The cosmology of song writing


Song writers have to be prepared to answer these two questions ad nauseam:

“How do you go about writing songs?” and “What comes first, the words or the music?”

I recently watched a documentary about the Eagles (yes, I know, but they were good really) in which Glenn Frey, (or was it Don Henley?) spoke about sharing a house with Jackson Browne, and hearing him get up in the morning and work away for hours and hours at the same bit of a song, over and over. Don, (or Glenn?) was made to realise that song-writing is principally about hard work and perseverance. So that’s one answer to the first question.

To learn more, should you really want to, I’d recommend reading Jimmy Webb’s book, Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting. It is a superb in-depth exploration of the whole business.Jimmy WebbAs for me, I was niggling away at ditty this morning and suddenly struck by an analogy as I stared at a screenful of words, half-lines, rhymes and suchlike ascii scribble. It was this:  my songs seem to come together in the same way that stars and planets coalesce from cosmic dust. Everything whirls around in a cloud for ages until little clumps form, which attach to, and sometimes detach from, each other. Eventually a lyrical solar system is formed. In the old days the ‘universe’ in which this process happened was a note-book with pages of scribble. Nowadays it’s a word document. The ‘cloud’ is made up of single words, short phrases, perhaps a couplet or two. They expand, join up, move around, collide and shatter, disappear completely or if luck is in, form into solid pieces of lyric. These pieces may then suggest a larger structure, a form of verses, chorus, bridges and so on.

Although this process can happen over a day or so, more usually it seems to take a lot longer, though not perhaps as long as it took our galaxy to form. I have unfinished songs which I began decades ago. Space junk, cosmic debris. They circle round and appear in close orbit every year or so, then disappear into the black again. I don’t expect them to ever fall to Earth.


As to the second question, here’s the thing sometimes the tune comes first, sometimes the words, but usually they arrive in bits together. So no need to ask that question again. Ever.




A Harrier

A song dedicated to the beautiful North Norfolk coast and to bird watchers everywhere. Ruth and I knocked this up one holiday. The inspiration was the sight of a horse staring over the fence as we drove along; he was obviously counting the cars on the North Norfolk coast road. With apologies to Paul Simon.



Give us a cuddle, we’ll have our packed lunches together.

I’ve got some Nescafe here in my flask.

So we bought a pack of Wagon Wheels,

And Mr Kipling’s Cakes,

And walked off to look for a harrier.


“Cathy”, I said as we boarded the Hopper in Titchwell,

“Hunstanton seems like a dream to me now.”

It took me three days to hitchhike from Sheringham,

I’ve come to look for a harrier.


Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces-

She said the man in the camouflage hat was a twit.

I said, ‘Be careful, have you seen the size of his camera?’


Toss me a Jaffa Cake, I think there’s one in my knapsack.

‘You ate the last one an hour ago’.

So I looked at some Garganey,

She claimed Temmink’s Stint,

And the geese grazed out in an open field.


“Cathy I’m lost”, I said, though I knew she was knitting.

“I’m empty inside, I could fancy a pie.”

Counting the cars on the North Norfolk Coast Road

They’ve all come to look for a harrier.