What makes a great song, or indeed songwriter, is highly subjective to a certain extent. Yet, there are a few agreed upon do’s and don’ts. Despite this, the art of songwriting can feel pretty impenetrable, and the craft can certainly take a lifetime to master. Like with all artistic disciplines, it’s much easier to recognise and diagnose an issue with your work than it is to find and apply a solution for it. However, there are habits and practices you can learn that should have an immediate impact on your songwriting. To inspire and cultivate your inner songsmith, we’re going to reveal the following songwriting secrets.
1. Understand all the elements
A complete song – the finished article – is in fact the culmination of disparate elements having been brought together to form a (hopefully) coherent whole. The key elements of most contemporary tracks are the lyrics, melody, chord progression, and structure. Briefly; lyrics are the sung or spoken words of a song; melody is the tune these words follow; chord progression is the framework which holds and sustains the melody; and finally, structure refers to how the song progresses and changes in the course of its duration.
A songwriter must have developed a thorough understanding of these four elements and how they relate to one another. Without this, you’ll likely find that your songs feel disjointed and unsatisfying.
2. Communication is key
Songwriting is simply another form of communication – granted, that’s not one of the best-kept songwriting secrets. You’re trying to communicate to your listener what you’re feeling, thinking, or your perspective upon an issue. Of course, being a creative pursuit, songwriting isn’t as simple as jotting down a stream of consciousness appraisal of your current mood. Before you begin writing any song, have a clear idea of what you want it to intimate to your audience. Bear in mind also that it’s almost always better to ‘show rather than tell’. This means avoiding lyrics like ‘I am sad’, and instead using metaphor, similes and other creative techniques to convey your emotional state in a more intuitive, rather than explicit, manner.
3. Record and revise
A first draft of a novel or screenplay is never of a high enough standard to be released into the world unrevised. The same is pretty much always true of songwriting. Writing a song is a process of evolution, often gradual, rather than simply bashing out a killer track on a bus journey.
Once you have a first draft of your song, record it privately yourself. This doesn’t have to be anything like a polished recording, you can even just use your phone. The point is to give yourself a chance to listen to your work yourself without concentrating on performing it at the same time. Give it several listens, over the course of some time if you wish, and soon you’ll be spotting plenty of areas for improvement. Keep repeating this process with each draft of your song until those areas of improvement are gone. A trusted and knowledgeable friend can also be called upon to provide a fresh perspective and insight.
4. Experiment with your songwriting process
If you always approach and carry out your songwriting in the same way, then it can’t be surprising if the results are often similar. Shake up your songwriting process as often as you can. It won’t always work, but when it does you’ll have learned much more from the experience. This can mean doing something as simple as writing in a different place than usual, or writing a song in a genre or about a topic you wouldn’t normally explore. Of all the songwriting secrets, knowing that there is no one ‘right way’ to write a song, is amongst the most important.
5. The style that suits you best is the best style you can have
Given enough experimentation with your process, you’ll eventually find an approach to songwriting that just works for you. However, it’s unlikely that this process will be the same that any of your heroes or inspirations use. This is fine. All this proves is that they found their own way and it brought them success, and now hopefully, yours will for you. There’s no point trying to copy someone else’s process unless you’re also trying to emulate what they produce – which isn’t what songwriting is all about. Have influences for sure, but finding your own unique songwriting voice is crucial as it’s what will set you apart.
A knowledge of these songwriting secrets will help you to produce songs you’re proud of. However – and it’s no secret, but true all the same – practise makes perfect. So, put simply: if you want to becomes a great songwriter, write songs!
Also published on Medium.