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Why Are Some Songs Easy To Write? And Some A Slog?

Some songs take weeks, months, even years to write… and even then they might not be right (whatever that is). Even Bob Dylan, known as a fast writer, rewrote ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and ‘Mississippi’, already great songs, over and over, through many years, trying to satisfy himself. He may still be rewriting them!

Other songs just come, miraculously, in half an hour, pretty much fully-formed. Sometimes these can even be among the first songs one writes. That’s great, in a way. But it can lead to a mistaken impression that writing good songs always goes, or always should go, like that.

After all, Hank Williams said if a song took more than 20 minutes to write it wasn’t worth writing. But none of us are Hank. And his times were simpler times.

Anyone who writes songs regularly knows that some songs come a lot harder than others. And that although we may remember the easy birth of the ‘gift songs’ with fondness, it’s much more common to have to slug it out with at least some part of most songs.

I don’t think there’s any correlation between degree of difficulty in writing and the quality of the end product. Sometimes the easy ones are the lesser ones (not always) and sometimes the ones I slave over come to naught.

I just have to try to give each song what it tells me it needs… always with the hope that it will be one of my best but accepting that the end result is unknowable in advance.

(Occasionally I get what I think is such a strong idea, and fully enough formed, that I tell myself “Your job here is – just don’t mess this up. Don’t get tricky. Just stay on course and don’t derail this train.” But this is unusual. Sadly.)

I don’t think I’d get the easy ones if I wasn’t willing to labor over the more numerous hard ones. Not only do the tougher songs build craft and chops (and character), they also express that I’m willing to do what it takes to make a song as good as I can make it.

What it takes… often that’s a slog. Less often, but blessedly, it’s just sitting back and receiving, getting out of the way. If the channel is open, you never know what might come through.

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11 responses to “Why Are Some Songs Easy To Write? And Some A Slog?”

  • Great column, Tony. So true. You can’t look a gift horse in the mouth – if it comes easy it might be great. But it’s great because it’s great, not because it came easy. Conversely, if it’s hard it doesn’t mean it’s good, you might just be laying a bigger egg.

  • Lou Esposito

    This will sound crazy, but for me l feel a presents on my left side, like something is there. When that happens the song writes itself. When l have to make myself think about a song, it doesn’t quite flow as much. I have had good songs come both ways, but the left side thing is much better for me.

  • Great post Tony!
    What it underscores for me is that songwriting is never an entirely predictable process. It depends on preserving flashes of insight – a particular scrap of lyric, turn of melody, rhythmic idea or set of chord changes that for some reason is evocative at that moment, and that may be gone forever 15 minutes from now.
    So I think it is important for songwriters to value their moments of inspiration enough to record or write them down in some form right away. Whether it’s a whole song or a spark that will take months to fan into a flame, it will surely disappear if you don’t do something right away to preserve it.
    I think that is the basic leap of faith and investment in oneself that a songwriter must make. The details of the subsequent process will sort themselves out.

    1. Wally Stewart

      Good comments Jon. Peserving those fleeting moments of magic is crucial to in any kind of writing, for it is very likely that they will only visit us once.
      I now write poetry instead of songs, agree with everything you said, and send you my best wishes for your writing.

  • I like it best when they kind of sneak up on me

  • Wally Stewart

    Thanks for this great article Tony. I no longer write songs, now it’s poetry- though 3 people are wanting to write music for my newest poem-and especially appreciate your thoughts that we perhaps get the “gifts” because we are willing to “slug it out” with the harder ones. A lot of the time writing feels like a bare knuckles fight, with the poem always winning, regardless of how many rounds it lasts-if it doesn’t doesn’t we both lose.
    Though I’m not writing songs I greatly enjoy your columns and get a lot of insight and help from them. Thanks for providing this service to more appreciative people than you may ever know. I send my best wishes to you.

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