How To Write A Song: Instinct And The Karate Kid

You know that part in the Karate Kid, where the wise old teacher promises to teach the hero (Daniel) the art of Karate, but instead makes him paint his fence, sand his floors, and wax his cars?  And then when Daniel confronts him, the old man throws a punch and Daniel instinctively blocks it using the same motion he used to paint the fence?  Remember that?

That’s kinda what studying music was like for me.  My teachers would give me all these seemingly mundane tasks (playing my scales, my arpeggios, memorizing theory, or transcribing ear training exercises) and I would do them while getting frustrated, because I wasn’t seeing  the big picture. 

Now, assuming Mr Miyagi (the old man in the movie, just in case you haven’t seen it… actually go watch it.  I’ll wait here) wasn’t simply trying to get cheap child labor to do chores around his house, he must have had a reason for keeping Daniel in the dark, right?  I mean, wouldn’t everybody be much happier if Mr Miyagi said, “If you paint this whole fence, your muscles will internalize the motion that is also used to block a punch to the face”.  Or, “If you wax all these cars your body will understand the movement needed to block an attack from the side”.   Wouldn’t Daniel prefer it? Wouldn’t he complete his tasks with more enthusiasm and purpose once he knew why he was doing them?  Sure the movie wouldn’t have been as good, and there would be far less drama, but wouldn’t Daniel have been better off?

Learning how to perform a task is easy.  Internalizing the skill required to preform that task, is not.  Mr Miyagi’s approach was to make Daniel internalize the skill the task required, before showing him the task it was required for.   Now when Daniel is in a situation where he has to block a punch, he doesn’t have to spend any brain power thinking about how to technically lift and lower his arm the right way, he will do it instinctively. 

When my teachers made me play my scales and my arpeggios it was not so I could effortlessly play these mathematical formulas of music, it was to make my fingers be able to move instinctively around the neck so that my mind would be free to perceive and create music, and not be preoccupied with moving this finger to that fret, or moving from this position to that position.

This is the thinking we need to apply to songwriting.  Writing a song is a task that requires many different skills.  If we spend our time consumed by the mechanics of performing those skills, the task of writing will suffer.  If we instead, internalize those skills and turn them into instinct, we will free our mind to create.  For example:

I’ve written in previous posts about the language and basic compositional elements of melody, and the melody and basic compositional elements of language.  But if we spend our time consciously thinking something like: “this part of the melody needs to be a diatonic permutation of the previous part” or “what are the makings of a good metaphor here, and should this line be a rhyme?”  We will inevitably get bogged down by the details of making things “correct”,  and our end result will suffer.   Instead, we must strive to know these things instinctually.  We most KNOW where a melody needs to go.  We most KNOW how to make a good metaphor, and we must KNOW when a phrase needs to end in a rhyme.     

How do we achieve this? How do we turn all the required skills for songwriting into instinct?  Well, like The Karate Kid, there will be many fences to paint and many cars to wax.  Here is a good one: 

Everyday, choose an object.  It can be anything, a shoe, a guitar pick, an empty bottle of water.   Write a paragraph describing that object.  Use all five of your senses.  How does it look? What does it smell like?  Does it make a sound?  Is it rough or smooth to the touch?  If you are brave enough, taste it (this will be interesting if you did in fact pick a shoe).  Describe how the object makes you feel, maybe describe it in character terms, or invent a back story for it.   Try to use similes and metaphors.  You don’t always have to rhyme, but why not?  Some days limit yourself only to perfect rhymes, other days only imperfect rhymes, etc.  Do this exercise everyday and you will be like Daniel painting the fence.  Eventually, crafting descriptive passages in rhyme will become second nature, and while you are writing you will be able to access those skills easily and spend more time thinking about WHAT you want to say in your song, and less time about the mechanics of HOW you are going to say it. 

Critical listening is another great way to ‘wax the car’ or ‘sand the floor’.  I’ve spoken before (and still do often) about listening.  Critical listening is very different then regular listening, and I will probably write a post just on the differences between the two in the near future, but for now let me quickly address critical listening.  To listen critically is to analyze.  How many bars does each section of the song have?  Whats the chord progression?  Is the melody very rhythmic, or does it use a lot of long sustained notes?  What are the drums doing? Does it provide motion? Do the guitars? Etc, etc.  Once you understand and internalize how different feels and musical emotions are achieved technically, you will spend more time thinking about WHAT emotion you want to convey, and less time thinking about HOW you are going to convey it.

In the end of the movie everyone is happy (Spoiler alert!), Daniel internalizes all the skills he learned, wins the day and gets the girl.  Would he have been better off had he been told what he was doing while he was doing it? Maybe, maybe not, we’ll never know.   But if nothing else, at least Mr Miyagi got a freshly painted fence out of it. 

So go paint a fence, wax a car, sand a floor, and learn how to write a song.  

This article was reposted with permission from Red House Studios.


LA Session Group is honored and at the same time thrilled to share experiences and advice from some of the best musicians, songwriters, producers, and artists the music industry has to offer. The following article gives readers valuable insight into songwriting from multi-platinum songwriter and producer Chen Neeman courtesy of Red House Productions. Chen is a LA Session Group member offering one-on-one co-writing sessions and coaching. To book Chen for a songwriting session, simply click here.

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