Even the simplest song has a lot of moving parts. Songwriters are usually better at writing some parts than others. How can you maximize your own strengths while mitigating your weak spots?
Whether you’re new to writing songs, or have been at it for a long while, there is always an opportunity to optimize your process. To figure this out, it helps to identify what your particular songwriting process is currently, and what you need to do to enhance it.
1. Think About How You Write Songs Now
If you think about song ingredients, it boils down to words and music. You may be significantly stronger in one of those languages than the other. But it’s not any old music. Songs have a melody usually accompanied by harmony or chord progression, with a rhythm all of its own.
Words in songs are sung. This makes their lyrics chock full of techniques to make them easier for a singer to sing and for an audience to remember, and different from other types of writing or patterns of speech.
Lyrics come with an underlying theme or concept, often encapsulated in a title to give meaning to the song. And they’re often imbued with imagery and other figurative devices to capture our attention and bury themselves in our imagination.
Then there’s a structure or form the whole thing rolls out on: which sections are used, verse-chorus-bridge or not, and how long each section is, and how long the song itself is.
When a song is presented to an audience, studio or live production comes into play. In both cases, the arrangement of instruments — their textures and timbres involved plus the performance ability, style and experience of those on board (musicians or producers) — is paramount. Increasingly, the writing of a song and its production (or, the creation of a track for release) are never truly independent.
Of course, it all means nothing if the song has no emotional pull; the ability to make us feel something. No heart, no vision, no one cares.
The truly wonderful thing about songwriting is, with so many pieces to the seemingly magic puzzle, every songwriter has something unique to contribute.
2. Write Your Process Down
Write down what you do and how you do it as thoroughly and honestly as you can. It will help you realize what you’re good at and what you could work on. Use this as a snapshot of where you are now and as a guide to help you develop.
It won’t force you into a formulaic “5 steps to songwriting” cookie-cutter straitjacket. Not at all! It just means you’ll increase your self-awareness, and can help you evaluate what to work on improving next with your songwriting.
3. Upgrade Something
Songwriting, like any art practice, has conventions. There are no rules… except there sort of are, with many variations… and trends. Sometimes rhythm is privileged over harmony or a particular structure is favoured, until the next variation becomes popular. But there will always be rhythm, harmony and structure in a song, to a greater or lesser extent.
Learning and putting in practice for any knowledge or skill in any single component of songwriting upgrades your entire songwriting process. It can be quite a small shift in your skill base that makes you a more versatile songwriter.
So periodically and intentionally: up your skill level. Invest in yourself, read, learn, talk with and study other songwriters. Then implement what you’re learned in your own way. Because your creative process isn’t static, it can cope with refreshment consistently.
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4. Incorporate Collaboration
Collaboration is an escalator. If you collaborate with someone, they bring a different style, process and grab bag of techniques. You don’t just double the creative choices that are open to each of you – you increase them exponentially. Two people will have two different approaches or responses to an idea, which in turn lead to (at least) two more.
Collaboration is also a mirror. It reflects differences between songwriters and their processes. You will become aware of what you can and can’t do in a heartbeat, which can help you focus on refinements to your own methods post co-writing session.
So, build an ecosystem of songwriters to work with — for fun, for money, for the hell of it. Try to work with people at different levels of experience, style, genre or success. This is the plus–minus–equal system developed by a martial arts coach and teacher, Frank Shamrock.
He encouraged his students to fight with someone better than them (plus) to learn from, be inspired by and to stretch towards, someone at an equal level to share, support and mutually motivate — and someone less experienced or able (minus) which compels you to think about and to explain how to fight or get better at it.
Same goes for songwriting!
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Building Your Confidence as a Songwriter.”
5. Connect to the Audience
While the plus-minus-equal system helps you be part of a continuous feedback loop of songwriters, there’s a terrifically important interface to consider — your real and potential audience.
When you think about how to connect with the audience, you alter your perspective from self-expression to communicating your ideas. It’s a major mind shift when you first meet this and it makes some songwriters flinch. Shouldn’t I be writing for myself first and foremost?
I think this misses the point slightly. The impulse to write songs is definitely yours, but if you want to play your songs (live or recorded) to any kind of audience, you want them to appreciate the songs, absorb what you’re trying to express and actually like them enough to want to at least hear them again!
It’s translating what you hear in your head as well as possible, so the audience reacts to your song as you want them to. You can check this in all the decisions you make while writing your song — from the way you build a groove or write the melody to the sonics you use to having a clear vision of who or what your song is about, and who or what you are writing this song for.
Then test drive your material, respond and revise. It’s really common for songs to have multiple revisions before release. This is simply because an audience will be drawn to some songs more than others. They have a great deal of choice.
This isn’t “selling out.” It’s considering what songs do in everyone’s lives — powerful vehicles to express or ease strong emotions. Good songs can stay with a listener for a lifetime.
Connecting with an audience means you have to ask why anyone will want to hear your song and factor the other side of the “songwriter-song-listener” equation into your process. Put the boot on the other foot every now and then.
Songs, like the musicians that write them, can be complex and the process is ever changing. This makes it that much more meaningful. Using some time to reflect on your process and improve, will ultimately help you to become a better songwriter, better player, and better musician.
Don’t stop here!
Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, DIY home recording and production, composing, beat making, and much more, with Soundfly’s artist-led courses, like: Jlin: Rhythm, Variation, & Vulnerability, RJD2: From Samples to Songs and Kimbra: Vocal Creativity, Arranging, & Production.
Charlotte Yates is an independent New Zealand singer-songwriter with a growing catalogue of seven solo releases and thirteen collaborative projects. She composes music for TV, theatre, and short film, and provides a songwriting coaching service, Songdoctor.