Hacking the Composing Business: Part 2 – Habits


Successful composers build songwriting habits.

The word “build” here is very important. Habits don’t just happen. Habits are built up over time by streaks.

A streak is simply doing the same thing every day, every week… the time frame doesn’t matter. What matters is that you don’t break your streak.

Take composing, for example. A typical goal would be to spend one hour of songwriting per day, no matter what. Eventually songwriting will become a habit, and remembering to do it will be like brushing your teeth or putting on your seatbelt. And it’s when composing becomes a subconscious habit that the real creativity starts to come out.

Here are some hacks for building songwriting habits:

Always Be Composing

Songwriters are composing 24/7. We’re composing in our sleep. Once songwriting is a habit for you, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

You’ll write verses on bus rides. Chorus melodies will come to you in the car. You’ll be in the bathroom composing drum loops on a mobile app!

If this life sounds alien to you, just start with a song a month. Write one finished song every 30 days until you’re satisfied that you’re meeting the threshold you set for creative quality. For faster results, write more songs and more often.

When you’re composing all the time, there’s one thing that becomes even more important than the act of composing itself:

Record Everything / Write Everything Down

Until fairly recently, musicians did not have recording studios on their phones available to capture any passing musical phrase. Mobile devices have been an enormous boon to composers, who can multitrack record ideas anywhere, and write down lyrics and sheet music with a few thumb taps.

There’s nothing wrong with carrying the old-school Moleskine around, as long as you have something to record your constant creative output handy at all times.

You want to capture everything. Don’t edit. Don’t think about quality control when you’re generating ideas. Just record them, write them down. Sort it out later. Oftentimes you’ll find you don’t have to go back to your notes because the good ideas stay stored in your head. And when you can’t recollect the tune, having it recorded in some way could be all that’s between you and the next great song.

Once you’ve been songwriting for a few years and have tons of these notebooks, demo recordings, scraps and fragments, you’ll start to gain a confidence in songwriting. For one, you know you have a nearly bottomless well of decent ideas from which to build from. But you’ll also find that your catalog of songs grows relative to your catalog of notes. The more ideas you’re recording, the more you’re ideating in the first place. Being a diligent composer and note-taker are keys to maximizing creativity and productivity.

Be Receptive

As you’re jotting down lyrics and melodies, don’t forget to record influences from the outside world. One of the beautiful things about music is that it can be influenced by a sight, a taste, a touch… even though songs are audible in nature, they have the power to evoke all five senses. Use those senses and be receptive to the world around you. Take in everything, and record what inspires you. Often you’ll find a musical use for it.

The Demo Process

Once you sift songs from your pile of ideas, it’s good to have a demo habit. Again, this is a relatively recent ability musicians gained from digital technology. Anyone with a computer now has a recording studio, and songwriters would be remiss to ignore this development.

Simply put, the winning strategy is to demo a song as many times as you can before recording it.

Back in the day when recording even at demo quality was prohibitively expensive, bands could be forgiven for entering the studio without a pre-production demo.

Now there’s really no excuse to not have at least a basic demo of every song you intend to record. The demo is your blueprint for the recording. Any mistakes or changes made at this stage are free to make. In the studio, they are much more expensive.

If you can, make more than one demo. Again, in the past, musicians only had one shot to get the perfect performance on tape or disk. Now, you can iterate and iterate on the recording until you have it just the way you want.

Nothing will evolve a song faster than having a demo recording to listen to. Over time, you will discover the song’s strengths and weaknesses, and each time a new demo is created, the composition will get subtle but important improvements.

Don’t demo the song so much that you lose the magic of performing it, but make sure demoing your songs is a part of your songwriting habits. Demos are just one more tool in the box to build quality and quantity in songwriting.


With these habits, you’ll be continuously generating ideas, songs and demos that will come to life as performances and studio recordings.

Each song you compose is an asset. Most of the value of this asset is currently derived from copyright law. Songwriter copyright is actually different that recording artist copyright — these are the two “copyrights” that form the basis of musician royalties.

Are your eyes glazing over yet? Don’t worry, in the next section on copyright, we’re going to untangle the mess once and for all, and explain clearly how songwriter copyright works.

photo credit: Ctd 2005