10 Reasons You Should Have a Songwriting Journal (even if you’re not a musician)

My previous post describes reasons why journaling is a helpful habit in general. Today’s post builds on that foundation to describe why you should create a songwriting journal. Starting a journal is not hard, but it does require effort and persistence to keep it going. Writing a poem and then setting it to music would seemingly make the journaling process more difficult. Why then would I suggest that you write songs in your journal? Ironically, the difficulty actually provides much of the benefit.

1. Constraints boost creativity

Counterintuitively, absolute freedom does not promote creativity, constraints promote creativity. This is true in all creative endeavors from painting to product development. This sonnet often comes to mind when I’m starting a new project. I’ve emphasized the most important bits:

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is
: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

William Wordsworth [1770-1850], “Nuns Fret Not in their Convent’s Narrow Room”

Wordsworth is saying that, like bees happily toiling within the confines of a flower, writing sonnets is a pastime for him. Sonnets have a specific format which Wordsworth says saves him from “the weight of too much liberty”. Although it may seem that rules, guidelines and standards imprison us, in reality the opposite is true.

Having rules can be a jumping off point for creativity in all fields. Consider this Harvard Business Review article “Why Constraints are Good For Innovation” in which a team at GE were challenged to create a new product with a limited budget, limited time, and aggressive parameters. The researchers believed that the team succeeded because the constraints provided focus and a motivating challenge.

Ever been paralyzed by a blank journal page? Am I going to draw a picture? Write a novel? Add a prompt and your mind’s creative wheels start turning. Given a prompt such as, “In 100 words, compare apples to oranges in 4 stanzas using an ABCB rhyme scheme”, you know where to start. You have a word count, a subject, a format, and an idea of the desired level of detail. You don’t have to come up with the basics; you can spend your creative energy on the writing.

Like a sonnet, writing a song has an expected format and rules. Working within these boundaries will spark creativity. Bumping against the constraints may cause happy accidents. You make make compromises in word choice for a rhyme and then realize that the unusual phrasing makes the work more interesting. Given the short format, you will have to make choices and determine the most important parts of your idea. This leads us to the second benefit, conciseness.

2. Find focus via conciseness

Writing a song forces conciseness. When you are writing a song you have only a few words to get your meaning across. Excluding repeated phrases, Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive” only has about 160 words in it. Despite the limited word count, the song conveys a lot through imagery and emotion.

Why is conciseness a benefit? Using words sparingly requires you to focus and prioritize. It requires you to be clear about what you are saying and why. To achieve this, you have to be clear in your own mind what your are trying to say, and how you feel. You are dredging up the feelings inside yourself, trimming them, making them palatable, getting them ready for display. This self-examination can improve mental health. You are not just feeding the Worry Hamster by ruminating on negative thoughts, you are constructively thinking “How would I describe this feeling to someone else?”

Leonard Cohen supposedly wrote 84 verses to his hit Hallelujah, but in the finished version he concisely edited to just 4. That said, if you have 84 verses of things that you’d like to say, go ahead and write it. It may be a relief to get those thoughts out of your head. When, if ever, you choose to perform your song, you can edit for conciseness then. Or, ignore conciseness all together and turn it into a rock opera! It’s your journal!

3. Play with imagery

Songs often make use of metaphors to convey meaning as the metaphor provides a concise way to “show don’t tell”. Trying out different metaphors can help you understand your feelings. Which metaphors fit, which do not? Ask yourself why they do or do not work for your situation.

In my song, “Relentless”, I wrote:

I was swept up in you like a river
woo ooo, relentless
Caught in your current, making me shiver

“Relentless”, Sumiko Courtney 2022.

I chose a river as a primary metaphor for the song because it evokes an unstoppable, destructive force.

Songwriting is a great way to strengthen your ability to write with imagery. Because a song contains so few words, a lyricist must play with words and invent pithy phrases. This is fun for people who enjoy wordplay. I love that “Radioactive” is written with the imagery of a post-apocalyptic world, but is inspired by depression and anxiety.

4. Change your point of view

Songwriting journaling differs from songwriting in that there is decreased expectation that you will ever share your songs with anyone else, just as there is no expectation for you to share your diary with anyone. Whether you share it or not, you’ve benefited from working through your thoughts and feelings in the writing experience.

Yet, even if you never intend to perform your song, you will still consider an audience as you write. As you think about how to tell your story to them, you’ll also be clarifying it to yourself. While you may be very hard on yourself in your own head, if you think about how you would explain a situation to a friend, you may become gentler with yourself. This re-framing can help you find self-compassion.

Another way to change your point of view is to use a character (like Eleanor Rigby) to tell your story. Putting yourself in that character’s shoes may give you another perspective on your subject matter.

5. Share, if you want

If you choose to share your work with others, a song is a conveniently packaged format. Your emotions may be obfuscated by imagery (or not). The song can be an excellent conversation starter. You can share as much about the context of the song as you want. Although you don’t have to reveal everything, you will probably want to explain something about the inspirations of the song to avoid unexpected misunderstandings. I wrote “Relentless” about wanting to leave a situation causing me to burn out professionally. When I sang it to my husband, he feared it was about him!

6. Process and accept

Although I’m fond of the stream-of-consciousness journal entry, writing a song takes more work and deeper thought. It can take me a week or more to write the lyrics, figure out the chords, and practice it enough to perform it at the most basic level. For song journaling, where there is no commercial or performance pressure, the timeline for creation is not critical. Wrestling with a song for a while is actually a benefit. I wrote a song, “Pieces”, about my struggles taking care of my mother as she slowly descends into dementia. At first, I cried every time I tried to sing it. However, after weeks of working on it, I became accepting of the emotions in it. Although I’d been afraid to sing it for anyone else, imagining it was too much of a downer and too personal, the rawness of those feelings have tempered and I can perform it now. Other songwriters have had similar experiences. Eric Clapton has said that writing Tears in Heaven was a healing process for him after the loss of his son.

7. Music is a brain workout

Listening to and playing music is a brain workout. When listening, our brain is making connections between the auditory systems, the memory centers, the language areas, and even the motor systems (nodding, foot tapping, air guitar!). If you actually play the music, you are strengthening these connections even more. Music makes a healthier brain. When I play music, I am in a different mind-set than when I write, paint or do technical work. I get so deeply engrossed it is hard for me to think of other things. Music lulls Worry Hamster to sleep.

8. Challenge yourself to learn new skills

It’s always fun to try something new. I enjoy a challenge and the creative process of songwriting keeps me working on a piece for a long time. With a written journal entry, I write it and forget it. With a song, I will think about it as I am walking the dog, vacuuming, etc. It’s the difficulty that keeps me engaged.

If you haven’t written a song before, writing your own will give you insight into the process and a new appreciation for songs on the radio. You’ll find yourself listening to music in a completely new way: examining the details of the word choices in the lyrics, noting the chord progressions, listening for how each instrument fits into the whole. I don’t know about you, but once I try an art myself, I further appreciate the genius of a master.

You can study music for a lifetime. Once you write a song, if you want to learn even more skills, try recording it and making multiple tracks. Stretch goal and play all the instruments on it yourself!

9. The pop song is the new sonnet

If you lived in the 16th century, it was cool to express your love or deep thoughts with a sonnet. Typically, the first half of the sonnet describes a problem or tension and the last lines solve the problem or resolve the tension. What a great format for processing your thoughts! Go ahead, write a sonnet! Constraints, conciseness, imagery and many of the benefits on this list could be achieved. Sonnet writing probably improved Shakespeare’s mental health. However, it’s the 21st century, would you like to try writing a modern art form like a pop song or a rap?

10. Start or reboot your journal practice

If you’re already journaling, reboot your journal practice with songs. A new format could break a journaling rut. If you’re ruminating on thoughts that you can’t shake, writing a song to change your thought patterns. If you like writing poetry in your journals, set them to music for an added challenge. If you enjoy transcribing Maroon 5 lyrics into your journal, note the reasons those lyrics caught your attention and then for deeper reflection, try writing your own lyrics. If you’ve never tried journaling, a songwriting journal may be the challenge and incentive that will help you get started and keep going.

Ready to start?

Journaling with songs is 100% risk-free with a low barrier to entry. There are no start up costs, no equipment to buy. Keep a padlock on your journal if you’re worried about being found out as a closet lyricist. The benefits in this post still hold true even if you never share your songs.

Are you ready to give songwriting a try? Take a look at this post for an easy way to write your first song.

Questions for you, dear reader

Why do you write songs, or why would you like to a write a song? What benefits have resulted from your songwriting practice? I’d love to hear from you.

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