Like you, I have heard the apocryphal tales of the million selling hit song written in 15 minutes on the back of a restaurant napkin.
And I have had songs that seem to come out of thin air and write themselves in a relatively short period of time.
But in my personal experience and in talking to writers I respect over the years the more common process of writing a good song is a variation of the old screenwriter adage: a good song isn't written, it is rewritten.
More often than not that initial blinding inspiration of a song is just a good idea — sometimes a great idea. And as wonderful and magical as that is, the real work has just begun at that point.
One of the main differences I see between a good writer and someone who dabbles in the craft is persistence. I have mentioned before how in this business it is not always talent that wins out — sometimes the more dedicated, but less naturally gifted artist is the one who enjoys greater success over a longer period of time.
And so it is with songwriters. There is both inspiration and craftsmanship in a good song. Being able to ride that initial wave of inspiration is very important — the "just taking it down as it flows" part takes concentration and effort.
But the next stage — the crafting of the raw material from that inspiration — could be even more important.
Writing can be a lonely, difficult, tedious process. I encounter people every day who want to write songs under the impression that the blinding inspiration stage is pretty much it to the process — and they are quite put out when I suggest that the masterpiece they show me could possibly use some (or a lot of) crafting for improvement.
One of the hardest aspects of songwriting is dealing with time. But patience, for a songwriter, is not only a virtue, but also a necessity. Songwriting (and all creative endeavors for that matter) are not subject to time in the sense most jobs are. The process of crafting a song after the inspiration stage seems to enter a parallel universe or zone where time simultaneously stops and flies. Hours flash by in an instant.
Crafting a song is an incremental honing of the concept, working the melodic main phrases, building a linear storyline, working out the arrangement, and fitting all the pieces together in a way that is pleasing and makes sense to the listener. It's sitting in the song — letting it work itself — letting it talk to you.
To other people, it may not look like you are doing anything — staring at a lyric sheet, fiddling with a guitar or keyboard, humming or singing a line, recording a snippet of music or lyric. It is a difficult process to explain.
Although a generalization is necessarily an oversimplification, I have
seen that for me, with steady work on a song, the process usually takes about three or four days to a week, with tweaking continuing sometimes for months or years after that. Not sure if that is an average or I am just slow (or fast depending on your perspective). But the key is the amount on focused time that is available.
And that is a big problem.
I have told my students of the days when I had nothing to do all day but write songs — a writers dream.
Those days seem like a long time ago now.
Many of us have more complicated lives with many things demanding time and attention — how do you balance a spoiled mistress like creativity and real world expectations on your time? If you find an answer let me know — because I haven't.
There is no compromise for the time and attention artistic creativity demands — if you want to live in that parallel universe and work in that zone you have to find a way to cut out everything else for the time the crafting work demands.
But there is something about hearing a good song come together — the realization perhaps a few days later when you are able to get some perspective and overview, that the song you just wrote is pretty good. In fact, with a couple days away — I find most songs sound even better than I remember.
Filmmakers say you never finish a movie — you just run out of time and money. Songwriting is like that.
How long should it take to write a song?
However long it takes to get it right.