Musical collaboration is a lot like being in any other kind of relationship. There's give and take, sadness and reward, anger and joy. A musical relationship takes a lot of work to maintain, and this may be most exemplified by the songwriting partnership.
Two people sit down to write a song together and they can end up making magic, but if they’re not careful, it can destroy friendships. After all, creative endeavors are fraught with egos, emotions, and opinions. So maintaining that partnership takes a lot of work.
With that in mind, I combed through a number of relationship advice columns, magazine articles, and general life knowledge to dissect the best ways to keep a songwriting partnership (or really, any kind of partnership) healthy, fulfilling, and productive.
Taking an idea or an emotion and expressing it through song is what a songwriter does. That said, even the most talented writers out there are often known for their inability to communicate with people normally. If your partner didn’t like your last composition and was rude or insensitive about how he or she told you, you should let that person know. If you don’t like your partner's latest song, communicate it to him or her in the nicest way possible. The important thing here is to create an open dialogue.
2. Acknowledge, compliment, and be appreciative
Studies have shown that sharing your feelings of gratitude is linked to positive partner perceptions, and leads to behavior that's more conducive to maintaining healthy relationships for everyone involved. This is certainly true in romantic relationships, but it can be extrapolated to any sort of partnership, songwriters included. So if your buddy comes up with a catchy chorus or a killer melody line, let him or her know how much you dig it!
3. Create a safe space
Communication and appreciation are all well and good, but they don’t mean jack if both parties don’t feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. Work in a place where everyone feels comfortable. This may necessitate renting a jam space, either monthly or by the hour. But sometimes neutral ground can be a good place for everyone to feel safe enough to get things off their chests.
4. Listen with an open mind
If your bandmate or writing partner does have something to communicate, give him or her a chance and try and really take in what he or she is saying. For some people, it takes a lot to work up the courage to share what’s been bugging them. The least you can do is try and listen with an open mind.
Sometimes, no matter how much you make your case that the bridge should go up to the minor seventh instead of the dominant fifth, no one’s going to agree. Rather than let a relationship implode on itself, try to find room to compromise. Maybe the dominant fifth gives you a chance to find a killer new riff to play or create some interesting vocal harmonies. Or maybe your buddy just loves it so much and deep down inside, you don’t really care that much, so let it go. A little give and take is healthy in every relationship.
5. Be humble
According to one study, humility is a key ingredient for relationship success. Researchers say it may improve relationships because of its close association to forgiveness. Be thankful when someone gives you a compliment, but for the love of all that is good and pure in the world, don’t be an I-told-you-so. No one likes that dude.
6. Know how to make yourself happy
Be aware of what you like. If you write a song that you’re in love with, be ready to explain exactly why it’s so special. Know what kind of music makes you happy, or what you enjoy hearing in music. And don’t be too hard on yourself if something doesn’t work out. There's evidence that self-compassion is a predictor of behaviors found in healthy relationships. Self-compassion is the act of being gentle and understanding towards yourself during times of failure, inadequacy, and imperfection.
7. Spend quality time with each other
No good comes from being locked in a room all the time together plucking away at your instruments. Creation can’t come from a vacuum, and some shared life experience may be just the inspiration you need to get a new idea rolling. Try taking in another band or a new movie. Or a classic movie. Or an art show. Anything to get those creative wheels turning and help spark a conversation. You never know what idea you’ll strike on over beers after the event.
8. Don't get hangry
Don’t show up to a writing session hungry. Or don’t allow yourself to get too hungry during the session. Most people turn into dicks when they’re hungry. If you feel the hanger rising inside of you, try to recognize it and step out of the room. Keep a snack in your guitar case, and don’t be afraid to say your need a lunch or dinner break.
Clearly, many of these tips would be just as appropriate for any romantic relationship. But maintaining a music partnership takes just as much work and dedication.
Ty Trumbull is a Canadian musician and writer living in Mexico City. He's played banjo and guitar with a bunch of bands you've probably never heard of.