On Songwriting: Happy Accidents (or Action-dents)

While painting, Bob Ross famously used to say to his viewers, “We don’t make mistakes, we just have happy accidents.” I want to point out something obvious: We don’t have happy accidents unless we make mistakes—and you can’t make mistakes if you aren’t taking action. 

When’s the last time   you had a happy accident? Maybe you took a wrong turn and ended up on a street with a house for sale. You bought it and raised a family there (big example). Maybe one day you called a friend and the friend thought you said one thing, but you’d really said a different thing. But the conversation took a turn at that point for the better (small example). 

In both cases, you were doing the same thing, which is to say you were living life. You were doing something. 

Action, action, action. 

In almost every song I write there’s a handful of happy accidents that happen in the process of writing it. Just the other day, I accidentally pressed the spacebar. My demo track started at the middle of the song, and I realized those chord changes would be really interesting at the beginning of the song. 

The famous whistling in Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was him forgetting his ad-lib rap and whistling as a place holder. Kurt Cobain was unaware that Teen Spirit was a deodorant brand. When he saw the graffiti a friend had written on his wall that said, “Kurt smells like teen spirit,” he thought it meant something deeper and wrote the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” 

The best way to have more happy accidents is to do more things. Simply thinking about doing things doesn’t produce happy accidents. You gotta take action.