Thirteen tips for songwriters (a lucky number)

One of the most important ways that any songwriter learns to write songs is by writing songsI. That may be stating the obvious, but it’s surprising how often I’ve met a songwriter (or aspiring songwriter) where the conversation goes something like this:

Songwriter-in-waiting (SIW): “I’m a songwriter.”

Me: “Great! What are you working on at the moment?”

SIW: “Well, I’ve got a bit of a block at the moment. I’ve lost my flow, and I’m not feeling very inspired or good about my writing or myself.”

Me: “Could you show me something that you were working on earlier?”

SIW: “Not at the moment. I’ve haven’t got anything finished, or anything I’m really pleased with or ready to show anyone.”

My top advice would be – don’t worry! All writers go through that. That’s normal. But don’t let it stop you writing. The purpose behind these thirteen tips is to give you ideas on how to get out of the slump, but also how to improve your craft even if you are actively writing at the moment. Remember, if you want to learn how to write songs, finish songs, or improve as a songwriter, write songs! Write, write, write, and keep writing:

  1. Study songs you like – study their lyrics (content, imagery, tone, rhyme schemes, word play), melodies, chord sequences, rhythms, architecture (the structure of the song), and how these relate to each other.
  2. Using the approach in (1), study three commercially successful songs from each decade up to the present, starting with the 1930s, preferably songs that have been covered often, and that still get listened to now. These are ‘classics’, and there’s bound to be something you can learn from them.
  3. Study the above songs using YouTube, preferably searching for a version that has the lyrics showing in the video simultaneously. You can also have the song playing in one browser window, and follow the lyrics in another browser window. (You might find the lyrics in AZLyrics, Metro Lyrics or Lyrics Mode.)
  4. Learn what experienced and successful songwriters have said about the craft and career of songwriting. I have created a YouTube play list of videos of songwriters on songwriting you can watch.
  5. Learn what great songwriters, lyricists and composers have written about songwriting. Read their books.
  6. Read my songwriting blog articles in which I have noted whole books or chapters on songwriting.
  7. Ask your friends and /or musical colleagues to describe an element in one of your songs that they don’t like, or that they think doesn’t quite work. It doesn’t matter if they can’t explain why. They’re listeners and potential fans, not songwriting experts (which means any ‘technical’ advice they give may be dodgy or misinformed). See if you can come up with an alternative that works better.
  8. Ask the same people to describe an element in one of your songs that they love, and that they think really works. Again, it doesn’t matter if they can’t explain why. (That’s your job to work out.)
  9. Make sure any rhymes you use are always true rhymes. False rhymes (my pet hate …) represent lazy writing; there’s always a better solution, and if you work long enough to find one, not only will you and your listeners be happier with the result, but you’ll also learn a lot about songwriting in the process.
  10. Look at your lyrics. Can you say the same thing with fewer words? If you can, do it.
  11. Test your song title. Does it grab attention? Does it express the essence of your song? If it’s the right title for what you want to say, do your lyrics and music both serve the title well enough? Does it already exist? (Check the ‘title search’ and look for the title first on ASCAP, and then on AZLyricsMetro Lyrics and Lyrics Mode.)
  12. Collect your songs – ones you think (!) you have completed, as well as ones that are in their early stages or with which you are stuck. Take them to someone who has a strong technical knowledge of songwriting, musically and lyrically, and who can teach clearly about this. Let them look at and listen to your material, and take professional feedback seriously. You don’t need to show them everything. Just pick one song, and work on it together in detail. Don’t take anything (negative or positive) personally – your song is not you.
  13. Find yourself a songwriting teacher. a) One-to-one coaching can be invaluable for getting feedback on your material, as well as an opportunity to learn new ideas from someone who understands the different elements that make up a song, is a musician themselves, and can actually teach. b) Group classes can be a great environment – you learn from the teacher, but also from other students, and gain a peer support group at the same time.

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