Four Secrets to Writing Great Songs

Excerpted from the forthcoming book, Songwriting Demystified

by Christopher Kent

Here’s a riddle: what do songwriting and spelling have in common?

Well, okay, they both involve words. But they also share another characteristic, which is well illustrated by the following story about two gentlemen ­ Richard Bandler and John Grinder ­ who pioneered a new branch of psychology called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP, for short).

Bandler and Grinder were approached by a teacher with a group of students who were lousy spellers. Because Bandler and Grinder had a reputation for being able to uncover and explain thinking processes, the teacher asked their help finding a way to teach these “poor spellers” to spell.

Bandler and Grinder accepted the challenge. And the first thing they said was, “Let’s find out how people spell!” What Bandler and Grinder realized is that spelling is a classic example of a subject that everyone teaches without actually telling you how to do it. In other words, spelling is usually taught by giving students the content ­ i.e., showing the end result you’re supposed to end up with ­ not process, which is what to do in your head so that you end up with the right result.. After all, if you ask someone, “What do you do in your head when you spell a word?” you’ll probably just get a blank look ­ most people (including most teachers) have no idea what happens in their head when they spell a word. So it’s common practice for teachers to just give students a list of words and tell them to “memorize them.” The trouble is, this method of teaching spelling doesn’t really work — many people remain lousy spellers all their lives.

Bandler and Grinder knew that the secret to teaching spelling was to really figure out how good spellers do it. So they found a bunch of excellent spellers, and by using some clever psychology, they found that there is indeed a process that good spellers use (at least all the good spellers they’ve ever run across.) When you ask good spellers to spell a word, they will visualize a picture of the word, then have a feeling about what they see that tells them whether it’s correct or not, and then they tell you what they’re seeing in their mind. (For instance, try picturing the word “telephone” in your mind. Now change the “ph” to an “f.” Most people can feel that the word “telefone” isn’t right. This is exactly how good spellers know they’ve got the right picture of the word in their mind; they check to see if it “feels” right.) So this is the internal process that good spellers use: seeing a picture of the word, checking for the feeling that says the picture is correct, and then reporting what they see.

No one ever told the kids who were poor spellers anything about the process of spelling. Sure enough, it turned out that the poor spellers were using all kinds of inner processes that were different from the one good spellers use. Most commonly, they were trying to spell by hearing the word in their minds, instead of seeing it. The English language does not base its spelling around the way a word sounds, of course, so if you try to spell this way, words like telephone end up with an “f” instead of a “ph” and no “e” on the end. And kids who spell using this process end up being lousy spellers. But once the kids were taught the process of spelling, their spelling improved dramatically, overnight.

So what do songwriting and spelling have in common? They both involve internal processes that are seldom explained by teachers. Most teachers teach what to do, but don’t tell you how to do it!