Trawl through any one of those numerous list articles - the ones with titles like, ‘The Top 10 songs written in under an hour’ - and you’ll inevitably find the tale of Paul McCartney awakening one morning with the melody to Yesterday/floating around his mop-topped head.
The story goes that Paul, convincing himself that some form of subconscious plagiarism had taken place (and lacking the search tools of the modern age) played this embryonic classic to friends and musicians, asking if any could recognise it.
The young Beatle assumed somebody would spot its similarity to another tune that Paul had subliminally absorbed, so he could then put it (back) to bed. “Eventually it became like handing something in to the police. I thought that if no one claimed it after a few weeks then I would have it.” McCartney said in Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now.
It’s a sweet story, and one which - while trotted out as evidence that masterpieces can come quick - actually underscores a central point that many seem to avoid highlighting. When Paul opened his eyes that morning, it wasn’t the song we know as Yesterday that presented itself, fully-formed, in his head. The melody, harmony, arrangement and lyrics took many subsequent months (accounts differ) to write. In fact, the original placeholder lyric. ‘Scrambled Eggs’, was only switched to ‘Yesterday’ after a great deal of John Lennon-frustrating deliberation.
Claims that masterpieces have been written in minutes abound, and many (upon further inspection) are revealed to be not as cut and dried as their writers claim. Lady Gaga has been quoted as saying that many of her biggest chart smashes - including 2008’s anthemic Just Dance and 2011 banger Born This Way - took less than 10 minutes to complete. However, a little digging reveals that the latter required an additional period of time to finalise.
“We recorded it around the world, on the road, in whatever was available” producer DJ White Shadow told Billboard. So, just how much of the song was categorically ‘finished’ in those initial 10 minutes isn’t clear. But it seems a longer, globe-spanning mixing process took place. So, how much does that count?
While we’re not doubting the genius for seizing inspiration that Gaga, Macca and many of the other claimants of intuitively-written songs clearly share, the esoteric, almost supernatural-adjacent notion of artists being ‘gifted’ songs from somewhere else can take hold in the popular imagination. It can undermine the hard-won skills and discipline that songwriting (particularly when writing commercially) demands.
To investigate these claims further, we gave Dr Joe Bennett a call. A forensic musicologist and a professor at Berklee College of Music, we wanted to get his take on the notion of the speed-run megahit. But first wanted to know that, in his view, just when a song can be said to be finished?
“What interests me about the songwriting process - particularly in the 21st century when everyone is working with DAWs - is just where is that dividing line between songwriting and production? Let’s say you’re an acoustic guitarist and you write the topline lyric, and throw it down to a dictaphone with a view to producing it with a session band later. Well, that’s one definition of ‘writing a song’, but if you are a DAW-based songwriter and your process is to begin with beats and loops or samples, then the dividing line between what is writing the song and what is producing starts to blur.”
Joe explains to us that constructing the elements that constitute the two primary legal copyrights in music (a musical work and the sound recording) was once a markedly separate process, but now, we’re living in a very different world. “Today, people will often make the musical work and the sound recording simultaneously. Everyone has access to easy-to-use tools, and can record at release quality, so it’s very difficult to isolate just what the songwriting process is.”
“Those are all the caveats,” Bennett explains, “but in terms of getting concrete on what are the elements you need in place to say you’ve written the song in a short time? At the minimum, you need to have a song form, you need to have a lyric and more importantly a lyric theme: that is to say, what is your song about? You need some kind of musical information in there, depending on the genre, but typically a topline vocal melody, and usually in harmonic forms of song, you need some kind of underlying harmony.”
Let’s take a breath
Bennett’s suspicion, then, is that most of these routinely-shared tales of rapidly written songs are either exaggerated, or stem from a misunderstanding of just how many elements need to be in place before you can (commercially and legally) declare a song to be actually completed.
However, for artists that do hit on a divine melody or concoct a chord sequence that seems to write itself, seizing on moments of inspiration can tend to lead to a prompt creative flurry. Enough to say that, arguably, for the initial spark at least, ‘the song came quick’.
We asked Catherine Anne Davies (aka The Anchoress) about her own experience as a songwriter, and wondered if there was a discernible difference between the types of songs she’d written quickly, and those that took more time.
“I have written in all sorts of ways, from music, lyric and topline all at once (on my song Popular) to music first, then painstakingly constructing the best topline and lyric to fit afterwards (eg, The Anchoress’ song, All Farewells Should Be Sudden). I always try to keep my voice notes recording when I am sitting down to write but I am more comforted by the idea that the craft is in the long process of returning to something and sculpting it to be the very best it can be rather than the myth of the moment of genius. Those are much rarer occurrences in my experience, and only prime us to be lazier and less consistent in our creative practice.”
Catherine hits on the root of our problem with these types of claims (and subsequent round-up features). It sells a subtext that implies the often painstaking work of songwriting is something that - if you’re ‘in-tune’ enough - you can easily skip over. Though, it makes total sense to us that certain artists should want to obfuscate the creation of their megahits - nothing says ‘I’m very good at my job’ more than claiming to have done something hugely impressive in no time at all.
Often, these myths take hold for other reasons. The Beastie Boys’ Mike D belittled the trio’s frat-boy-parodying smash (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!) by essentially referring to the writing process as a knock-off.
“It was summer 1986. We wrote it in about five minutes,” he said in 1987. “[It was written] on napkins on top of those shitty lacy tables. I remember we made a point there of like, ‘Look, we gotta get shit done,’ and we sat at one table, really determined to accomplish something.”
It was a minimisation that spoke more about the Beastie’s attempts to distance themselves from a monster hit that many had taken to be more manifesto than the satire it was intended as. The recollection also undermined the extensive work of producer and co-writer Rick Rubin to build up its hard-hitting rock sound, arguably a core component of the track (and enough to warrant Mr Rubin receiving a songwriting credit).
It’s often rare for producers to be thought of as ‘songwriters’ in the conventional sense. However, those dividing lines between the two disciplines are something that academic and musical polymath Joe Bennett remains fairly open-minded about.
“When you’re selecting your drum sound, is that a compositional gesture, or a production gesture?” he asks. “I don’t have a particular view, and you could argue the case, depending on how you’re writing. I’m sure when Elton John is writing a song he’s not thinking about the snare drum sound, but no doubt there’s a bunch of EDM producers for whom that’s an absolutely germane creative decision, very early in the process. It varies from writer to writer and genre to genre.”
Race to the top
For some songwriters, it’s music first, with the lyrics serving almost as an afterthought. In this mindset, its structure, mix and wider sonic elements are the priority. When they’re done, essentially the track is done. But, as Joe Bennett explains, lyrics matter, particularly for big hits: “If you ask most people to name their top ten favourite tracks, they probably won’t be instrumentals. Some early-career songwriters try to get themselves off the hook by claiming they don’t listen to lyrics so it doesn’t matter, but it really does. Songs that affect us emotionally are often very lyric-driven.”
And there are other elements as well as lyric and topline that need attention: “Secondary hooks take their time too,” posits Bennett. “Writers might come up with their topline and miss the opportunity to add melodic material in the intro, for example. By secondary hooks I mean a melodic bassline, or an interesting sample or timbre - something that makes people remember the song or the record that isn’t necessarily topline melody.
“Secondary hooks can be a great way of helping a listener to engage with your song the first time they hear it. Most musicians can write chords and melody, and anyone that uses a DAW can make a loop, but those meta-skills take a bit more time to develop, and they’re not necessarily as obvious when you’re making a track. There’s often a strong creative temptation to put them off until later in the process.”
For a lyricist like Catherine Anne Davies, continual refinement is paramount. “Perhaps sometimes the lyrical subject matter is best served by a more immediate and intuitive approach to the words, but I've never not known a song to benefit from some editing at some point in the production and recording process.” she explains. “I don't think that there are any hard and fast rules as to whether or not those songs that come out more easily result in a better outcome or vice versa.
“On both of The Anchoress albums I've included songs that have been quickly written - Waiting To Breathe, on my debut Confessions of a Romance Novelist, and Let It Hurt on The Art Of Losing. However, I don't think you'd be able to tell on first listen which of the tracks were slaved over for months, versus those that slipped out in one sitting.”
It should be said that, while the time needed for refinement, craft and development are crucial for individual songwriters, getting the majority of a hit song together in a short space of time is eminently possible. Songwriter, musician and producer Paul Statham recalls that, when writing alongside Dido for her 1999 hit, Here With Me, the initial songwriting took little time, when compared to the longer process of production.
“Writing actually in the room with the artist can produce very successful results,” Paul says. “Here With Me, which I co-wrote with Dido, was very quickly written. I wrote the chords and mood of the pads/atmosphere and then [co-writer] Pascal Gabriel added a powerful drum groove. Then, I added the detuned kick drum as a bassline; Dido in the same afternoon wrote all her lyrics and melody, and in fact the guide vocal was on the finished thing.”
Though a brisk process, Statham admits the production work added much to the final single. “Rick Knowles took time over the final production, adding some incredible dynamics that made the song so special in how it builds. A full orchestra was recorded and used only as the song progressed. He used a lot of our original material hence getting a pre-production credit.”
Paul tells us that a similar team-based process yielded fast results when working with Kylie Minogue on her titanic Fever album in 2001. In this context, a deadline motivated the team to come up with the goods as quickly as possible.
“[Kylie] was a delight and she’s a great writer as well,” Statham recalls. “We worked very quickly; as you can imagine, getting in the room with her was to a deadline. Again, with just a simple Moloko-styled groove and an acoustic guitar, we all worked together on the lyrics and two tracks, Your Love and Tightrope, made the album. It stayed at the top of the charts for bloody ages!”
The clock is ticking
It’s safe to say that the idea of chart hits regularly descending from on high in a fully-formed state, requiring little further human effort to complete is, by-and-large, a fanciful one. But, that isn’t to say that effective songwriting practice and the combined efforts of skilled professional teams can't come up with the (vast majority of the) goods fairly quickly.
“The order in which you do things varies from songwriter to songwriter,” Joe Bennett tells us. “Back in the early-to-mid 20th century, there were songwriting teams that began entirely lyric first, or entirely music first. The Bee Gees used to begin with music first and often have nonsense syllables, deciding on the theme later in the process.
“Squeeze used the opposite approach - Chris Difford would write the lyric entirely and then Glenn Tilbrook would set it to music. The same process, of course, for Elton John and Bernie Taupin. The lyric would be a complete fait accompli that would then be set by Elton. So it’s possible to separate those processes.”
While we’re pondering the craft of songwriting, we wonder how the impact of increasingly helpful composition tools (not to mention AI) will impact on the more traditional aspects of songwriting.
“I do worry that the middle ground is filled by, if you like, more jobbing songwriters who are not artists per se,” says Paul Statham. “They will start over-using AI and churning out stuff relatively cheaply that labels and sync companies will then buy very cheaply. We are living in a fast-moving world with shorter attention spans and less quality as quantity takes over. So, in the back of my mind I worry about the actual quality of songs that will start to fill up the streaming services.”
It’s a legitimate concern, but Catherine Anne Davies also recognises that AI’s potential to accelerate the process could be a good thing. “I am quite intrigued by the ways in which some songwriters have used AI to probe a blindspot in their own creative practice - eg, Steven Wilson's use of it to write the lyrics for his Christmas song, December Skies - but I don't have any concerns that it will take the place of the nuance and subtlety that a human being and all their life experience and variations in expression and vocabulary can bring. As a student of literature I think that it's impossible for a machine to replicate what the human soul can only express.”
The magic of spontaneous creation is intrinsic to the art of songwriting. For both writer and listener there is an unconscious sharing of emotions that can’t be verbally communicated, joy that can only be expressed rhythmically, and pain that can only resonate through melody. It’s easy to understand why the notion of songs appearing to artists as otherworldly gifts appeals. But, as any songwriter will tell you, hearing a song that has spent months in painstaking development come together can be equally spellbinding.
Dr Joe Bennett is a musicologist, writer, and researcher, specialising in popular music and songwriting. As a professor at Berklee College of Music, he teaches artist development, songwriting, music copyright, and song analysis. He has written more than 30 tuition books, and his music education compositions are performed by students all over the world. As an expert witness forensic musicologist, Joe advises lawyers, publishers, artists, and songwriters on matters of musical similarity. Joe blogs about songwriting copyright at joebennett.net
Catherine Anne Davies is a songwriter, producer, educator and the alter ego of artist The Anchoress. Her second LP, The Art of Losing, was nominated for a Welsh Music Prize. She has written with numerous high profile artists including Jim Kerr, Pete Murphy, Ed Harcourt and Bernard Butler.
Paul Statham runs songwriting at Solent University, is a mentor at the songwriting academy and has recently started a new venture SPPS songwriting with Shelly Poole running themed songwriting workshops and retreats. All information can be found on www.paulstatham.com