Learning to Think Like a Songwriter

A few years ago my family and I had a chance to go white-water rafting near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. At one point along the river our guide told us we were about to enter a series of rapids that would drop us into a calm stretch called “Champagne Canyon”. What he didn’t tell us was that he was about to teach a very valuable lesson about songwriting.

The Art of Understanding
After running the rapids we found ourselves drifting placidly through a deep gorge. Looking down we noticed the water around us filled with millions of tiny bubbles, creating the illusion that we were indeed floating on an effervescent river of champagne. We asked the guide what made such an interesting phenomenon possible. It had to do with the way the water spilled over a rock formation under the surface, trapping air and then spitting it out in violent jets that then rose to the surface as tiny bubbles.

As with anyone who is passionate about their work, our guide was eager to “talk shop” with us, and continued his explanations for the duration of our trip. It was fascinating, and as I listened I came to realize something: where my family and I saw only a beautiful river, our guide saw cause and effect. He knew how the underlying geology would determine the condition of the river. He could identify dangerous formations hiding just below the surface by watching the water move past them. He knew how the river’s behavior would change depending on the season and the water level. In short, he was looking at the river through different eyes than my family and I were - the eyes of understanding.

Listen With New Ears
As songwriters we should be not be passive, but active listeners, continually engaged in understanding the forces at work just under the surface of the music we hear. Why did the songwriter choose this form? Why forgo the bridge? Why does the last chorus sound so powerful? What makes this particular melody evoke such strong emotion? As you listen with purpose you will begin to recognize the rocks and boulders of songwriting, and learn to use them to direct the flow of your own songs.

Watch With New Eyes
A large part of developing your skill as a songwriter is becoming a keen observer of life in general. Every day you come across hundreds of people, situations, and objects that are the stuff of songs, but they don’t present themselves as such; you have to recognize them through the whitewater of everyday hustle and bustle. Don’t be a casual observer - learn to see past the obvious. Live in the moment and be aware of the world around you. There is a basic human tendency to only see what you expect to see, even if that is not what you are seeing. Just ask any trial lawyer. It’s often worth the effort to be more deliberate in observing your day to day affairs. You’ll be surprised.

We are told again and again which car to buy, which clothes to wear, what gas to use, and that life with brand X will be a never-ending party at which every invitee is a super-model. Learn to reject the common media definitions for words like love, success, fun, or beauty. Learn to think for yourself and trust your intuition. The greatest songs ever written are those that connect with people on a deep, real, profound level; a level that exists below the surface of casual observation.

*Photo by QuiteLucid


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