Songwriting Is A Funnel

Sep 04, 2021

What is a funnel?

Well, according to Google: 

“A funnel is a tube or pipe that is wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, used for guiding liquid or powder into a small opening.”

Let’s talk about what I mean when I say songwriting is a funnel.


Each Creative Decision Leaves Less Creative Space For The Next One

A funnel gets less and less wide the lower it gets, right? The whole point is to take from a wide area and condense it into a small opening.

Similarly, with each creative decision, you get less and less creative room.

Once you choose a key, the notes you have at your disposal are limited.

Once you choose a tempo, the speed is set, so you’re limited to rhythmic options you can play at that tempo.

Once you write a melody, the chords you write must match up and complement the melody.

With each decision you make, the next decision simply has fewer options than it did before. Once you have your main piano part, a few guitar parts, and your melody, you can’t just let the violin do whatever it wants.

It needs to match up with what the rest of the song is doing. 

So how does this affect our songwriting process?


Utilize The Greater Creative Space For The Most Important Parts

Would you figure out what type of dog you want before you decide if you even would like to have a dog at all?

Would you choose the color car you want before you even decide what make and model you want?

No, of course not. Honda Civic vs Ford Focus is a much more important decision than grey vs red. And that’s only magnified when $20,000 is on the line.

In fact, the car you end up choosing might not even come in that sexy charcoal grey.

Even if it did, are you really going to change the make and model of your car over a color? What if one make and model is significantly more reliable and affordable than the other? Charcoal grey is a fantastic color on a car, but it won’t matter when your car payment is twice as much.

Similarly, we should be writing the most important parts of our song first to ensure they have the most creative room.

If the melody and piano part are most important to you, you should write those first, not your bass line and guitar chords.

If you want to write a song with a great bass line, write that before you write the rest of the song. 

This can vary from song to song as you write with different focuses. 

Sometimes you just want to write a song with a killer bass line.

Sometimes you want to write a song with a groovy drum part. 

What you write first should be the same as what you value most.

For example, I tend to consider the most important parts of my song the melody, lyrics, and main piano riff.

Because of that, those are the first things I write. Sometimes I start with melody or lyrics, sometimes I write a piano riff first, but some combo of those 3 is usually my starting place.

Obviously, in guitar-driven songs, I swap the guitar into the top 3 over the piano.

I’d argue that, most of the time, lyrics and melody should be a high enough priority to be in the first 3 parts you write.

The 3rd part you write should probably be the instrument you want to be most memorable. 

Want an interesting guitar finger-picking part? Write that in your first 3 parts. 

Want a killer bass line? Write that in your first 3 parts.

In life, you can measure someone’s priorities by 2 basic factors: what they do first, and what they spend the most time on.

You can’t say you prioritized doing the dishes if you wait until the end of the night to do them.

You can’t say you prioritize practicing guitar if you only do it for 2 minutes but spent 3 hours binging the newest season of You.

And, eventually your priorities will show. Because you won’t be much better at guitar and the dishes are still dirty. But you did get through 3 episodes of You.

Similarly, your writing priorities will show in your songwriting. 

If you always throw in the bass at the end, it probably won’t be a great bass line.

If you don’t write the lyrics until last or you don’t spend enough time on them, the lyrics will probably be sorely lacking.

So, decide what parts you are going to value most for each song you write. And write those things first.


Limiting Your Options Is A Good Thing

Sometimes having fewer options is a good thing.

If you go to Chipotle, you basically just make a series of very simple decisions:

  • Bowl or Burrito
  • Chicken, Steak, or Barbacoa
  • White or Brown Rice
  • Black or Brown Beans
  • Red Salsa or Green Salsa

That’s a bit simplified, but that’s basically the experience, right? And it helps you make good decisions quickly.

But what about going to a sit-down Mexican restaurant? After deciding you want something with Chicken, now you only need to choose between 500 burritos, 400 tacos, 300 quesadillas, 450 enchiladas, and 220 fajitas.

So you stare at the menu for 10 minutes, go through the whole bowl of chips, and then tell the waitress you still need a few minutes.

Sometimes fewer options can help you make better and faster decisions.

So it isn’t a bad thing to have more and more limited options as you write a song. It’s a good thing.

You don’t want 5 different guitar solos at once, that would likely be a disorganized mess.

You want certain parts of your song to play a starring role and the rest to be an amazing supporting cast.

Creed from The Office is absolutely hilarious, but that doesn’t mean he should have starred in his own show, right? He had his place, and your violin and guitar parts do too.

If you were in a room with 10 doors to choose from and the next room also had 10 doors, how would you feel? What if the next couple rooms had 10 doors as well?

You probably aren’t saying very nice words and might have just sat down in frustration. You aren’t getting anywhere! At least it seems like you aren’t.

But, what if there were only 9 doors in the second room? Then 8? Then only 7? The room after that with 6? All the way down until there was 1 door. 

Now you’re probably going through the whole thing. Maybe you chose a wrong door along the way, but you feel like you’ve progressed and are incentivised to keep going.

And, eventually, there’s only one door left. You’re done.

You have to finish your song eventually. And, if your creative options stayed truly infinite at every step of the way, you might just get frustrated and give up. Or you might just keep choosing one of the 10 doors, never knowing when your song is done.

The limiting of creative options over time is good. It helps you actually finish your songs and feel progress as you write the song. And that will help inspire you through to the end.

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