How I Started Writing Songs

I had always wanted to be a songwriter, ever since I was a child taking piano lessons.  The only creative exercise that my piano teacher ever gave me was to write a song one day.  All of a sudden my piano lessons went from boring and repetitive scale exercises into the realm of a creative process that held my attention.  What I wrote from that exercise was probably forgettable, but the idea of writing songs began germinating in my mind.  There was never another song writing exercise that I can remember, and the idea lay dormant in my mind at the subconscious level for a few years.

My friend Dan from the sixth grade on who lived down the street was one of the popular guys in my school.  He was an only child and his parents were from Denmark – so there was a different atmosphere at his house than I was used to.  More of a laid back approach to life.  Dan’s father was also an artist, so the environment was very creative at his home.  Dan played the drums, and also had a stereo in his room which is where he introduced me to early Genesis, Yes, Rush, Queen and other progressive rock bands in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

One day in high school he came over and we sat down at my piano and I tried to write a song – and nothing happened.  It was if I had never played the piano before.  I didn’t know the first thing about what to do or where to start.  In my piano lessons I had learned to play scales and classical pieces of music, but I knew nothing about the theory of music and couldn’t show you what a G chord looked like on the keyboard.  Everything that I had learned was rote and mechanical – nothing organic or theoretical.  But in my heart, I still wanted to be able to write songs someday.

Later on in high school I decided to experiment in a free form and organic way to learn and discover just what a piano was and how I could build a relationship of understanding with it.  I was actually thinking in a way that this piano was a “living” instrument, and after all these years needed an introduction of sorts.  So I sat down and just started playing notes randomly and in combinations.  Most often the notes I played were unharmonious, and clashed terribly with each other.  I had no music or notes and simply tried to discover what the essence was of this instrument.  Occasionally, I played something spontaneously that sounded ok, but I couldn’t tell you why or know how to repeat the sequence – it was dumb luck at the time.

Eventually I could play something spontaneously without music that sounded ok about 60 percent of the time, and I liked the originality of creating something out of nothing – but I was still in the introductory phase of getting to know this instrument, and nothing I was doing actually resembled anything like a song.  I had a Genesis song book that I would play out of, and wished I could write something that was as soaring and lyrical as those songs – but I couldn’t do it.

It wasn’t until I studied Pre-Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University that I progressed any further in my piano playing.  One day I was walking across campus and saw the Music building.  I decided to investigate and discovered that the entire basement was full of practice rooms and each one had a piano in it.  I spent a lot of time creating random sounds in those practice rooms, and got better at making the notes sound ok, but nothing I did would ever be considered by anyone to be a song.  I soon began noticing people looking into the room while I practiced, through the small window in the door.  From then on I always taped a piece of paper over the window so no one could see me practicing.  All I wanted to do was experiment with sound and try to figure out what worked.  It was a hobby of mine, and I never progressed into music theory or bought a book on chords or fundamentals of the piano.  I was still introducing myself to this instrument.

Over the years I experimented when I could, but the process was less and less frequent as there wasn’t a piano around to practice on.  I remember once during my bike trip to Europe, I was at someone’s home and sat down at their piano for a few minutes and experimented.  When I joined the Air Force one of the first things I bought was an old upright piano that never amounted to anything, as it went into long term storage almost right away when I received my first overseas assignment to Germany.  After my wife and I were married, we had an assignment to Mather AFB in Sacramento, CA, where I was an Instructor Navigator for navigator students that had qualified for a fighter assignment; and we bought a nice little oak upright piano.  Our follow-on assignment was back to Germany, and that’s where I started writing songs.

We lived in a little village in the central western area of what was West Germany at the time, in the area close to Trier, and near the border with Luxembourg.  I was participating in a base exercise and working 12 hour night shifts, so my wife and son went to stay with her parents for a few days.  Walking through an empty house I saw the piano and decided to play around for a few minutes on it.  It was some 17 years later from that day when my friend Dan stopped by back in high school and I attempted to write a song.  Just as I went to begin while seated on the piano bench, I stopped and decided to say a prayer first.  On the piano there was a porcelain Lladro statue of Mary in front of me that I had purchased in Spain.  I said, “Lord, you know that it has been my will to be a songwriter for all these many years.  If it is Your Will also that I write songs then let Your Will be done.  You know of my desire to be a songwriter.”  Then I said a follow-on prayer, “Mary, if it is Your Son’s Will that I be a songwriter, please intercede on my behalf.”  At the time I was a Presbyterian and my wife and I had attended both Protestant and Roman Catholic services over the years as she was raised Roman Catholic.

After the prayer I started to do my experimenting again on the piano keyboard.  I fell into a chord progression that immediately sounded promising and went to get a notebook and a pencil.  When I sat down again I wrote my first song from start to finish without getting up – and then another.  They were both Christmas type songs and it was late fall and approaching the season of Advent – the four weeks prior to Christmas.  The year was 1989.  Immediately I was “behind the power curve” as we say in aviation.  I had scribbled down both songs the best that I could, and then later began making a better copy.  I tried to write the lyrics and notes as best as I could and make a neat copy.  This administrative side of writing music was overwhelming – it took hours to write it all out, work out any corrections and eventually type an accurate version.  I felt compelled to do the very best job that I could – knowing how my writing began with an answered prayer.  I wasn’t trained to write out music longhand, and struggled to do it correctly.  In the mean time, every time I sat down at the piano I wrote another song – or two – and I kept falling further behind on the administrative side of it all.  You know the saying, “Be careful what you pray for, you might just get it!” came to mind – and I was “religiously” committed to the best work that I could do.

Later on I bought a guitar, and the first day I had it I learned my first three chords and was writing songs with it.  I didn’t know how to sing and clearly wasn’t a performer, but I had what I wanted and just wrote songs and played them for myself.  The first song that I’ll post here will be Me and My Piano which was written in 1991.  I will post it first because it illustrates the process that occurred when I sat down to write a song.  We used to call ourselves the “late night putterers” because after my young son was in bed my wife and I would putter around the house catching up on things we needed to do, and that’s when I would write my songs.  In those days we’d go to bed around 11:30 pm, which is a far cry from my current 9:00 pm bedtime – or earlier!  After posting Me and My Piano, I’ll just post follow-on songs randomly depending on what interests me at the time.  In the fall I’ll start posting Christmas Carols, which are some of my favorite pieces that I’ve written.

I don’t have my piano any longer, and gave away all of my instruments and equipment that I had acquired over the years to a promising young musician who just entered Air Force pilot training – except for a single 12 string acoustic Ovation guitar.  This phase of my life had run its course.  I had taught myself to play the drums and had a large Sonor drum kit, twp electric guitars, two acoustic guitars, a synthesizer, and a cobbled together P.A. that included a large Carvin amp.  I taught myself to sing, spent time in a little recording studio when I was in England making basic versions of my songs and even played in a bar on a number of occasions during their “open mic” evenings – but performing wasn’t to be my thing.  I couldn’t memorize any of the lyrics or chords to my songs and as a singer I was only a weak average at best.  But I had accomplished what I had set out to do, which was to write songs.

Songs themselves are a little slice of life itself, with a life all to themselves.  The lyrics tell a story and the music behind them creates an atmosphere that doesn’t exist from the words alone.  I will post the chords along with the lyrics to my songs – as I still don’t know how to write individual musical notation correctly.  It doesn’t matter though.  If you play with these songs and come up with your own melody to my chords and lyrics, then all the better.  Experiment and enjoy – because at the end of the day it’s all about the music!

If you are a musician that would like to play any of my songs, with your own interpretation of the melody, then feel free to do so – in fact I encourage you!  After all, the only purpose for music is to play it for someone to listen to – even if only for the musician who is playing it.  The only thing I ask is that you acknowledge where you found the song, and if any of these songs were to be included in a commercial venture – please contact me for permission, as they are all copyrighted.  My email address is: mark.d.jones (close the gap when sending an email to me).  Thanks!  🙂


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