Richard Middleton
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"Songwriting in Reverse"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, July 2000.

One of my students was a gifted singer-songwriter and guitarist who felt she was in a musical rut. Although she was quite skilled on the guitar, she felt that the guitar accompaniments she'd written for her more recent songs were boring, too familiar and predictable, and that she was spinning her wheels. This frustration was affecting her songwriting as well. She wanted to explore new musical territory but was uncertain how to go about it.

One of the things we worked on was rethinking the role of the guitar in her songwriting process. Like many songwriters, she had two main modes in which she wrote songs: writing words then putting a melody to them, or writing a melody then putting words to it. Either way, the guitar accompaniment would come last, almost as an afterthought, and it always played a subordinate role.

I encouraged her to spend time simply noodling around on her guitar, letting her innate musicality come through on this instrument rather than through her voice. This was a new idea for her. She was used to letting herself explore when she sang or wrote, and she was used to having songs emerge from that process. Yet she didn't feel the same freedom on the guitar, despite her ability.

Like this student, many performing songwriters feel a sense of doubt or distance when it comes to their instrument, and they don't spend much time just playing their guitar or piano or whatever it might be. As a result, they have difficulty finding their own "voice" on their instrument, and this difficulty reinforces their self doubt. Of course, there are many performers who don't have this trouble, but for those who do, it's very frustrating, and it's often the hidden cause behind a persistent case of writer's block.

As a songwriter, it's good to spend time exploring and creating on your instrument, away from the voice, away from words, away from the notion that your instrument is only for "accompaniment." Explore it on its own terms. See what sorts of little musical ideas might come. Beautiful chord voicings. Interesting textures. Infectious grooves.

Find a way to save and collect these little instrumental ideas, just as you collect the catchy vocal and lyrical fragments you think of. Keep a stash of these instrumental ideas. Return to your instrument regularly and run over them, developing and refining them. You'll find that some will have an almost hypnotic power, an inherent beauty and fascination that prevents them from becoming tiresome. You'll find yourself playing some of these ideas over and over again, like a musical mantra.

This is actually one of my favorite things to do. It really is a kind of meditation for me, and an important part of my songwriting process. I have many little solo guitar and piano grooves and patterns, musical seeds waiting to sprout into songs. If you cultivate these ideas, you'll find that words and melodies will come, which, in turn, will spark further instrumental refinements. Each element works in synergy with the others, and the songs that emerge will have a different quality from those written using your habitual process. Not only will the songs be different, but the instrumental parts will be much more developed, with an independent life and identity of their own — a second voice.

A variation on this process is to see whether any of the instrumental fragments you've collected work well with any of the fragments in your melody and/or lyric stockpiles. You'll be amazed how two previously unrelated elements from totally different spheres fit together perfectly, as though they were made for each other.

For songwriters who feel caught in a musical rut or who doubt their instrumental abilities, exploring their instruments in this way can be liberating. And if your habitual songwriting process always begins with your instrument, try playing with words and melodies first. Learn to approach songwriting from any angle. Enjoy!

Copyright 2000 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).