Songwriting is only for gifted individuals with alchemic powers, right?
To some people, songwriting seems like a dark and mysterious art form that only a privileged few possess. Harnessing the ability to put together masterful creative works with talents gifted from the gods. Sure, there have been many an artist from composers such as Beethoven to modern day minstrels like Ed Sheeran (Beethoven to Ed Sheeran, even I surprised myself there). There are those who seem to have the knack for delicately weaving together the musical elements into beautiful arrangements that not only sound pleasing, but also resonate with people and stand the test of time. They know how to write a song like it’s the easiest thing in the world.
Hard Work Over Innate Talent
But, just to nip the idea in the bud, they weren’t born with these gifts. Composers and songwriters’ study for years, decades, and refine their craft over time. In fact, when many popstars, singer-songwriters and the like always profess to have picked up their instrument early on in life, taking those tentative first steps towards writing their first songs at a young age. As harsh as it might sound those first efforts were probably not very good or at the very least very rudimentary in form and close to plagiarising their heroes.
But, so what? To paraphrase Oscar Wilde “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, is it not? The most important lesson here is that they gave it a go. Getting started is often the hardest part but if you can hum a tune, have access to an instrument (even a musical ruler will do), then grab a pen, some paper, and go for it.
1. Do you need a degree in music theory?
No, but if you learn music theory it will speed up the process immensely once you get into the flow of writing songs. However, for any musician dabbling with their first composition, as long as you can play a few chords on your instrument of choice then you’re already off to a great start. It’s no secret that with just three or four chords you can play pretty much any and every song in the charts. Not to say you can’t experiment as your skills progress but hopefully, it gives you some encouragement in knowing that you don’t need an encyclopaedic knowledge of music.
2. Lyrics first or music first?
Is it best to weave a melody around some lyrics and poetry or should you lay down some lyrics to a beat? There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to generating ideas, but sometimes it can help if you’ve got a loose theme to work with. For instance, if you’re trying to write a love song then you’re naturally going to draw upon ideas, topics, or words related to that. It’s worth noting that a love song doesn’t necessarily need to be all lovey-dovey, check out The Book of Love by The Magnetic Fields to see what I mean.
OK, if you’re more comfortable with words then it’s a good idea to go with a theme and see where the wind takes you – even if you’re rapping about biscuits and cups of tea. Make a list of all things associated with your theme and scribble them down in a notepad. You’ll find that as you start getting the words out, they will generate and inform new ideas that you might not have considered before.
Think about the emotional intent of your song, though it might be about love it could have a humorous angle or tug at the heartstrings. Draw inspiration from anywhere and everywhere: historical accounts, fiction, poetry, films, art, other musicians, personal experience. There is a vast world outside and within for you to explore. Don’t get put off by the idea that because it’s already out there that your own unique viewpoint on the subject isn’t valid. Everyone has a new perspective to offer.
Sit down with your instrument and just play anything. Play chord progressions that you’re used to and throw in the odd chords here and there to see what fits. Play along to your favourite tracks and improvise over the top with flourishes that you’d have added if you’d written the song. By learning your favourite tracks and picking them apart you start to identify song construction (intro, verse, chorus, verse, etc), and if you delve deeper into music theory then scales, keys, harmony, etc.
3. Practise, practise, practise
Just like any skill (and regardless of whether or not you’re talented at it, songwriting is a skill), practice makes perfect. Behind every decent song, you can guarantee that the songwriter has probably written dozens they’re not happy with. Never giving up and keeping the creative fires burning is the key to success.
Don’t be afraid to take it slow
At the end of the day, if you’re not feeling it then don’t push it. Put an idea to one side, give it a few days, weeks, months, years, and come back to it. Did you know the that Rolling Stones banger “Start Me Up” was originally called “Never Stop” and was in fact recorded as a reggae tune? Initially abandoned and consigned to the archives, it was unearthed years later by engineer Chris Kimsey who found a couple of rock variations that departed from the reggae vibe, the track was re-recorded in about six hours and the rest is history.
I’m not suggesting that you bin an idea because you find it difficult, there are always going to be difficult times when you’re stuck in a rut. Instead, go for a walk, clear your head, give yourself space from the song and you’ll surprise yourself with what starts to flow with a fresh set of ears, eyes, and thoughts to play with.
Don’t get carried away
Along with limitless potential and creative freedom, ensure that you form your ideas into a tangible prospect. As great as it is to have loads of different things floating around, you want to cherry-pick the best bits and start to work towards a final plan. If you find that having endless avenues to explore isn’t the best way forward, then impose limitations on yourself. When Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) was writing the album “Hesitation Marks”, he composed ideas solely within the Native Instruments’ Maschine and the bundled soft synths, which compelled him to be more creative in his writing approach whilst also focusing his intentions within one device. Likewise, Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys switched from guitar to piano as his songwriting instrument of choice when putting together “Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino”, steering the band in a vastly different musical style than on their previous efforts.
You’d be surprised how much you can get done if you set a deadline too. Sia composed the platinum-selling single “Diamonds” in about 15 minutes! Yeah, Sia is a pro but therein lies my point. Just because something comes quickly doesn’t necessarily mean it merits less attention or worth than something you’ve slaved over for months. Sit down with your instrument, a pen and a pad or your phone, set a timer, and smash out some ideas.
OK, so what about capturing lightning in a bottle?
The old chestnut of lying in bed, drifting off to sleep and then the most amazing fully crafted song pops into your head. You’ve got lyrics that would shame Shakespeare, a polyrhythmic drum beat that is somehow ridiculously catchy, the slickest basslines and a blistering solo…that no one will ever hear because you fall asleep and don’t remember a bit of it, just that it was AWESOME!
Basically, inspiration will strike when you least expect. Hip hop wordsmith Method Man kept a notepad and pen on his bedside table at all times because he knew that dropping off to sleep cultivates the liquid thinking that allows all the days experiences to bubble away in a melting pot and cook up a delicious concoction. Tasty.
Also, if you happen to have a smartphone in your pocket then you’ve got an instant audio recorder at all times. You don’t even need an instrument to hand, simply hum, sing or speak your ideas into your phone. If you back your files up to a cloud-based program, then you can access those idea files wherever you are.
Don’t be afraid to collaborate
Up until recently, a common misconception was that single songwriters were responsible for knocking out chart hit after chart hit. There are those individuals out there, but a lot of songwriters’ flourish in pairs or teams, Lennon and McCartney, Benny and Bjorn, Bacharach and David, Stock Aitken Waterman, Holland Dozier Holland, and the list goes on. Having someone to bounce your ideas off is great for getting honest feedback, constructive criticism, and keeping those creative juices flowing.
There’s no time like the present so grab your instrument and get playing. The ideas will come with time but for now just enjoy playing, enjoy the liberating experience that being able to make some noise brings, and then start jotting down what you like and work from there. Don’t worry about writing a #1 Hit at your first attempt, enjoy the process, find your own voice, and always be open to new ideas.
Young Songwriter 2020 Competition #SAYS20
In case you didn’t already know, the Young Songwriter 2020 competition is underway with the closing date for entries on 31st March 2020. If you or someone that you know is aged between 8 to 18 then go for it. The 2020 judges include Tom Odell, Imelda May, Miranda Cooper, Eg White, Chris Difford, Sacha Skarbek, Emily Phillips, Janet Devlin, Harley Alexander-Sule & Paul Adam. There are some amazing prizes to win and who knows, it could be the first step on your path to a career in music! Head to the Song Academy website for further details.
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Jon has a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons Music Web Team before progressing into his current role as Content Manager. Favourite things: My LTD MH-400NT, a decent brew, and Ron Swanson.