Songwriting As Sowing


A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of driving to the campus of Allegheny Wesleyan College to share a songwriting workshop with the Creative Writing class (as well as some other students and faculty who dropped in to listen). The coffee shop in the Student Life Center provided a perfect backdrop for the workshop and the students/staff were a great audience to share with! Miss Elsa Lee, the English professor who invited me to share, joined the class via Zoom all the way from Taiwan. She has been a dear friend and a gracious listener to my music.

Following is a (very) brief synopsis of the 50-minute talk I gave describing what songwriting looks like for me. Enjoy! :-)

1. Gather Those Seeds.

I look at the thoughts/ideas I get for a song as seeds that must be cultivated in a nutrient-rich environment. In my experience these seeds are most likely to be found in sermons, things people say, books I read, personal experiences, as well as everyday events. One of the best places for gathering seeds is words (just plain words). I try to consistently learn new words and write these words down in the same place for future reference. Right now I’m working on a particular song: part of the song came from two words I recently learned, halidom and sanctum. Then an ad I saw in a magazine on an airplane sparked my imagination. Yeah, seeds can come from pretty much anywhere.

2. Use Your Tools.

Over the years I have streamlined my process for songwriting (and just writing in general).

  • Some of my favorite apps for keeping my seeds organized include Bear and Voice Memos (some apps I’ve used in the past were GarageBand and Ulysses). I use these apps on a regular basis and make them a part of my everyday routines.

  • Two more tools I use consistently (often daily) are the thesaurus and dictionary. Oh, yes, I have four dictionaries on the homepage of my iPhone (though WordBook is my favorite for a variety of reasons).

  • I recently discovered the website and have found it be invaluable. In songwriting you often need a word that ends with certain letters or sounds, and this webpage allows you to search words “backwards” this way.

  • Don Moen, (“Lord, I Offer My Life To You” and “God Will Make a Way”) suggests writing music using different instruments. For example, if you’re most comfortable with the guitar, try using the piano. I’ve been really happy with some of the results I’ve gotten following this suggestion.

I spent quite a bit of time discussing the importance of using Scripture to ground my lyrics. I’m often amazed at the lyrics I read that do not ring true to Biblical theology. And just as disturbing to me are songs, even hymns (and you won’t find someone who loves good hymns more than I do), that are not consistent with real-life experiences. Songs about the never-ending bliss and happiness of the Christian life may warm your heart, but I have not found their lyrics to be true. I stressed the imperative quality of honesty. You have hard questions? Ask them in your songwriting. Your faith is wavering? Tell me about it. Do you doubt God’s goodness? Spill it out. Chances are, if you’re dealing with these questions, other people are as well, and your words will give them space to voice their own doubts. Why do you think we all love the psalms of David and the writings of Job? They were not afraid to be honest.

“Songwriting takes courage. It requires bravery to be vulnerable. To be honest. To share a part of you with the world, or even with the people that mean the most to you in the world. Be brave.”

And the last of the tools I dissected was a long list of “technical” stuff:

  • Writing music and lyrics at the same time vs. separately.

  • Strengths of counting and measuring syllables (this can force you to use a more creative vocabulary). I do not always count syllables, but the work you put into confining your words to a measure can yield worthwhile fruit. “Amazing Grace” uses an 8-6-8-6 syllable count.

  • Use a variety of rhyme schemes. I will sometimes look at a unique rhyme scheme and try to emulate it. I do not consider this plagiarism. There’s no law against using the A-B-A-B rhyme pattern — everyone does it. So why not use a more obscure rhyme pattern and force yourself out of your comfort zone?

  • I briefly touched on two literary devices that I often use: assonance — repetition of vowels without repetition of consonants used as an alternative to rhyme in verse. And…

  • Consonance — correspondence or recurrence of sounds in words. This is my absolute favorite literary device ever. If you hop over to this blog post, you might notice the constant /s/ sounds bleeding through. Quite on purpose. Makes me feel cozy and at home and wrapped up in a blanket with a cup of hot coffee. Consonance is reassuring to me.

“For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.”  - Tom Waits

3. Cultivate That Soil.

As I said earlier, your seeds need a nutrient-rich environment in which to grow. These cultivators can be books, other songs/hymns, poems, people (a fascinating object of attention), quotes, pain, experience, and nature (to name a few). And my very favorite of all — boring sermons. Do not lose an opportunity to write during a boring sermon. This is where some of my best songs have been written.

Immediately following the workshop I attended the college chapel service where five of the ministerial students shared a short devotional. At the beginning, the ministerial students were publicly warned that I write songs during boring sermons, so they should be careful. At the close of the service, I told them that I was able to write five songs during the service. (Okay, okay, I was just kidding. But I was sitting front and center and a lot of the students found it humorous when I motioned to the girls sitting next to me for a pen and paper when the first guy got up to preach).

4. Avoid These Toxins.

Through the years, I’ve come to watch out for a few toxins or creativity-killers.

  • Fitting in the mold or writing what people expect. Don’t squelch honesty. If you write what matters to you, it will probably matter to someone else. Surprise people.

  • Writing for a general audience. Sometimes writing with one or two people in mind produces lyrics (or reflections) that get to the heart. If you try to write something that will speak to everybody, it might not speak to anybody.

  • Utilizing often-rhymed words: i.e. grace/face, light/night, sin/within, me/free/see/Calvary, life/strife, day/way/say, friend/end. This list only scratches the surface, and it is not a crime to couple these words together. However, I try to avoid them, or only place them within original-sounding lyrics. The last thing we need is another song about your burdens rolling away and your night turning to day when Christ cleansed from within your heart full of sin. USE YOUR THESAURUS (AND YES, I’M YELLING!) And, imperfect rhyme is not a sin (grace/phrase, move/tomb, slow/home).

  • Settling for less. If you have a particular word or phrase you want to use, keep playing with the thoughts and words until you get what you’re after.

  • Rushing the growth. Let a song take as long as it needs to take. I’ve had some songs take me four years or more to complete. I’ve had some seeds sitting in the ground for maybe eight years before they found the proper environment in which to germinate.

  • Using too many words. This is painful for me. I have no problem coming up with a lot of words. One thing I’ve found helpful is that if I have verses that are copious in wordage, a simple chorus that doesn’t ask my listener to follow a long train of thought is a welcome relief (like, “Never One Time”). I’ve got a song on my next album (“Job’s Song”) that has a lot of words in the verses, but the chorus only uses a combination of a dozen words (with a lot of chord progressions and rising melody to make up for the lack of verbiage).

5. Find Your Sharecroppers.

Get a rhyming community — seek out people that you can share your lyrics (or writing) with. Have different “sowers” who can assess different songs with fresh eyes. Listen to your critics, but don’t cast your pearls before swine (if you’re pretty sure someone won’t get your song, don’t waste your time asking them for their opinion. Find people who get what you’re trying to say). Lastly, don’t be too attached to your lyrics. I can struggle with this one — I know the backstory on the song, and am well-prepared to defend why I chose a word or phrase or thought. My listeners don’t always know that history, and a good critic can point that out and help me find the words that will best speak my heart.

What about you? Have you found a tool or process helpful in songwriting or writing? I’d love to hear from you!