Behind every masterpiece, there’s a mess — so here’s a technique that will help even the worst perfectionists cut loose and make a mess.
It’d be much easier if the lines of a song came to us in the right order, wouldn’t it? You could sit down and write a song from intro to outro without a hitch. No messy scribbles in the margins, no crossed-out lines — just a neat, finished lyric on a clean white notebook page.
Writing a song rarely goes that smoothly, though.
The first line you write might end up being the last line of the finished song. You might find yourself writing the song’s intro last. The creative process is messy that way — ideas about a song-in-progress usually come in random order. First the pieces come to you, and then you figure out how to fit them together.
Finishing the first draft of a song gets easier, though, with the help of this trick I learned by watching painters. I hope you’ll give it a try.
A mess behind every masterpiece
Every oil painter needs a place to squeeze out her paints, rest her brushes, and mix her colors.
A palette is where a painter does all that behind-the-scenes work of painting. Her finished painting might be a masterpiece, but her palette is a mess.
Writing songs has its dirty work, too. Every songwriter needs a place to brainstorm lyric ideas, rewrite sections, experiment with chord progressions, and so on.
I think we songwriters should steal this “palette” concept from painters. While writing a song, it’s a relief to know that you’ve got a safe place to experiment, explore ideas… and workshop them until they’re finally ready for show time. A palette gives recovering perfectionists (like me) a place to do the dirty work.
If you want to write a masterpiece, you’ve got to make a mess.
What Makes a Good Palette?
All you need is something to write on — digital files and analog paper both work just fine.
The only rule I suggest is that you keep your songwriting palette separate from your draft-in-progress. You’re not committing to anything that goes on your palette — not yet. You should feel comfortable writing anything down. Even the most silly, inappropriate, personal, and clichéd ideas are safe on your palette — no audience ever has to hear them.
Here are a few palette tools that’ve served me well:
- Use Microsoft OneNote as a digital whiteboard where you can embed audio files, type lyric ideas, and even write longhand or draw if you’re using a tablet.
- Hang a whiteboard or pin board on the wall.
- Simplest option: Use a legal pad
- Use the left page of your songwriting notebook as the palette for your draft-in-progress to the right.
As you work on your song draft, brainstorm ideas on your palette, develop them there, then pull the good ideas over into your current draft, piece by piece, to put the song together.
Tips For Making a Really, Really Big Creative Mess
So what goes on your songwriting palette? Every part of the song that you’ve written so far, for starters.
“But I can remember those parts just fine!” You might be saying. I’d argue that you should write all the existing parts down anyway. Get them out of your head, onto the page and into the microphone, where they’re safe.
The messier your palette is, the better. Here are a few of the things you can squeeze onto your palette if it gets dry:
- Ideas from a rhyming dictionary. This is especially helpful if you have at least a title or a strong line to work from. Look up potential rhymes for that line and list them in a column. Brainstorm a few possible lines for each rhyme word.
- Musical Ideas. Melodies, riffs, chord progressions, etc.
- Ideas from a Thesaurus. Look up key words, objects, and locations in a good Thesaurus—preferably one of the large hardcover type. Sometimes just one really colorful noun, verb, or adjective will trigger new connections that you didn’t see before.
- Freewriting. If you’re stumped for lyric ideas, do some timed free writing to see what you can shake loose.
- Fragmented phrases and images. Any ideas that occur to you in the heat of composition that don’t have an immediate home should be written on your palette right away.
Writing down your ideas makes room for more ideas
Writing all the pieces of a song down can help unblock a fresh stream of ideas.
Write down or record all of the draft’s existing pieces — every half-baked fragment, good idea, bad idea, and vague hunch you’ve got about this song-in-progress. The goal is to simply clean all of those pieces out of your head so that your brain is freed up for more brainstorming, creative writing, and composing.
Writing everything down also allows you to spot patterns, connections, and relationships between the song’s parts that you otherwise might not have noticed.
No mess, no masterpiece.
There, now you know what a “song palette” is, and how to use one. Try using a songwriters’ palette on the next 3 songs you write — see whether it helps you think more creatively and constructively. Let me know how it goes in the comments below.