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The Birth, Life and Death of a Song Part 1: Darkness, Cultivation & Birth

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It has been a number of years since I published a song for general public consumption. While a number of my compositions and songs can be heard in various media around the web as a result of my work in the games industry, my personal musical pursuits have yielded fruits which I've kept largely to myself in recent years.


Also available in this series:

  1. The Birth, Life and Death of a Song Part 1: Darkness, Cultivation & Birth
  2. The Birth, Life and Death of a Song Part 2: Birth
  3. The Birth, Life and Death of a Song Part 3: Life and Death

With this series of tutorials I aim to change that by sharing with you one of my compositions and the complete process whereby the song was created. I aim to be as transparent as possible about my creative process, documenting as many of the 'visible' steps as possible, from song inception to completion.

Before we get started, I probably should make the disclaimer that this series is and can only be about my process. And actually, this is just one of my processes - not all songs are created in the same manner. It is by no means meant to be comprehensive, and some may find it overwrought while others may find it lacking in some areas. For this I can make no apologies, because trying to articulate an individual creative process, and make it something that is easily transferable to another individual is a very, very challenging task.

That said, I'm making the effort here to be transparent with my process, in the hopes that you might find some useful steps, tricks and tips within. As with all my writing, I ask that you hold it lightly, that you take what works for you and incorporate it where it makes sense for you, and to discard the rest. Think of it as motivational, not Gospel...

My creative process starts at the point where, in truth, we all must start...


Darkness

flickr image by yasin turkoglu"

You, Darkness

You, darkness, that I come from
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes a circle of light for everyone
and then no one outside learns of you.

But the darkness pulls in everything-
shapes and fires, animals and myself,
how easily it gathers them! -
powers and people-

and it is possible a great presence is moving near me.

I have faith in nights.

Rainer Maria Rilke

There are an infinite number of ways to start writing a new song, but one practice that I find particularly useful is to sit in silence for awhile and to let the ideas arise spontaneously. Sit without an instrument nearby or anything of the sort - perhaps just pen and paper or voice recorder to capture any idea that arises. From a creative perspective, this place of stillness and emptiness allows for your ideas to develop without interference, without distraction, and without censorship. Lyrics, chords, melody, percussion, an echoed refrain from another tune, or even a visual image might come to mind and inspire a deeper exploration.

While it is possible take the opposite approach here - to absolutely inundate yourself with images, sounds, songs, words - my general sense of the world these days, at least my own world, is that we do not lack for stimulation. We are already bombarded with sounds, images and ideas coming from outside. For many of us, however, silence and stillness are in short supply, and it is from this place that I think some of our most profound and creative ideas can spring.

It is important in this phase to be aware of your own habits and patterns. Sitting in silence or solitude is very difficult for many people, but it is important to avoid distracting yourself too much. The discomfort that can come from 'doing nothing' can be a powerful catalyst for creative impulse.

Before you run off to your quiet and dark room, let me suggest one small step, which I will summarize in a memorable rhyme:

lay your foundation before incubation

What does this mean? Put simply, I'm suggesting that you create a template for your work, so that you have something ready and waiting to 'catch' your ideas as they come to you. There's two parts to this...

The first part is pretty simple - have a voice recorder or a pen+paper handy whenever you're in 'idea mode'. The second part is more about your actual production workspace. This could be as simple as arming an empty recording track in your DAW with a microphone set up, or perhaps you'll load up a piano or other virtual instrument. The important part here is that you are:

  • setting up your workspace for immediate and hassle-free idea capturing once an idea presents itself
  • minimizing your workspace of distractions, so when you do sit down to capture an idea, you don't become distracted by traveling through hundreds of synth presets before starting your recording

Nothing kills a great idea faster than distraction and a lack of focus. And there's no worse feeling for me than letting a good idea escape into the ether. A little bit of preparatory work goes a long way in facilitating great songwriting.

Throughout this series, I'm going to use this sidebar space to share with you some of my personal creative process as I work through each of the steps. Whenever you see text offset in this sidebar format. So during this phase, as I sit here, I'm coming across a lot of ideas about what kind of song I really want to write next. In this first phase, I'm trying to avoid using an idea that I've already started working on, and I'm also finding that my attention is really being drawn to one or two concepts. The first concept I'm thinking about is writing a tune for the love of my life, my wife Katy. During the time we've lived in Ireland, she has really fallen in love with the sea - loves to swim in it, walk on the beaches, and spend time along the cliffs and shores. Secondly, I'm coming across this idea of really wanting to write a song about my experiences here in Ireland, the challenges and struggles of living in a foreign place, of being a new dad, of growing older. I'm also thinking about the idea of 'harvest' - of how we come in and out of these phases of our lives where we must 'harvest' the learnings and experiences we've had, before we can move on to the next phase of our lives.

Cultivation

flickr image by monkeypuzzle

In these early stages of musical conception, I can't stress how important I believe it is to allow as much 'space' as possible to be creative. This means minimizing distractions and maximizing the potential flow of ideas. Spend as much time as you can in a simple and quiet space, with little distraction. Allow ideas to come and go freely.

As you work through this phase, you may find that you really need a change of pace. It is important not to move out of the 'silent' space too quickly, but if you find you really do need a change, here are a few ways you can facilitate this:

  • Go for a long walk in nature - bring a voice recorder.
  • Sit in a different room in your house (preferably quiet and mostly empty). Bring a voice recorder or pen/paper, or bring your instrument if this is feasible - but avoid the temptation to noodle or practice other tunes while you're listening for ideas.
  • If you have a few existing song ideas that you are working with, but seem to have hit a roadblock, using any of the above techniques may provide you with some alternative takes on your idea.
In addition to the ideas mentioned above, I find I'm coming back to a few song ideas that I've been working on, off and on, for the past few months. These are song ideas that I've spent some time with, but for one reason or another have hit a roadblock. One of them is about 'writer's block' and feeling disconnected from your inspiration, and another is about the idea of 'home' when you're in a foreign land. So now I'm up to four ideas that I really like, and I'm going to have to spend some serious time working through these ideas to see if one or another really takes a hold. For my own process, I will probably use a variety of these techniques to see if it can help me filter or sharpen any of the song ideas floating about...

One additional technique that I've found useful in the past is suggested in the excellent book, "The Artists Way" by Julia Cameron. One of the techniques she suggests is the concept of 'morning pages' - setting aside time each morning to write - long hand - three pages of whatever comes to mind, uncensored. You can extend this idea to your musical world by writing the pages any time of day - just before you go into your silent space. This technique allows you to do a kind of 'brain dump' of any ideas that might be taking up more than their fair share of your mindspace.

As you move now into this phase of creativity, the root idea of each of these practices should be 'listening' for the ideas that arise within the space you've created. At some point during this process you may land on an idea that really demands more attention - a melody, a lyric, a chord progression, a rhythm. When you have this idea, capture it and flesh it out as much as you need to be able to 'retain its essence' so that you wont forget it when it comes time to really begin working with it...

Having done this, you have two choices - you can continue to sit in your silent/creative/listening space, allowing more ideas to arise - or - you can take the idea you've landed on and take it into your workspace. From my own experience, the results I get here are about 50/50 - sometimes the idea I start working on ends up being a bust and I should have stayed in the peace of the listening stage instead. And other times, I sit in the listening stage for too long and lose the energy and impulse of the idea by the time I'm ready to sit down and work on it. Sometimes I get it just right...

There is some trial and error here, but in the end, the only recommendation I have here is to trust your instincts.

flickr image by Lin Pernille

For my part, I've clearly not fed through these four ideas enough to say that there is one of them I'd like to take to my workspace yet. I'm really struggling with the desire to create something fresh and new, but also seeing the two song ideas that I already have going are both really powerful, too. I'm wondering if at some point I might just have to make an arbitrary decision and randomly pick one! The four song ideas are currently titled: Harvest, Home In Exile, Oblivion, and Katy & The Sea. I'll continue to work with these ideas over the next few days and weeks, and when we reach Part 2 in our series, I will have chosen one idea to work with.

So here we are - we have an idea, or perhaps several, birthed from the creative space of stillness. We've done some simple sketching of those ideas - perhaps a melody here and a few lyrics there. We've changed the scenery a bit, to allow the idea to mature and to reflect different aspects. The next major phase is to begin working with one particular idea, which we'll begin in Part 2.

I hope you've enjoyed this segment and found some useful tips. Please provide feedback in the comments, and be sure to come back for Part 2, where we'll begin the real work of building our song.

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