Our wide-ranging and talented community of Simply Music Teachers and associates include an array of gifted professional songwriters and composers. We asked a bunch of them to share a little about how they work. We found that there are as many ways of writing a song as there are writers of songs. We thought we’d begin this series with some simple tips from each songwriter. If nothing else, the diversity of their suggestions shows that there are no right or wrong ways to write a song, no rules and no limits.
Composing your own music is not for some cadre of highly-trained professionals possessed of mysterious gifts. It’s for everyone, and it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do in your musical life. We hope these tips inspire you to give it a whirl.
We’ll continue this series by taking a more in-depth look at works from various of our contributors in separate posts over the next several months.
Here are songwriting tips I feel are most important to share and expand upon. These are things I do to put myself in my own, ideal composing ‘zone’:
- Paying attention to the words that come out of my mouth in conversation (you never know when you may be dropping a song lyric)
- Paying calm and conscious attention to my surroundings (musical fodder is any- and everywhere at all times)
- Allowing silence (this is a must!)
- Listening to the silence (you’d be surprised at all it has to say)
- Listening to music and grooving on some other composer’s vamp (there’s nothing new in the Universe, so pilfer freely, my friends – just don’t plagiarize… you know the difference!)
- Marinating in my gratitude and my love of life (contrary to popular belief, a tortured soul is not a prerequisite for creativity)
- Making myself laugh (I advise one and all to cultivate an abundance of silliness in their life)
- And yeah, yeah, yeah – keep a notepad and pen with you at all times! (In this case, however, I must instruct you to do as I say, not as I do. Hard as I’ve tried to develop the habit of carrying a notebook, a good 95 percent of the time I find myself without pen and paper. As a result, I forever find myself desperately begging some poor, innocent person behind a counter – at a café, at the gym, at the post office, etc. – for a piece of scratch paper… and perhaps a pen too (quickly, please!!!)… that I can borrow ever so briefly to madly scribble down an invaluable yet elusive musical or lyrical snippet – a smoky wisp of an idea that is disappearing into the ether… slipping further and further from my grasp in every moment…)
- When I first started songwriting, I always wrote all the music first and then set lyrics to fit. Later, I tried writing all the lyrics first and then the music, and I was surprised that I was able to do that. Later still, I tried letting music and lyrics evolve together without either side being completely done first. This, too, worked. It was really helpful to try to increase my flexibility gradually over the years, and it was gratifying to see that I didn’t have to dogmatically use a single approach. These days, I do whatever feels right at the moment for whatever I’m working on. Sometimes the music takes the lead, sometimes the lyrics, and however much of a lead either one takes depends on the circumstance.
- No matter how music and lyrics jockey, something that I usually focus on is finding an appropriate balance between repetition and variation. Too much repetition is boring, too much variation is hard to wrap one’s head around. I like melodies that recur enough to feel like old friends each time they appear, without having them repeat so often that the old friend is overstaying its welcome. And I feel very strongly about at least having a song’s title repeat at least a couple of times in structurally related places so that the song feels like it has some structure. Beyond that, sometimes I write in very structured ways, and sometimes I don’t. I remember reading somewhere along the way that every piece of art in any medium is always inventing its own brand new structure to some extent. Similar to balancing the lead between music and lyrics and the prominence of repetition and variation, I try to strike an appropriate balance between structure and freewheeling in my songs. In all these pairs of traits, what constitutes appropriate balance differs from song to song.
- When you have a melodic bit, record it as soon as possible. The well-known songwriter Jimmy Webb says, in his autobiography, that he always keeps a tape going the entire time whenever he plays the piano at all, since he wants to be sure to capture anything he happens upon.
- Write about what you know: be raw, be true, be honest and brutally passionate. The best songs come from true experience and emotion. I love the quote “take that broken heart and make it into art”. Those are the songs that make you cry, laugh and connect.
- Don’t over complicate it: I appreciate a complex lyric with fancy words and long stories but then I am also an absolute lover of simplicity. A catchy tune that’s simple and beautiful never gets old. A simple chord progression that, let’s be honest, WORKS. If it works – then let it be. If you get across the message you want to be received, then your job is done!
- Keep to your message: “Your lyrics don’t need to be art, but they must relate, state and communicate”. Don’t ramble. Be direct in saying what it is you need to say. If you find yourself getting lost or going off topic write a mind map of “who, what, where, when, how, why and the main idea (1 liner)”. Keep returning to this mind map whilst you’re writing. Ask yourself – Is there a juicier way to say this? Are my lyrics relatable? Is my idea being communicated clearly?
- Keep any idea – big or small: There is no right or wrong way to start a song. Sometimes I might be driving home, mulling over ideas or conversations, memories, thoughts and frustrations and I find myself needing to pull over then and there to write my ideas down. More times than others it’s late at night and I find myself in a dark room, hands placed near to the piano keys spilling my guts into moody minor 9th chords improvising melodic and lyrical ideas until something sticks – in this case – always have a recording device running.
- Why am I writing? I think it’s important to remember why it is you’re writing. To stay to the truest of form. Are you writing for yourself or for others? Write the song the way you want it to be heard. That way it won’t stray from its honesty. My heart broke when a student once said to me “my nana said it wasn’t poppy enough”. It doesn’t have to be pop to be successful or a “hit”. Then again – define a “hit” song? Once again return to – why am I writing?
- Exercise: I’m a huge fan of the hyper story exercise. Take 10 minutes a day to write a mini story that includes “who, what, where, when, why, how” with as much detail as you can think. When the 10 minutes is up, put it down and walk away. This exercise will get you thinking quick and being creative. Aim to write 1 a day. You can always come back to the story if you like.
- Check Point of View, Time (tense)
- Look for Big Picture/Title/Chorus ideas (Internal detail)
- Look for Pre Chorus or Bridge ideas (different Point of View)
- Sing everything
- Shuffle phrases
- Balance of external and internal detail: External: describe the actions or objects surrounding the character. Internal: describes the thoughts and emotions of the character. Have a healthy balance. Too much external detail will leave your listeners thinking “what is your point”. Too much internal can be vague, broad and generic.
- Take your time: mull it over. If you have an idea, I find it’s often good to actually walk away from your instrument and do something that allows space to let it roll around in your head, like going for a walk or doing some cleaning. When I’m in a writing phase, the house actually starts to look presentable! At some point, something will pop into my head, and it’s broom down and back to the piano.
- Be ready for any ideas whenever they come up. Have a pad and pencil and some kind of recording device handy for whenever the muse strikes. Sometimes if you’re really inspired by some particular idea, you might need to set aside whatever else you’re working on and chase that rabbit.
- Borrow, cheat and steal! A lot of writers will tell you that they get ideas when they are trying to teach themselves something somebody else has done. They just keep an open ear for anything that sounds interesting. Then they’ll just play with the idea to move it far enough away from the other person’s work that it becomes properly theirs.
- Give yourself constraints. There’s a saying along the lines of: the worst thing you can do for a painter is to give them a blank canvas and tell them to paint anything. We are intimidated by too many choices. Find constraints that will keep your choices manageable. For example, decide to write in a particular style or about a particular subject. But then, if the muse takes your project in an unexpected direction, you can choose to adjust your set of constraints.
- Listen, listen and listen. Listen to music in the style you’d like to write and try to distinguish exactly what it is that appeals to you about it. Then listen to something quite different and think about the elements that make it so different. You might then be able to incorporate one or two of those elements to give yourself a unique slant.
- Find the chord progressions to your favorite songs and use them! Chord progressions can’t be copyrighted.
- Keep a list of possible song titles in your phone “notes” app. Add to it whenever you hear a catchy phrase. Once you have a great title, you can add to it and build a story around it.
- Finish each project, even if you aren’t completely satisfied. It will motivate you to keep going and writing daily. Eventually you will have a hit in the bunch or you can combine previous songs or revise them later.
- You don’t have to always be going through a crazy part of your life in order to find inspiration. Movies are a great source! I always turn to them when getting phrase ideas, descriptions, and story lines.
- Try writing on a different instrument. Even if you are a novice at it, you may find you can come up with the purest, most beautiful song ever because you were forced to keep it SIMPLE.
- When an inspiration comes, run with it! Don’t postpone the work of songwriting for a later time, because while you might be able to write down the chords or the words for later, you can’t capture the feeling that the song is being born out of to summon it at a later time. Ride the wave of feeling while you’ve got it; it’s the feeling—not the chords or the words—that is most precious and rare.
- Find a balance between “creating” and “capturing.” It feels good to get lost in the song and play or sing spontaneously from the heart for 10 minutes…until you realize that you can’t reproduce everything you just created. Likewise, if you’re reaching for the pen and paper every 20 seconds, you probably aren’t giving yourself enough space to really drop into the feeling of the song. Spend time with the song—without being worried about documenting—and then take a trip to the pen and paper.
- Play the living daylights out of the song as you write it. You’ll never have access to the “you” that wrote the song or the new verse ever again—as humans, we change day-to-day and season-to-season. So take advantage of that initial mood of inspiration and play your new song (or part of a song) over and over so that it can naturally settle into itself from inside of its natural habitat.
- Be willing to be surprised. Don’t have expectations or demands for your songs. Try your best not to judge them when they come out (comparing them to other songs, labeling their genre, defining them as a “happy song” or “sad song” etc.) Let them remain foreign and unknown to you for as long as possible. Just follow them wherever they want to go. As the songwriter, whether or not you “like” the songs at any given point in the process is way less important than whether or not you’re letting yourself be captivated by them.
- Don’t demand that the song be “good.” Just let it be true.