Transforming Musicians into Songwriters

Which is Better for Songwriting: Handwriting or Typing?

Which is better for songwriting, handwriting or typing your song lyrics? How do you minimize friction so that you can write at the speed of thought?
Handwriting vs Typing Your Songs

Table of Contents

Every songwriter wants the fastest songwriting solutions…

How to write:

More songs

Better, more creative songs

Faster and more easily

Finish songs that our listeners want to hear again and again

When you are being creative… how do you minimize friction, remove anything getting in your way or limits the flow of ideas?

How do you write at the speed of thought?

to make the songwriting process: faster, easier, better, more fun and more creative. We want to finish more songs that are better and more effective at moving our audience so they want to hear more from us!

This article is meant to examine you own songwriting practice and figure out what you can do to improve it… to get you to experiment outside your comfort zone so you try new things and get better songwriting results.

It All Started With A Simple Question… well I thought it was a simple question!

“Which is better for songwriting… handwriting or typing on a computer?”

Five minutes with Google and I had a definitive answer… but twenty minutes later nothing made sense any more!

When I say better, I mean:

1. Faster so you can finish more quickly and finish more songs, and

2. More interesting and more creative songs.

Creativity is connecting and finding new patterns between ideas. In songwriting, I also mean finding a way to create a song to express your voice and opinions about themes that others have written about.

My Opinion…

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 when I’m using pen and paper. I’ve tried pencil, but the temptation to erase slows me down, instead I’ve learned it’s faster not to cross out anything unless I’m editing a draft of lyrics. I’ve also spoken to songwriters who prefer to use songwriting apps and type everything.

Every songwriter has their own things so I went searching for scientific data to separate preference from “facts”…

The Research on Handwriting vs Typing

A few minutes with Google and almost every article repeated the same thing: handwriting is better than typing, regardless of the permutations of the search string I used.

But when I read further, 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 article quoted the same couple of studies.

The “truths” in these internet articles I read were different authors repeating the results of a handful of  experiments without any further or original research.

While researching Songwriting Learning Styles, I discovered the widely held truth that every person has one preferred way of learning new skills and information (visual learner, aural learner or kinesthetic learner) has virtually no scientific data to confirm it.

So “handwriting is better than typing” is another truth that hasn’t been proven with sufficient research… everyone is just repeating what they’ve already heard!

My Research Results

There were four types of articles about handwriting vs. typing, here are their conclusions:

  1. Students learn better when they hand-write their notes instead of type them during a lecture 
  2. Handwriting uses more areas of the brain than typing
  3. Handwriting is no longer explicitly taught in many school systems, arguments for or against teaching handwriting were proposed, occasionally scientific data was cited
  4. Opinion pieces, usually about the romance of handwriting or the practicality of typing, but no scientific research is mentioned.

Research Note

I deliberately restricted my research to article available on the internet and free resources, so I ignored subscription sites like the Wall Street Journal and professional psychology journals (that are written in academic-speak that causes my eyes to cross)

Keep Calm and Carry On

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, while taking notes, you’re also processing the information.

My Conclusions

You might infer that handwriting lyrics might be better than typing because you

  1. Are more likely to write the best ideas instead of every idea
  2. You process the words that you write better or at least differently than if you type them
  3. Higher order thinking appeared to be stronger with handwriting than typing.

Songwriting requires higher order thinking, so logically handwriting would be a better choice for songwriting but more detailed research is needed to prove this theory.

The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard, is the original research published in 2014.

These three articles are all based on that same study:

Attention Students: Put Your Laptops Away

Close Your Laptop: Handwriting Could Make You Smarter

Take Notes by Hand For Better Long-Term Comprehension

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.

My Conclusions

  1. Learning how to read and write isn’t the same as reading and writing… or songwriting.
  2. It’s tempting to expect that these results translate to adults, but that doesn’t mean that it does.
  3. 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 to actually prove my theory.

The original article: The Effects of Handwriting Experience on Functional Brain Development in Pre-Literate Children

These three articles, among others, repeat the same conclusions from the same study and similar reasoning to conclude that handwriting is better than typing.

What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades

Handwriting or Keyboarding, Which is the Most Important Skill?

How Handwriting Improves Your Creative Skills

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

Dr. Virginia Berninger, co-authored a study in 2009 that found different regions of the brain are more active in children who are “good writers” than in “bad writers”. Interesting and possibly relevant to adult songwriters.

My Conclusions:

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 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.

My Conclusions

I ignored opinion pieces that didn’t provide research to support their claims.

There's more than one way to write a song, Alternate Ways to Write a Song

Handwriting vs Typing: 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:

  • Handwriting
  • Typing and computers
  • Songwriting Apps
  • Voice memos on my iPhone
  • Text to speech (you can sing to Siri, she understands 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!

What if I write it the wrong way

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.

Handwriting vs Typing: Action Steps

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!

Leave a comment to help other songwriters…

Why do you prefer handwriting or typing?

More Articles to Help You Improve Your Songwriting Process 

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Picture of Trevor Dimoff

Trevor Dimoff

Trevor Dimoff has taught, played and written music professionally for the last 25+ years.

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