Improving Your Songwriting Skills
Let’s face it – songwriting is not just an artform. It’s also a craft. If it wasn’t – a monkey could do it. Many artists visiting Fame Games are already excellent songwriters, but others only show potential which is yet to be fulfilled.
Amateurs often have a common argument against “learning” songwriting. It goes something like “you can’t learn this thing, you’re either born with it or you’re not.” Needless to say, and without much additional qualification, this is one of those “leave me alone I’m afraid to learn and fail” kind of arguments. You may be born with a special talent for something, but it will come to nothing without further development.
In my previous posts, and probably in some of the upcoming ones, I’ll touch on some useful techniques for getting “more” out of your songs. There is an element of subjectivity in this, of course. But it’s a bit like listening to someone speak. Some people bore you to tears even if the subject of their talk is very interesting. Others keep your attention even when they talk nonsense. We all have a radar in us which somehow knows what is “good” and what it not. We may differ on that point from person to person, but the overwhelming majority will tend to agree with each other at least on the general principle. It’s just a fact of how our psychology works.
Some key points to keep in mind, when writing songs. And it’s just a small sampling.
- Keep it real. Avoid meaningless and boring topics unless you really feel they need to be told.
- Keep it interesting. It may be just a key hook line or the entire lyric, it can be minimalistic or slightly wordy, but it needs to mean something to your listeners. Tell this story to a friend and see if he gets it. This doesn’t have to be anything high-flying or philosophical. You may just want to write a song about partying and having fun with the opposite sex. But you can say it in a way which makes your listeners fall asleep – or you can put a smile on their faces.
- Ensure that the lyrics have a strong and balanced meter, and rhymes (if used) are strong and not banal. Don’t “settle” for makeshift solutions. Make sure you know what your lyric “wants” to say and then find a way to express it. This will more often than not mean a LOT of revision.
- If your lyric has a good rhythm, so will your song. A well-written lyric virtually “sings itself.” Many songs have “forced rhythms” – for example cases where a syllable is stretched unnaturally in order to make the rhythm work. This is not the same as extended syllables which are there for special effect or because they just need extra emphasis or styling. This is about those lines where the writer simply couldn’t think of a way to make the phrase balance and he’s cheating by stretching or contracting words until they fit. This technique CAN work, but all too often it comes across as simply amateurish.
- Learn about chordal progressions. Some progressions “flow” and are natural and some are… erm… challenging. Some progressions are so well established that they’re known as “power chords” and you’d be surprised at just how many songs rely on them. The familiar C-Am-F-G progression works with children’s melodies but it’s also the basis of many classic hits. If arranged well (the right inversions, clever dynamics and rhythms) you might not even recognize it. Don’t be afraid of using “standard” chord progressions, but do challenge yourself to ensure that they come across as fresh.
- Ensure that your melodies aren’t “glued to the chords.” Melodies which follow chords have been done to death in the past and any new song which uses that technique immediately sounds boring and dated, with few exceptions. Deliberately “flip out” some notes in your standard melody and see how the song gets transformed. Try your melody against different chords. Does it sound more interesting? But keep in mind that melody lines are like lyrics: you’re always re-using familiar elements, but you need to put your own stamp on them. Between intervals, meter, rhythm and dynamics – and a bit of divine inspiration – you have all the tools you need to write something that nobody’s heard yet.
- Push yourself. Subject your songs to analyses and cold-listens by unsuspecting strangers. Clock their facial expressions more than their words (which are often cautious compliments, even when they’re not deserved). Find ways to write your songs so that the physical reactions you get become undeniably positive.
- Come up with tricks to improve your songwriting. One such “trick” isn’t really a trick at all, but it can completely transform the way you write your music. Get another singer to sing your song. Not because they’re “better” but because they’re DIFFERENT. If you know a singer who’s great get him or her to “interpret” your song. Try it with your melody line first, then ask them to just feel it and do their own thing with it. Then, get a “poor” singer to sing it. Watch him or her kill your song and unconsciously deliver a parody of it. The lessons you’ll take away from this can be invaluable.
- Study other great songwriters. Note that songs by greats such as Lennon-McCartney, Elton John or Diane Warren survive decades and lend themselves to virtually any musical style. How did they do it?
- Always ensure that your demos are done properly. They can be simple or complex, “produced” or not – but the basic values need to be there. Strong confident instrumentation and vocal, “flowing” arrangement, hooks, little surprises – and a decent mix.
When reviewing demos, “the song” is always the biggest consideration. Given two songs, one of which is beautifully written but poorly produced, and the other hastily written but beautifully produced, all too often the latter will win out. This is because “production” is just another word for “presentation”. We all know that it’s not clothes that make the man and we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But the fact still remains that first impressions are always going to be critically important. So have the depth and the content and all that – but also ensure that you grab their attention from the start with your craft – even if it’s basic. “Basic” is ok, as long as it’s “proper!”
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