Back in 1964 when the Beatles were still making waves, Paul McCartney awok one morning, sat down at a piano and began playing the haunting melody he had just dreamed about. He gave his new song the working title "Scrambled Eggs," then spent months trying to come up with something better while refining the tune and writing the lyrics. Finally, after a good night's sleep — cue drumroll — the name "Yesterday" popped into his head, completing a composition that went on to become one of the biggest pop hits of all time. McCartney later described the ballad's bizarre origins as "'the most magic thing." — David Wright, "in your dreams," Style Spring/Summer 2013
It was a spring morning in 1965 ... when Keith Richards rolled out of bed and noticed ...a new tape ... somehow wound its way through 45 minutes of usable tape. Curious, he rewound the tape and pushed play. ...A three-note guitar riff came blasting out of the speakers, followed by some basic chords and a simple refrain."'I can't get no satisfaction,"' went the melody, sung by Richards in a sleepy, half-conscious voice. ... Richards had apparently woken up with a melody in his head, recorded it with his acoustic guitar and then fallen back asleep. — Andrew Leahy, "Behind the Song: '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction'," American Songwriter March / April 2012
"'Millworker' arrived whole. I was asleep on Martha's Vineyard,
and I woke up with the song entirely in my mind. It was a moonlit night...I
walked down and turned on the light on the desk that was in the library.
I wrote down the song, went back upstairs and fell back to sleep. In
the morning, I really didn't know if the song was down there.
I came down and there is was. Amazing." — James Taylor, quoted
by Paul Zollo, "James Taylor / Artist in Residence: The 'American
Songwriter' Interview," American
Songwriter November/December 2007
Why do songs come to us at the most inopportune time? When we're asleep, when we're driving, when we're in the shower, when we're up to our elbows in potting soil or fresh paint or dirty dishes? And, not just songs — locations of lost objects, breakthroughs in science, solutions to puzzles, inventions, images which lead to deeper insights — all these things can come to us when we're asleep or relaxed, or when our bodies are occupied with tasks that leave our minds free to wander.
Alpha waves are one type of brain waves detected either by electroencephalography (EEG) or magnetoencephalography (MEG) and predominantly originate from the occipital lobe during wakeful relaxation with closed eyes. Alpha waves are reduced with open eyes, drowsiness and sleep. ... Occipital alpha waves during periods of eyes closed are the strongest EEG brain signals. ...
Some researchers posit that there are at least three forms of alpha waves, which may all have different functions in the wake-sleep cycle.
Alpha waves are present at different stages of the wake-sleep cycle. The most widely-researched is during the relaxed mental state, where the subject is at rest with eyes closed, but is not tired or asleep. ...
The second occurrence of alpha wave activity is during REM sleep. As opposed to the awake form of alpha activity, this form is located in a frontal-central location in the brain. The purpose of alpha activity during REM sleep has yet to be fully understood. ...
The third occurrence of alpha wave activity is the alpha-delta or slow-wave (SWS) state. — Wikipedia
Apparently, according to Wright, "our brains can absorb information and make associations when we're fast asleep." Some songwriters, like McCarney, call it magic. Some call it tapping into the ether or channeling someone or something. It has been called mystical, perhaps because we cannot quantify it or reproduce it at will.
"...what I'm doing is assembling and minimally directing what
is sort of unconsciously coming out. It's not something I can direct
or control. I just end up being the first person to hear these songs.
That's what it feels like...that I don't feel as though I write them.
Then there's a phase when you button it up and finish it. But it all
starts with a lightning strike. A melody will suggest itself in the
context of whatever I'm playing, and then the cadence will suggest words.
And those words don't come from a conscious place." — James
Taylor, quoted by Paul Zollo, "James Taylor / Artist in Residence:
The 'American Songwriter' Interview," American
Songwriter November/December 2007
But, we can learn to use it. A couple of months ago, I drove to another state, a trip of about 300 miles. I was on a road that I traveled about 10 years ago. There wasn't much traffic, the weather was okay, and I didn't have to turn for over 200 miles. I watched the scenery and images stuck in my mind. Phrases came to my mind, associated with the images. That night, instead of watching TV in my motel room, I wrote a song that I've been trying to write for 10 years. The images and phrases I collected on the drive became the setting and motivation for the basic story.
"Anyone involved with songwriting will testify to the fact
that each song, no matter how pure or from the heart, has its own
story, its own peculiar way of getting written." — Carl
I intended to write a different song that night. No matter. I'll take whatever songs come to me out of my subconscious. I once wrote a blues tune based on a line that came to me in a dream, "You're in Atlanta and I'm in a Whole Lotta Pain." Taking a shower recently, I got ideas for the song I had intended to write. Other ideas came to me later, and I wrote them all down. But I didn't write the song.
"But the only rhyme he could summon for 'out' was 'sauerkraut,'
which lacked poetic glory. He let it go. The right line would come
in time. That was the thing about poetry. It crept up through the
draws and coulees of the brain." — Annie Proulx
Last night, after reading Wright's article, I collected all my notes, put them by my bedside, and read them before I went to sleep. When I woke up this morning, before I got out of bed, I took my notes and wrote the entire song. I was in what I've come to think of as an "Alpha state," almost half-asleep and taping into my subconscious, more than I do when I'm fully awake and concentrating on my to-do list.
"Songwriting is like ... being possessed. You try to go to sleep
but the song won't let you." — John Lennon
Wright's article states that it is possible to control our dreams by flashing lights, playing music, and exposing ourselves to smells.
"I do not havea hookbook or rhyming dictionary. I do not know
where the ideas come from. Some of those lines come through me. I
tell the co-writers, 'That's God-given.' I do not have a book of lines.
Sometimes when I am going to sleep and get an idea I write it down,
but usually do not go back to them. A couple of weeks ago I wrote
a gospel song—had the idea before going to sleep one night.
I wrote the song a couple of days later without the notes that I had
written. ... Those ideas were in the song, but I did not use ...the
notes on the songs. When you are going to sleep, your mind relaxes
and those lyrics or ideas come into your mind. You'd better write
them down." — Hank Cochran, quoted by Doak Turner in "Humble
Captain Hank Cochran," American Songwriter, January/February
We rely a lot on visual cues to trigger memories. That's why we take photographs. But sounds and smells are very strong cues to trigger memories, and the emotions associated with them. If these cues can control our dreams, it is no wonder that the most sensory images we use in our songs can have such a profound emotional effect on our listeners. And that may be why the images, words, and music that come to us when we're dreaming are so effective in songs.
"…music seems to have an ability—beyond any other
art forms, in my opinion—to stir up emotional memories. And, I
guess, literal memories. The best I can get at it over the years, is
that music exists to help people remember emotions. Not necessarily
the emotions that are contained within the song itself, but most accurately
the emotions that are contained within people that they have trouble
getting to. And songs are functional in that way, in a lot of cases.
And music, handed down over many, many years, helps people remember,
not necessarily what happened, but what people felt like when things
happened. And it has an ability to communicate over generations, the
idea that we’re not that different." — Jeff Tweedy,
quoted in "Wilco:
the Interview," American Songwriter July / August 2009
When I used to program computers, and I had a problem with a program, I would accumulate all the data I could, and review it before I went to sleep. I often woke with the solution to the problem, or a new idea for additional testing that would help me solve the problem. I kept a pad of paper and a pen by my bedside to write down the ideas before they faded into the night.
"I had a dream that Louis Armstrong was playing the 'Swept Away'
melody. I have no idea where it came from. But Louis Armstrong was
playing it and singing the song to me. I woke up—it's a borrowed
melody no doubt—and wrote it down. If I hear a song and I choose
not to put it down, that's me neglecting to accept that song. I think
there's a very spiritual and godly-type ting that happens, and it
happens to way more people than we know. It's just that very few of
us choose to engage it." — Scott Avett quoted by Brian
T. Atkinson in "The
Avett Brothers / Life and Art, Ambition and Vision," American
Songwriter March / April 2009
Sometimes, clearing my mind by going for a walk, or just staring out the window at the mountains would accomplish the same thing.
"Something like going to get the newspaper can increase your
writing efficiency by taking you away from the material. When I'm
doing other things, writing stuff will be swirling around in my head,
and sometimes I'll see a new way into the material." Nathaniel
Our fully conscious minds, the minds that track the items on the to-do list, are great for apply the songwriting techniques we've learned to our creative ideas. And now, we can find ways to tap into our subconscious minds, to help us with our songwriting — not just to get through writer's block, but to find fresh sensory images that will better convey the emotion of the song.
"It might be a meaningless moment, but those sparks that ignite
the song.... It's mystical maybe, those magic moments. And to make
music for a living, to perform these songs over and over, you have
to safeguard those sparks. If you can do that, they'll last a lot
longer..." — M. Ward
"There's a lot of craft in songwriting. The divine inspiration
is when the idea comes. It may be a riff. It may be a word. It may be
a phrase. It may be a title. Sometimes, in the best of both worlds,
that divine inspiration extends through the whole song. I've literally
sat down and written a song from beginning to end, almost complete lyrics
and everything without ever stopping...in two minutes. The chorus of
'She's Gone' was like that.." — John Oates, quoted by Ken
Sharp in "Soul
Survivors Hall and Oates," American Songwriter, January/February
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