Songwriting as Search

At some point during the songwriting process I usually find myself stuck on a particular line. Maybe I’m having trouble with the rhyme, maybe it’s the meter, or maybe it’s just that the tone is a little off. I try a different word here, which in turn causes me to change a word there, and that in turn makes me rethink of an entirely different image for the line. That in turn triggers a cascade of other possible changes, and before long I find myself paralyzed by possibilities.

It’s occurred to me more than once that this is really songwriting as a search problem. You’re trying to put together a stanza that conveys a particular image or story. That stanza in turn is made up of lines that have a certain meter and rhyme (i.e. constraints), and those lines are made up of words that each have a certain number of syllables, particular combinations of letter sounds, and specific nuances of meaning. There are almost always multiple choices that might work for a particular word. The challenge is thus in finding the best┬áchoice in the context of all of the other words you’ve selected that satisfies those constraints. The combinatorics are overwhelming, so you can’t be exhaustive in your search. You have to use heuristics, instinct, and experience to guide you. Otherwise you can easily get bogged down to the point where you never finish a song.