Songwriting – The 20 minute song

By: Denis P Clement

We all have interest in life and in music. My main interest with music is to write my own material. If I could, I would do it 25 hours a day, 8 days a week… But wait; we do not have that kind of time available to us! Ok, then maybe, a day per week will do. Well no, I don’t have that kind of time too. Then maybe half a day? Nope! The main problem is that when I can write music, it is mainly after an exhausting day at work, my brain is fried and useless and on top of it, I have about one hour total to invest. Do you recognize yourself in the last statement?

Then what do you do? I was told that to write a song, you need time, all the proper elements, a perfect ambiance, the moon and the planets aligned perfectly, degrees in miscellaneous musical subject and the list go on and on.

I got frustrated at that for years, and then suddenly it came to me. Time is not the problem. Time can’t be changed or controlled. Instead I looked at what I had and decided to work with it. The first step was done, I changed my vision, which was negative and therefore counterproductive, and I transformed it to a positive outcome.

I came up with a simple concept. I would allow 20 minutes sometime during the week and try to write a full song during that period of time. So now I knew what I wanted to do. The better question was: how can I use the time I have and maximize it to produce the maximum results possible?

The concept:
I gave it a lot of thought, and the basic strategy is as follow:
1) I will write and record in one shot – no interruption for 20 minutes straight;
2) I will not judge the quality of what I do during the exercise;
3) I will have everything ready, the instrument(s), the recording gear, paper and pen;
4) I will try to have uninterrupted time;
5) I will be prepared. I will have my session pre-planned before I start it;
6) I will have a few ways to jump-start my creativity if I get stuck during the process;
7) As much as possible, I will try to complete a full 3:30-5:00 minutes long song during the time in any of the following combination:
a. Melody Only
b. Chord Progression
c. Melody and Chord Progression
d. A groove
8) This must be something I can listen to after and then critique and analyse.

Let me explain each of those statements and why they are important:

Statement#1 – One pass in twenty minutes: This one is obvious, I have limited time and I want to produce sometime on a deadline. The twenty minutes is just a number, if you have 1 hour, even better.

Statement#2 – Do not Judge: If it sounds like garbage, who cares? For this exercise, it is the action that counts. If I do that often, something good will come out of it. Creativity is like a muscle, you should exercise it.

Statement#3 – Be ready: I have all that a need ready before I start the exercise as time is limited, you do not want to loose some of it looking to fix the sound of your guitar, start the computer etc. Having paper and pen is really helpful as your thoughts and ideas will come out in bulk. Just write down all that you can. It will give you a record of all that you did and you can refine later.

Statement#4 – Having uninterrupted time: this is a good basic concept that can be applied to many things. Basically, make sure your kid, wife, spouse will not come to see you during the exercise. Also means not to watch TV or do something that will take part of your attention. You will need it all!

Statement#5 – Be prepared: It hard enough as it is, so I always try to have a plan before each attempt. For example during the day, in the car, I will prepare to this by recording a short melody idea with a handheld recorder. I will listen to the style of music I want to do, I will decide if I want to go for a blues, a rock.

Statement#6 – Tools: I will have a sheet with my favourite chord progressions in ALL the keys. I will have the major, minor chord formula in all keys, etc. I will have typical song structures pre-written. In any case, those are all tools that you can use during the exercise if you get stuck. You will develop those tools as you do songwriting more and more.

Statement#7 – Have a complete song: The goal is to come up with complete song. If you do not, but end up with a really cool groove then so be it. It is one more groove then before the exercise anyway. This could be the starting point of you next session. I am trying to complete the song most of the time. I will record two or three sections, then I will copy and paste them to create a full song that can be listened to and analysed. I will try to push the idea as far as I can during the exercise.

Statement#8 – Record it. This is critical in my mind. Have a record on a peace of paper is OK, but it is way better to have the idea recorded. You can then put it on your favourite media (CD, MP3) and listen to it in your car etc. and analyse it. If you don’t analyse it, how will you improve?

I have been doing a few times a month for a while now. It is gratifying and it produced very good ideas as well as it improved my songwriting skills and helped me to integrate many musical concepts to my songwriting routine. I can write song faster and better then before and although, most of these 20 minutes exercise will remain exercises, it does bring measureable results. Before that, I was just frustrated at the lack of time I had. Now, I have about three albums worth of ideas.

Just do it and then listen to your first effort and compare it to the ones 3 months, 6 months or a year later. You will be amazed!

A final thought: don’t forget to have fun.

Denis P Clement
Copyrights 2008
Last edited by DPClement at Jan 7, 2009,
Quote by bnew369
you wrote to much

You're to lazy. It doesn't take that long to read.

This is a good idea, I should really try it sometime. I have done similar things occasionally, such as trying to write a full song that I am happy with in 1 hour.
I thought this would be about writing longer songs, like dream theater or Opeth would write, but still a good idea to do this I'm sure. Not to bad of an article.
Thanks for the comments so far.

Maybe the title is confusing - good comment.

( also: cut extra text! - all comments accepted, I would not ask otherwize )


Last edited by DPClement at Jan 7, 2009,
"But wait; we do not have that kind of time available to us! Ok, then maybe, a day per week will do. Well no, I don’t have that kind of time too."

Just some minor grammar mistakes. that last too should be either. There's a few more scattered throughout the article. Try reading it aloud and see what parts make sense and which don't.
Portugal. The Man »–
I'm glad to see you've used the template, but please cut out the 'introduction' and 'statement' areas.

I feel this is a valid and helpful article, but honestly I doubt it will be very popular. This is mostly due to statement #2. I find it very difficult not to judge my own work and most songwriters will too. If nothing else, by the time they have several completed songs, they will listen and wonder what was going through their head at the time.

I like the idea, but I would not personally use it.