Excellent songs can be made at lightning speed, with little intent, hardly any effort and no training, using a minimum of technical ability. It doesn’t matter how it was made. A good song is a good song, and sometimes all that’s needed are a couple chords, some very simple lyrics and a basic melody. But it’s not often the case that great songs come effortlessly, and even when they do, it’s usually because of something more than just blind luck or “natural” talent.
I started writing songs when I was a junior in high school. Actually, it’s more accurate to say, “I started writing song fragments” back then. I would write a riff (that was a direct rip-off of “Sunshine of Your Love” or “Black Dog”) or a chorus or pages of words that were neither good enough to pass as poetry or musical enough to cram into a verse.
This went on for a couple of years resulting in maybe a small handful of completed songs that time has generously erased. I studied Music Composition and focused on other musical practices before winding my way back to songs. When I did return, I wrote secretly for a few years, fortunately having enough insight to recognize that the songs were “not yet ready for prime time.” It took grinding my way through dozens and dozens of songs over more than a decade before I felt like I had something worth sharing publicly.
This is not necessarily the case for some songwriters. I know many people for whom their very first attempts at songwriting hold up beautifully in the light of day. I just met someone recently, in fact – he’s a busy doctor and a father, and he decided to give songwriting a try in his extremely limited spare time. He came up with a gorgeous batch of songs that he performs in harmony with his wife. These are the first songs he’s ever written.
I am humbled, to say the least.
There’s a small element of talent or “ear” involved in the case of catching one phenomenal, simple song, but probably more luck, openness, spontaneity (the last two of which are certainly skills in their own right, just not specific to songwriting).
Someone might be successful doing this once, maybe twice. However, when we talk about sustaining a songwriting practice over a lifetime, this method of grabbing songs out of the sky with no intent, technique or effort, is probably not going to carry us the distance. Without a more disciplined approach, it’s hard to maintain quality over time unless you’re exceptionally talented.
Personally, I’m not exceptionally talented, so I actually have to work at songwriting.
It’s common to hear stories of songs that were written in fifteen minutes or even in as little time as it takes to play them once through. Many songwriters talk of this happening to them at some point in their life. But it’s usually during a period of tremendous creativity and productivity, after they’ve already studied their craft, developed a unique voice and have established a reliable writing practice. They are usually in the middle of a several year “high point” in their work, totally immersed in the creative process, writing songs every day. What you don’t hear about are the forty mediocre or unfinished songs they threw away in the weeks and months leading up to that five minutes of inspired brilliance.
I would never discourage anyone, regardless of experience or know-how, from picking up a guitar, sitting down at a piano, booting up a computer and just trying to write a song. I think the world would be a much better place if everyone did this, actually. There would undoubtedly be some miraculous results. But I would encourage people to not feel defeated if “great” songs don’t come right away. Maybe it will happen for you, but maybe your “great” songs are a few years down the line, 50 songs into your writing life? Fortunately there’s a fun way to get there.