While writing songs can be very rewarding, it can also be very tough to translate exactly what you’re feeling into words. Songwriting is a learned skill that takes patience and consistency to develop. It's a craft as much as it is an art. It requires good communication skills, the ability to make observations, and a decent amount of wit.
Some of your songs may come out completely finished in a flash of inspiration. Others may require a difficult process that takes considerable time and effort. You should not have to count on the mood to strike you if you want to maximize your songwriting productivity.
These three tips have helped me and countless others to write songs faster, of a better quality, and with more meaning and impact than ever before.
1: Write every day!
There will constantly be thoughts swimming around in your head. Take some time out of every day to put those thoughts into a tangible form that you are capable of editing. Your ideas don’t have to be world changing or mind blowing. But they provide you with themes, emotions, and experiences, all of the necessary building blocks for powerful songs.
I spent a year between April 2013 and April 2014 trying to write a song a day. After only 4 weeks of trying to write a song a day, I was able to sit down and write a song about basically any topic that came to mind.
During that time I came up with nearly 300 songs. Some were good, some were bad, but all of them were fruitful. The problem with writing so many songs, even after you weed out the bad ones, becomes recording them all! (But that’s a topic for a different article).
Start off by brainstorming some thoughts.
Soon you should find that some of your ideas jump out at you. Resonate with you. Make you feel strongly a certain way. At this point you can start trying to write the first verse of a new song. See if you can answer these questions (my own spin on the classic 5 H’s from journalism):
- How do you feel?
- Why do you feel this way?
- When did you start feeling this way?
- What’s going to change because of how you feel?
- Where will we notice the change?
At this point you should have some substantial material for a song. But what if you get stuck after Verse 1? What if you can’t write the second verse or the chorus? Well it just so happens that I have a solution that works for me most of the time.
2: Start with the ending and explain how the story got there!
When first expressing a concept through song, we tend to focus on what we’re feeling at the moment. Another part of the story is what factors came together to create the circumstances that caused our feelings.
Let’s say you’re feeling happy because you had a wonderful day. You can answer:
- How you feel (Happy)
- Why you feel this way (Good day)
- When you started feeling this way (Today after I left work)
- What’s going to change because of how you feel (Nothing can bring me down)
- Where the change will be noticed (In my smile, in the way I talk, in the way I walk)
Now we can go back and state specific things that might have happened to us at work that made us feel this way:
- Got a good night’s sleep and woke before the alarm.
- Boss said I did good work and was excellent at my job.
- Went to buy groceries and paid exact change.
- Told someone I really liked them, now we’re going on a date
With this exercise you should be able to create enough material for an entire song. Another benefit of doing this is that it adds specificity to your song. People love specificity because it paints a whole world for them to explore. The words you write hold the very mental meaning to the song. If they are very specific to your song, it will be that much more memorable and people will be able to recall your song long after hearing it.
But even the most specific of lyrics can be forgotten. In order to make sure that you never forget a song that you’ve written, you are going to have to follow my next piece of advice.
3: Keep a recording device with you at all times!
An idea can come to you at any time and at any place. You must be prepared to take information down at all times.
If you’re old fashioned you can carry around a note-pad and pen with you for writing down thoughts and lyrics. I would also recommend having something that can record audio with you everywhere you go. That way you can record a catchy melody if you think of one. You can also record the chords and accompaniment to your song using a guitar or a piano.
Smartphones are the best for this! They have note taking and audio recording programs built-in. You can even use the camera on a smartphone to record a video of exactly how you’re playing your accompaniment or take a picture of something that has inspired you for future use.
Be warned though! Data can be lost no matter what medium you use. Make sure to create back-ups regularly. Photocopied manuscripts of your songs in a safe secure place. Back-ups of your notes and audio recordings on a remote hard drive. These are all good measures for keeping your material from becoming permanently forgotten.
Bonus Tip: Absorb as much culture as you can!
This tip is not specific to songwriting. For all creative endeavours we need to have a basis of morals, ideals, and stories to draw inspiration from.
A lot of these things can be done for free. See if your local library has any of these resources:
- Read lots of books: fiction, non-fiction, philosophy, and science.
- Watch movies, documentaries, and travel guides.
- Read articles about what’s going on in the world.
- Look at compilations of photos, paintings, drawings from certain time periods that shook the culture (such as this).
- Absorb anything that will add to your knowledge of the world and add to your ability to make meaningful connections between your lyrics.