What do Taylor Swift, Marvin Gaye, and Leonard Cohen all have in common? They’ve each written songs that have shaped their generation. And they all had to start somewhere.
You could be getting your start in music. Or you could be looking for pointers to keep you moving toward that #1 single. Either way, these 9 songwriting tips are for you.
1. Start With the Story
There are two conflicting opinions on how to write a song. One way is to focus on the lyrics first. The second is to focus on the music first.
When you set out to write song lyrics, you need to know what you’re trying to say. Is there a story you want to tell? An experience you want to share? Is there a feeling you need to express? These can all provide incredible fodder for a new song.
2. Start With the Sound
If no words are coming to mind, don’t beat yourself up. You may need to start with the sound. You could be walking down the street one day and a tune pops into your head. Or you hear someone whistle something unique, and your mind spins it into a melody.
Don’t waste these moments. Record the sound before it slips from your mind. Even if it’s only a line or a potential chorus, record it anyway. That way you can go back later and see if it’s something worth pursuing.
3. Tell the Story in Pictures
The best of the best songwriters create pictures with their lyrics. Take these lines from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah:
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, she cut your hair
and from your lips she drew the hallelujah
Or these opening lines from Taylor Swift’s Our Song:
I was riding shotgun, with my hair undone, in the front seat of his car. He’s got a one-hand feel on the steering wheel,
the other on my heart.
These lyrics don’t you flat-out what the writer is feeling, but they put you in the shoes of the character. In Cohen’s song, you’re in the chair. You can picture it all happening. In Swift’s song, she’s not telling you “I love this guy,” she’s showing you what that looks like.
Writing great lyrics will put your audience into the story of the song and make your words come alive. By doing so, you’ll make the listener feel the same emotions you’ve felt.
4. Branch out
We all know that the same four chords are at the heart of countless songs: I, IV, V, VI (in the key of C Major: C, G, Am, F). It’s not wrong to use these chords or this progression. But if you want to write a song that stands out, you’ve got to branch out.
Take a look at some music theory books if you’re curious to know which chords work best together. If theory isn’t your thing, you can always go at it by trial and error until you find something you like.
5. Try Something Wacky
When in doubt, get wacky. Mix things up a little. Experiment with putting different chords together. Sometimes the best way to write a song is to play with sound pairings and see what piques your interest. And sometimes the best songs are those that stumbled upon something unique.
Remember: if you’re in the middle of a writing session and you feel like your song is going nowhere, don’t worry. Nobody has to hear it but you. If it’s crap, scrap it and try again. Nobody writes a hit song on their first try.
6. Match the Music to the Lyrics
The next thing you’ve got to do is make sure your melody and lyrics jive. When Marvin Gaye sings, Ain’t no mountain high enough, the notes climb higher. When he sings, ain’t no valley low enough, they drop lower. The melody matches the lyrics and brings them to life.
This can be an effective story-telling tool. As the music matches the lyrics, it can help your listener grasp the meaning and emotion of your song faster.
7. Don’t Match the Music to the Lyrics
On the other hand, the rhythm of your music doesn’t have to match your words. Your song doesn’t need to be fast if your lyrics are happy. Nor does it have to be slow if your lyrics are melancholy. It means that, whatever direction you go in, you need cohesion between your lyrics and your melody.
John Mayer’s song Waiting on the World to Change pairs sobering words with an upbeat melody. The lyrics convey disappointment and frustration. But because of the way Mayer wrote the music, the song also conveys a subtler message in the lyrics: hope.
The greatest songwriters make their words and music work together. They use both to tell the story they want to tell and express each of the emotions they want to express.
8. Get Feedback
Know someone with a great ear for tunes? Get them to listen to your song. Have a friend or family member in the business? Ask them if they’ll have a listen.
The key is to show the right people your music and ask for the right feedback. Talk to people with experience and get them to give you constructive feedback.
Your grandma telling you that your song is great won’t make you a better songwriter. (Unless your grandma has a record deal.) It’s good to know what works for people, but knowing what doesn’t work will force you to improve.
9. Trust the Process
The general songwriting process can look different for everyone. Once you’ve reached the point where you’ve received feedback and adjusted your song, leave it for a few days or so.
Artists can always find something wrong with their work, even after it’s out in the world. And the more you listen to your song, the more things you might wonder about. Does that sound right? Does that word need to change?
Get to a point where you are happy with your song. Then stop adjusting it. Trust that you’ve done everything you can and are ready to send it into the world!
Keep in Touch for More Songwriting Tips
We hope these songwriting tips will inspire your next big hit. Get in touch with us if you want to know more about songwriting or just want to say hi. For more on music, be sure to check out our blog.
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