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Lesson 149: On Writing Music

How to Start

Usually when I start working on a new tune, I just start with an idea and one thing leads to another.

Kenny Werner has said that you can just sit down and start writing, like you would do a crossword puzzle. I believe in that - you start somewhere and then the tune will unfold.

Where Do I Start?

You can start with:

  • a melody
  • chords
  • a rhythm
  • a hook
  • a riff/ an ostinato/ a vamp
  • a style
  • a title
  • the lyrics

Quantity Is Important

Write a lot. Try to write something every day, if possible. It doesn't have to be a whole tune, it can just be a few bars or a small idea that you can continue working on later.

It is important to write a lot, because you will learn. The good old "learning by doing" is the only way here. You can read books, take classes/ courses, attend lectures and seminars but ultimately it is by writing that you will learn how to write. Someone has said that "the 50 first tunes you write are for practice"...

Let's say that you manage to write one tune a week. That is not much, one single tune a week. But, if you do that:

  • after one year, you will have 50 tunes
  • after two years, you will have 100 tunes
  • after ten years, you will have 500 tunes
  • after twenty years, you will have 1000 tunes

Writing is Re-Writing

Writing is a lot about re-writing/ editing/ revision. You may come up with a perfect, finished song on your first attempt. Just do not let it become a habit to always expect that to happen and always be content with the result of your first attempt.

The Writing and Re-Writing Process

  1. Start by getting something good down - on paper or recorded.
  2. When you have got a first draft down, you can start developing and editing/ revising that:
    • Select the best parts
    • Maybe even remove other parts
    • Develop the best parts - try different possibilities

Try to look at it this way: when you write you do not have to get it right the first time, unlike when you improvise and otherwise perform live. When you write you have all the time in the world to try different possibilities and slowly refine your tune and make it as perfect as you can.

You may for example find that when you write a tune and start with an A section, you come up with a B section that is a lot better. Then you may even choose to throw away the original A section and write a new one - A gave you B which in turn may give you a much better A than the original one. This has happened to me a few times. :-)

On Inspiration

Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.
- Pablo Picasso

Like Picasso said, it is when you are working that you get ideas. You can't just wait around for inspiration to strike you like a bolt of lightning. That does happen at times, but the chances of it happening are greater if you are trying to write. Of course you also sometimes get ideas for tunes when it's impossible to write them down. This may be when you're taking part of a conference, travelling or just taking a walk.

Practicing Composition/ Songwriting/ Arranging

Somebody has estimated that to really master a craft like playing an instrument one has to put about 15.000 hours into it. That means playing/ practicing three hours a day for 15 years.

Learning how to write music is a lot like learning to play an instrument. For a lot of us, composition/ songwriting/ arranging nowadays happens with a digital audio workstation and/ or notation software.

A lot of the masters say that you can write about 2 minutes of music a day. If we say that a working day for a composer/ songwriter is 10 hours ( not unrealistic), you will need two days = 20 hours for a finished four minute tune.

So, how many tunes do you have to write in order to get the 15.000 hours of practice you need to become a master composer/ songwriter/ arranger? Just divide 15.000 hours by 20 hours per song and you get the result - 750 songs! So, I'd say - start today, you have a lot of work to do and if you're not willing to do a lot of work, you should seriously think about going for another career than becoming a composer/ songwriter/ arranger...

So, why on earth do we musicians do this? Why do we work 10+ hours a day, often 7 days a week, usually for very little money? Because for most of us there is simply no way we can not do it, because:

  • we love every single second of it
  • we have a need to create and to express ourselves through music
But my point is - if you think that being a musician/ composer/ songwriter is an easy life and that is what you are dreaming of, forget it and start planning for some other way of making a living... :-P

For some perspective and maybe even some inspiration, check out R. Stevie Moore. He has written and recorded ( singing and playing all the instruments himself) nearly 2000 songs, which he has released on over 400 very original homemade albums...

Why Should You Write Music, Anyway?

It is important to study and to play and sing the music of others, like

  • pop songs
  • jazz standards
  • classical music
  • folk songs
especially when you are studying music.

You learn a lot by studying and interpreting the work of others. You can also express yourself to a great extent while doing others' material.

But, at some point it is vital to start writing something yourself. The best way to find your own voice is to write and try to get in touch with what you're hearing in your head.

This may be terrifying. "What if what I write is no good?" you may think. But the world does not need imitators, it needs originals! You have to take the risk and put yourself on the line and try - you owe it to yourself and the results may be surprisingly good...

Personally, I do not listen to much music nowadays. It inevitably makes me write original music. I do not say that my music is better than the music other people write, but at least it is my own music. And it gives me an enormous feeling of satisfaction when I finish a tune and when I am happy with the result.

And ultimately, if you write a lot, you may find that you have developed a style. Having a personal style is the highest you can strive for and it may happen if you always, no matter what you do:

  • try to express your own personal self and let your heart and soul speak
  • write for yourself, do not try to impress or please others

On Producing Music

I would like to mention one more thing. I think that it is very important to be as self-sufficient as possible:

  • learn to play many different instruments
  • learn to use notation software
  • learn to produce music - to use a digital audio workstation, which includes not only MIDI sequencing and recording but also using effects and mixing
The more you are able to do yourself, the faster and more efficiently you are able to work and finish pieces of music.

My Personal Catalog/ "Portfolio"

I have during the last 30 years written 150- 200 tunes *:

  • the songs that became my CD Zen Guitar Songs
  • pop/ rock songs
  • jazz tunes
  • theatre/ film/ TV music
  • game music
  • jingles
  • music for art exhibitions
  • lately I have written some progressive and nave music
*) It is impossible to tell the exact number, because they are everywhere. Handwritten or printed on paper and gathered in folders or just in Sibelius' Scores folder on my laptop, which contains almost 2000 files...

I am now talking about those of my tunes that are still around. I have also written a lot of tunes that I have thrown away - let's say about 30- 40 of those.

150- 200 tunes is not much, I know, but at least I have started... :-) Check out the sheet music page for the sheet music to some of my tunes.

Nowadays I try to write at least one composition/ song per week. I do not think that this is much, but with my current work load it is what I can reasonably handle. And it is something - after all, had I been doing this for 30 years, I would now have a collection consisting of 30 x 50 = 1500 compositions/ songs...

Some Final Comments

Sometimes I write music as works for hire - for theatre, art exhibitions, other musicians, film, TV or games. If I can write whatever I like, I like to let out whatever is in my head and not worry much about what it is - I like to leave that for others to figure out... :-)

Some funny things that sometimes happen to me nowadays:

  • I hear something in my head and realize it is something I wrote myself
  • I start quoting myself when I write something - I re-use material from an older tune of mine
  • I don't even recognize something I wrote a long time ago when I hear it

2015 Tomas Karlsson. All rights reserved.