“For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.” – Tom Waits
Whether you have been writing music for years, or are about to attempt your first song ever, there are questions you have wondered about. Songwriting is definitely a journey. While there is no one right way to write a song, there are some paths that are more well traveled than others. I hope this article can help someone out there move forward on their journey. Maybe you are stuck in a rut and after reading this article you start to believe in yourself and start writing again, or maybe this article will provide encouragement for someone to write their very first song. I know it’s asking a lot, but read the whole article and let me know how it impacts you.
“For me, in songwriting, I have a route I can take. Maybe there’s some forks, I can go this way, this way. But I know those roads. I still have the experience behind me.” – Dave Matthews
1. Should I start with lyrics or music?
Well, that depends. Different strokes for different folks. Some people always start with lyrics and then write the music to fit the mood, attitude, feel of the lyrics. Other people write the music first and then get to work on the lyrics to fit the vibe they have going on with the music. I have written songs both ways.
For me, personally, I am more comfortable writing music first and then wrestling with the lyrics. I will say, the few times I have written lyrics first and then put them to music, the process seemed easier. It’s just not how I normally get started. The most important thing is that you start.
Try this: Write 5 songs lyrics-music, then 5 songs music-lyrics. See which batch of songs you like better. Play them for friends and get input. Make notes of your experience and enjoyment while writing with each method, and learn what your preference and strength is.
2. Should I write the verse or chorus first?
Again, there is no right answer to this one (#sorrynotsorry). A lot of times, I will just start writing and whatever comes out comes out. It’s usually pretty easy for me to identify if it’s going to be the verse or the chorus or bridge, etc. Generally speaking, the chorus is going to be the catchier part of the song with more of the hooks and energy. That holds true for pop, rock, country, and most other genres of music. Verses tend to be down or lower in energy from the chorus, and contain unique lyrics that don’t have as much repetition as the chorus.
If your original inspiration for a song is one central big idea, it may be best to start with a chorus that communicates the idea, then use the verses to support or elaborate on that idea.
If your original inspiration is a story, you might write the verses first and then craft a chorus that brings meaning to the details of the story.
Again, try it both ways. You will likely be using them throughout your songwriting adventure.
3. Should I co-write with someone else?
Only if you want to get better at writing songs…
But for real, writing with other songwriters is an amazing way to improve your craft. So why don’t more people get together and co-write? For professionals, one obstacle is the dreaded royalty split. I’d rather do it on my own and keep all of the rights to the song, right? For amateurs, the main thing that holds us back from co-writing is fear. Songwriting is such a soul-bearing practice that we believe (unnecessarily) the creative process that leads to the final product should be done in private. Nick Cave puts it this way: “Songwriting, I have to take myself away from everybody to do. It’s an unsightly act.”
While the solo effort certainly works for many great songwriters, there can be great benefit in cowriting, especially for the amatuer. For the aspiring writer who wants to learn and hone their craft, getting together with other writers can inspire fresh creativity and provide insight into different approaches and methodologies that may unlock their potential.
Personally, I like writing with other people because it takes some of the pressure off my shoulders to be the only one responsible for starting and finishing a song. Instead of writing a song all by myself, I can take someone else’s idea and refine it and complete it. Or maybe I can bring my idea to the table and let others influence and contribute to it. Jumping in at different points in the process helps me keep perspective and not get bogged down.
4. How long should it take to write a song?
Sometimes writing a complete song can be done in as little as 30 minutes. Other songs have to marinate for months or even years before they are revisited. I have a song currently that I began writing 2 years ago, and I know I’m still waiting for the final verse. It can’t be written yet, because it will be written about something in my life that just hasn’t happened yet.
It’s difficult to put a timer on inspiration and creativity. Adapting and refining a method or process can absolutely help you organize and streamline your workflow, but there’s no substitute for the initial spark. If you don’t have an idea or a motivation to write, plan on staring at the floor for at least 10 minutes. Then maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll have an idea.
“Early in my songwriting career, when I was learning a lot about writing songs, I’d force myself to sit down until I came up with something.” Luke Bryan
As an exercise, you can set a timer and force yourself to complete a song in a dedicated amount of time, but don’t expect it to be the best song you’ve ever written. Some people do well under that kind of pressure, but many (especially creatives) do not. Regardless, timing yourself can be a useful strategy to stay focused. Just be sure to take breaks every 60-90 minutes to let your mind wander somewhere else and get in a different environment so when you return to your work for the next round, you have a fresh reserve of mental energy to put towards the task at hand.
One thing that is super helpful is creating an idea vault. I have hundreds of voice memos of song ideas with melodies, lyrics, choruses, or instrumental music. If I get a great idea (or one that I think is great), I can jot it down or record a voice memo and come back to it later. When I set aside time to write, if I don’t have a fresh new idea, I can always go to my vault and pull something out to work on.
5. Is my song any good?
OK, first of all, we need to define what we mean by a ‘good song’ before we can answer the question. Most people who ask this question are looking for approval from others. What you really mean if you’re asking this question is “do other people think I’m a good songwriter?” We all want to know that we are ‘good enough,’ or that we belong, or are accepted and approved of by those around us. Putting out original content is such an expression of our true selves that we are desperate to know what other people think of our song, because we believe it reflects what they also think about us as a person.
If you are writing for the enjoyment of others, you are chasing the wind and missing out on the biggest reward of songwriting, which is self-expression. I always thought of that phrase as being too new-agey or touchy/feely. However, now that I’m 10 years into this whole adulting thing (I’m 34 at the writing of this article), I’m increasingly convinced that finding outlets to express my thoughts and feelings is imperative to my own mental health and processing the events and circumstances of my life. So what? Is my song good or not?
Write for yourself. Write from your experiences, your story, your emotions. When you write a song that effectively communicates something that is true (your true thoughts, feelings, stories), then it’s a good song. Be satisfied with that. Appreciate that. Acknowledge that you have accomplished something meaningful. And, if someone else happens to like your good song too, then how much more rewarding is that? You already know it’s a good song, so you’re not seeking the approval of others. You’re bringing your own approval with you and agreeing with them.
“I’ve always used songwriting as a means to share what I think is profound.” Jason Mraz
OK, so there are our 5 questions. I’m sure you have more. Leave a comment and let me know! I’ll do my best to answer in the comments here, or perhaps even write another article on a topic you come up with. And, if you like this article, please share and subscribe!