Recently I wrote about my songwriting process and how, as I've grown and developed, it has taken a more cyclical form. The cycle of my creative process oscillates between living fully and writing deeply, between seeding and harvesting. This pattern of cycles is familiar because, near as we can tell, everything in our reality unfolds in this way. Beneath the love, the pain, the sunlight, the darkness, the Earth and the sky, there likely exists only shimming vibrations.
Here in the macro world we see these patterns unfolding when night turns to day, causing flowers to open and seek the light, or when tides ebb and flow, leaving a scattering of tidepools to develop into their own micro ecosystems, albeit briefly. It's these patterns of flux that have driven nature forward and allowed humanity to reach the evolutionary bottleneck that currently faces us.
The tides are just one important pattern within a myriad of patterns, all oscillating, all moving us onward as a species, and more importantly, as a planet. These cycles within cycles go spiraling out with ever increasing complexity, as described in a recent Scientific American article.
“The oceans' tidal flow helps transport heat from the equator to the poles," says Bruce Bills, a geodynamicist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Without the lunar tides, it's conceivable that climate oscillations from the ice age to the interglacial would be less extreme than they are. Such glaciations caused migrations of animal and plant species that probably helped speed up speciation.”
When we turn our eyes towards our own lives, we see that cycles work in the same fashion, with internal and external pressures causing us to open and close, and endure periods of dormancy and growth while experiencing a wide spectrum of emotion as we evolve, forever moving forward, even as we appear to be standing still.
When waiting in the checkout line at the local grocery we’re inundated with magazines promoting happiness as a destination, as a place we should reside in, as the permanent home of the well adjusted life. Yet a life of pure happiness is a life devoid of emotional cycles and, therefore, a life devoid of growth. Somehow it feels truer to instead adapt a stance of nonjudgemental observation, a vantage point from which one views the cycles of happiness and sadness in their life as part of a larger process intended to help them be more authentically who they are. When a person chooses to approach life in this way, it becomes apparent that in putting aside the need for constant happiness, one opens themselves up to a more spacious, peaceful way of being in the world.
In much the same way, good songs use cycles to draw them forward, constantly engaging the listener and focusing their attention, and although I can't prove it, I believe a song with a natural cyclical structure is inherently soothing to a listener. This may not be a surprise to many writers, but it was a helpful thing for me to notice and consciously integrate into my own writing.
When looking at a song I'm writing or editing, I notice the song’s structure at the highest level, and I make sure there is an adequate contrast between verses and choruses. In discussing this approach I've used the analogy of Morse code: if the verse is a dot then the chorus should be a dash, for example. Practically speaking, longer notes on the verse may give way shorter notes on the chorus, or vice versa. Many types of differentiations will work, and applying more than one only accentuates the cycles as they pass, moving the song forward, and engaging the listener.
In writing lyrics and applying lyrical rhythm, I remind myself that the space between words is every bit as important as the words themselves. In my personal opinion, rhythm, or how notes flow spatially, is more fundamental than the actual notes that are voiced. This can be observed in the major scale, which when played in descending fashion sounds pretty mundane, but when repeated with different intervals between the notes becomes Joy To the World. (Sorry, had to do it)
As parts get added to a song, such as instruments or backing vocals, it’s helpful to consider how they cycle, both individually, and as part of the whole. In a recent Mlive article, famed music producer Rick Rubin alludes to this songwriting approach when discussing Eminem.
"He's very hyper-critical of detail," Rubin said. "And hears the music in a very deep way, and hears internal rhythms in tracks, and writes words to work on so many different levels rhythmically within what's going on musically to where if we change a little thing with the track to better the track it might not work in his mind how it relates to what he's saying and how he's phrasing.
Personally, I like to let cycles flow naturally when I'm writing, and I find that there's no need to take a cerebral approach, as we've all grown up listening to music written this way as a matter of course. Still, when listening to beginning writers it's not uncommon to hear a lack of differentiation within their early efforts.
What’s most interesting about cycles, at least for me, is in how they apply to the overall flow of my writing, year after year. Finding peace in the rhythm of one's own creativity allows for a freedom from self-judgement and pressure. We wouldn't reasonably expect a wheat field to grow in Winter, or trees to produce buds in autumn, so why would we expect something different from ourselves?
Writers block disappears when a writer decides the time to write a song is the moment inspiration strikes. In releasing oneself from the obligation of writing to a schedule, much of the frustration of songwriting disappears. This attitude leaves a writer free to enjoy periods of dormancy, and to use that time to reflect on what's come before, as well as to focus on experiencing the world around them apart from their writing. These experiences act as seed for future songs, as well as enhancing one's journey.
My own writing seasons are mid-winter and late summer, although I do write year round, when songs arrive. The bulk of my work occurs in these periods of creative flourishing, and that’s remained fairly consistent, year after year. I suppose this approach may sound pretty foreign to some writers, but finding peace with it has left me with an optimistic attitude. Instead of getting frustrated about the songs that aren’t showing up, I just take a break and realize that they’ll be along soon enough, demanding my time and attention, no matter what I do.
Americana Singer Songwriter Ed Dupas’ lived-in melodies unwind with reflective lyrics that speak to the current state of the human condition. Soothing where possible, agitating where necessary, and calling for change where appropriate. Ed Dupas creates and shares well worn wide awake music.
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