Writing team dynamics

From original article in “Songwriting Magazine”

Managing the egos, agendas and personalities involved in a group songwriting session

There are many different definitions of creativity. It’s something a lot of people feel strongly about the process and identify with it personally, so I realize it’s not a simple, agreed term – people come at it from different directions. However, the definition that is used most widely, regardless of what work you do, is that it’s something to do with ‘generating novel and useful ideas’.

So whether you’re writing a song, a novel, or a script for a television show, or even working in a business coming up with new products and services, the idea has to be something you haven’t done before. That could be incrementally novel – a clever tweak to what you’ve done previously – or something radical, but it’s not rocket science. We’re not talking about something new to the entire universe!

And the complimentary side to creativity is that your new thing has to be ‘useful to somebody. What’s the point in producing something so wacky that nobody wants or appreciates it? So it’s got to bring some potential benefit or pleasure to people.


The context that I’m working in is often very different from the situation many songwriters find themselves in, but there are some similarities. My starting point would always be: what are you trying to achieve? In the context of a commercial pop songwriting team, the desired outcome might be a hit song. 

The ‘design’ of it depends on the complexity of the problem you’re trying to solve, but part of that would involve making sure you’ve got a good mix of styles. Especially if you’re looking to come up with something genuinely imaginative, it will help to have some diversity in there.

But then it can get harder to make the best of the situation; it depends on whether the people know and trust each other. I think if there’s more diversity in the group, it can take a bit of effort to get everyone working for something in common. You have to make sure the whole team agrees on a common goal that they all want, and that can take a bit of time before you can start to get the best out of each other.


People are often under pressure to deliver, either in terms of time or the level of expectation. So it’s very easy to bypass the process of getting to know each other, building up a level of trust, and taking the time to agree ‘what we’re actually trying to do here,’ and that’s when things can go pear-shaped. Also, if people start to feel that pressure, creativity can become stifled and it’s harder to recover.

Everything we know about the creative process – from the research and teaching around it – tells us that you’ve got to build in space for exploration and what’s called ‘divergent thinking’. It’s just about having the time to explore the different options and come up with loads and loads of possibilities – to follow your nose and trust your intuition. That just isn’t possible if you’re in a rush and it feels forced.

Throughout the process, there will be different stages where you have very open, divergent thoughts that produce a wide range of ideas, but then later on, there may be periods of narrowing things down to what sounds good. But those two stages are completely essential.

The physical space is important – having a focused, relaxed environment that avoids distraction – but in terms of the creative atmosphere, there are a number of factors that will help or hinder the process. Critically, the supportiveness of the ‘leader’ of the group can have an effect on the rest of the team. Whether anyone feels they’re being judged, rather than being given the freedom to explore any idea, can have a massive impact. Are you all allowed to take a risk and try something new?


In 1926, an academic called Graham Wallas penned the book, The Art Of Thought, about the process of coming up with creative ideas, and he identified four stages: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification. 

  • Preparation is when you begin to understand the problem or challenge
  • Incubation, when you let the unconscious mind take over
  • Illumination when something comes to you, from what seems like nowhere. Wallas argued that the Illumination stage only happens when you’ve immersed yourself, but then taken a break from it – stepping away from the problem is the crucial moment when the idea can arrive.
  • Verification stage is really just checking the idea out with other people and asking them what they think. This process is often quoted and has led to a lot of research, but I’ve heard writers talk about going through very similar stages.


Similarly, back in the 18th century, the English Romantic poet John Keats talked about the concept of ‘negative capability’ in reference to Shakespeare’s creativity, describing the moment when “man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

The idea being that, when they’re working on something we don’t understand, we need to have the capacity to not know the answer. Some people can be frustrated by that perceived lull in the process and strive too early for resolutions, but the more capacity you have for ‘not knowing’ then you’re more likely to come up with something brilliant.


Spring Ahead – Your Songwriting

How did it get to be the middle of March? Daylight savings time is here tomorrow, so don’t forget to set your clocks ahead by an hour!

Spring is almost here, with longer days of sunlight, warmer temps on the way. New green shoots appearing on trees and bushes and flowers poking their heads up through the soil to signal their arrival.

Spring has always been my favorite season for a lot of different reasons.  Perhaps it is the renewal of the earth taking place before our very eyes, the sweetness in the air, the feelings of hope that seem to pop up all around us.

But more importantly, spring always sparks renewed energy and a desire to create – to write new songs and music, to start new projects, and collaborate with others.

What are Your Spring Song Plans?

With increased daylight and warmer temps, it’s a perfect time to grab your notebook, phone and or guitar and head outside to soak up the freshness in the air, feel the warmth of the sun on your skin, and reset your inner creative clock.


Why not write down a whole bunch of new song ideas, song titlels and make appointments to co-write with some people you’ve been wanting to write with.  It’s been a hard year for sure, but with vaccines rolling out and things heading back to being a bit more open, an outdoor co-writing session could be just what the doctor ordered.’

Here are a couple of topics to get you going:

  • New love
  • Celebrate something – 
  • Part on!
  • Taking a road trip somewhere
  • Get outside, change up your mindset and enjoy everything spring has to offer.  It will do wonders for your mood and your songwriting! 

What (Song) Key Are YOU In?

When it comes to songwriting all of us have our own key, and our own sets of keys, we write in.  If you substitute ‘voice’ for a key you get the drift.

Expressing our innermost feelings and thoughts by creating songs is highly personal. It often exposes our vulnerability to the world.

Every songwriter and every song has their own unique DNA, the part that is uniquely YOU.  But how do you say what you mean? Do you write lyrics that sound real? Sound like a conversation with someone? Sound like something you want people to hear? Or something else entirely?

You should also ask yourself these questions, Can the listener relate to your voice? Can they put themselves into your story, to the emotion you’re expressing, to the feeling you’re creating? Will they understand the main point you’re trying to convey?

Your ‘keys’ are the points of connection between your heart, your soul, your vision, and the listener. When you know what you want to say and how you want to say it, definitively, then you are in YOUR key.

Why not take some time to think about and organize the ‘keys’ that are most comfortable and authentic to your voice? Making a quick cheat sheet for yourself can come in handy. What do I mean by this? It’s kind of like having a journal of song ideas and song titles. It’s a handy reference to help you get started when you feel stuck for ideas or how to get going,

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Write down a list of adjectives you would use in everyday conversation
  • Make a list of feelings you like to write about, and write about most often(this will also give you ideas and prompts when you need to change it up!)
  • Make a list of words you think fit into whatever genre you write in that are NOT overused
  • Do the same thing with adjectives
  • Identify the types of tempos you feel most comfortable writing to
  • Identify tempos you don’t feel comfortable writing in but you know you need to add to your catalog ,to have a balanced collection of songs

These are just a few ways you can help yourself find and develop your own sets of ‘songwriting keys’, the ones that express your voice, the ones you feel you can really work on to create great songs, and some ways you can find songwriting challenges to help you improve your skill set and your catalog.

Want to see how younger songwriters are tackling songwriting? Meet our  Student Songwriter in Residence and check out some of her NextGen Songwriter interviews.

Some keys are major, some are minor. Your keys change accordingly  Think about it.  What key are you writing in today? Hint: they’re all good! Just get to it.

Leave us a comment and tell us about your key and why you like it:)