Many of us grow up thinking that songwriting is a kind of magical process. Perhaps that’s because for some songwriters, librettists, and composers, the process is magical.
Stravinsky famously said that he felt he didn’t “compose” The Rite of Spring – he felt it just came to him, and he simply wrote down what was flowing from his fingers on the piano. Terry Riley, whose piece In C ushered in the musical movement known as Minimalism in 1964, says that the whole piece just appeared in his head while on a bus ride. There are plenty of instances of a song - or, in these two examples, large-form compositions - that seem to grow out of a Moment Of Inspiration. And what better definition of “Art” do we have than something that grows out of that kind of burst of creativity?
So it might seem dismissive to say that songwriting is not an art but a craft. But for Tin Pan Alley songwriters, and their musical descendants in the Brill Building and Nashville, that’s exactly what it was. They worked, often in teams, in what was essentially an office job. A singer, or show, or movie, needed a song, and your job was to crank something out. It might take an hour, or a day. This flies in the face of our romantic notion of the artist wrestling with her/his muse, but a lot of what we call The Great American Songbook began this way.
As every museum in the world shows, sometimes real craftsmanship can become art. Something as simple as Shaker furniture is now displayed in museums, but those folks probably had no pretensions to High Art when they were pegging the legs to the table. The point is, a songwriter can’t just sit around feeling artistic and waiting for inspiration to strike. Stravinsky may not have known exactly how The Rite of Spring happened, but he was a successful, technically-proficient composer who was working steadily – exactly the sort of thing that invites those creative flashes. You might get lucky once, but every songwriter who’s had a successful career has done so by working hard at their craft.
Who are the master craftspeople of songwriting today? Leave a comment.