"Songwriting and the Creative Process"
An Internet Tutorial

Lesson 3. Songwriters and the Muse


What does a songwriter do? A songwriter is first of all, a lover of songs. Someone who has an emotional stake in music. In the title of his book, How can I keep from singing?, Pete Seeger expresses the idea that joy and love are linked in song and that there is nothing more natural than that song finding its voice in us. This basic impulse has been channeled into glistening constellations of intricate artistry by some gifted practitioners but even the lowly lullaby or the anonymous work song are made of the same magic stuff.

Can you whistle? Can you keep from whistling? I think we all must know what it is to be enchanted with a song. We've all found ourselves humming or whistling at unexpected times. Some have even suggested that this event may represent a clue to our own unconscious processes and may even be a sign of what we are "really" thinking.

I don't go along very far with this theory except to agree that there is some connection between that part of us that just feels things and may or may not be able to verbalize those feelings and the emotional wisdom of ordinary songs.

When we decide to take on the job of helping this event along or to initiate some new example of home-made magic, we begin to ask the questions that need to be answered with our own growth as writers. There are so many good reasons for creating more beauty and music in the world. Some of them are simply inexpressible, and none needs to be justified.

One of my favorite ways of looking at this issue is to think of this process as the same kind of happy, unselfconscious banter we participate in when we're out with a few friends, laughing and acting silly and taking our turn at risking humor and good natured fun.

It almost seems wrong to intrude on the spirit of that kind of moment with analysis, but it seems to me that the best writing takes place in just this kind of spontaneous and unrestrained atmosphere. When the moment is right and we just say what's funny, or what perpetuates the spirit of good times.

Where does it come from? Where inside do we go for that gift of the perfect thought. Well, maybe it's not always such a perfect thought. Maybe if we listened to a tape recording of our wild times, we'd have a hard time convincing anybody that this is great humor. But what about those times when things really were wonderfully funny? Didn't you ever say, "I wish you could have been there?"

I contend that the only difference between our kidding around and the great writers of humor or great songs is just a matter of sustaining that moment of unrestrained creative joy and letting the work grow and improve under the best kind of nurturing practice and circumstance.

And doesn't it seem that there is a voice that comes to us, or through us at those times. What is that voice and where does it come from? Can we listen for that voice? Can we cultivate a relationship with that wise voice? Can we ask for and receive guidance and wisdom from that voice?

The name given to that voice by the ancient Greeks was the Muse. The Greeks believed that the muses were nine sister goddesses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Each presides over her special artistic pursuit; poetry and song, painting, dance, drama, astronomy, etc.

Their names which should sound somewhat familiar are, Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania. It's not important that we remember their names, only that to the Greeks this was a way to visualize and understand this special voice.

We have come to think of the muse as the goddess or the hidden power which inspires the poet. There are other ways of expressing this and every culture has its equivalent of the muse. The verb, "to muse" means (according to Webster) "To reflect or meditate in silence, as on some subject, often as in a reverie."

That should provide some clues about this process. If it is true that we can think of the muse as a voice or a spirit or a goddess, how can we approach this goddess? Can we really think of "Courting the muse". What would be the nature of this courtship? How can we prepare ourselves, how can we make ourselves worthy?

What kind of a relationship are we asking for? If it seems like I'm taking this to an extreme, consider the serious nature of our need to find some way to approach this special voice or gift within us.

It seems to me that sincerity is the first thing and openness the second. And from there we'll have to see where true dialogue leads us.

This course is based on materials from the book, "Songwriting and the Creative Process" by Steve Gillette. Published by Sing Out! Press. Used by permission.

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