Songwriting is writing

If I were teaching songwriting school, I would only have one punishment for naughty (or boring) students: write 100 times on the chalkboard, “songwriting is writing”.

Thinking of songwriting as a form of writing is an important and powerful idea that pushes and pulls our understanding of songs in two unfamiliar directions. First, if songwriting is writing than it deserves the respect that other forms of writing get. One sign of that respect is that we should care about the literary quality of a song, rather than only its commercial appeal. Another sign of respect for songwriting as writing is the amount of time we expect to spend on it – not on individual songs, necessarily, but on developing the skills needed to write interesting and original songs.

On the other hand, thinking of songwriting as writing may cause us to cast a more critical eye on songs. We may look at certain songs with a newfound disappointment, realizing that, while they may make nice sounding records, they don’t accomplish very much as writing. Maybe they rehash worn-out ideas, both musically and lyrically. Maybe they are embarrassing or off-putting when we listen to them critically.

Songwriting is different from other forms of writing, of course. It uses music. It is more compressed than many other forms, though there are poetic forms, like haiku, that are even more compressed. Like traditional poetry, it often relies on established forms.

Still, songwriting has the potential to treat as expansive a range of themes and topics as any other literary form. It can be narrative and lyric, sometimes in the same song. It can be fictional or non-fictional, personal or anthemic, political or introspective.

It can be a struggle to think of songwriting as writing. Your parents and friends probably won’t think of it as writing. Even the other songwriters you know might not really think of themselves as writers. But if you remind yourself that songwriting is writing, you may find that it opens up musical and lyrical possibilities for your songs that you had never considered.

If you’re still not convinced, I’ll offer this song as proof:

Along with this interview where Gillian Welch explains her process for writing this song and its companion, “Ruination Day, Part 2”.