The Discipline of Great Songwriting

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” This is a quote by the great artist Michelangelo Buonarotti outlining his approach to creating a magnificent sculpture. For him, the beautiful piece of art was already contained within the block of marble. The best artist, therefore, is the one that can most effectively uncover the beauty found within the block. I tend to think of songwriting in similar terms. It is far less daunting to begin writing a song if you believe that the song already exists- within your guitar or your soul- and that it is your job merely to find it. In such a view, discipline becomes the songwriter’s greatest ally. Setting time aside to write- to allow the song to come to you- is crucial if you are ever to find it. Truly, it doesn’t matter if the song you find is good or not. You’ll be back the following day to find another. And by simply sitting down to play your guitar, piano, kazoo, etc. and by writing words on a page, you are chipping away at the marble that stands before you. The more you chip, the more the song will begin to reveal itself to you.

That doesn’t mean it is wise to be reckless, though- simply flinging words onto a page and hoping to the heavens that others will think they are impressive. Michelangelo- one of the greatest artists of all time- was a master craftsman. He was also quoted as saying, “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.” It is not the work of art that inspires awe, but the countless hours you put into becoming good enough to uncover that work of art that does. True artists never envy the final product of a fellow artist’s hard work. Rather, they envy the discipline it took to create it. They admire the final product merely as the tip of the iceberg- the only visible portion of an otherwise massive accomplishment. And they know that the only way they will ever follow suit is if they become disciplined to the same degree.

Michelangelo was also a lifelong student. He stated simply, “I am still learning.” Now, I can imagine having a coffee with him at some Italian bistro and scoffing at such a statement. “Surely,” I’d say, “there is no need for you to learn more. You should be teaching all of us what you know! What else is there for you to learn?” But the fact that in his heart, Michelangelo had never fully arrived is the reason he was so incomparable. If he were to teach a college art class, the greatest value to the students would not be Michelangelo’s technical prowess, but his passion for art and the pursuit of perfection. The greatest thing you can learn from a great artist is the discipline of being inspired to learn and to create.

Being a great songwriter, like being a great sculptor, is about finding inspiration and channeling it through extreme discipline and determination. It’s about realizing that beauty exists, whether you are the one to discover it or not. But why leave it for someone else to find? Wouldn’t you rather be the one to discover it? I must admit that there are mornings when it is difficult to convince myself that the search is worth the effort. On those days, I have to remind myself that the most important step is not writing a great song, but merely in chipping away at that big block of marble. One piece at a time.

To book a lesson with Jeff Mathena, contact or 615-866-1099.

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