My Songwriting is On Fire

An image of a hot air balloon, its flame glowing in the dark scene.

The song isn’t actually about hot air balloons… right?

A month ago, a friend and I decided that we’d write a song each month with a preset title. This is kind of like Songfight, but I find that a month actually gives me time to flesh out a full idea rather than just scraping something together in a couple hours. This is my song for month one, “On Fire”.

My reflection above about hours versus months is interesting, because it reflects a recent (past year) shift in the way I write songs.

  • I get a snippet of a song… typically a single phrase with a melody or a couple phrases that rhyme. Note that at this point I rarely know what I actually want to sing about.
  • I frantically search for a piece of paper and a pencil.
  • I literally write the song, line by line, singing the lines aloud as I go.
  • I reword a few phrases and rearrange a few lines.
  • Within an hour or two, the song is basically finished, aside from instrumentation which I almost always do later.

I’ve since… changed. Now it’s more like this:

  • I get an inkling or idea for a song… often a snippet like above but in this case just the title “on fire”.
  • I sing it. I sing it again, a bit differently.
  • I try out another line to follow the first.
  • I iterate over the verse or chorus or whatever, ironing out kinks and adding flairs like alliteration and internal rhyme.
  • I do something else. Unlike before, where almost all of my songs were written completely the day they were first conceived, I now write songs intermittently, often while walking around.
  • I return to the song, ultimately finalizing it. At this point, I still may not have written anything down yet.

The first song I wrote this way was General Disregard , which is on my album. If you’re familiar with the rest of the album you might notice that General Disregard feels more casual and less structured than the other tunes.

I’m a poet and I know it

I’ve been a poet for at least as long as I’ve been a songwriter, and I’ve long considered myself a poet first and musician second (this is related to the fact that I invariably do the words before the instrumentation). The poems I used to write were very structured: limericks, sonnets, or even just rhyming couplets with a strict meter. I haven’t totally ditched these but I’ve gotten more involved with slam poetry, which uses a lot more internal rhyme and stretching of beats, and I’ve also started casually freestyle rapping. Both of these have contributed to my new strategy for songwriting.

In fact, when I first started doing slam, I would create my poems like I used to write my songs. This is just simply the wrong medium. It’s like designing a painting using your sense of smell. Murmuring and writing are a really poor way of creating something that’s ultimately going to be performed. Similarly, I find I can work a lot faster and with way more nuance when I’m creating songs aloud and in my head versus on paper. It takes energy and intent to erase something from paper, while it takes effort to keep something in my head. This means that if a part is cumbersome or boring, it gets forgotten, and I have to replace it with something catchier.

The mental process of composition

I’ve learned a bit about the memory recently from reading Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer (read my summary at actionablebooks.com) and one key point that emerged was that the memory regularly drops details and adds others every time the memory is accessed. For my songwriting, this means that every time I want to work on a song in-progress, I get to massage it on the way out, rather than just turning text into sound.

I’ve also realized that writing the songs in my head is a real mental exercise! In another song I’ve been working on I found I had to stop because my brain was getting worn out. This saturation is a good sign, because it means both that my unconscious brain will continue working on it even once I move on, and that my mental capacity for this will expand. Neuroplasticity!

After my album launch last fall, I unintentionally took an almost complete hiatus from songwriting for nearly 3 months. Then I decided in February I wanted to write more songs. Now I have 1¾ songs since then, and I’m really excited to start sharing them again. Much of this will probably be posted here, but if you want my really musical news you can also subscribe to the Maleidoscope newsletter at maleidoscope.com.

A portrait of Malcolm Ocean

I'm Malcolm Ocean.

I'm trying to figure out how humans work so I can help make humanity work. More about me.

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