Often on Song Talk Radio, this question arises. Sometimes, it’s fun for the hosts to try and guess. “Your song sounds very cerebral,” or “Your song sounds very intuitive.” The guests themselves tell us how well considered every decision in their songwriting process is, or tell us “It just came to me.” This question of process in creative endeavour is as old as the creative endeavours themselves. On Blair Packham’s show, he talked about his own journey on both the intuitive and the cerebral roads.
Most songwriters and musicians know the history of the Beatles. In the early 60’s, before they were famous, they played for hours every night in clubs in Hamburg, Germany. They learned their chops, got better at harmonizing together and playing tightly together. Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book Outliers, describes this as the 10,000 hours rule: practice anything for 10,000 hours and you’ll be an expert. The Beatles played more shows in a few short years than many contemporary bands play in their entire career. Gladwell uses evidence-based examples to show that the most successful people are those who put in the time.
In another book, Blink, Gladwell champions the subconscious mind as a powerful decision maker, and how little information can be beneficial in making positive, snap decisions. He cites such examples as fine art experts who can spot a forgery at a glance (and can’t explain how they know they’re looking at a forgery) and orchestras who hold blind auditions to reduce conscious biases.
So let’s bring this back to our central question. It may be possible that songwriters who feel they channel their songs from some outward source, may in fact be so well practiced they make decisions in a “blink” and rely more heavily on their subconscious experience to guide their songwriting decisions. “That chord progression just felt right.” On the other hand, some songwriters are deliberate and conscious in their writing, and know the reasons their songs work the way they do.
I recall clearly learning to play the drums many years ago. I started with simple rhythms on a single drum, and practiced many hours to coordinate my hands and feet on a drumkit. The moment I could successfully coordinate kick drum and snare hits with a running cymbal rhythm, something in me clicked and I’ve never forgotten how to do it, no matter how long it’s been since I’ve last played a drumkit. These days, I don’t think about it – I just follow my subconscious to feel the beat and play along. If I’m playing in an unusual time signature, like 5/4 or 7/4, I need to engage more of my conscious mind.
I think the same applies to songwriting. As songwriters, we can rely on our ability to “blink” and know if a songwriting or performance decision is the right one. However, we can also study more conscious tools of songwriting to change things up, overcome writer’s block, and think outside the boxes we have created ourselves through our experience.
For myself, how do I answer the question of do I write from the heart or the head? Historically, I’ve been a head-dominated writer, but lately I’ve been “consciously” relying more on my snap judgements, and perhaps surprisingly, they’re mostly right. So, like everyone else, I’m somewhere in the middle.
Let us know how you look at your own process. Do you write from the heart or the head, or both?