Punch Clockers, Mystic Poets, and the Key to Successful Songwriting

by Lee Abraham

Songwriting is a personal thing. At least most of the time. For starters, everybody’s got their own special technique. Interviewing countless musicians, from open mic. newcomers to music biz heavyweights, confirms the obvious: there is no one-size-fits-all method for penning a hit.

Some writers schedule a specific time each and every day, blocking out reality’s distractions to focus on the task at hand. The theory - if you consistently work long and hard at being creative, you will eventually come up with something to show for the effort. Call ‘em ‘punch clockers.’ Hey, some folks need this kind of discipline. And if that’s the case, by all means, shut the curtains, bolt the doors, unplug the phone, and get busy. Do what it takes, just get the job done.

At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘mystic poet’ approach is less of a job and more of an adventure. This free spirited school of songwriting is only in session when the stars are in perfect alignment, when the cosmic whirlwinds of creativity stoke the fickle fires of inspiration, and when an altered state of mind from this crazy state of affairs we refer to as the human condition lifts the veil of perception, revealing the secret magic of the muse. Punch clockers work at their craft - mystic poets struggle for their art.

Guess what? It doesn’t matter -how- a song is written. If it’s good, it’s good. Be warned: don’t put stock in opinions from your friends and family. It’s their job to like everything you come up with. The music biz is a much tougher audience. Bank on it - in terms of dollars, the number of hours spent, or brain cells lost in the process of writing a song rarely add up to more than a big fat zero. As in zip. Nada. The golden sombrero. Goose eggs for Goober. Zilch... well, you get the idea. Hey, nobody wants to hear, or more importantly -believe-, that their song sucks. Unfortunately though, from a commercial perspective, most of ‘em do.

That harsh truth in mind, here’s my holiday gift to punch clockers and mystic poets alike: focus on the melody. That’s where the action is. Melody is the brain candy listeners can’t get enough of. Melody is what they hum the morning after a show. And like it or not, the greatest lyrics in the world are going to have a tough time getting out of the living room and into the recording studio if they’re not wrapped around a compelling melody. After all, think of how many hit songs listeners have inadvertently made up their own lyrics to while singing along. Face it: listeners don’t give a dotted eighth note if a song was assembled at a word factory or captured at the edge of the universe, they just recognize a good tune when they hear one.

Try this: hum the song’s melody. Is it recognizable? Does the melody work -on its own-, free of clever lyrics or fancy instrumental support? Does the progression and phrasing of notes, the tempo and beat, all come together in a distinctive audio synergy that sings out? Get feedback from other writers and musicians to determine if there’s still time left on the punch clock, or deeper space yet to explore, depending on the pen’s point of reference. Remember: constructive criticism is the one aspect of songwriting that shouldn’t be taken -personally-.