Writing Under the Influence: Instrumental to Success?

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Welcome to For a Song. I’m your host, Cari Ray. Though I don’t usually start with a topic, I will deviate, to tell you that I want to talk about Influence. And as I thought about today’s session, it took me back in time. Hard as it may be to fathom, before I turned to a life of rhyme, I was once a corporate boardroom type. I know, I know…you’re thinking that me with a projector and laser pointer standing in front of a whiteboard is as shocking to you as seeing you homeroom teacher at the grocery store or bank when you were in the third grade. I mean, she LIVED at school…slept under her desk…took all of her meals at the cafeteria, right? Just like you picture me…living in the woods, whittling sticks, fishing, picking guitar, floatin’ the crick, & writin’ songs, right?!? Well you’d be right about that now, but before the decision to reevaluate my priorities and get my life back in alignment with my own values, I spent many hours under the fluorescent sun providing coaching and facilitating brainstorming and brand discovery sessions for corporate clients.

And I learned a few things doing that work that I find useful as I approach the craft songwriting. On of those learnings was about influence. When working with groups, I would have folks write answers on paper and pass them forward…then we would go over them together…this really cut down on the influences of group think and peer approval and manipulation. How does this apply to songwriting? Well, I’ve given a lot of thought lately to how the instrument I am writing with impacts the direction of a song. Most songs start…and sometimes begin to write themselves…in my head, but eventually, I bring an instrument into the process. Sometimes, I’ll already have a feel for where the tune is going stylistically, and will gravitate toward the instrument that seems to best suit it. If it feels bluesy, I may grab electric guitar…more folky, acoustic guitar or mandolin…maybe even my 1969 Martin nylon stringed guitar…and if it’s feeling particularly swampy, I’m bound reach for one of my resonator guitars. But it’s important to understand when and how to apply the influence of an instrument to the writing process…it can be very helpful, but also a little dangerous.

You see, a song, as defined by the folks who pay royalties to songwriters, is the combination of melody and lyrics. And while it is less likely that an instrument choice will have a strong influence on lyric, the timbre and/or harmonic content provided by an instrument and the chord progression you may choose to play can nearly dictate a melody if you let it. Many times, if you play a chord progression, in can lock your ears into the melody they “want” or “expect” to hear next. To avoid this rut, I will often choose a less-obvious instrument stylistically or will pluck out individual notes on my way to a melody. Lately, I have even resorted to writing the complete melody of a song vocally before I ever touch an instrument so I am in no way influenced by its voice.

So, your homework is to write a song…melody & lyric…without the aid of an instrument. If you haven’t tried this before, it may be the first time you hear your own voice in it’s raw, uninfluenced, unadulterated glory. And don’t be surprised if you have the urge to weep when you do.

I’m Cari Ray, join me next time on for a song…