Here, I’m sharing the prompt from today, as it is a little more unusual than the prompts I normally send.
[The prompts I normally send for Songwriting Group are short phrases, designed to catalyse an idea, rather than anything pedagogical; things like “dangerously close”; “making the bed”; “Babylon hairdo” (Yes, that was actually a prompt…!)]
Here is today’s prompt:
Write a song based on a place, where the place features as a central image of the song.
For example, “The River” by Bruce Springsteen.
“Ladies of the Canyon”, by Joni Mitchell.
Here are some suggestions on a way into this:
Spend 10 minutes Sense writing about one of these places (got the PLACES section of the prompts); OR
Pick a city or town that has special significance to you, and write about it; OR
Where were you when a significant event occurred (either directly to you, or something that impacted you)? Describe the place in detail, and make the place an important aspect of your lyric writing.
PS – Here is the song I wrote for this prompt! My partner and I agree on most things. There’s one where we don’t: The Stanwell Park Overpass just south of Sydney (aka Sea Cliff Bridge). I think it’s beautiful. He thinks it’s awful.
“The composer Pauline Oliveros was known, among other things, for a practice she called deep listening. This evolved in part from her experience performing with a couple of other musicians in an abandoned cistern in the state of Washington, fourteen feet underground. The group shared a weakness for bad puns and titled a 1989 CD of their recordings in the space Deep Listening.
But the extraordinary reverb in the cistern really had forced the musicians to listen with deep and extraordinary care to their environment. Thus the performances (there was no audience) prompted them to think in new ways about the relationships between the sonic and the spatial. This led to the Deep Listening Band, Deep Listening workshops and “retreats,” and eventually the Deep Listening Institute. Oliveros later explained that the practice developed into something that “explores the difference between hearing and listening.”
Hearing is a physical process involving sound waves and the body. We know about it because it is easy to study; listening, the interpretation of those sound waves, is harder to quantify.
“To hear is the physical means that enables perception,” Oliveros continued. “To listen is to give attention to what is perceived, both acoustically and psychologically.”
Oliveros’s version of listening encompasses remembered sounds, sounds heard in dreams, even imagined or invented sounds. Elsewhere she referred to auralization (a term borrowed from architectural acoustics) as a kind of sonic corollary to the visual spin we tend to put on imagination. “Listening is a lifetime practice that depends on accumulated experiences with sound,” she asserted, one that encompasses “the whole space-time continuum of sounds.”
Well before arriving at the term deep listening, Oliveros had experimented with many of these ideas, and notably produced a short but influential 1974 text called Sonic Meditations, offering various sets of rather poetic instructions:
“Take a walk at night.”
“Walk so silently that the bottom of your feet become ears.”
Most of the highly inventive prompts also involve making sounds, particularly in groups, consistent with her belief that musicality shouldn’t be restricted to musicians. For example, “Choose a word. Listen to it mentally. Slowly and gradually begin to voice this word by allowing each tiny part of it to sound extremely prolonged. Repeat for a long time.”
You can piece together and modify some of Oliveros’s suggestions to explore deep listening without worrying about compositional goals. Here is one approach to experimenting with the kind of expansive listening that she advocated, borrowing from a few sources, but most notably a “meditation” that was part of a 2011 Deep Listening Intensive in Seattle. Think of this as a means of exploring your aural identity:
In any space you wish, “listen to all possible sounds.” When one sound grabs your attention, dwell on it. Does it end? Think about what it reminds you of. Consider sounds from your past, from dreams, from nature, from music.
Now think of a sound that reminds you of childhood; see if you can find something reminiscent of that sound now. Dwell on what you find. Stop here or follow the instruction of that 2011 meditation for as long as you wish: “Return to listening to all sounds at once. Continue in this manner.””
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In this series, I’ll go through my all-time Top 5 Exercises for generating lyric ideas, whether I’ve got a song idea going already or not.
These exercises don’t require inspiration. They mostly require 10 minutes and a pen. Just like anything in life, you can get better at writing great lyrics with practice. I hope these exercises give you something to practice with.
Sense Writing is a timed, 10-minute prose-writing exercise that I learned from Pat Pattison, and is beloved by a cavalry of incredible songwriters, including Gillian Welch, John Mayer, and Liz Longley.
Here’s How it Works.
Find a random prompt. At the beginning, using an ‘object’ prompt is best (something tangible you can see/feel/hold/touch). You can find random prompts on any day in these spots:
You can also collect prompts yourself, by simply coming up with a long list of objects (ie things) that you can draw on whenever you sit down to write. The key here—at the beginning of your Sense Writing journey—is randomness. The prompt must be something unexpected.
Set a timer for 10 minutes, and write continuously. Don’t edit yourself or censor your writing. You’ve got to let the rusty water run to get to the clear stuff. This exercise isn’t lyric writing per se; it’s exploration. It’s a walk in the woods. Don’t worry about how good your shoes look. Look around and see what’s on the path instead, without judgment.
A few tips.
Do not try to write lyrics in this phase. No rhyming. No rhythmic meter. It will slow you, and put handcuffs on your ability to truly explore what arises.
Don’t write for longer than 10 minutes. It’s really easy (and common at the beginning) to get into ‘flow’ around minute 8, to hear the timer go off, and to think, “Oh I’m in it now; I’ll just keep going”. Don’t. You won’t get stronger unless you keep that 10-minute wall to push against. What you will find, if you stick to 10 minutes, is that you get faster at hitting flow.
You will also find the exercise more sustainable over the long term. If you let it spiral out to 20 minutes, it becomes a ‘20-minute exercise,’ which is infinitely harder to convince yourself to do on a regular basis than a 10-minute exercise!
Stay Sense-bound. This is the most crucial part of Sense Writing—this is what we’re really here for.
The most important limitation on this type of writing is that you are deliberately trying to use all of your senses to paint a vivid picture of whatever scene, situation, event, or memory arises. Sometimes your writing will start out as a series of fleeting associations with the prompt—this is you pushing the jenga pieces of your mind, until you find one that moves a little more easily, then going deeper into that one.
When you find one that moves, your aim to is be descriptive with all of the senses:
SIGHT SOUND SMELL TASTE TOUCH
Make sure you move around the senses, touching on all of them through your writing.
A few tips.
Try starting a few Sense Writes in the week with a sense other than sight or sound. Those are our dominant senses, and starting with the other senses pushes our mind and memories into different places.
Turn the dial up on the level of detail you go into. Instead of ‘the kitchen smelled like dinner cooking’, keep going. Fill it with the specifics: “the kitchen smelled of dinner cooking: rosemary, thyme, and a pinch of chilli.”
There are two other ‘senses’ that we can tap into as well: the ‘inside body’ sense (which is the physical sensations happening inside our body), and the ‘movement’ sense (where describe the way people and objects move in space). For more detail on these senses, check out this video.
Sense Writing works best if you do it every day for at least 2 weeks (and then, at least 3 times a week for…ever 🙂 ).
Examples of Sense Writing
Here’s one I did recently, with notations on the different senses:
I was 8 years old – beach holiday in the australian summer – sleeping with sand in my toes, crusting in my hair, and behind ears (touch). The salt of the sea, warm and moist in the air (touch and smell). The evening buzzing and alive with the rhythmic pulse of cicadas, together creating a screeching high pitched whistle that filled the air…(sound)
That afternoon, I learned to wolf whistle. Two fingers of each hand shoved into my mouth (visual, touch, inside body) – the tongue has to be curled back like Elvis’ hair (visual), then blow. At first, spit dribbling down my chin, and hot air just wheezing out (touch, sound). And then a short sharp sound. My heart racing, thumping against the cage of my ribs (inside body) – some kind of possibility opening up. I could taste the seaweed of the beach on my fingers and the spit glossing my lips (taste), as the sound sharpened, until finally shooting out as the loudest most ear rattling sound – a wolf whistle! (sound)
The sheer power of being 8 years old and able to create that sound! The sound waves hurtling past my lips and crashing through glass, sweeping out onto the street (movement) and joining those damn cicadas…as the indigo twilight started to wash its ink over the day, turning the street gray, the blanket of the sky sweeping closed (visual), but the sound of those cicadas still droning into the salty night…(sound)
How to Use Sense Writing to Write Lyrics
Keep the best lines for later. Mine your writing for gold nuggets—lines, phrases, or even words that are interesting and evocative. Put them into a list:
sleeping with sand in my toes
The salt of the sea
The evening buzzing and alive
curled back like Elvis’ hair
thumping against the cage of my ribs
hurtling past my lips and crashing through glass
sweeping out onto the street
wash its ink over the day
turning the street gray
blanket of the sky
Here’s the secret:
I can use any of these lines in any song I like. It doesn’t have to be a song about learning to wolf whistle. Or even a song about childhood (though I like that idea…more on that in a moment). But there are some lovely descriptions here of a summer evening that I could use for any song at all.
In fact, sometimes keeping this list of lines in a doc without the prompt, then leaving them alone for a few weeks can help detach the lines from their original context, and allows me to use them for absolutely anything. What I find is that a few weeks later, I might read a line like ‘sweeping out onto the street’ and it will attach to an idea that I have been wanting to write about…so I might get something like:
In fading moments of indigo twilight
We are wrapped in the blanket of the sky
And spilling out onto the street
You are I are a bottle of wine
Writing to find out what we are writing about. One of the primary benefits of Sense Writing is that our subconscious comes out to play. We can’t help it. Our brains are meaning-makers. The most seemingly random prompt almost always associates with a memory, scene, or situation that has an emotional imprint on us—and this is the stuff of song.
In my example above, the line that really stands out to me is: “The sheer power of being 8 years old and able to create that sound!” To me this is a short story about finding a voice as a young kid, which is also a story about feeling powerless. About needing voice. About needing to make a sound loud enough to be heard. There’s something in there worth exploring.
Use it to write a section idea. I use Sense Writing when I have a song on the go, and specifically when I know what I want a section of lyric to be about (or how I want it to function in the song), but I don’t actually have lyrics for it yet.
Let me give you an example. I was working on an album project for Penguin Random House audio, writing an album of songs about motherhood. With the particular song I was working on at the time, I knew what I wanted the song to be about: the early stages of being mostly confined at home with a tiny infant.
I also had a title—Cocoon—and a Song Map: an outline of where the song starts, develops, and how it would finish.
Here’s the outline for Verse 1:
The outside world has never looked so beautiful. But I can’t go out. I’m stuck inside, wrapped up in this cocoon.
Here is a part of the Sense Write I did based on that idea (the prompt I gave myself was: “summer day”):
The sky outside so wide and blue, is sparkling, twinkling, glittering, a giant blue ocean whose tide is pulling on us, like a sapphire in the crown of cosmic gods
But the sky and the sun can both go away because we’re not going outside today, we don’t need to go outside today…
Clearing the decks. The final way I use Sense Writing as a lyric writer is simply as a daily writing practice. A way to start my day, to put my mind into gear, to power up my songwriter brain, so that I am more primed to notice: notice details, pay attention to senses, become aware of how one thing connects to another. Even if I use nothing from a particular Sense Write in a song’s lyrics, it is always worth it.
Why Sense Writing?
Sense Writing trains you to turn ideas into imagery, and imagery is the most powerful way to connect with the minds and hearts of someone else.
As Leonard Cohen said: “We seem to be able to relate to detail. We seem to have an appetite for it. It seems our days are made of details, and if you can get the sense of another person’s day in details, your own day of details is summoned in your mind in some way rather than just a general line like “the days went by” (from Songwriters on Songwriting, ed. Paul Zollo).
As writers, creators, artists, and musicians, we all have the same ugly little inner voices that try to sabotage us from doing our work. They come in different flavors: You’re not good enough. You have nothing important to say. This is boring. Ssssleep is sooooo much better than thissss (hear that in translated Parseltongue, please).
Here is the tricky thing though—there is another little voice in there, the Inner Guide, that is getting caught up in the machinations of the Little Arsehole. It’s a helpful voice. A voice that wants you to succeed, to get better, to discover the jewels of your craft. But it’s not obnoxious like the Little Arsehole so it doesn’t speak so loudly.
The first work that we need to do is to be able to differentiate between these two voices. And really, it’s easy when you know how to tell the difference.
And here it is.
The Little Arsehole has one goal: to make you stop.
So its messages always end the same way:
“You’re not good enough—you should just stop now before you embarrass yourself.”
“There is nothing in here that has not already been said better than you could ever say it—stop now and do something else. Go buy stuff for your kids on Amazon.”
Stop. Stop. Stop.
The Inner Guide has a totally different goal: to make you try harder, and do better.
It sounds more like this:
“That line is a little cliched—what else have you got?”
“There’s not enough contrast between these sections—what can you do to make it pop more?”
“This feels meandering. You haven’t found the hook yet. Keep looking.”
Can you see the difference? One says stop. The other says keep going.
So what to do about that pesky Little Arsehole, because the truth is, it’s not really ever going to disappear. It’s part of you. And like silly putty, the harder you push it, the more rigid and strong it becomes.
So here is the revelation. You put that Little Arsehole in its place by treating it gently, sweetly, kindly. Why? Because it’s actually there to help you. It’s a vestigial feature of our evolutionary biology, designed to prevent us from standing out from the crowd—lions will eat you if you are the lone little deer wearing a pink tutu on the savannah.
The Arsehole is really fear, whose tactic is protection. But there’s no lions, not in the sense that they can really hurt you. So we don’t really need that voice to be so loud and obnoxious when all we are trying to do is make art, do something creative and beautiful and weird.
Here is the 3-step method for putting the Little Arsehole in its place:
Step 1: Identify.
Pay attention to those voices, and practice identifying the Arsehole (“stop”) versus the Guide (“try harder”). Once you’ve recognised it for what it is, you can stop identifying with it.
Step 2: Treat it kindly.
Remember, if you get angry or frustrated with ‘fear’, it will perceive threat and double down. Here are some things I say to it:
“Oh hi! There you are again. Thanks for trying to protect me, that’s sweet of you to care so much. But in this moment, your services are not required. See? No lions! But please stick around for some other moment where I will almost certainly need you.”
Shorthand: “Thank you – but not right now.”
I know this sounds a bit cute, but honestly, if you recognise it as a protective function that is truly trying to serve you, just in a misguided way—and, you treat it (which is to say, yourself) with respect and gratitude—it will stop popping up in unnecessary moments. And! You get the added benefit of training it to be more attuned to situations where it might actually come in handy.
Step 3: Put it in its place.
Which is to say, in the corner with a lollipop and an iPad. We are not trying to belittle it, just to remind it that now is not the time.
Once the Little Arsehole is quiet and distracted, the Inner Guide gets more of a fighting chance of being heard, which is notoriously difficult. So many of my students ask how they can tell when a song is done, or even how to know what they need to change when they’ve created a first draft. The answer lies in your ability to hear the Inner Guide, to pay attention to it, and to dial it up. Its advice and guidance get better and clearer the more work you do. Its quality is a function of quantity.
So get the lollipop jar ready, and go do your work.
Want to kickstart your songwriting in 2023? Join us for the…
Starting with loops is one of the most enjoyable and effective ways to spark new ideas and breathe life into your songwriting process. In this video, we write a whole song from scratch using loops as inspiration – featuring the sample-based instrument ‘Chromatic’ from LANDR.
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The idea to offer access to a songwriting group to others comes directly from my own experience in my songwriting group, which I have talked about here on the YouTube Channel. My own songwriting group is the primary reason I wrote more than 20 songs last year, and have written almost 10 songs this year (we’re in May 2022 right now!).
The songwriting group isn’t a class. No one is the teacher. It’s a community space to give you the structure and accountability to write regularly, and receive some feedback from your peers.
The group will run for 8 weeks, and is fully online (by email). Songwriting Groups in 2022 will run:
May 16 – July 10
July 18 – Sept 11
Sept 19 – Nov 13
Here’s how it works:
I will send the group a songwriting prompt and a due date (due SUNDAY night every two weeks).
You write a song, with or without the prompt by the due date.
You send a recording and lyrics of the song (worktape or production) as a reply-all to the prompt email.
You all listen to each other’s songs, and can send feedback and compliments (or not!) only to the person (not as a reply-all).
The group doesn’t meet live; it’s all by email (old school!).
The “rules” of the group are:
Submit by the due date.
If you miss a week, you get 1 free pass if you email me beforehand. If you miss more than one, you’ll be put on the waitlist for the next round, if you’re keen to rejoin some other time. (The group requires regular, on-time participation.)
The aim is to write something every two weeks. Sometimes it will be something you love. Sometimes it won’t. Both are excellent. The goal is regular songwriting, in a community, and all that comes with it.
The 8-week session is $40AUD (I’m charging a nominal fee to cover the cost of logistics and communications). If you’re keen to join, please go ahead and send the registration fee here:
Once that has come through, I’ll confirm your registration on my end, and away we go 🙂
Please feel free to email me if you have any questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
One final note on my role: my role is to host the group, to facilitate and coordinate. I won’t be participating or providing feedback. The function of this community is to produce work, and learn from your own work, listening to others, providing your own feedback, and asking questions of others. I felt it important to be clear about my role to avoid any confusion 🙂
In this video, I share the three pillars of my creative practice that ensure I write even when not inspired, and have given me the structure to write over 20 songs this year.
Producing lots of creative work is more often about the habits, practices, and environments that we build, rather than about inspiration alone. These three practices give me the structures to stay connected to my ideas and projects, to know EXACTLY what I need to do if I am stuck on an idea or need to generate new ideas, and to ensure I have some accountability to get the work done.
“Whenever I want to write a big song, I can’t. And by “big” I mean spatially…the glacially large space inside the heart, that’s when I get writers block…trying to write a song to fill the entire galaxy. But if I write a song about the size of a glass of water, and I do it right, I notice a week later that it’s got the universe in it. I’d rather have the universe inside a glass of water, rather than try to make a glass of water fit in the universe.”
You can see the whole interview here (I’ve tagged it at the point where Mayer is talking about detail in songwriting.
This idea radiates into other forms of storytelling, which are really all connected—all trying to convey something that is simultaneously personal, drawn from the details of one’s own life, but also with a universal connection that creates communication, not just catharsis.
This idea was reiterated to me when I went poking around Matthew Dicks’ YouTube channel. Matt is a master storyteller—52-time Moth StorySLAM winner, and 7-time GrandSLAM champion. He made a lo-fi (and highly excellent) video outlining a storytelling game he plays in workshops and classrooms, called “3-2-1”. When explaining why he uses random concrete nouns as prompts, rather than something massive and emotional like “struggle” (or we could sub that for equally glacial concepts, like “loneliness” or “climate change”), Dicks says:
“It’s hard to tell a story if someone asks you, ‘Could you tell a story about a time when you struggled’. That is hard for a lot of people, including me, because ‘a time when you struggled’ is a very broad concept. There’s many, many times in our lives when we struggle. And so pick out the right story—to pick out any story—is really challenging. The odd thing is, the more specific the lens that you’re forced to look at your life through, the more likely you are to find a story.”
(My emphasis added)
You can see Matt’s whole video on his storytelling exercise here:
Matt was also kind enough to share with me the website he uses to generate the random nouns in this video, which is HERE (and on perusing it for a minute, it has other amazing filters that will generate other random lists for you, like cliches, emotions, ‘speech-verb’).
For a songwriter-specific writing exercise that will help you forever tap into the details, check out Object Writing in this video (I’ve tagged it right at Object Writing):