Songwriter U: Five Basic Tips for Songwriting

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As songwriters, we all know that there is a lot that goes into writing the perfect song. Regardless of the genre, creating music is a long but rewarding task that requires many hours and much attention to detail. Whether you are a beginner songwriter, or have been writing songs your whole life, you have probably realized by now that there’s always room for improvement. If you are looking to take your music to the next level, look no further! Here are five tips and tricks to consider for advanced songwriters as well as beginners.

Start with one idea and build from there.

Composing a song can sometimes be overwhelming if you don’t start with small steps. Similarly, if you try to combine too many elements all at once, the outcome can be messy and less thoughtful and specific. When I write songs, I like to start with one idea—big or small—and move on from there.

Your idea can be a storyline, a specific lyric, a chord progression, a melody, a rhythmic pattern, or any number of other things. Once you have your idea to get you started, start adding to it. Next, work out the meter, the melody, or maybe what instruments or sounds you want to use. Do you want the song to have verses and a refrain? Does it change in any way as the song continues? 

Keep asking questions and exploring ideas. Just because something works doesn’t mean it’s the best option, so take your time and try many things before you choose. Write down multiple ideas and mix and match them in different patterns. You’ll be amazed by the vast amount of possibilities available.

Be specific in the choices you make.

If there’s anything I learned in my years studying music at a university, it’s that composers, songwriters, and performers are very specific about the choices they make. Maybe they changed chords rapidly to give the song movement. Maybe they waited an extra beat to build suspense. Perhaps they notated a fast rhythm to cause excitement and energy.

In order to do something like this, you must have a clear vision of what you want your song to be. How do you want your listeners to feel as they’re listening? Should the song be high-energy? Smooth and chill? Angry? Sad? Answer these questions and be specific. Use descriptive words and sentences to create a statement about what story you want to tell.

Once you have a vision for what you want, find ways to incorporate that into all aspects of the music. Everything from the rhythm to the instrumentation can be used as a tool to convey or create emotion. Don’t let any part go to waste!

Many songwriters are mistaken in thinking that the words are the primary element of a song that conveys the story, but it’s really the integration of all the elements working together. Work your way through each element of the piece and think of ways to improve it to better tell the “story” you want your listeners to hear.

Tap into your creativity and what inspires you.

Inspiration is tricky, because it can’t exactly be forced out of you and onto the sheet music. However, there are ways to get the creative juices flowing that will give that inspiration a little push.

Inspiration can come from either internal or external sources. Internal inspiration originates in your thoughts processes and emotions. What experiences have you had that have inspired you in the past? What feelings or emotional moments can you think of that could add to your song in some way? What are your passions? Dig deep into your own thoughts and memories. Write about it, if it helps.

On the other hand, external inspiration is all about what is around you. It can come in many forms and is distinctly unique to each person. This may take a little exploration, but listen to, see, and do things that might spark your creativity. Listen to music that inspires you or listen to new styles of music for unique ideas that you can incorporate. Pay attention to the words and rhythms and what each song has to offer its listeners.

Listening to music is an obvious answer, but many musicians have other sources of creativity as well. Go to an art museum, see a dance show, or join a yoga class. Do whatever appeals to your creative mind. You never know what might spark a new idea for your own art.

Take a break.

Sometimes you’re on a roll and the brilliant ideas are flowing out of you. Other times, you can’t seem to be satisfied with anything that you do. Both scenarios happen to all songwriters and has nothing to do with skill or ability. Sometimes forcing creativity just doesn’t work, or maybe your creative output is tapped out. Inspiration is not a constant, and there will be times that you will get stuck.

Taking breaks is a great way to reset your creative mind and bring some new perspective to your song. A break could last anywhere from a 10-minute walk outside, to a few weeks or months of setting a song aside. Take breaks as much and as long as you need. 

Put yourself in a new environment, do tasks unrelated to music, explore other hobbies, and let the creativity come to you. Sometimes a small break from songwriting is all you need to get the creative juices flowing again. Additionally, I always find that after I take a break, I come back with a new perspective, and I’m able to integrate cool ideas that I never would have considered before. 

Get feedback (internal and external).

Checking in on your progress and receiving feedback is essential to any songwriter. Although it’s most commonly received the end of the process, feedback can be helpful at any stage of the composition. From the first step to the final product, asking for feedback can give valuable insight into what small changes might give your song exactly what it needs.

Like inspiration, feedback can be either internal or external. Internal feedback involves taking a step back from your job as the songwriter and trying to listen objectively to what you’ve done so far. This step is a whole lot easier if you record yourself. Listen back and pretend that you are just hearing it for the first time as a regular listener, and not the composer. You’ll be surprised how easily you can diagnose any issues or small things that that you can be improved.

External feedback, of course, comes from other people. Find someone you trust (preferably another musician) and let them listen to your recording. Ask them for suggestions and ways to improve. You may also find it helpful to come with specific questions, such as “which rhythm do you think fits best?” or “what do you think of the lyrics in the second verse?” This can help guide your listener to specific points to focus on, especially if you’re feeling less confident or unsure about certain aspects of the song.

External feedback is a valuable tool because it brings in an entirely new perspective. It’s often difficult to see the big picture of something that you’ve carefully constructed each small piece of, so having another person to help you assess can be helpful. Always remember, though, that you are the artist and you have the final say in what does or does not change. Consider all the feedback you receive, and then you determine what the best choices for your song are.

Final thoughts

Now you have all the tools you need to create the perfect song! If you ever feel discouraged, just remember that breaks can be incredibly useful, and they are nothing to feel guilty about. Take the space you need and come back when you feel like you have a good and productive mindset.

Remember that each songwriter has their own process, so don’t be afraid to experiment with something new or unusual and see what works for you. Create your own rituals and strategies. You want your music to be unique and personal to you.

My last and final tip is to enjoy what you do! Songwriting can be a long and arduous task, but if you lose sight of why you’re doing it, then what is the point? Let your writing have a purpose and never lose the personal connection to it. Let it be genuine, not forced. Enjoy the process and be proud of the outcome. You’ve worked hard for it! 

Best of luck in your songwriting endeavors!

Rebekah Klemp is a writer for Guitartricks.com and 30Daysinger.com. She is a graduate from the University of Minnesota with a dual degree in writing and music, specifically, piano performance and collaborative piano/vocal coaching.

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