I used to wish I was a songwriting savant. When I pictured myself sitting down to write, I imagined all of my canned up emotions effortlessly pouring themselves out onto a canvas of sound; beautiful chords and metaphors smoothly swirling together into an engaging piece of art. But songwriting wasn’t like that at all for me. It was often awkward, arduous and unoriginal. Even when inspiration struck me in the form of a neat chord progression or lyric, building an entire song from one idea felt like stapling jello to a tree.
Writing a great song can feel like a daunting task. Coming up with smooth and clever lyrics that tell a story and deliver an emotional punch AND building a chord progression to match the mood is a tall order. In the early days of my songwriting ventures, I often wondered if maybe I just didn’t have that gift….. Fortunately, I had the grit to stick with my craft long enough to discover not only that I did have what it took to learn to write great songs but also that even my musical heroes had to learn the craft, too; for every one great song that someone has released, they also wrote hundreds of crappy ones. Songwriting isn’t just some gift that you are born with; it’s a skill that must be developed and maintained, just like playing your instrument.
Here are 5 habits that will help put you on the path to becoming the songwriter you’ve always dreamed of being.
#1: Write music every day.
Not once a week. Not every few days. Not when inspiration chooses to brush the edges of your brain with its whimsical fingertips. EVERY. DAY. This doesn’t mean you need to be cranking out hit songs by the dozen; even if you can only commit 15 minutes to writing daily, this is far more effective than a two-hour songwriting session on the weekend. It’s a bit like brushing your teeth; you wouldn’t skip out on brushing your teeth for a week and then “catch-up” with a 30-minute scrub on Sunday, would you? Developing your muscle of creativity requires consistent use of it. By writing music daily, not only will inspiration strike you more frequently, but you will have better tools to craft a masterpiece out of your best song ideas when they come along.
#2: Play your songs for people and watch their reaction.
I used to refuse to share songs until I felt they were perfect. This is a great method for getting stuck writing mediocre songs that are heard by zero people. The best way to grow as a songwriter is to get up in front of people and just suck a bit. Otherwise, it’s impossible to know what resonates with others and what areas of your songwriting you can improve. This doesn’t mean you need to be playing new songs for crowds of people; start by sharing your songs with close friends and family that you know will support you. As your confidence grows as a songwriter, sharing your work in front of strangers and getting feedback will seem less daunting. If you can’t book regular gigs yet, the best way to test your new songs out in front of a crowd is to find jam nights in your area; it’s a supportive and low-stress environment and also a great way to meet new people and get feedback on your music. (And thus the inventor of the open mic rests happily in his grave.)
#3: Create outlines.
3-4 minutes is an incredibly short amount of time to grab someone’s attention and tell them a story that will resonate with them. This is where creating an outline comes in; when you have a clear idea of exactly what you want to say with the song, every word, chord and guitar lick can support the movement of your story and its overall theme. Don’t just smack together the second verse because conventional songwriting wisdom tells you to have one; give the listener more information and depth with each new part of the song. When you come up with a song idea, instead of diving head-first into the rhyme scheme of the first verse, get clear picture of what you will say in each section of the song. It’s a bit like drawing a portrait of a person; instead of starting with a detailed eye and working around it, you would sketch out the shape of the person’s head and general placement of facial features and then work the details in.
#4: Keep a journal.
All of my favorite artists possess the uncanny ability to put a bundle of intense emotions into a beautifully packaged 3-minute masterpiece. They not only make me feel less alone with what I’m going through but help me put words to what I’m feeling in the first place. Being able to describe your basic human experience is the most fundamental step in writing great songs, so it’s important to get to know yourself and what’s going on inside of your head. Keeping a journal doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment, either; just take 15 minutes in the morning or evening to get to know yourself. How are you feeling? What’s going on in your life? You’d be surprised at how many song ideas are just waiting beneath the surface.
#5: Experiment with different genres.
Different styles of music use different lyrical structures and musical elements to convey their meaning. Challenge yourself by studying and writing in different genres; you will expand your musical vocabulary and discover new ways to structure lyrics. For example, country music tends to be very lyric-oriented while rock music has large, anthemic choruses with a narrower narrative scope. Attempting to write in a new genre is also a great way to get your creative juices flowing if you’re experiencing writer’s block; sometimes we have so many assumptions about what our music should sound like that we end up getting in our own way.
Becoming a great songwriter starts with recognizing that songwriting is a skill that anyone can learn and improve over time. None of the these will make you a master songwriter overnight, but developing these habits will put you on the fast track to creating music that delivers the emotional impact you intend. After all, “creating” isn’t something you have, it’s something you do.