Tips for That Will Take Your Songwriting to the Next Level
So you’re ready to start writing your own songs. Congratulations! Odds are, you have no idea where to start. That’s ok! Songwriting is always daunting at first, but once you get comfortable and find your own style, you won’t be able to stop! Here are some tips that will help you get your ideas off the ground:
- Before You Write
Before you even start to write your own songs, there are a few things you should do to prepare yourself:
- Learn Basic Music Theory
The basis of all songwriting is music theory. Now, you don’t necessarily need to know every mode and every chord (although it certainly doesn’t hurt), but you should at least have a solid understanding of your major scale, minor scale, and all of the intervals. As long as you have these under your belt, you can start to write pleasing melodies.
- Study Your Favorite Songwriters
Make a list of a few of your favorite songwriters. Then listen to a few songs by each. What draws you to these songs? What do they have in common? Do they have similar tones? Do they use the same scale? What about the lyrical themes? More and more similarities will become evident as you listen. Write them down and use them as starting points for writing your own song.
If you want to go a step further, you can read interviews with your favorite artists. Find out what inspires them and what their specific process is for writing songs. Remember though, just because it works for someone else doesn’t mean it will work for you. Experiment and find your own style.
“For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.”
- Make an Inspiration Board
Many artists like to make collages to look at for inspiration. Take a board, then fill it up with some of your favorite art. It can be pictures, paintings, lyrics, quotes, or anything else that inspires you. By putting all of this together in one place, you can easily see what kind of art resonates the most with you personally, and you can more easily incorporate these ideas into your own artistic endeavors.
- Know Who You're Writing For
Before you start to write, think about why you’re writing a song. What do you hope to accomplish? Are you looking for mainstream fame? Do you want to grow popular within a certain niche? Do you want to spread a message? Or are you writing purely for yourself with no regard to anyone who may or may not listen? Any of these reasons are valid, but by knowing who you’re writing for, you can target your audience and get a better idea of what you want to create.
Songwriting is my way of channeling my feelings and my thoughts. Not just mine, but the things I see, the people I care about. My head would explode if I didn't get some of that stuff out. -Dolly Parton
- Set Realistic Expectations
Just like everything else, songwriting takes practice. Your first song isn’t going to be a mind-blowing composition and that’s ok. Settle for writing something that’s just mediocre while you get comfortable with the process and find your style. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself when you write first song, or you’ll probably never complete it at all.
- Getting Started
Now that you’re prepared, you can start to work on writing your own song:
- Melodies or Lyrics: Where to Start?
One of the longest running questions facing songwriters is whether to start by writing lyrics or a melody. There’s no one right way to do it. Some artists start out by writing melodies on an instrument, and others start with vocals. Some artists start with lyrics and some swap back and forth throughout the writing process.
There are countless ways to go about songwriting. Experiment with different processes to find which one suits you best.
- Record Everything
Every song starts off as a single line. If a melody comes into your head, record it right away so you can come back to it later. If you don’t have immediate access to proper recording equipment you can utilize your phone’s voice memos to record the line. If you don’t have an instrument to play it on, you can hum the tune.
Likewise, if a lyric pops into your head, write it down in a notebook or your phone’s notes app. Whatever you do, do not let any ideas slip away!
- Write a Strong Hook
No matter what genre or tone you’re trying to write, a strong hook will make or break your song. A hook can be anything: it can be a whole chorus, a single repeated lyric, or even just a riff. Whatever it is, your song needs to have that one magic part that will stick in a listener's head.
This is often the hardest part of songwriting and it will take some practice. Just keep referring back to your inspirations and before long you’ll be giving yourself earworms!
- Write About What You Know
The best songs come straight from the heart. When writing, you have to ask yourself what message you want to get out. Maybe you faced heartbreak or trauma that you need to express through music. Maybe there’s a cause that’s near to your heart, and you want to support it and spread the message. Or maybe you just had a really fun vacation that you want to immortalize in song.
Whatever your theme is, you have to have your heart and soul in it. Otherwise, you’ll come across as disingenuous. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different lyrics and themes to find what resonates with you.
“It’s very helpful to start with something that’s true. If you start with something that’s false, you’re always covering your tracks. Something simple and true, that has a lot of possibilities, is a nice way to begin.”
- Don’t Forget the Title!
Songwriters often forget that a song’s title is part of the writing process. In fact, it’s one of the most important parts of the song. After all, the majority of people are going to read the name before they even hear the song! A great title may just inspire them to listen.
The title might be the last piece of the songwriting puzzle, or it might be the first thing you come up with.
A song’s title often comes from the lyrics, but it doesn't have to. It should, however, be related to the song’s lyrics or theme in some way. One- or two-word titles are generally more concise and memorable, but if you want to make it longer, make sure it’s something unique that will stick in people’s heads.
- Continuing and Expanding
You’ve got your first song in the books! Congratulations! Now that’s out of the way and you can start to build and expand on your songwriting. Here are some tips to consider when moving forward.
- Challenge Yourself
Look back to your first song. Chances are, you didn’t get to incorporate everything from your inspirations list. Maybe you weren’t able to use a solo or backing vocals or any number of things that you may have wanted to add to your first tune.
Pick a single idea that you left out, then make that the focal point of your next song. Then pick another idea from the list and use that for the next one. Add and combine new ideas and watch as your songs grow more unique and complex.
- Collaborate with Other Artists
Don’t be afraid to take your material to other artists. Find an established artist within your genre and ask for feedback on your current work. Better yet, talk to the artist about writing together.
Two heads are better than one, and you might just pick up some new tricks and techniques to help you take your own personal songwriting to the next level.
“I love being around great writers because I’m finding that a lot of the things I want to say, I don’t articulate as good as maybe Amanda Ghost, so I want to keep collaborating with writers, and I love classics and I want to make sure years from now the song is still something that’s relevant.”
- Incorporating Other Instruments
Often, songwriters only write melodies for a single instrument. This is fine as a starting point, but to really take your songs to the next level you’ll have to build further on your ideas by incorporating other instruments into the arrangement.
Record a rough demo of your song, then start experimenting with adding harmonies and melodies through the vocals and instruments. If you are performing with other musicians, you can leave this partially up to them, but it’s advisable to give your collaborators a loose idea of what tone you’re going for and what type of harmonies you want.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Rewrite
As you get a few more songs under your belt, you’ll probably begin to realize that certain elements of your earlier songs just didn’t work, or at the very least, could be improved on. It might be scary to go back and change a song after it’s already complete, but as an old adage goes, “The best songs aren’t written: they’re rewritten.”
Whether it’s adding a single background vocal or completely restructuring a whole song, don’t be afraid to change something just because it’s already completed.
- Keep Your Expectations Realistic
So you’ve cranked out a few songs, you’re getting comfortable with yourself and your style, and you’re starting to build a solid catalogue. That’s great! Give yourself a pat on the back.
Don’t think that you’re infallible though. You’re still going to write some bad songs. And that’s ok! Even your favorite artists scrap songs. Stay humble and realize that you are going to have to work through some dirt to find the diamonds.
“I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is.”
- Hitting a Block
So you’ve finally hit your groove, and you’re spitting out banger after banger. That’s great, but chances are before too long, you’re going to hit a block. It might feel like you’ve just run out of gas and exhausted every original idea in your head. Don’t worry, it happens to everyone. Luckily, there are a few tricks to help you get over it:
- Go Back to the Basics
Go back to the previous steps and expand them. For example, you’ve likely exhausted your list of inspirations at this point. Jot down a few more favorite artists and take more notes. Chances are you’ll find new elements to work on. If you aren’t getting enough new ideas, try to purposefully seek out artists of different genres for your list.
“Songwriting is a burst of inspiration and then a long bit of work and a tremendous bit of desperation.”
- Mix Up Your Formula
Do you usually start with melodies, or with lyrics? Maybe you usually start by writing the chorus before the verse. However, you usually write, make a conscious effort to do something different. It will be uncomfortable, and it may seem to add unnecessary difficulty, but by forcing yourself out of your comfort zone you are more likely to come up with fresh ideas.
- Learn More Theory
If you only touched on the most basic elements of music theory before, now is the time to find a teacher or a book and dive deeper into it. Study new modes and scales from around the world. Learn the circle of fifths. Find new chords to incorporate into your music. Doing this can help you not only in writing new songs, but also in improving on older songs.
- Set the Mood
Many musicians like to write under certain conditions. This might mean isolating in a dark, candlelit room, or it might mean sipping coffee while walking through the park. Whatever your preference is, putting yourself in the right environment can put you in a different frame of mind and greatly boost your creativity.
“I find I write best when I sit myself down, have a coffee, go into wherever my space is, and I have to have something that I like to look at because there’s a lot of dead time in the writing process … I like to have a view of the ocean.”
- Incorporate New Instruments
If you already are a multi-instrumentalist, moving to a different instrument can help you unlock a whole new catalogue of ideas. If you don’t play another instrument, maybe it’s time to learn!
Most songwriters either use piano or guitar when writing, but by experimenting with different instruments, you unlock a whole catalogue of new sounds, and hopefully with that new ideas.
Once you write something on another instrument you can easily transpose it back to your primary instrument, or if you’re feeling adventurous you can incorporate the new instrument into your songs.
- Take a Break
As frustrating as it is, writer’s block is a natural part of the songwriting process. Take a step back and unwind. Find new inspiration by reconnecting with nature or making some memories with your friends. Sometimes, the problem is just putting too much pressure on yourself. Often, you just need time to cultivate new ideas. Give yourself as long as you need, then come back rejuvenated.
“I can’t say that I’m always writing in my head... what I do usually is write the music and melody and maybe the basic idea, but when I feel that I don’t have a song, I just say ‘God please give me another song,’ and I just am quiet, and it happens, and it’s just amazing.” -Stevie Wonder
Hopefully these tips can help you get your feet off the ground, but remember, there is no one way to write a song. Ultimately, what you write comes down your creativity, your style, and your own personal preferences.
No matter what, it is going to take time and practice to find the process that works best for you. Just be patient and have fun with it, and before you know it, you’ll be well on your way to cranking out the hits!