As a a songwriter, I am a “lifer.”
I’ve spent many hours everyday writing with, teaching to, and in online forums conversing with songwriters. It’s not uncommon to hear songwriters say things like, “You can’t learn songwriting. You either have it, or you don’t.” Or, “This song came from my inner soul, so it’s perfect just like it is.” And here is my personal favorite arrogant quote, “I only write when I’m inspired. Anyone who doesn’t just writes crap.”
Why do many songwriters believe their art is different than every other art in the world? That hard work, training, and practicing “even when you don’t feel like it” doesn’t apply to them? Can you imagine a great guitarist saying, “I only play my guitar on days when I feel inspired?” Heck, no! The great guitarists practice hours and hours playing the same lick thousands of times. Does that mean that great guitarists don’t play from the soul like a songwriter writes from the soul? Of course they do! But the hours of practice—inspired or not—get them to a point of executing their art at a higher level.
Let’s talk about the BIG arrogant statement: “You can’t learn how to write songs.”
Wow! I’ve heard this said by writers at all levels who feel they’ve been given the gift of songwriting, and everyone else in the world needs to accept that they should give up. This attitude exists at all levels from pro hit writers, indie screw-the-system writers, and aspiring writers who are “tops” in their little town. The funny thing is this statement often comes from writers who aren’t that good and could definitely learn a thing or two! Putting others down doesn’t mean you’re better! But, once again, why is songwriting different from any other art? There is a long line of famous sculptures and painters who apprenticed under masters before them. Are they less creative or inspiring than songwriters? Socrates was one of the greatest philosophers the world has ever known. A truly inspired mind. His prize student was Plato, who had his prize student, Aristotle. Three of the greatest influential minds in the history of the world. All of them believed in learning from teachers to further their art. Is there any songwriter alive at this moment who knew more than these three???? Tiger Woods has a swing coach. Great Dancers have teachers, all of whom are inspired artists.
I encourage songwriters not to fall into the trap of thinking, “My song came in a moment of great inspiration and is therefore perfect.”
Inspiration is a powerful and perfect thing for sure, but 99% of the time it’s just the push to get a song started. Later, we need to revise, edit, and sometimes, lose whole lines or sections to really bring a song home. Don’t fall into what I like to call the “Diary Trap.” We write in a journal, and it makes us feel better. We put our emotions on paper. We work through our pain just by writing it down. Many writers do this with songs. They spill their emotions out in a rush. But, just like a diary, these types of writings make us feel better, but aren’t really meant to be shown to the world. Songs are a conversation between the writer and the listener, and the listener needs to be important to that writing process.
Maybe it’s because, as writers, we open ourselves, our hearts, and souls to the world, and somehow, that makes us arrogant. We have to believe that we have something important to say, or the job would be too hard to do. But, I challenge all songwriters to remember that having something of value to say doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn, or what we have to say is better than what everyone else has to say! Great art is available for all people to tap into. Not just the chosen ones. So, I believe we should take care not to fall into the Arrogant Songwriter Trap and concentrate on the art of songwriting instead.
Write On! ~CM
Clay Mills is a multi platinum Grammy nominated hit songwriter and co-founder of SongTown.com