Every songwriter, at one time or another, struggles with this question. It’s a question that can bring your songwriting to a halt – or prevent you from getting started in the first place!
We compare ourselves with others. We listen to others songs and try to learn how to write our own through imitation. We try to discover the formulas for writing good songs. We are conditioned to believe that songs that make it on the radio, that sell in the music store (does anyone go to the music store anymore!) or that are nominated for awards are the only valid songs. The truth is, every song is a work of creativity created by a creator. Every song is valid. Maybe not every song has massive public appeal, but every song is a real song.
Somewhere along the way, I came to a very important conclusion in my songwriting journey. This conclusion set me free from that sometimes paralyzing thought. Here it is.
Everything is a choice.
When comes down to the question “Am I doing it right” or similar questions like “Is my song good”, I must reiterate. Everything is a creative choice and you are the boss of your song. There is no right or wrong.
Now, it could that what you really mean to ask is, “Do you like my song?” That’s a different question for another time.
But get this in your mind.
There is no right or wrong. Everything is a choice. A creative decision. And the choices you make in your song will stem from the purpose of your song.
Creative Choices are Driven by the Purpose of the Song
Is it a worship song meant to be sung by a congregation? A worship song mean for personal worship? A private song meant to express a personal idea? A song meant for healing for others?
Every one of these song types will uniquely shape the way you make creative decisions and ultimately how your craft your song. For example, a congregational worship song will not likely have references to a specific personal situation using someone’s name or a specific location. This is not a common experience for the group singing the song. It wouldn’t be appropriate.
The way you craft the lyrics, build the chords, format the song, create your arrangement and even present it are all based on creative decisions that are driven by the ultimate purpose of the song.
Let’s look at 2 examples of where we may wrestle with creative choices.
Figurative Lyrics or Literal Lyrics?
Figurative lyrics come in the forms of metaphors and similes. These are most powerfully used when speaking of ideas, emotions or abstract concepts that cannot be adequately communicated using common words or phrases. The scriptures are full of metaphorical language that comes out in a lot of Christian music.
Literal lyrics spell things out very clearly and are less commonly used in songwriting. There may be times where literal lyrics are appropriate.
So when is it appropriate to use figurative lyrics? When is it appropriate to use literal lyrics? It’s up to you. It comes down to understanding how each can function in a song. Each choice you make will achieve a different outcome.
Figurative lyrics can offer a deeper experience for the listener. Did you ever see the movie “Inception”? If you haven’t seen it, it’s a movie based on the idea of having dreams within dreams within dreams. One of my all-time favorite movies. Was it a straight-forward movie? NO WAY! In fact, I watched it with a few buddies and had to continually ask questions about where the story was so I didn’t get lost. It gives you a lot to think about and process. It’s a movie you could go back to again and again because of it’s depth. The same is true with figurative language. If the meaning isn’t explicitly clear, it causes the listener to actually do some work – invest some thought time or emotional processing – in order to arrive at meaning. If you just hand them the meaning, it may be easy to receive, but doesn’t cause an emotional investment in the song – which in turn creates an emotional connection to the song.
Writing literally virtually hands the meaning to the person without any need for discovery. This, of course, is a different effect and may actually be what the specific lyric or song element requires.
First-Hand Emotion or Theoretical Emotion
Have you ever thought of a song as a relationship bridge? When you listen to a song, you, in a sense, are connecting with the songwriter. The songwriter has communicated something and the listener is receiving it. When we write about our common human experiences, desires, or feelings, we are creating a point in which to share in our humaneness with the listener.
A work of art can move us if we understand the emotion that is being communicated and identify with it. That’s why songs are so powerful! They give expression to our own emotions that we may otherwise not have.
With this in mind, we have the choice to write about our real-life personal experiences or to write from theoretical or imagined life situations.
Let’s say, for instance, you feel inspired to write a song to help encourage people who have recently lost a loved one. And let’s say you have never personally lost a loved one yourself. Is it possible to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has suffered this ordeal? Sure, it’s possible. Should you? It’s up to you to decide.
Maybe you’ve talked to enough people to have a good understanding of this emotional struggle. Maybe you have the ability to put these emotions into words. But maybe not. Maybe your song would not be emotionally accurate or relevant.
One of the classic mantras in creative writing is “Write what you know.” So should I only write about what I have personally experienced? Again, you don’t have to. But I would argue that this gives you a better chance at writing a song that connects with others. With first hand experience, you have a better perspective to write from.
But, again, it’s a matter of understanding how each choice you make will effect the song.
Every Choice has a Unique Outcome
The good news about creating is that nothing is permanent. Most pencils have erasers. All computers have a backspace. When it comes down to a creative decision, test out your options. This is one of the fundamental joys of songwriting! Try both ways and get some feedback from friends. Test out different lyrics, different chord progressions, different styles. Songwriting is a processes. And it’s a wide-open universe to explore. Every song is created for a purpose. This purpose shapes what creative choices you make for the song. Every choice has a unique outcome.
The more you explore these choices, the more options you will discover. And you will improve your songwriting abilities with every choice you explore!