The Instant Song Myth is a dangerous lie…
Learn the truth about songwriting so you learn to finish your songs instead of throwing them out.
The Instant Song Myth comes from stories of pop songwriters who wrote a song in a few minutes. While these stories make great reading and stick in our minds, they don’t reflect the truth for most songwriters. In fact, they’re dangerous to songwriters!
If you expect to write a song in under an hour and can’t… you’ll likely decide there’s something wrong with you or your songwriting, instead of correctly identifying the real problem… your unrealistic expectations.
In this article, you’ll learn why the Instant Song Myth is so popular and how to:
- Spot the partial truths in Instant Song Stories
- Notice the implied lies in Instant Song Stories
- Immunize yourself from the unrealistic expectations in Instant Song Stories, and
- Write Songs Faster, even if you still can’t finish an entire song in under an hour!
Please know I’m not saying anyone is lying to you on purpose!
I believe that the instant song stories I discuss in the article and others like them are actually incomplete stories. They are the result of songwriters, journalists and editors expressing their understanding of real life events in a way that people want to hear them. But they aren’t the full story
3 Instant Song Stories: Origins of the Instant Song Myth
Keith Richards, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Keith Richards told the story that he woke up with the riff for Satisfaction in his head. He recorded it and fell back asleep with the tape still rolling. There are different versions of the story and exactly when it happened. According to one source, this was on May 9th, 1965, while the Rolling Stones were on a United States tour.
While he was out on the road playing every night something bubbled up out of Keith Richards’ subconscious. The riff was later crafted into a hit song. This instant song story is only about the fundamental riff of the song, the original flash of inspiration. The lyrics, melodies and arrangement came later but aren’t included in the usual version of the story.
Adele – SkyFall
Adele wrote the lyrics to SkyFall in 10 minutes (theme song from the James Bond movie SkyFall).
The rest of the story according to Paul Epworth (the producer of the track) was that he played some of the instrumental track to her over the telephone. He also said Adele apparently had the lyrics worked out in her mind when she drove to the studio. Once there, she recorded the first draft of the verse and chorus in 10 minutes. I didn’t dig deeper, but there’s no mention of what, if any changes were needed after the first draft, or how long it took to write the rest of the lyrics.
For the purposes of copyright, a song is considered to be lyrics and melody, so technically the time it took for Paul Epworth to compose the track that Adele worked from doesn’t necessarily have to count as part of the songwriting time. However, most songwriters would assume that writing the chord progression and arrangement is included when you write a song.
So this story told in the press and circulated on the internet is incomplete.
Lorde – Royals
According to wikipedia, Lorde (Ella Yelich-O’Connor) wrote the lyrics to Royals in a half an hour in 2012. In a Billboard article, she worked with producer Joel Little “made the minimal beat and finished writing the verses in two days.” which makes it sound as if the lyrics were edited after the initial 30 minute lyrics writing session. Although still fast, it took more than 30 minutes to create the song. When Joel Little started working with Lorde, she was a 12 year old with an excellent voice and experience writing poetry. She didn’t yet understand song structure and he helped her learn to turn her poetry into coherent songs.
My Instant Song Story
In more than ten years of writing songs, I’ve written one instant song. It flowed out in the time it took to write it, and I changed 3 words.
Here’s the rest of the story… the really important part that would be cut from the feature interview: I’d been working on “Feed the Monkey,” a song about addiction, for about a week. In one verse I’m asking someone for a smoke, in another I wanted to know where I could buy a beer.
It was a light hearted song about how “I” wanted to feed my addictions inspired by the phrase “the monkey on your back” which refers to an addiction.
I sat down one night and wrote the lyrics to a verse in as much time as it took to write it down… about 90 seconds. Sounds like I wrote an instant song, right… but it took me three writing days to realize the vibe was much too dark and it needed to be in a different song.
It took a few more writing sessions to finish up the other verse and write the chorus and bridge. Then I wrote the chord progressions and melody. So my “instant song” took over a week to write!
Here’s one version I recorded, it’s unlisted on YouTube because of the dark content and there are many young people who follow me…
Why Instant Song Stories are so Popular
“I Wrote a Song in 30 Minutes” is a great title… stories like this are popular and stick in our heads because they’re interesting and we wish they were true. Once you’ve heard some of these stories, confirmation bias (we only notice facts or stories that confirm what we already believe and ignore contradictory evidence) helps make sure we continue to believe these stories.
Humans also have a natural tendency to underestimate the time we take to complete complex tasks (planning fallacy, Hohstadter’s Law) so even if we’ve already written songs and usually take a while, it’s easy for us to believe it won’t take long to write a song.
Instant song stories are popular because people want to believe them. Everyone wants to believe songwriting is easy… even when we’ve realized that it often isn’t easy.
The Truth in These Instant Song Stories
Songwriters work at different speeds, some make decisions very quickly relying on their intuition. Other songwriters tend to be much slower, writing multiple drafts of every song.
Where you fall in between these two extremes isn’t important but it’s important to acknowledge that even for the fast writers, completing lyrics or even an entire song in under an hour is usually the exception, not the rule.
Most songwriters rely on their musical intuition to write songs, making songwriting decisions subconsciously. It’s a wonderful way to work, however when you get stuck it’s difficult to break the block. That’s why I teach deliberate songwriting, techniques and strategies to consciously control your songwriting and to make intentional decisions to focus your creativity.
You make certain decisions to finish a song. What’s the song about? What’s the story in the song? What’s the tempo, feel, vibe in the song? I find it more efficient to make decisions like this at the beginning of the songwriting process. When you have a clear idea of what you want your song to sound like, it’s easier to intentionally write towards that goal than to intuit your way there.
Don’t get me wrong, intuition is important for songwriting, but if your only strategy is “write from the heart” then you won’t finish your song when your intuition fails you. Until you’ve written a few dozen songs, you won’t have developed your songwriting intuition enough to depend on it to complete your songs.
Songwriters who have written instant songs (even if it’s only the main riff, or only the lyrics) have developed their songwriting intuition enough to depend on it. But think about why you don’t hear the instant song stories about every song they write….
The Implied Lie in Instant Song Stories
Remember back when you started writing songs… back when “lyrics first or music first?” was the most sophisticated songwriting question you could think of….
If you’re like almost every songwriter ever, you probably thought songs came quickly… for every songwriter… every time. Of course now you realize this is naive, now you know that some days are easy while other days are a struggle
But if you hear enough of these stories (and it only takes one really good story to stick in your head before you start believing it’s the rule!) and you might’ve believed that anyone who can’t write a song in 30 minutes is a songwriting failure.
Songwriters and journalists aren’t trying to share half a story, but it’s all most people remember. It’s nice to know the story about how a song was written. It’s cool if your song was easy to write or written quickly, but what your audience really cares about is how a song makes them feel! Don’t worry how fast you write your songs, if you’re making music people care about and enjoy.
Why Instant Song Stories are Dangerous to Songwriters Like You
If you aren’t a professional songwriter. If you aren’t writing and performing music every day. If you’re not doing it full time… then you aren’t on the same level as the writers in the instant song stories you’ve heard.
According to the timelines and dates I found… Keith Richards wrote the lick to Satisfaction while he was on tour. He was playing shows every day, surrounded by music so it’s not surprising that a cool riff bubbled up in a dream. SkyFall wasn’t Adele’s first song or even in the first dozen she wrote. Lorde wrote the lyrics to Royals quickly, but she also worked with a producer to complete the song. For Tremble, I’d been writing lyrics on the subject for a week and ideas were percolating in my head before that instant verse jumped onto paper for me.
Don’t compare yourself to a professional songwriter if you aren’t one yet. If you’re playing basketball in a junior high sport team would you be ready to jump into a game on a college team, let alone a professional basketball team?
When you were first learning to drive and just got your driver’s licence would you think yourself ready to drive in a Formula 1 race?
When you finally learned to play the introduction to Satisfaction, or Dust in the Wind, or Stairway to Heaven were you suddenly ready to play as the opening act at a stadium gig?
Understand where you are and how far you still have to go to learn the craft of songwriting.
How Your Can Write Songs Faster: Action Steps
Let’s pick up the pieces of your broken songwriting dream and put them back together so you finish this article with some productive and helpful strategies that will work for you.
Write Songs Faster: Write with a Timer
Set a timer for 5 minutes and brainstorm ideas as fast as possible. Write ideas, images not rhyming lines. You can train yourself to get the ideas in your head onto paper so you can edit and craft them into song lyrics you’re proud of.
Write Songs Faster: Write a Crappy Song
Turn on the stopwatch on your phone and see how quickly you can write a terrible song. I wrote this bad song in under 8 minutes… spoiler: it won’t win a Grammy, but it was fun!
Write Songs Faster: Learn to Play more Cover Songs
The more songs you know, the more ideas you can borrow for your own songs. Learn the Fastest Way to Memorize Songs!
Write Songs Faster: Grow a List of Song Titles and Ideas
Keep a list of potential song titles in your songwriting notebook. I usually start at the back of my notebook and keep a list of interesting phrases and song ideas that I can check whenever I want to start a new song. At least once a week I brainstorm possible song titles and add the best ones to my list. There’s always an interesting song starter ready whenever I need one. Here’s how you can find Songwriting Inspiration: What Do I Write My Song About?
Write Songs Faster: Analyze Songs You Love
Rip apart songs and learn how the pieces fit together. Dig into the lyrics, pull the chord progressions apart, borrow picking patterns and chord voicings for your songs. Here are some detailed ideas to explore: Songwriting Reference Tracks.
Write Songs Faster: Work with a Co-Writer
A good co-writing team usually writes and finishes songs faster, because the synergy of a good co-writing session makes 1 + 1 = 11 instead of 2. When both (or more) writers want to finish the song, they also hold each other accountable to complete it. Choose co-writer’s with complementary strengths and compatible personalities. A bad co-writing situation won’t create a good synergy or be any fun.
Write Songs Faster: Develop your Songwriting Process
Don’t try to reinvent your songwriting process for every song. Think about your songwriting strengths and how you write songs. Nobody really cares how your song was written, they just want to hear a great song that triggers their emotions.
Here’s a songwriting process you can learn for free: How to Write a Song Chorus, just enter your name and email address to get it straight to your inbox.
Songwriting Faster: Create a Songwriting Routine
Any solid music teacher will help you develop a practice routine for your instrument. Read this for help developing your own customized songwriting routine.
Instant Song Myth: Summary
Your songwriting success is affected by what you believe. The Instant Song Myth can make songwriting harder for you if it creates unrealistic songwriting expectations. You don’t have to write quickly to become a great songwriter.
Focus on your songwriting process, instead of stressing over your songwriting speed.
Enjoy your songwriting journey!