The concept is this:
To be a good, competent songwriter, it will take 1,000 hours of practice. If you want to be a great songwriter, it will take 5,000 hours.
Winners are made, not born. So forget about talent. Talent is a gift for concentration, dedication, and a simple desire to keep getting better.
Become a peak performer, an expert, through hours and hours of deliberate practice.
Matt Searles says
Ok, devils advocate
I often take a kind of un-control approach.. if you let you’re passions drive you, as a pose to controlling you’re passions in a sort of disciplined “must practic x amount every day” kind of thing, then what is deliberate about what you’re doing is… well complicated. It’s not a conscious will orientated thing.. but something that comes out of a sorta unconscious will.. which gets into question of “what drives passion.”
A sorta example from my life is.. I spend a lot of time working in the visual arts.. and then a lot of time in sound.. both of which, to some extent, work the same muscle in the brain, all be it in different ways: There’s a lot that is shared between visual composition and sound composition. So in a certain sense.. when you don’t even think you’re working on song writing, you are..
If you where to break down all the things that go into song writing.. not from a “these are the skills of the trade” sorta perspective.. but these are the attributes one cultivates via the practice of song writing (the stuff that make people think of it as talent)… those attributes are present, with perhaps a different status in the ecology of the thing, in everything else you do.. which relates to the subject of why its good for kids to learn music.. as it helps with all these other things.
So if I spent a day running around with a camera trying to learn photography.. and I’m thinking about aperture, shutter speeds, focus, framing, capturing a moment, telling a story in a picture.. building those attributes in the priorities of that ecology.. that’s going to change how I approach music making.. because it’s going to effect the attributes.. or what some would call talent, that I bring to song writing.
The implication is.. you’re transcending many of the implications of the traditions surrounding song writing. Another words.. if you go to berklee… they have a whole set of things they want you to know to get in.. and a whole process for learning the stuff.. but you know Miles Davis didn’t become Miles Davis because of Juilliard… Yeah.. you probably want to know your scales and modes and chords… but then if you look at Captan Beefheart.. like what happens when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing..
In the visual art world you’d talk about outsider art.. work that’s pretty niave…
er.. this is a crazy comment.. I’ll cut it short… you can probably see what I’m driving at anyway
Graham English says
I see what you’re saying. And I agree to a point. I just don’t think you can become a great songwriter — someone who writes great melodies and lyrics — if you don’t put the time in. And research proves this point again and again.
So if you want to become a songwriter, and you put 10 hours into learning photoshop and 1 hour writing songs, it’s going to take a long time to become a great songwriter. Yes, that 10 hours of photoshop might give you a lesson to apply to songwriting, but I’m sure you could get that lesson — and more — by spending that 10 hours writing songs.
If you want to be a mixed-media artist, then by all means, spread yourself throughout the medium. But if you’re goal is to be a songwriter, you won’t get very far without writing a lot of songs.
Where I agree with you is that lessons CAN be learned outside of your craft. However, it’s a delusion to believe that you’ll get better at a craft without practicing that craft. Of course I don’t believe that’s what you are saying.
I agree that 80% talent is hard work, but I also think there are exceptions.
I wrote my first song at age 7, even without any music training whatsoever – just a voice and a pen and paper. It still comes back to my memory cause it was catchy!
I continued writing songs into my teens… and the best ones were the ones that just “came out” naturally and pain-free, straight from the heart, in its purest form. AND I noticed that the more I tried to mess with a song that didn’t just flow out, the more pointless it became.
So either someone is a pure clean channel of creativity to begin with, or someone HAS TO practise like crazy, learn theory and study songs and follow “hit song” rules; basically using their brain to make music.
My hunch is that too much brain kills creativity, but that the practise of becoming a pure channel from the heart makes music that steals hearts…
Graham English says
Thanks for the comment, Amber. To be clear, I didn’t state in the article that talent is hard work. My main argument is that if you want to become a great songwriter, and you aren’t one now, then you must spend time writing songs.
And I think you bring up a great point: that you can write a great song before than 5,000 hour mark.
Also, I don’t believe that nature/nurture is an either/or thing. Our greatest natural talents — Mozart, John Coltrane, etc. — lived and breathed music. There was no question or delusion to their life’s purpose. So I disagree that “too much brain kills creativity” because our greatest musicians were well trained. As I said, it’s not either/or but yes/both.
But I whole heartedly agree with you that one must practice becoming a pure channel. That’s an overlooked part of the practice. Thanks for sharing.
Robert Steel says
I just read “Hit songwriting Tips #6”. Great stuff. I wanted to possibly explore one aspect of something you wrote. Maybe this is just personal preference given where I place my own personal importance in a great song. Maybe I should leave the word “Hit” out although that could well dilute my point strengthen yours.
You mentioned that their are songs you have liked that were poorly crafted and those don’t stand the test of time to you.
There are songs I like that most would consider poorly crafted. They are equally as good as the better crafted songs to me simply because they achieved their goal. They took me some place. They evoke something. Some that “feel” more real to me. Those really stand out to me and I continue to go back to them time after time. They dropped the need to be what is expected of a song simply just to get more personal and a little bit ugly.
Maybe that means they will not be hit songs, even though they can certainly be both a hit and evoke emotion or take you somewhere you’ve never been.
My best example is a song by Bob Schneider. I can send you an mp3 of it. A very simple open chord progression as it almost doesn’t even need to be there. No chorus. To me it is one of the best songs I have ever heard. I can listen to it every day and it never fails to evoke the same powerful imagery and emotions every single time.
That goes for a lot of Bob’s songs. He has hits, but to me is one of those rare people who only lets music flow through him and he never cares to edit it or question it or polish it. He truly recognizes a source outside of him is bringing these songs through him and he is simply a vehicle.
I think there is a lot to be said for not second guessing the source or trying to change it to fit a formula. If you truly let it flow those songs will come out and you can possibly pick and choose what you might want to polish up a bit and those you want to completely leave alone.
Actually come to think of it that Bob song is on youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxleUo_cBqw, (WARNING: Explicit lyrics) it’s not the best version and he throws in a few more of the “F” bombs than he does in the original, but to me this song takes me somewhere and will stand the test of time in my own personal preferences. Just hearing it now makes me remember to not be so uptight and just write and let things flow sometimes. Don’t worry about anything else.
my thinking is that ‘great’ songs define the ‘great songwriter’, not the other way around.
there are those that could work and practice for 100,000 hours and not be able to produce work that connects with the listener. others may,at a very young age and with limited time to devote to their crafts, produce work that will outlast them.
i know it seems like mere semantics, but i don’t think i’d ever want to be a great artist, composer or whatever. my goal would be to produce great art or music or even a blog.
i think, maybe, that wrapping ‘my’ identity in ‘greatness’ could easily overpower the value of my work and get in the way.
i appreciate the time and sacrifice that anyone might invest in their chosen craft and hope that it would be rewarded, but i think that any such time has to be more than matched by an inherent ability to connect with the audience in some way. the hours of practice could actually be an escape from risking that connection.
that said, i do want to say that i just came across your site today and have found many interesting things to keep me thinking for a while.
i think that when it’s all said and done, the value of the information presented here and the generosity with which it is offered, will weigh just as heavily towards your ‘greatness’ as any song you might become famous for, even it it is not as personally gratifying to you. thanks for making me think.
BOB SURFRDUDE says
This is simply the best site for learning about music/composing from the ground up…..Thank You….my question is easy and short…..I do not read music, and at this late date, hard to start….however I do write, and want to continue to write Lyrics. What basic knowledge do I need about music theory to make the words good for a music composer to take the lyrics and write the music. I agree 5000 hours is about right to become expert on your project…..however can I go forward with my limitations and turn my lyrics over to a composer…..Thank You
You have great stuff here….keep it up…..BOB SURFRDUDE
Graham English says
Thanks for the kind words, Bob! Short answer to your question, you need to understand rhythm and at least an understanding of melodic motion. You should probably understand stressed/unstressed beats and how they apply to syllable accents in words. And if you can tell when a melody is rising, falling, skipping around, or moving stepwise, you could probably write lyrics that follow the emotion of the melody.
That being said, the basics of reading/writing music isn’t really hard to learn. I’d give it a shot. Thanks again for your comment!
Research actually suggest that it is closer to 10.000 repetitions before you master anything. I think I have read this from the guy who wrote The Tipping Point.
Graham English says
I wouldn’t be surprised if that research is correct. It would explain why I’ve only mastered the basest behaviors. 🙂 Seriously though, I need to reread the tipping point. Thanks for the comment Geert. Miss you bro!
The 10.000 hour rule can be found in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers. See his website:
I don’t think it’s a new concept. I was told by my Chinese sifu that you have to repeat every move for ten thousand times before it becomes so engrained in your body memory that you can execute it without having to think about it. If I’m not mistaken they believe something similar in Japan. Ofcourse, ten thousand in Chinese and Japanese can also be interpreted as “many”, without it necessarily having to imply the exact numeric value. But then again, that is probably the way Gladwell conceives it, as something close to that number…
Having said this, I love your website Graham, keep up the good work!
Graham English says
Just read a great article about Outliers: Geek Pop Star