As a piano/vocal songwriter from the age of 12, I’ve written songs about the things I see in life that make me happy or catch my interest. But more often, my songs are about things that bother me; expressing my sadness or frustration in song has been one of the key ways I vented. I am definitely not alone in that, either, since many songwriters use music to talk about important social and political issues. Writing music about problems–confronting our problematic “giants” within the context of a melody–seems to be human nature.
Why Write Songs About Problems? Because It Helps
Songs are a great way to work out problems, as I found out at an early age. I could sing and bang the piano keys about my problems more readily than I could even talk to somebody about what was going on. Through music, I could put it more eloquently…and I found out through performances that other people identified with what I was singing about, even if it was sad.
Within a song, somehow, it seems easier to deliver a message that people will readily listen to. Even if the message is controversial, it seems less so when wrapped in melody and rhyme. And often, such a song can be the instigator of positive change, as it raises awareness about the problem–one such song is Jesus, Friend of Sinners by Casting Crowns, available through the video below:
The “Problem Song” Writing Process
In the act of writing a song about a problem, it forces me to condense my message and really “get to the bottom” of what I’m trying to talk about. It makes me dig around in my conscious and subconscious mind–why does this problem bug me so much? Once I start trying to explain my point of view as if speaking to someone else, I finally find the little nugget of truth hiding underneath the layers of my own thoughts, and that truth becomes the basis of my song. Then I write about how I see that truth, how that truth affects me, and the song begins to emerge.
Self-discovery and expression collide and combine once I finally sit down to the keyboard (either to type or to play). As I write the words, sometimes I find myself adding the melody with it; as I hum the melody, sometimes I find myself adding the words where they best fit. Either way, I am changing the word choice and rhythms to flow better together. This is a highly instinctive process of addition, deletion, and rapid editing until I find the “right” way the song is supposed to work, how it’s supposed to deliver its message.
Once I feel that the song is done “right,” I perform it for myself, in many rehearsals. Generally, the way I know that a song is good enough is if it either raises the hairs on my arms, or it makes me cry. (Yay for built-in quality control!)
The most challenging part of the whole “problem song” process, for me, is the first performance of the song for anybody. I am challenged to deliver my message as if I am a keynote speaker, and in a way, I am. I need to keep their interest, sing clearly, and express the nugget of truth with emotion and description, to help someone else understand how much this means to me. My song should go out to the audience and travel straight from their ears to their hearts, giving them the message in a way that makes them think without being hostile to the idea in my music.
How Can You Confront Your Own Giants with a Song?
I find that writing a bullet list, outline, or even just random notes about things that concern you is a great starting point toward writing your own songs (or poems, if you aren’t musically inclined). Amid the detritus that you will inevitably produce (as everyone does), there will likely be a phrase or sentence you write that will point you in the direction of your own nugget of truth.
From there, try to dig into it, to completely explain that nugget of truth as you see it. Your own poem or song will emerge from your pen or your keyboard–and you just might be surprised at what you’ve come up with!