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You Can’t Trust Your Memory When You’re Writing a Song

There are times when I treat every beginning-of-a-song idea for what it is – the seed of a potentially good song… who knows, maybe my best yet. Of course, most of my ideas don’t end up that way. But that’s how I have to think of them – with a belief they might end well. . Because I almost never know how they’re going to turn out. I’m relying on hope and faith.

When you’re panning for gold you have to take every pan of dirt seriously, even if almost all of them yield nothing more than dirt. Times of striking gold can be few and far between. Sometimes you hit a vein and the riches flow… but mostly it’s hit or miss… which, realistically, adds up as mostly miss.

When, for whatever reason, I’m not connected to that hope and faith (non-religious, in my case), I tend to treat missing a songwriting idea like missing a bus – though I may be irritated, there’ll be another one along in a few minutes.

But, with songwriting, that particular bus will never come again – that idea. And it might’ve been a really good one. I’m not suggesting that I need to be insanely neurotic about this – no one’s perfect at this or anything. But respecting ideas when I get them is an essential Basic Practice for me as a songwriter.

How do I ‘respect ideas’? There’s only one way – by documenting them in some way. Writing them down, or recording them, or both.

I’m deluding myself when I think I’m going to remember my idea later. I’d be ashamed to admit how many times I’ve woken up in the morning with some weird melody or lyric phrase, or both, in my head and told myself either it was a bad idea, not worth rousing myself for (how would I, semi-conscious. know?) or that I’d remember it later (this confidence based on… what?).

In these cases I’m just being lazy and not observing the commitment I’ve made to myself to honor my ideas. I don’t make any claim for the quality of these ideas. But, for better or worse, they’re all I have; they’re my gold.

Let me just add that of course memory  – of things that have happened in my life, of my feelings – is an essential wellspring of being able to write pretty much anything. How would I write without my patchy quilt of memories? But that’s not the same thing as remembering a specific thought I had 30 seconds ago. If I don’t document that… it’s gone.

Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:

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10 responses to “You Can’t Trust Your Memory When You’re Writing a Song”

  • Mark Permann

    Observed and articulated with the sane insightfulness and precision I experienced in your class Tony! E.g.. (paraphrasing) “that particular bus”.

    Hmm, I wonder if this bus, whose number I’ve not seen before, will take me “there”? Only way to know is hop on..

    Happy holidays!

  • Robert Berardi

    Soooo true. I never realized others had this exact same delusion: “Oh, but THIS one I’ll remember… “

  • I agree wholeheartedly. Write it down or sing it into your phone.

  • Barrett Zinn

    Nice post Tony. I especially like the bus metaphor, having been taking buses all over Berlin the last few days. Yesterday I missed a bus AND got on one going the wrong way which nearly caused me to miss a concert despite leaving VERY early. Oh, and I had another thought to share when I saw the post a few days ago, but I forgot to write it down. Cheers!

  • I’m working on a song right now abetted by a couple of voice messages I sent myself from a train platform, and a video I shot of myself in Photo Booth, because it just happened to be the thing handiest that would make an audio recording.
    There’s a scat melody in the middle of one of my library songs that I had to fight to recall, because my ex picked the moment I was starting to think of it to start a serious discussion and thought I was BS-ing her when I said I was in the middle of working on a melody. I forget how it resolved, but I think I braved the woman’s wrath to quickly record it.
    Yes these ideas are fleeting, and yes, you WILL forget them if you don’t jot them down or record them.
    Fortunately there is technology all around you that will record things. So you have no excuse not to record every little stray thought, and I encourage you to do so.

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