Writing Songs while you Sleep

Written by Toby Barns

It is sometime in the very early AM hours. You hear a sound. Did you really hear something that was coming from somewhere, at this time of the night? At this unseemly early morning hour? Yes, the absurdly early A.M. hours which normally would be overlooked while the content sleeper catches up on precious sleep and restoring their energies.

Yes, you lay there in bed, half asleep, half awake, blurry and thinking whether any noise occurred at all.

Most likely, the noise came from within your mind, as opposed to coming from outside your mind. Actually, the more awake you become, you realize that it is not simply a noise, it is a pounding; all-encompassing and pressurized. No! Not again!!

Oh well, nothing to do that will tactfully entice sleep to re-enter the equation now.

In this long, drawn-out period of time, as the wheels within your mind reluctantly, yet surely begin to turn, many thoughts race around. Bumping into one-another, tumbling away faster than you can keep up with. Dreamily, these thoughts blend into one-another, mercilessly mixing into an incomprehensible mush of pieces and parts of thoughts.

Okay, so this does this sound familiar? Does it sound like fun? Well, it is not. I know from experience. Yet there is nothing that I personally can do to stop it, or change it. This may not be an enjoyable experience, and the reality is that there will most likely be many more episodes such as this that will occur over the coming weeks or months.

So the only thing to do, other than just lay there in a fog, is to get up and start burning some of the energy which deceptively masquerades as mere “noise” from within my mind.

These experiences get old very quickly! And although it is not “reliable” in any specific way, it is non-the-less inevitable. It will cycle around and ultimately signal that it is now time for “take-off” into an ultra-energized period of time (sometimes multiple months at a time), where a couple of hours of sleep per night is all that I even realistically need to expect to get. This is the best way to deal with it because I know from experience that trying to fight it, or not accept it, will ultimately only lead to a state of highly disturbing frustration!

Can anything positive come out of this?

Although I cannot control the sleep, not as much as it controls me by any stretch of the mind, I do know (also from experience) that there will be varying levels of deterioration in how I perceive anything within the periods of being half-awake and half-asleep. Think of it this way: “bring on the brain-mush” which is conclusively the inability to stay focused upon much more than a small sliver of any one of the countless thoughts flying around inside my mind.

As the days pass, and really just blend into night, there is the occasional nap which seems like a great idea, but does not really do much. Eventually naps will slightly recharge my desperately low “internal” batteries. All of this basically leads to altered states, misconceptions and plain “wrong” perceptions. Days and nights, dark or light, bleak or bright outlook, it does not matter. Nothing can be done about it so why pointlessly try fighting anything?

Eventually these cycles will somehow organize themselves into very strange energies, behind these bits and pieces of thoughts. This means I am out-there; pretty much gone for a while. Now THIS typically leads to extremely creative periods of time! Who needs focus? Who needs to be attentive? Well, I suppose that everyone needs these things, but when I am out-there, I simply don’t have a choice. But I do have ultra-high creativity, whether I want it or not.

Unwanted creative energies – something positive!

So this new level of creative energies has bestowed itself upon, and within me. Oh joy (sarcasm). Rushing and banging thoughts in my head which won’t leave me alone, or let me sleep.

Sometimes at the beginning of a “pure” cycle, or in the middle, or on the down-slide, those periods of coming out of sleep are unbelievably full of creative energy! It took me many years to really realize this on a conscious level. Before I really understood much about them, I would find myself doing things at 2 A.M. for instance (after trying yet failing to get sleep), that most people would be doing during “normal” hours. This would be so frustrating because I wanted to be sleeping!

Being aware, and allowing the energies to guide me, and not physically resisting them, I realized that the noises and relentless thoughts flying around inside my mind could be turned into SONGS!

I have always “heard” music in my head, whether it was actually there or not. Okay, that is just the way it has always been, so it is really just normal for me. But to come out of a short sleep, thinking that there is an external noise, realizing that the noise is internal, catching some pieces of those thoughts flying around AND “tuning-in-to” the music that is happening in my head, can ultimately add-up to new SONG IDEAS!

So what have I learned that can be done to actually utilize this opportunity? Catch the song! Coming into more conscientiousness, I become aware enough to ponder; what is that melody along, with that chorus that is flying, and racing, and floating, and screaming? Over and over, so LOUD that it fully wakes me up. Now is when it is most important to jump out of bed and RUN to the nearest recording device! Power it up, push record and speak, sing or play the pieces of the song that can actually be pieced together at that precise moment. Don’t let it get away!

Catch the song!

Sometimes when this happens it includes FULLY complete songs, literally! There can be a catch-phrase or a “hook” or just a lyrical line. But it can also include a chord progression, or a melody, or a beat. Really, there is more going on than what I am even aware of. This is why recording it, at that exact time is so important.

All of those energies can only be “organized” when I put forth the effort toward catching what hides within them. Then they can essentially be DEVELOPED into full-blown work tapes of new songs!

Sequentially, the idea, which can start with anything from just a simple melodic idea with a lyrical line, all the way to a nearly complete song, can be roughly pieced together. After that it can then be properly “crafted” into a complete song.

This kind of experience has happened to me literally countless times. I know how and when to recognize it. I actually look for it! Is it worth the lack of sleep? NO IT IS NOT!

Also, as much as I would like to say that I can control any of this, I cannot.

However, when the cyclical elevation remains at extreme levels, this entire process can occur over the period of a couple weeks or more! This is one LONG period of time. Such little sleep for all those days? Oh well, don’t forget how pointless it is to try fighting it. Becoming physically worn-down is an absolute sure thing though; this begins to set-in within just one or two days without more than a couple of hours of sleep.

This is one way I find positive things within this dilemma, although I do wish I could control it. Like, just “dial-it-up” when I want to write a new song. Just flip a switch. Yet no, unfortunately it does not work that way.

This is certainly, by no means the only way that I come up with new song ideas, but it can provide some of the most INTENSE, out-of-control, pure, creative energy-driven opportunities to capture song ideas.

Over the last several years, after sometimes very slow or sometimes very fast upward movements, these episodes have been lasting about four and a half to six months at a time. These energies sadly will then begin their long decline, which will unfortunately hold the great probability of ending up in a crash-landing. Again, oh well, at least then I will catch-up on some greatly needed sleep. And, I will likely have some wonderfully creative new songs pieced together!

About the author: Toby Barns is a multi-genre (BMI) songwriter.

9 thoughts on “Writing Songs while you Sleep

  1. Different locations when traveling on regional circuits and venues which are beyond the scope of getting back home the same day as the gig is tough. Trying to sleep in a van or other vehicle is really tough. Hotels, a bit less tough. All part of being part of a performing band though so I wouldn't trade it for anything. Too much opportunity out there, but it definitely isn't an easy way to go. Lack of sleep is inevitable for musicians who want to reach further than their own local scene.

  2. That's a really positive approach to dealing with these kinds of issues. I suffer from insomnia too and I have noticed that it comes and goes based on stress. I don't hear music and I don't write songs, but thanks for the addressing this.

  3. Various sleep disorders can render a person's life miserable. Finding inspiration within these "episodes" is interesting.

    Like you say, it may not be worth having to go through the energy drain which ultimately results after a period of inadequate sleep. But, if your songs are good, I commend your positive approach!

  4. I would like to hear some of that really intense creativity even from "work tapes" because these days music is so over produced and formulated it is always predictable.

    1. Keith Richards famously passed out one night and woke up the next morning to find that he had written (I can't get no) Satisfaction in his sleep!!

      So the story goes, he had a tape recorder near his bed. He, without remembering doing so, woke up during the night and recorded that famous guitar riff.

      He realized this, and found the song, when he noticed in the morning that the tape recorder had been used because it was at the end of the actual tape.

      So he pushed rewind, then play and ta-da!! There was the guitar riff which led to the song!!

      I love that story.

      1. Yeah that song charted as a number one single too. Actually, it was the Stones first song to do so in the USA. It happened in 1965 when Mick and Keith had not been writing original material for very long. Goes to show the importance of a good riff and catchy lyrical hook.

  5. Dreaming about music is one thing, but dreaming about songwriting is crazy! There is way too much competition out there for any songwriter these days.

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