This is not a how-to article. This is just on some songwriting tips that I want to share with you to help you become a more versatile songwriter. Take the hints that you feel help you out and discard the ones you don’t agree with.
Authors and Musicians...
I have had some people tell me that composing music is easy, and that anyone can do it. Yes, anyone can do it, but few can really do it. Writing a song is much like being an author. Yes, we all have tools to write (everyone has a brain I hope!), but that doesn’t all of a sudden make us best selling authors. Authors work at their abilities, often every day. The prime goal of an author is the same as a musician, which is to emotionally connect with the reader in some way or another. Writers do this by using motivation, characterization, and powerful word combinations among other things. Composers, like authors, have a lot in common. Our main goal is to connect with the listener emotionally.
This is where our first tip comes into play: Never stop working at your abilities. If our main goal is to connect emotionally, we should want to have as many tools as we possibly can to achieve that goal. The more abilities that we have, the more choices we can make musically. It’s important to have a wide arsenal of choices at your disposal, because if we keep doing the same ‘tried and true’ methods, their emotional effects will wear off as the songwriting becomes caged into a predictable movement.
Who are you writing your music for? Know your goal.
The reason why you need to know this is because when you make music for yourself, there is no limit to what you can do to be ‘expressive’. If you are making music for other people, you will have to be aware of how people relate to it. It is like this: when you are a computer genius and you want to tell someone how to fix their computer, you have to speak in their terms so they can understand what the heck you are saying. If you speak in your lingo, you will most likely lose them in techno-talk. Another example is the author. He can write a story with the largest, most sweeping words he knows- but if the reader does not know what those words mean, the entire meaning gets lost.
We, as musicians, face the same predicament. Over-complicated songs will lose the average listener. Now, other hardcore musicians will greatly appreciate your abilities and probably get more feeling from it- but the common person will most likely not be able to follow. Once again you should ask yourself when you write a song: Who am I making this music for and will they be able to relate?
Scratching in the dirt
Minds are like flowers. If you let it sit there without soaking anything up, it will dry up. Not to say that you can’t invigorate your mind again, but it is saying that it is harder to do so. Just like weight lifting. If you haven’t worked out in awhile, it is quite hard to lift as much as you did when you were lifting every day. So this is my first suggestion. Practice. I’m not talking about technical ability this time (although you should practice that too!). I’m saying that you should practice making new songs. Make a goal to make 1 new song every week, even if it is only 50 seconds long. It is the fact that you are working your brain out. Once you begin the song, you can latch onto ideas rather quickly. That is not the purpose of the exercise. The purpose is to get your brain to find new avenues by exploring different ideas. It’s about trying something new every time.
Music vs. Robots
Music is an art form. It is a way to wordlessly communicate. There are computer programs that are designed to ‘make songs’ on the fly. How much do you think that communicates? Please don’t be a robot! Don’t give in and throw in random notes that fit in a scale just to fill a passage. Make a reason for why every part of your song exists. Find parts in your lead passage that really hook you. Now delete all the other parts. Now build off of the hook. Get it? Computers cannot find hooks, but your ear can. If you can’t feel anything interesting from a part, get rid of it. Unless of course you want to have a “boring” part to build into something grand! There’s a nice strategy.
The song’s opinion is better than yours! Nyah!
When you think in the best interests in the song, you may have to rid yourself some very good ideas that you wanted to do. I have come up with very creative ideas that really didn’t work with the song I was currently composing. Don’t mess up your song by trying to fit it in! If you can fit it in and it feels right to put it there- good shot! If it doesn’t- well then you have an idea for your next song to go! Remember, the song’s opinion is better than yours!
Oh, here is a good one. Just because you got a new toy, does not mean every song needs to have it! There, I said it. Just because you get a wah-wah pedal for your guitar, now every song you make after that needs to have a wah-wah?? I think not! Think about what the song needs not what you want. The both of you might have varying opinions. When you make the music bigger than you are, then you’ll understand what I mean- it tends to have a mind of its own.
Where does inspiration come from?
Quite often when I write a song, I think back to a moment in my life. I use what has happened in my life as an inspiration to make music. The more I do in my life, the more I can write music about- new experiences. Sometimes just getting out of the house and doing something you haven’t done in a long time (or never done!) can open up the doors to musical inspiration. Open up a photo album, read old letters, visit family, friends, go do an activity, do anything but music! Read poetry, watch ballet, go see a movie, walk around in a museum, look at oil paintings and sculptures- these are all different forms of art. Music is an art form too. Sometimes other forms of art can be inspiring to the musician. Come back, after your mind has been freed, and try to write a song about it.
Oops I made an accident.. er- no I didn’t!
Once we begin a song, our minds begin to formulate where to go next, and most of the time- we excitedly travel down the road. Throughout the excitement, we can make good mistakes. We hit the wrong key, and all of a sudden, our mind is opened to a new avenue. Mistakes can be good things, because it is an unexpected thing. I think the best music sounds familiar enough to know where it is going, but unpredictable enough to avoid musical clichés!
Sometimes I will click on a random sequence of notes- not to actually use it in a song, but to see if I can find maybe a simple pattern that I can build off of. About 95% of the time, I just hear musical mush that I can’t use. The other 4% it is good stuff, and 1% of it is amazing! Accidents can be good things. Remember that. If you don’t have an inspiration, sometimes just ‘playing around’ is a good answer!
Country?!? I make rock songs!
It is hard to compare Clint Black to Korn. That is not to say there isn’t something to be learned from different styles. The best way to be able to attack a song from every angle is to have as many techniques and styles as possible. Your talent will tell you which ones would work for your song. Learn country, rock, alternative even try polka! Learn as much as you can. There might be a place to use that knowledge somewhere in the future!
A + B =C. A + B = XYZ???
Don’t use the same formulas for your songs! Just because you found a winning formula, that may only work for that particular song. Try different avenues. There are artists that you hear (even on the radio) that seem to have all of their songs to sound alike. Be creative.
Don’t retrograde your V into a IV??!? Are you crazy?!
Don’t be a music theory lawyer, but use it to your advantage. Knowledge of the rules of music can be a great thing- if you also know that it’s okay to break them. If you stay theoretically sound, you may have a generic sound. Dissonance can be a powerful tool.
That musician can’t play himself out of a paper bag...
Ahh, how many times have I heard one musician talk about another behind their back. The reason why refraining this can help your songwriting is because when you stop comparing to the outside world, you can learn from them. Maybe the guitarist isn’t the most technically sound, but maybe he can fingerpick like you wouldn’t believe. Learn from his strengths so they can be yours too. Examine his style and abilities and see if there isn’t something you can’t learn from him.
I feel like listening to...
Maybe you’re brain fried but you feel like writing a song. Why not toss in a CD of someone who inspires you to write. Examine the style, the mixing, how the entire song is constructed, when each instrument blends in and out of the mix, etc. etc. You’ll find that many times you can get ideas from other artists. I’m not saying steal their riffs (but go ahead if it makes you feel better) but you can take some of their ideas and blend them into your own style. Steal an idea and then bend it to the inner workings of your mind!
Let’s write a Metal song next to a Kinder care...
Location is a very important aspect to songwriting. When you’re next to a lake, you probably get the feeling of relaxation. When you’re at a concert, I doubt you will feel so relaxed. Where you are can impact your music. If you are lucky enough to have your own private place in your home to play music, you most likely have it decorated with posters or something that puts you in the mood. If you don’t... try it! I had a guy tell me that he couldn’t write a song unless he turned off all of his lights except for one... and it was blue. If you create an atmosphere, it will most likely affect your music. When you are in a store you act differently than at home. Even your kitchen will invoke a different type of feeling than your living room. No doubt about it.. Try to get a room that can match your musical personality and write there. Test out different places. I, personally, write my music in the dark. No blue light here.
It sounds okay... I guess...
Get rid of it! To exercise your mind, you have to work it to its full capacity. Back to weight lifting, if you can curl 45-lbs, don’t settle for 20 lbs one day. You won’t get stronger. Half-hearted songs don’t count in my opinion. Playing around is nice and all, but your ultimate goal should be to write a song like you’ve written before. It is how we expand as musicians. Writing songs with methods that we’ve done before is like lifting 20 lbs. Using new ideas and methods, that our mind would have only thought of because we’ve mastered the old- that’s your 45 pounder! Keep it fresh! Don’t fall into the habit of generic music!!!
Ideas.. Ideas.. Ideas...
Sometime I write a song off a central idea, instead of emotion. For example, my idea might be: well what if I wrote a dance song with a heavy guitar? What if I wanted to write a song uses a distortion over drums? Ideas don’t always evolve into songs, but they help you be creative! The important thing is that since they are ideas (kind of like a hypothesis) you shouldn’t come to a conclusion till you have tried it. In other words, if you have an idea that running distortion over drums would sound cool over a love song, and when you try it- you may tell yourself... “no- distortion with drums sounds good on a hard rock song.”
I like it, but what do you think???
Let me start by saying that your friends and family members will most likely be very biased about your music. Ask them what they think if you want a self-esteem booster. I take compliments more to heart from strangers who like my music. The most important thing is that you like the music. Will others like it as well? Maybe, maybe not. If they offer suggestions, consider them... There is no right or wrong way to write a song. There are only songs that people can and can’t relate to. And I’m sure that almost any song that was ever made could probably relate to at least 1 other person in this world.
Catchy phrases for lyrics
If you’re planning on writing lyrics, then I offer you this suggestion: Use words that people use everyday. Why? Because if those same words are used in just an everyday conversation, it will remind that listener of your song. For instance, if I said “I was outside last night and saw a twinkle twinkle little star”, immediately that song pops into your mind. Of course no one would talk like that, so if you mold your song around an everyday phrase, then it will remind people of your song easier. Just think of Staind, “It’s been awhile”. Every time someone says that phrase it reminds me of that song.
Be healthy. Eat, sleep and exercise regularly as part of your daily routine
Strange to think how proper sleep, exercise and food come into play, but it can. Just think of this: Food is your body’s fuel. Without fuel, your body wants to shut down. That is why people who aren’t healthy are tired more often. When you’re in shape, your metabolism will rise giving you an extra supply of energy that you can use to focus onto music or whatever. Does that mean that if you’re out of shape and not eating right that you can’t make good music? Of course not! But what I am saying is that if you do choose to eat right and get in shape, it will help you keep your focus and energy for a longer period of time. I can’t stress enough how different one feels when they choose to get in shape, but it really helps you psychologically, mentally and physically.
Building a hook
Some of the most powerful hooks are derived from taking a simple melody and modifying it ever so slightly. Why does that make it powerful? Hooks need to be predictable and not predictable at the same time. If there is a degree of predictability then the listener will be able to relate to the song more quickly. For instance, how many of you have said in your mind, “that would be so cool if this song did this...” and then the song took the same direction you wanted it to go. Immediate satisfaction.
If you twist it a little bit, then the song will have its unique identity that separates it from the traditional cliché of many hooks. People have heard different artists use the exact same musical hooks and patterns, and if there is no unique twist then you will hear something like, “they copied (fill in the blank)’s song. Sounds just like it but with different words.” You will most likely want your song to have its own identity.
Music is about textures as well as melody. Think of the texture of a nylon string guitar as opposed to the texture of a steel string. Think of the texture of a piano, and the texture of a synth. Some of the same melodies played with different textures can completely change a song. A lot of metal songs sound like classical pieces when played on a classical guitar instead of an electric. The human voice sounds thicker with a chorus and reverb than a dry signal. Textures can bring out the best and worst in a song. We pay great amounts of money to get the ‘best’ texture we possibly can. That is why people buy expensive musical equipment over cheap pawn shop items. Distortion has a huge variety of different tones and sounds. Not every distortion pedal sounds the same. Why? For texture. Don’t keep using the same sounds, experiment with as many textures as you can. This is so important; I’m going to say texture 20 more times by the end of this tip. Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture Texture.
Have fun!? What kind of topic!? Guess what. People don’t have fun making music all the time. It’s really sad. If you don’t believe me, think about all the people who have been upset because of something their band did to them. Revert to the very beginning, when you first realized that you loved to create music... and have fun!
by Ken Hill
Ken Hill is an electronic/new age composer under the name of Soulwire.
If you have any comments, suggestions or ideas about this article, please be sure to e-mail him