and the method we use to capture it.
Simply put, when we are writing by hand—like taking notes in a meeting or in the classroom—we can't write down every word, nuance and detail but instead are forced to quickly summarize the concepts in our head to identify the key information we need to capture and retain. At the same time our brain is forming a bond between the ideas we've processed and the written word.
Through the physical act of writing something down on paper our brain is working to process ideas much more deeply than when typing on a computer keyboard. Typing words on the keyboard may allow us to capture the information faster but our minds are processing it all in a more shallow manner. If you’re like me, you may even find your attention being drawn towards how to spell a single word or finding a specific letter on the keyboard more than focusing on the actual thoughts you’re trying to capture.
It's worthwhile to try different methods to establish what works consistently well for you as a writer. If you have always written your lyrics by hand try typing them into a Google doc as they come to you. If you always write your lyrics on your phone or computer make an effort to write offline by hand instead. Perhaps you don't use either method and like to sing your lyrics as you work out the melody. You'll likely find a few things about each method that you like and dislike when compared to what you're more used to doing.
But what if we can blend the best of both the analog and digital worlds together, instead of having to choose one over the other?
For many, handwriting their lyrics while they audition various patterns and rhyming schemes is a more fluid process but it's hard to beat technology for capturing an idea on the fly when you're mobile and for keeping your ideas organized and accessible to find them later.
Using Tech to Manage Works In Progress
I've tried a few dedicated mobile apps for songwriting but I'd recommend using something more general, robust, and free like Evernote to capture your ideas and catalog them by subject, mood, emotion, tempo, or whatever combination of attributes you want to use. Once captured, your ideas are stored in the cloud where you can easily find them again simply by searching for a title, phrase, and/or whatever tags you've created. Using their mobile app for both iOS and Android, Evernote provides plenty of flexibility in how you capture your ideas:
Take a photo of your handwritten lyrics
Record a voice memo
Use your finger or stylus to "write" or draw onscreen
Type your lyrics using the keyboard
Your notes have been synced to the cloud and, when you're at home, you can retrieve all of your song ideas from their website on your Mac or PC to easily pick up where you left off.
Online Rhyming Dictionaries
Evernote has been around for awhile now and, for me, has been a stable and reliable place to keep stuff organized and searchable. One important song-related feature missing from a general app like this however is a rhyming dictionary. Unlike a so-called "lyric generator", a rhyming dictionary can quickly deliver new ideas you hadn't thought of while still requiring your own imaginative skills to provide the right context as you fit the lines together creatively into something that sounds much more natural and well, lyrical. While there are still paperback rhyming dictionaries in print, a great use of technology is the ability to quickly search for and find things quickly from wherever you happen to be. Try some of the online resources available and bookmark the ones you find helpful:
The common theme here is finding ways to compliment your songwriting workflow, not to complicate it.
What other technologies have you discovered to enhance your process for developing your ideas for new songs and for writing actual lyrics? I'd love to hear more about your songwriting methods and tools. Tell me about your music!
Next time we'll dive into the benefits and potential pitfalls of some popular tech resources for developing melodies, chords and rhythms.
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