January 26, 2016 | Read in 11 minutes
Do you love songwriting? Do you want to write songs that people absolutely love? I believe it’s possible with hard work, steady practice and brutal honesty. While songwriting isn’t my full-time gig, I still have big dreams and I’m constantly trying to sharpen my craft.
The following tips have made my process a lot more fun and rewarding. And to the few people I’ve been sharing my new tunes with, the feedback has been encouraging.
1. Become a Craftsman
My songwriting immediately started improving the minute I accepted the fact that there are some rules to writing great songs.
What’s more, there are some incredibly successful people out there who are willing to share what they know.
If you’re serious about writing successful music (i.e. songs that meet industry standards and can have commercial success), get serious about craft. Respect it, make learning a continual process and don’t try to reinvent every wheel. It’s actually really fun. To me, the craftsmanship is the true art now.
Craftsmanship Isn’t ‘Selling Out’
Think your songs are going to sound generic? Don’t. It’s bogus. Do professional chefs all cook the same tasting meals? Exactly.
The fear of producing a worse quality product as a result of learning a craft better is completely backwards. Once you have the creative tools under your command, you’re free to really write your best work. It’s awesome and the hard work will pay off!
Talk to some successful people in various fields. You’ll notice that those who have succeeded in something generally tell you success is absolutely possible with hard work and a commitment to continual learning. Some folks will credit luck things that hard work earned. And these folks will be a little upset at you when you win your grammy, but that’s ok. Choose your path and be a winner.
“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” – Thomas Edison
Before making apps, I didn’t know much about software development, App Store marketing, or building a business. But I figured it out. And at the moment of this writing, my Drum Machine app is rated 5 stars and sitting in the Top 50 on the US App Store Music Charts. It’s wild! And I’m not even that smart! It’s possible if you believe it can be learned.
I believe almost anything can be learned. And even when I’m wrong, I won’t be told otherwise. Master the tools of the craft and you are free to design your ideal outcome. That’s the world I live in. There’s just too much historical evidence of successes for this not to be true. Books!
Real Mentors Are Rare, But Still Seek Them Out
If you want to really master songwriting (as I do), I think the right attitude is to humble yourself. Become an information sponge and seek out the very best information you can find.
Read books, take classes and if you can, find a mentor who takes an interest in you (without compensation!). That last bit is very important. The right mentor has an hourly rate that you could never possibly afford. They do it for different reasons. Be authentic, respectful, and diligent – and you can find this person.
2. Start With The End In Mind
I think this tip applies to all writing and storytelling vehicles. For example, when I started writing this blog post, I outlined it. I knew how it was going to end. This really helps facilitate writing and I believe leads to a better quality, more deliberate product.
With songwriting, the process is similar. After the initial ideation / discovery period, it’s time to settle on the scope of the idea and draw the finish line. This is important because a song needs a story and a story needs movement.
Once your finish line is anchored down, you now have an destination to work towards, all while guaranteeing the listener is going to get a payoff at the end. This is an efficient (and responsible) way to write songs.
3. Embrace Trends / Conventions
In my experience building a business, planning advertising and marketing campaigns, I’ve realized that it pays to abide by the ‘platinum rule’: treat others how they would like to be treated.
For songwriting, there is order to the chaos. Listeners generally seem to expect a certain rhythm to how musical elements are served to them.
For example, things like intro length, having the name of the song featured in the hook, using repetition to build tension, common chord progressions, etc.
For better or worse, these are things that your listeners most likely expect to have prepared a certain way. Take them into consideration. Conventions are obviously specific to genre and a host of other factors, but it’s not an infinite list.
“There are no rules to songwriting!”
This misleading advice comes either from great songwriters who don’t want to sound too methodical and unsexy, or ones who just don’t know any better. There are “rules” to pretty much everything. Especially great songs.
You may not feel comfortable calling them rules, so put it this way: listeners have expectations. You can choose to appeal to them or not. I consider these elements the mechanics of songwriting and I call them conventions. And since songs are made for people, I choose to learn what they like and how they like it.
All I’m saying is, a hamburger in Arizona should taste somewhat similar to a hamburger in Connecticut. By all means put your own spin on it. It’s not selling out; it’s respecting your listeners’ experience and expectations. And leveraging conventions can really help speed up your songwriting process.
4. Analyze Songs You Admire
As you learn more about the craft of music, listening to your favorite songs becomes a lot more fun. You can see the tricks in action! I recently bought a Beatles ‘Fake Book’ and am continually blown away at what these guys accomplished in 120 seconds. Analyze the songs you admire. Don’t be afraid to explore different genres. And don’t just analyze, learn to play them. Don’t be lazy (like I was)!
5. Always Make It About The Listener
Ralph Murphy (as featured above, I love this guy) has a great line about this. He says, “All your favorite songs…who were they about? They were about YOU. That’s why you love them.” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s essentially what he said.
And it’s mostly true. Eleanor Rigby and the guy darning his socks doesn’t seem like it’s about me, but in some weird way it still is. Let me show you the lines that I think are about me:
- “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” – (I feel bad for lonely folks. Sometimes I’m even one of them.)
- “look at him working” – (Totes me, I’m always working. And I get lonely when I’m working!)
- “What does he care?” – (Why do I spend so much time inside? I don’t want die alone!)
This song capitalizes on a common and relatable theme: devoting yourself to something at the expense of human connection. It fans the flames by invoking the image of dying alone. I can’t imagine someone who can’t relate to that. And yet, the lyrics are a story about weird old people in a Church. I love this song.
Connect To Things They Already Know
Back in my 20’s, when I was rocking out to crowds of literally dozens of my fateful friends in bars all over Rhode Island, I didn’t really care to consider the listener’s interpretation of my lyrics. Now I realize that this is entirely missing the point of songwriting. And it’s entirely selfish.
A song is always, always, always about the listener. It has to be. It’s a consumer product. This applies to ALL products, even creative ones.
A great little book on understanding that concept is Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout. This is a business and marketing book, but I find the concepts applicable to literally every product, including songs. It is probably the most unlikely songwriting book you could ever imagine. Buy it.
6. Don’t Be Too Clever
“Wow, deep lyrics. What do they mean?” That’s a bad sign. What works to impress your English class is not necessarily going to impress a listener of your song. I’m guilty of this one. Indubitably.
Sometimes it may seem like a great idea to put your wit on display with a complex, other-worldly analogy and some big words, but really…who cares? What does this song mean to me when I’m driving home from a horrible day at work, in traffic, after just learning my girlfriend is moving across the country. I don’t care about your incomprehensible analogy, speak English!
If the lyrics are so clever that I don’t understand how they relate to my life, they’re not clever at all. They’re just bad. I get angry at songs that force me to think too hard.
Distill your ideas into language that everybody can understand. I’m willing to bet that your favorite artists do this. And if they jump off a bridge, so should you. Obviously. Bottom line: it’s a good challenge to simplify ideas into their purest forms. Your fans will appreciate it.
Unlikely Songwriting Book #2
Another book about simplification that completely changed my world is Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think. This is actually about web design and usability, but his concepts are applicable to again, any product – including songs. If you’re new to songwriting, there are many other books I would recommend before this one, but I’m just throwing this out there in case you like to learn concepts from odd angles, like I do.
7. Make Every Lyric Part Of The Story
Some lyrics are great on their own. But even the best lyrics have to fit into the context of the story. Ask yourself — are there any wasted lines in this song? Are there any lyrics that don’t relate to my title or push the story forward?
In great songs, every line ultimately supports the story and as such, every line matters. You should be able to
explain justify how each line connects to the story. And ultimately the title of the song. If a lyric is too disconnected, you should probably save it for another song. And if you just threw it in there to rhyme, come on now. You’re better than that.
8. Don’t Get Sidetracked With Demoing
It can be tempting to venture off the songwriting trail into demo mode, especially when we start getting bored. The tools are so portable now that many songwriters (including myself) sometimes write and demo at the same time.
This can be problematic. I’ve found myself getting lost in Garageband for hours, adding layer after layer, playing with melodies — all before actually completing the outline of the song! How dumb. Fun? Yes. Productive? Ultimately, no. It is essentially like spending time rearranging the deck chairs while the Titanic is sinking. Let’s get the priorities straight here.
Resist the urge to jump into demo mode. Complete the foundation of your song first before putting your producer hat on. As a guy who has a serious problem finishing songs, this is a lifesaving tip. Outline your song first, define the structure and end. THEN you can play around a bit with demos. Once in a while, sure, have some unrestrained fun. I mean, yolo.
9. Set Limits
We humans only have so many good hours in us in a day before our brains turn into slime.
For me, that’s about 17 and then I’m spent. Just kidding. But honestly, I have put in 17 hour sessions and the results are mostly horrible.
Generally, the longer I stay in the zone / in flow / in session, the less productive I am and quality suffers. It’s a self-indulgent detour that feels right at the time, but it’s not. Being the last of 4 kids without strict supervision, I’m comfortable in a state of perpetual play – but setting limits make completing projects possible.
There are of course occasional 11th-hour breakthroughs, but those are rare. I usually do much better work in a time-crunch, with a real or self-imposed limit. Limits and time-constraints are important for avoiding out-of-control writing sessions.
10. Rest Your Ears
The Eagles talk about this, as do many others artists – taking a rest and coming back to your song with fresh ears. Something magical happens when you clean your brain of your song. You’re able to gain perspective again and listen to it objectively.
If your goal is to improve your first stab and to shape it into a great song, make rest part of your process.
Being a songwriter takes guts. To ask a person for 3 minutes of their attention to listen to you whine about your sad, boring life is a bold ask. So don’t do it. Spend that time talking about their life and their problems, because that’s all anyone cares about anyway. Nothing wrong with that either!
I believe the best results for creating songs, or any product, is to put the listener first and learn how to craft a pleasing experience for them.
You can use conventions to your advantage and create work that all hits the buttons, feels somewhat familiar and takes people on a new and interesting journey.
It’s not easy at all. And like with most goals, I think we are our own worst enemies. Keeping things simple is better for everybody involved. Learning the tools of the trade will allow you to organize your work and keep things simple.
Best of luck in your songwriting journey. I hope these tips help you as much as they have helped me.