Songwriting is something that routinely mystifies even the most seasoned musicians, and if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Sitting down to construct chord progressions, melodies and meaningful lyrics is a task that couldn’t be more different than what most musicians do, which is to perform someone else’s music. Lots of people think you’ve either got it or you don’t when it comes to songwriting, but like any other skill, songwriting is something you can develop and improve in over time. I’ve got 10 great songwriting tips to help you learn how to write great music. Whether you’re completely new to the craft or are in a rut after writing songs for years, these tips are designed to get you help you write the best music you can.
When I was 14, I received a guitar for Christmas. Over a hundred songs and 18 years later, music has been at the very heart of my life now for more than half of my time on this earth. Songwriting has taken me everywhere from stringing chords together in my mom’s basement to performing at the world famous Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado. I’ve written songs for a major movie, signed a publishing deal in New York City and have been lucky enough to perform my music at some of the best––and worst––venues in the United States. But if I’m being completely honest, the truth is that I pretty much have no idea what I’m doing whenever I sit down write a new song, despite my experience and minor songwriting successes.
This probably sounds like a bad thing, but it’s really not. No two songs are exactly alike, and neither are the writing processes behind them. Before you attempt to write music, you should expect to enter a vulnerable state creatively. This might be an uncomfortable thought for musicians who are used to always knowing what and how to play something, but good, meaningful songwriting typically happens without a plan. My songwriting tips will be a lot more helpful to you if you actively remember that it’s perfectly fine and probably a good thing if you feel lost during the songwriting process from time to time.
Tip #1: Don’t wait for inspiration to find you
Whether you’re experienced in music or not, you might subscribe to the belief that the act of songwriting is something purely fueled by inspiration. Songwriters are people who spend their days taking long walks, falling in and out of love and scrawling out lyrics on a cocktail napkins, right? While the stereotype of the wandering songwriter might be true in some cases, it’s not at all representative of how music is being created by most people. Songwriting is incredibly hard work, and it can be just as tedious and taxing as any other job. Yes, inspiration can play a large role in writing a song, but if most songwriters waited to feel inspired by something before they put the work into writing a song, there wouldn’t be too many songs in the world. Real, meaningful songwriting happens when a songwriter sits down to put the work into it.
By “the work” I mean experimenting with constructing chord progressions, melodies and meaningful lyrics. In 2017, I promise you there’s plenty of things to be inspired by. Love, death, and every wonderful and agonizing feeling in between constantly surrounds you if you take the time to look for it. But not every song needs to be a profound emotional statement. Rather than waiting for inspiration to find you, try crystallizing what exactly it is that you want to make music about. If you can define that, you’ll have a much easier time writing songs.
Tip #2: Sing, sing, sing
Getting comfortable with your own voice will help your songwriting even if you’re not a singer. This is because your voice is an instrument you use every day. Humming, singing or speaking rhythms out loud is a great way to get those elusive musical ideas hiding in your brain out and in the open.
If you’re not familiar with using your voice as a songwriting tool, start out by simply humming over a chord progression. Don’t expect to pull an incredible melody out of thin air right away. Give yourself plenty of unrushed time to experiment with your voice. Again, this advice is meant for you even if you can’t sing. The main idea here is to bring whatever melody, rhythm or lyric out into the open by way of your own voice. Have a recording device handy, and try developing any sort of musical idea you like while listening back. This method is meant to capture the urgency of a moment, and there’s no better tool to do that than the human voice.
Tip #3: Play around on an unfamiliar instrument
Try setting down your axe, keyboard or saxophone for a few writing sessions and experiment with an instrument that you’re completely unfamiliar with. This is one of those songwriting tips mainly geared towards musicians who are in a rut. Whenever you master something, your mind and body begins to form powerful habits, rituals and connections. Remember how it felt learning your instrument for the first time? Yes, you probably felt a little uncomfortable, but everything was new and exciting. You had no previous expectations or ideas to match. You were completely free to explore your new instrument without inhibition. If you’ve been writing music on your instrument for a long time, this mental state can be almost impossible to get back to.
Experimenting with an instrument you don’t know how to play has the power to return you to a renewed creative space because you’re out of your element, and all your usual habits and ways of writing don’t apply. If you’re new to writing music, making an effort to write with every instrument you can is also a great idea. Doing everything you can to nurture and unleash your creativity will help you get in the headspace for writing meaningful music.
Tip #4: Set your expectations aside
Songwriting often sadly comes attached with a myriad of unrealistic and unattainable expectations for some writers, myself included. The irony is that the more we obsess over things like trying to become materially successful through songwriting the more disconnected from the art form we become. In my opinion, songwriting is a little like fishing. You have to show up, throw your line out there and maybe something good will happen. Maybe you’ll reel in the biggest rainbow trout anyone has ever seen. Or maybe you’ll just hang out, drink a few beers and enjoy being outside without catching anything. You never know.
But obsessing over expectations draws us away from our songwriting because it’s a different act entirely. Great songwriting happens when our minds are clear enough to be receptive to ideas. Expectations take our attention elsewhere so that we’re too distracted to recognize a good idea when it comes. I know this all sounds a bit new-agey, but it’s true. Knowing why you want to be a songwriter in the first place is probably a good thing to do before you set out to write music. If you want to write music for any other reason than the pure joy of creating something new, then you’ll always be a slave to expectations.
Another reason to set songwriting expectations aside is because becoming a rich and beloved songwriter is most likely not in the cards for you. Even “successful” songwriters and musicians often struggle to pay their bills and live lives that most of us would consider to be pretty unglamorous. The music industry is currently suffering through the worst financial turmoil in its existence, and professional songwriters now frequently have to resort to taking side jobs to make ends meet. If you write music simply because you love it, you’ll be so much better off than a songwriter trying to “make it” in the music industry.
Tip #5: Brush up on your music theory
Music theory is a powerful tool that can take your songwriting places you never thought it could go. Knowing how to build chords, scales and key signatures can give you an increased set of options as far as development of melodies and chord progressions within your music. Many songwriters opt out of learning music theory, but doing so limits a musician because they can’t see the bigger picture of why music works the way it does. Music theory is really a language more than a theory, and with it musicians of every age, skill level and background are able to communicate.
Knowing your theory will also help you collaborate with other musicians. If you write music with another songwriter, knowing what playing in the key of Eb means or how to improvise using the G melodic minor scale will help you to be able to work with other musicians. Essentially, music theory is a music explainer, and it adds an incredible new context to everything you do.
Tip #6: Start free-writing in a journal every day
Lots of would-be amazing songwriters never bother trying to write a song because they don’t know how to start writing lyrics. There’s something about converting thoughts into lyrics that makes some people uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t. There’s room in music for every sort of song you can think of, not just the emotionally revealing ones. If you get weirded out by writing lyrics about how you feel and what you think, then try writing songs about something different.
No matter what sort of songs you plan to write lyrics about, it’s a good idea to practice freewriting every day in a journal. Freewriting is stream of consciousness writing where you write down literally whatever enters your mind. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling or jotting down crazy thoughts. In freewriting, all ideas are welcome. Don’t look back at what you’ve written.
Even outside of songwriting tips, free-writing or just journaling in general is a good way to develop and come to terms with your thoughts. The best time to write down song lyrics is after you’ve taken the time to get your ideas out on paper.
Tip #7: Listen to something new
Making the effort to listen to new music is essential for songwriters who want to remain connected and challenged. If you’re writing music alone, songwriting can be lonely, isolating work. Exposing yourself to new music is a good way to inject new ideas and excitement into your writing process.
Don’t just stick to exploring new music written in the genre you’re writing in. You can find inspiration and great musical ideas in virtually every style of music, so try to keep an open mind when you seek out new music to listen to. Some of the most impactful music made over the past 50 years was done by bending and blending genres, and you never know what bringing ideas from music you’re not at all familiar with into your songwriting process.
Tip #8: Ask for help when you need it
This is one of those songwriting tips some musicians won’t like, but swallowing your pride and asking for input from songwriters you trust can do great things for your music. If you’ve been writing songs for a while, you’ve probably had the experience of coming up with a great idea for a song only to hit a brick wall somewhere along the way. Admitting you don’t know what to do with an idea is a good place to start a collaboration with another songwriter. Rather than letting good ideas go to waste, running them by other songwriters might bring your ideas to places you never thought they could go.
Tip #9: Change your writing routine when things begin to sound stale
If you’ve been writing for a while, your music is bound to get a little stale and predictable after some time, even if you’re a talented songwriter. When this happens, rather than doing same thing over and over again, changing your writing routine could shake some new good musical ideas loose. For example, songwriters who routinely come up with ideas by singing and playing guitar might want to consider changing things up by recording a guitar part first and then writing lyrics and a melody later.
Being creative in any endeavor is a balancing act. Yes, creating to and sticking to routines is important because it ensures you’re putting the necessary time to write music in, but approaching songwriting with an overly formulaic mindset could stifle your good ideas. The key is to try to bring an open mind to your songwriting process. If and when things get stale, do something different.
Tip #10: Give yourself a space for songwriting to happen
If you want to write good music, you’ve got to create a space in your life for it to happen. “Space” could mean anything: a physical spot in your home, a time in your schedule or a creative mindset that you return to over and over again. Great music usually isn’t written by accident, and songwriters typically do their best work when they create routinely create time and space in their lives when songwriting is their absolute priority.
If you’ve struggled to write music that you’re happy with, try making songwriting more of a priority in your life. If you need to, create a schedule for when you write music and stick to it. Remember, songwriting is hard work. Don’t expect good ideas to come quickly or easily.
I hope these songwriting tips help you wherever you are with your music. If you’re really stuck in the songwriting process and need help, consider looking into taking some songwriting lessons from a local teacher. For more articles on the world of music, check out the Musika Lessons blog.