Paul Simon: Songwriting as Improvisation

The singer-songwriter is stereotyped as the classic lone genius. Holding a guitar, meditating on life, an idea for a song emerges from the unconscious spirit. In our mythical view, the songwriter can’t tell us how they did it–the song just came to them, an inspiration.

But this isn’t how songwriting works, according to a new audiobook about the famous musician Paul Simon, the legendary writer of songs like “The Boxer,” “Sounds of Silence,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The audiobook, called “Miracle and Wonder,” was recorded in nine sessions of interviews with guitarist Bruce Headlam and the top-selling author Malcolm Gladwell.

Simon writes by “trial and error,” he says–an exploratory process that couldn’t be different from the “sudden flash of insight” myth. He starts by trying different things on his guitar. He experiments with melodies, but without words yet–just with “ooh” and “ahh” and “la.” After the melody has formed, he continues to experiment by slipping in different words instead of “ooh” and “aah.” And then, as Simon puts it,

“They become words, and sometimes the words are interesting and I keep them….Gradually, almost like a skin transplant, a piece starts to take a form. Somewhere around the two-thirds point in the writing, I say, “Ah, I see what the song is about.”

While Simon is writing, his process is always unfolding, wandering–what I call a “zigzag” creative process. Even the emotional tone of the song might change:

“When I begin most songs, they’re very negative or angry. And I slowly peel that away because I don’t think there’s much pleasure in hearing a song that’s critical of something or somebody.”

Creativity researchers sometimes talk about the ten-year rule: Exceptional creators tend to spend about ten years mastering their domain before they begin to generate world-changing creations. Simon started playing guitar at the age of 13, and a few years later, he released his first song in 1957: “Hey Schoolgirl” sung with Art Garfunkel. It was a hit, but they couldn’t follow it up. Simon found a job writing songs for a music publisher (alongside another famous songwriter, Carole King). In 1964–almost ten years–he wrote “Sound of Silence” and decided to quit his publisher job so that he could keep the song for himself. He recorded a version with his original partner, Art Garfunkel, but it wasn’t successful. So how did the song become a number one hit? Because later, his producer dubbed in a backing band and released the new version, without even telling Simon and Garfunkel. That’s another important feature of creativity: It often comes from collaboration, from multiple ideas coming from different people.

Paul Simon’s creative process is a fascinating example of how, instead of a flash of insight, creativity comes in fits and starts, trial and error, zigs and zags.

(By the way, the name of the audiobook “Miracle and Wonder” is a lyric from Simon’s song “The Boy in the Bubble.”)

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