Songwriting seems to be a buzzword these days – and with good reason. It’s a way to access diverse musical creativities, gain musical skills, and probably more importantly, help the writer work through challenging emotional thoughts and feelings in a cathartic and holistic way.
But songwriting, at least in my experience, also brings up issues of fear. Especially in musicians – and yes – I include singers in the musician category – who have gone to school for music or have established themselves as musicians by way of repertoire interpretation. There is the fear that one will not be good at it. There is the fear that it won’t sound the way they hope it will. There is the fear that they should be good at it – because, well, they have a degree or experience in music. Fear that it will take time to learn. And all this fear – well, it simply stops them from trying or even starting at all.
Before we get into some ideas about how to start writing songs, let’s break down some of these fears – because that’s honestly the first step in writing songs.
Fear: I won’t be good at it.
Nope. You won’t. Who is EVER good at something they’re trying for the first time? I mean, to use baking as an analogy, you might get lucky and bake the perfect first cake – but then you do it again expecting the same results…and…flat cake! Oh no! So do you never bake a cake again? No. You try again. And again. And again. Until you consistently get the results you want. Songwriting is a lot like this. Just allow yourself to be bad at the beginning. It’s actually really liberating to do so.
Fear: It won’t sound the way it does on the radio.
Nope. It probably won’t. That actually takes a fair amount of skill in production – which is another skill altogether. And another thing to be a beginner at. I’m going through that right now as I slug through learning Logic Pro X™ – but it’s SO FUN to SUCK! Because I have no expectation except to be a) curious and b) not stop. And eventually, I won’t suck at it. How cool is that? You work at something long enough, you stop sucking at it!?
Fear: I should be good at it.
Why? Really, why should you be good at something you’ve never tried? Because you went to music school? Did you learn how to write a song there? Because you know all your music theory? Did you ever put it together in a way that created a song? Because you’ve been singing music for years and you know all this music? Did you ever try to create a song in the style of those you heard? No? Well, then, there is absolutely no reason why you should be good at this. So, just revel in the mud of being a beginner – and start!
Fear: It will take time.
Yes. It will. And you will need to commit to however long it takes to feel that you have uncovered all there is to know about it. Here’s something to chew on: you’ll never feel you’ve uncovered all there is to know about it. Because there are infinite kinds of music in the world – and to really understand songwriting, you’d need to understand all the songs in the world, from all perspectives, and in all genres…and well, that’s probably pretty impossible – although I dare you to try. But in a smaller dose, you can get pretty good at the basics pretty quickly. And then, the rest, well, that’s just personal style. I’ve been writing songs for over 20 years now – and I feel like I’m honestly just figuring out what my voice is as a songwriter. And leaning into that more and more and discovering it has many facets – and they’re all kinda different and shiny in myriad ways.
Whatever other fears you have – just unpack them. Talk to them. Make them less loud (because really, they’ll always be there) and just START.
Here are some ideas of how to start:
First, ask: What is a SONG?
In its simplest form, a song is a melody with lyrics. Ok. Cool. Then the rest is just sprinkles and glitter. Write a good song – melody with lyrics – you can put whatever sprinkles and glitter you want to in or on it to make it magical. Add harmony. Add production. Arrange the song. Whatever makes the essence of that song shine.
What skills do you already have? What instruments do you play? What instruments do you kind of play? What do you know about whatever genre of music you want to write in? What do you know about chord theory? What do you know about crafting a melody? What do you know about lyric generation? Rhyme scheme? Literary devices? Song categories? Form? Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)? Etc…
We all start somewhere. We all have bias and belief about what is good and bad. Put the bias down and just look at what you’ve got. Write it down if it helps. Be proud of what you know. Be curious about what you don’t. Write down what you want to know.
What don’t you know? What don’t you know that you don’t know you need to know? Start talking to songwriters. Start reading industry rags. Start listening to songwriting podcasts. Start reading songwriting books (there is a recommended list at the end of this post). If you don’t know how to play an instrument, find one that appeals to you and get some basic chords down on it. I, IV, V and vi are really good places to start. In multiple keys (and don’t be afraid to use a capo if you’re playing a string instrument. If you think your voice needs some work, start working on singing – and in either the instrument or voice category – maybe a teacher that can give you some pointers and help you stay motivated. Figure out your tools. Even with all the digital possibilities, I still recommend a notebook, a pencil, and a good eraser. And someway to record ideas – digital voice memo works great here. Find a site you trust to give you good rhymes. Find a thesaurus you like (paper or online). Just be curious about all the possibilities.
Listen and Analyze
Start listening. Really listening. Because pop music – if that’s what you’re looking to create within – is complicated in ways in which you might not be aware. Sure, a lot of the harmony is pretty simple and often songs have little more than four chords. But its how those chords are used which creates the magic. It’s how the songwriter created sectional identity (how the different parts of the song are recognizably different) with the melody and the rhythm and production – even if the same 4 chords repeat over and over. Listen to the production. Really listen. Analyze it. Where are the instruments panned (left or right – you’ll need decent headphones to hear this). Are they all in at the same time? Are they synthesized or real? What effects are on the instruments and the vocal? What sounds are lurking or hiding that help to ‘glue’ the track together? What tones and timbres is the singer using to convey emotion? What is the rhyme scheme of the song? Are there internal rhymes? Slant rhymes? End rhymes? What is the syllable count of the lines? Is the lyric direct or does it employ a lot of metaphor? What is the form of the song (v/ch/bridge/pc)? I mean, there are SO MANY things to consider – you could listen 10 times to a song and still miss something.
Here’s one to try: Listen/Analyze John Mayer’s Age of Worry. Can you find all the things I’ve just stated above in this song? Did you realize upon first listen that all these things were going on? If the things I’m talking about in this paragraph are gobbledygook, then start learning about them ☺ no big deal. Just start.
Oh boy! Now you’ve got some knowledge, some skills, you’re armed with a more thorough understanding of what the genre is you’re looking to write in – now…write!
What? You don’t know what to write? All that fear just popped right up to the surface?
Here’s where I find writing to a pitch (prompt/brief/constraint) really valuable. This is something that exists in the professional songwriting world that I find useful when learning how to write songs. The basic idea is that you get parameters, or constraints, that you have to write to – which oddly, helps jumpstart your creativity and feels, for many, a lot safer and less daunting of an exercise than ‘now write a song.’
A pitch might be something like any of the following:
- Write a song that involves a cactus and the ocean. Must be strophic in form and use no more than three chords. Must have repeating refrain at end of each A section. Must have three sections.
- Write as song that is a V CH V CH B CH form. Must use I vi IV V in any order. The bridge must have one additional chord that is not in the other sections – can either be a chord not used, or an addition to the four chord laid out. Each verse must have four lines and the rhyme scheme in the verses must be ABCB. Song is about a flower and you may not use the letter “F” anywhere in the lyric.
- Find a photograph or piece of art that moves you. Free-write 500 words about this picture. From the free write, then craft a V CH V CH CH lyric. Add melody to the lyric that most closely resembles the shape of the lyric when speaking. Verse and chorus must start on different notes. Do not add harmony until the entire lyric and melody are finished.
From these examples (which you can of course try), writing a song becomes an exercise in following a prompt – and for most, much easier. Because you have parameters for which to write to and achieve success. You could use these same prompts and write 5 different versions for each prompt. The point of doing these exercises to work your songwriting muscles. To learn how to craft songs. To consider different possibilities. As your skill grows, so will your confidence – and most likely – your desire to write songs.
I’ve used these not only to teach songwriting, but also to inspire myself to write. Sometimes, that’s all I need. Sometimes these are just exercises – but I finish songs! And then, because I’m creating, I feel like creating more – so then I write more songs! And sometimes, these prompts lead to really amazing and unexpected results. Just explore and see where they take you. Create your own prompts, look them up on the internet – they’re everywhere. The more you do, the more your skill will grow. And most likely, the more you’ll write.
But this is about the product of PROCESS. Not the product itself. Let go of it needing to be perfect – that’s the enemy of both good and done. Finish as many songs as you can. Analyze them. Keep working. Keep crafting. Keep writing.
Start writing. Keep writing. Don’t stop writing. Write every day if you can. You will get better at it. Really. And then…
I know. This might seem scary, but it’s worth sharing your work with others to get feedback. Find a friend who listens to a lot of music and ask them what they think. Find a fellow musician who is starting to write and form an accountability pact and share what you’re working on. Find an expert mentor whom you trust and get feedback – or take some songwriting lessons from someone – you’ll learn a lot – plus, it helps with the motivation – especially for us busy people juggling multiple careers, jobs and authenticities. Take a songwriting class. Yes. You can take a songwriting class. Throw your ego out the window and just sign up. Overall, I’ve found that songwriters are pretty cool people – they constantly deal with getting the subconscious into the conscious thought and expression – and they get that this is hard. It can feel like baring your soul – but it’s also a craft and a skill that can be developed and celebrated.
Just Be Curious
That’s really the key. Stay curious about learning. Be honest and kind with yourself about why and when you get stuck. Throw out all the rules and just sit down and write from your soul. See what happens. Share it with people whom you trust will give you honest, kind, workable feedback and not placate you with niceties.
But write. Because your voice and what you have to say is as original as you are. And maybe someone needs to hear exactly what you have to say. Maybe that someone is you.