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Some basics for co-writing songs

April 18, 2014

Screen-CCHave you ever walked into someone’s house and noticed a few areas of neglect? Maybe the screen door has a rip in it. Perhaps there are holes in the wall? Or you can hear a toilet running?

To the person who lives there, all of these home projects might seem trivial and live-able. But to fresh new eyes, these little things stand out. If you’re the observer, perhaps you realize immediately what needs to be done and how to fix it. And you have the energy to do it.

Co-writing songs is kind of like this. The best part of the process is helping one another see the flaws, point them out, and help with the repair work – sealing the cracks, maybe even leveling a project and starting over. Perhaps one of you is better at writing lyrics. Another is good with melody or bridges or hearing dynamics that would help create a more interesting tune. Two heads are far better than one in most cases. But there are a few prerequisites:

Receptivity
Everyone needs to be open to the process. If you bring part of a song to another co-writer, you need to put all defensiveness aside. All sense of possession and attachment needs to be subdued too (more on this in a moment).

If a co-writer is hearing something in their head, will you give them a chance to express it? Are you open to experimentation with tempo, with instrumentation, with moving parts around to see how they sound from a new perspective?

Mutual Respect
Receptivity comes more quickly when you share mutual respect. If the person you plan on writing with is already talking over you in normal conversation, chances are they may be as selfish in the songwriting process.

Realizing that everyone has strengths and weaknesses will help you get right to the heart of what they do well, and a healthy respect for their work. You may also find that one of you is better with the song plugging aspect of the work, or making contacts, or promotion in general.

Too Many Cooks?
While you want to be open to co-writers, you probably don’t want a committee of songwriters. The process of experimentation can quickly turn into massive compromise or hit a wall with too many butts in the kitchen.

Fritz Kampers, Paul Westermeyer, Paul Graetz

Two is usually a good number. Three or more is better for making observations and contributions after the main sketch has been assembled. In the good old days, the definition of a song was words and melody – usually two parts for two strong writers. Let the percussionist have at it after the dust has settled.

Imagine no possessions…
Songwriting is a mystical experience – just ask any accomplished writer. The musician is typically a conduit and the electricity (the song) seems to emerge from somewhere “up there,” waiting for you to pluck it out of the sky, like a playful butterfly; lepidoptery at its finest.

The co-writing process works best when ownership is put on the back burner. That detachment allows you to be flexible with rough drafts and see where the song goes. There’s always plenty of time for copyrighting later…

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