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Songwriting can be an intensely personal artistic endeavor, so it makes sense that many musicians end up creating music that’s written purely for, and about, themselves. We all know that just trying to replicate whatever songs are topping the charts at the moment usually results in music that sounds bland and disingenuous. But, writing songs all about your own life and experience can be just as harmful to the end result.
Music critics often describe the navel-gazing aspects of songwriting as indulgent, but they can be even more destructive than that. Don’t get me wrong — a songwriter’s ideas, insights, and personal experiences aren’t just important in the writing process. They’re absolutely crucial. Music isn’t worth being made if it doesn’t come from some source of truth, genuine reflection, and felt emotion. But songs are their most effective when they’re able to cross the barrier between creator and listener.
Truly meaningful music makes the listener feel known and understood. This means that as a songwriter, you’ll have to find the balance between wanting to be purely self-expressive with the overarching need to create music that speaks and relates to other human beings. This is easier said than done, of course.
Something some songwriters don’t think of enough when they write music is that it’s intended for an audience, not just themselves. And writers produce their most memorable work when they find a way to impact and challenge their listeners, rather than simply pleasing them.
If you’re making music purely as a hobby and never intend to show another soul the songs you’ve written, then none of this applies to you. But for any songwriter or composer out there who makes music for other people to listen to, being able to achieve this balance is crucial. Here are a few tips on finding ways to make your music not all about yourself:
Listen to your music in the third person.
Completely removing your own perspective from the act of listening to your music is obviously impossible, but trying to step outside of your perspective is absolutely a helpful exercise. When writing, think about your music from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know or care about you in any way. This advice might sound a little harsh, but over time, this exercise helps to focus how you communicate lyrically, and assures that your writing makes sense to someone other than just you.
Articulate your ideas and emotions during the writing process.
Overly introverted songwriting ends up being ineffective because the artist fails to clearly communicate their thoughts and ideas. You’ve known yourself your whole life, right? While you know yourself best, that may also mean that you’re not particularly deft at articulating your thoughts and emotions to other people, especially when it comes to songwriting.
Before you start on a song, try first to clearly articulate the emotions you want to put into it — name them and think of what other feelings they’re related to, the cause, effect, and what they share in common with other experiences. Think about what inspires you, too — if you can pinpoint what exactly gets you excited and interested, this is a great first step.
When you write music, try your best to get to the very heart of what you feel and what it is you’re trying to say, and check back to see if this truly comes through in the lyric. It’s okay if your message is abstract, nonlinear, or if your story is fragmented. Free association and spontaneous verse creation is often a really handy way to get what’s stuck deep inside your subconscious out in a truthful, emotional way.
Here’s songwriter and composer Oli Rockberger on the value of creating an inspiring work space to begin your writing, from his course, The New Songwriter’s Workshop.
This is the sort of work you’ll need to embrace if you want to transcend the barriers between you and your listeners.
Ask yourself, “Would I listen to this?”
Taking some time to ask yourself if you’d actually listen to your music if you weren’t, well, you, is important. It helps give you clarity by taking yourself out of the picture for a minute. Another way to look at this is to examine what makes you unique, if you can hear that uniqueness in your music, chances are others will too! But while this can be hugely beneficial for some songwriters, it could artistically strangle and discourage others, so do your best to let detached listening help, and not slow down your writing.
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