Which is Better for Songwriting: Handwriting or Typing?
Every songwriter is looking for the fastest songwriting solution…
How to write more songs?
How to write better and more creative songs?
How to write faster and more easily?
How to finish more songs that our audience wants to hear again?
When you are being creative… how do you minimize friction, remove anything that gets in your way or limits the flow of ideas, so you can write at the speed of thought?
I started with the question:
Which is Better for Songwriting: Handwriting or Typing?
I thought it was a simple question… 5 minutes of internet searches and I found a definitive answer… 20 minutes later and nothing made any sense!
I’m a hand-writer, I save typing until I’m almost ready for the final draft. I feel more creative and able to stay in the flow with pen and paper. But I also know songwriters who prefer songwriting apps and type everything.
Every songwriter has their own thing, so I went searching for scientific data to separate preference from research.
Handwriting vs. Typing: The Research
A few minutes with Google and almost every article repeated the same thing: handwriting is better than typing, regardless of the search string I used…
But when I dug deeper everything I noticed the articles were all using the same phrases. This made me suspicious so I checked the sources and found they were all the same. Every pop-psychology post quoted the same handful of studies.
The “truths” in the internet articles I read were different authors repeating the results of a couple of experiments without any further research.
While researching Songwriting Learning Styles, I discovered the widely held “truth” that people have one preferred way of learning new skills and information, had virtually no scientific data to support it.
So “handwriting is better than typing” is another “truth” proven with insufficient research.
My Research Results
There were four types of articles about handwriting vs. typing, the conclusions of each and how I interpret their results follows:
Students learn better when they hand-write notes in a lecture, instead of typing them
Handwriting using more areas of the brain than typing
Handwriting is no longer taught in some school systems, arguments for and against this… occasionally scientific data was cited
- Opinion pieces, usually about the romance or handwriting or the practicality of typing, no research at all
I deliberately restricted my research to articles available on the internet and free resources, so I ignored subscription sites like the Wall Street Journal and professional psychology journals (that publish articles written in academic-speak which cause my eyes to cross)….
1. Students Learn Better with Handwriting than Typing
Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer studied 65 college students as they took notes in class and were later tested on their comprehension of several TED talks. Handwriting is slower, so it forces you to summarize and use your own words. Students that typed usually copied verbatim (word for word) and so they didn’t process the information as deeply.
For facts and dates both groups scored equally well, but students who wrote notes longhand scored better when tested for higher order thinking… analyzing information and drawing their own conclusions. The researchers believe this was because of the encoding hypothesis, when taking notes, you process the information.
So, you might infer that handwriting lyrics might be better than typing because you
- Are more likely to write the best ideas instead of every idea
- You process the words that you write better or at least differently than if you type them
- Higher order thinking appeared to be stronger with handwriting than typing. Songwriting requires higher order thinking, so it seems logical that handwriting would be a better choice for songwriting. More detailed research is needed.
The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard, is the original research published in 2014.
These three articles are all based on the same study:
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2. Handwriting Uses More Areas of the Brain
Dr. Karen James studied young children learning to read. When children wrote the letters instead of typing them more areas of their brains activated when reading during an MRI scan. Writing helped them learn their letters in a different way… presumably more thoroughly.
- Learning how to read and write isn’t the same as reading and writing… or songwriting.
- It’s tempting to expect that these results translate to adults, but that doesn’t mean that it does.
- Handwriting and typing use different motions. Handwriting is more complicated, using several different motions for each letter. When keyboarding to choose a different letter you move your fingers to a different position but use the same trigger motion (push down) for any button on a keyboard. This research indicates that handwriting uses more brain power, so by extension, handwriting could be better for accessing creativity, but more research is needed.
These three articles, among others, repeat the same conclusions from the same study and similar reasoning to conclude that handwriting is better than typing.
3. Handwriting Is No Longer Taught in Some School Systems
Schools in many educational districts no longer teach handwriting. Articles that cite scientific research, such as Five Brain Based Reasons to Teach Handwriting in School, by Dr. J. Richard Gentry and Bring Back Handwriting favour teaching handwriting because it is better for the human brain than keyboarding. Most cite developmental research such as Dr. James (see 2 above).
Ann Chemin’s article Handwriting vs typing: is the pen still mightier than the keyboard?, is one of the most balanced and refers to additional scientific research.
I write longhand everyday, so I find it odd that there’s even a debate between handwriting and typing. I was shocked learn how little some people use handwriting. A June 2014 survey of 2000 people in Britain, one in three had not written with pen and paper in the past 6 months
fMRI activation related to nature of ideas generated and differences between good and poor writers during idea generation by Dr. Virginia Berninger, et al. (2009), found that different regions of the brain are more activate in children who are “good writers” than in “bad writers”. Interesting and possibly relevant to adult songwriters.
Highlights of Programmatic, Interdisciplinary Research on Writing, a compilation of other studies, by Dr. Virginia Berninger, et. al. (2009), provides some evidence that handwriting is beneficial for developing story creating in young children.
1. Learning handwriting is beneficial to a developing child, but these studies don’t appear to show evidence that using handwriting has any direct effect on creativity
2. Studies of developing children give insight into how an adult might function, but don’t prove there are similar effects on adults.
3. Dr. Berninger provides evidence that learning handwriting helps creativity in students with writing difficulties, but this doesn’t necessarily prove that there is an effect on adults.
4. Handwriting Vs. Typing: Opinion Pieces
There are articles that promote handwriting for it’s romance and history… it’s been a traditional component of a well rounded education for many years, so it should continue. Some provinces don’t teach handwriting in schools but is it necessary? and 7 Reasons Handwriting Matters (and why your school should teach it) both cite research that is already explained above.
Other articles, like Handwriting Just Doesn’t Matter promote typing because it’s the way of the future and handwriting will soon be unnecessary because technology makes it obsolete.
I ignored opinion pieces that didn’t provide research to support their claims….
My Research Conclusions
So the scientific research seems to favour handwriting, but what I found isn’t conclusive. So the next option is to experiment on ourselves… here’s what I’ve done, and I’ve tried almost everything all:
- Typing and computers
- Songwriting Apps
- Voice memos on my iPhone
- Text to speech (you can sing into the voice recognition!)
- Singing at Siri (she’s actually better than I expected)
Handwriting has less friction for me when I write ideas. I can stay in the flow more easily and I can record my ideas as they come. It’s messy and that’s exactly what I need for the creative game of songwriting.
My Typical Lyric Writing Process
I start with a brainstorm from a title or lyric hook using pen and paper. After filling a few pages, I:
Edit, choosing the best ideas and hand write them on a new page
Begin improving these ideas and fragments of lines
Outline my song, choosing what I will say in each song section
Choose rhyme schemes for each section
Place ideas into the best song section
Start creating lines from the fragments
Typing the song into a google document when I am almost finished
Finalizing each song section
Usually I choose a chord progression and set the lyrics to melodies after finishing the lyrics
Through trial and error, I’ve found that the best way to remember song and lyric ideas as I write… is to remember them… spending more time thinking and working with the ideas before I write them down!
Just because everyone says it… doesn’t mean everyone is right!
Is Handwriting or Typing Better for Your Songwriting?
It seems you have to decide for yourself. What works best for your songwriting practice? Chances are it feels better doing what you’re already doing because you’ve practiced it more… however it’s possible that a different way could help you, either because it’s different and it will shake up your songwriting practice, or because it’s genuinely a better way for you to work.
If the evidence isn’t conclusive for or against handwriting… try something different!
Write out your typical songwriting process, as I did above, and consider where you can experiment.
Some ideas you can try…
- Outline your song before starting the lyrics
- Write the lyrics, melody or chords in a different order
- Write a song section lyrics, melody or chords completely before starting another
- Write the music using a different instrument
Try something new more than once, it might take some time for you to adapt to a new process and get the full benefits from it
Talk to other songwriters and learn how they write (Songwriter Interviews on epicsongwriting)
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you finish, as long as you finish the song, then start another song!