50/90 recap: what I learned about prolific songwriting
I finally finished 50/90!
For those who are unfamiliar, the goal is simply to write 50 songs in 90 days, no rules; I did that. It was not my first intensive songwriting challenge – in 2015-16 I wrote a song a week for 52 weeks, and this year I did my first February Album Writing Month (FAWM for short, 14 songs in the month of February) – but this was definitely the most intense one I’ve done yet. My main conclusion: it wasn’t that easy, but it wasn’t so bad!
Here are a few examples of the songs I wrote (and the first three are 2020-themed, and the last two are children’s songs!):
Looking back on the songs and my experience, I definitely learned a lot to take with me into future songwriting. I thought I would write it down to cement what I learned, and perhaps it’ll be useful or interesting for someone else too.
- A prolific writing challenge is the perfect time to experiment. I did this a little bit by writing on themes I normally wouldn’t and shaking up my chords and melodies with randomness or simply attempting to be different. It was fun and I think I’ve improved a little, but the next time I do this I would actually experiment a LOT more. I’d have a list of crazy ideas to shake things up and I would go through and do every single one in order.
- Churning out songs (without regard to quality) is not difficult. It’s as easy as writing down a stream of consciousness lyric and the first melody that pops into your head, and you’re capable of this regardless of mood and energy level. Of course, that might not lead to a good song, but sometimes it does. And anyway, you should welcome even 50 bad songs in a row because, if you can figure out the various reasons those songs didn’t work, your next batch of songs will be infinitely better.
- If it is difficult, then it’s probably a mental block. I actually anticipated this. I knew there was no way I could write 50 incredible songs in 90 days – at least some of them would have to be bad, and I’d have to be okay with that. I wrote a letter to my inner critic (I named her Sally) sympathizing with her desire to avoid embarrassment and disappointment, but reminding her that we’ll never achieve the dream of greatness if we don’t allow for works that aren’t great. In the beginning, I wrote 18 fairly lighthearted songs in less than two weeks before I began to worry about writing “album worthy” songs. I never got past that, and the rest of the challenge was 10 times harder and less fun. (Other worries, by the way, have included getting too personal and offending people.)
- You will get burnt out if you try to just write and write and write with nothing in between. Between the world still being largely on lockdown and me not having much in the way of a day job or relationships at the moment, I was almost entirely focused on trying to write more and better songs for three months. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I would have been performing, socializing, traveling, and having more life experiences. This meant that inspired moments were few and far between after a month or so. I never came up with a great solution – I just powered through the slog – but I’m curious to see if I’ll do better during a year when things are more normal.
- If you want to improve your writing, a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary are invaluable. It doesn’t mean your vocabulary is inadequate, and it’s not cheating. In fact, using those tools tends to make me take a LOT longer to finish a song because I get so invested in finding the perfect word. I rarely do, but when I do it’s magnificent! And even when I don’t, I still end up with a better word than the first one I had, and I’m glad I looked it up. It’s also a good tool for exploration when you’re in the early stages of writing a song – it can spark entirely new concepts and images to add to the song.
- Listening to music helps with creativity on the musical side. The more time you spend listening and the more variety, the better. It seems to give your brain an idea of the possibilities. Also, especially if you listen to songs you don’t like, it helps you refine what you like and don’t like in a song, which in turn refines your writing.
- Let the song go where it needs to go. If you have a great idea, but the song starts to drift in a new direction that actually seems more coherent or impactful, no matter how much you love the original idea, let it drift. If you need to take out a line or portion that you really loved, just save it for later. Maybe it can be the main focus of an entirely different song. However, sometimes I find that my original idea just wasn’t that good and I let it go. I get enough ideas regularly (and have enough of a gigantic backlog) that I don’t need to keep bad ones.
- Writing a new song from scratch in one sitting is a lot easier than stitching together several pages of disparate ideas. This is a reminder to myself that if I have an idea that inspires me, I should finish that song as soon as possible. The longer I take adding bits and pieces to it (sometimes over several years!) the less satisfied I end up being with the final product. What’s worse, sometimes so much time passes by that I lose that spark of inspiration completely and never finish the song. I have half-finished songs from when I was 16 and even younger that once lit a fire under me and now I can’t see myself ever finishing. That makes me sad. And I know that some ideas I’m passionate about today, I’ll feel that way about when I’m older, so that’s one of my motivations to finish more songs now.
- If you’re uninspired or unmotivated, go (temporarily) for a frivolous or silly topic over a deeply meaningful one. It could be an idea that just popped into your head, a writing prompt, or a randomly generated title. These are also probably better options when you’re practicing new techniques, because you’re likely to take more risks and thus grow more as a writer. Your frivolous topic can sometimes even be another person’s favorite song. Just make sure you’re only using it to warm you up for those deeply held songs and don’t put them off forever, or you’ll regret it when those sparks die out.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I highly recommend these kinds of challenges to anyone who’s trying to get better at any creative skill. You will get better, but more than that, I am concrete proof that even if you’re prone to perfectionism and procrastination, you can train yourself to just get on with it. Not everything you write will be good, but it will be done. And some of it will be good.