So you want to write a song? Then that’s brilliant! You’re taking a creative stride in your Guitar-playing by seeking to invent as well as imitate.
Now prepare to be super duper stressed out!
Songwriting is truly a wonderful experience. Uniting chords, melodies and words into a tangible arrangement is something only a few people can do well; and if you work hard then you could be one of them too!
As I mentioned before though- songwriting is not without it’s stresses. Unless you plan on making the simplest song in the world- then it is not generally a walk in the park. Prepare to be throwing your scrunched-up lyrics sheets at the wall and crying because your chord progression is rubbish. To be honest: how stressed you get when writing a song does often depend on the Songwriter in question. Some people are easily-pleased or just natural composers; whereas others fall into the: “perfectionists who never think the song is good enough” category. I personally fall into the latter- which has it’s upsides and downsides.
TIP 1. Copy Your Favourite Artists
Now when I say: “copy”, I mean it in more of a liberal sense. Literally copying a band’s song is pointless and will probably end in a lawsuit; but what you should do is take influences, and a lot of them.
You won’t be able to look up a band’s wikipedia page without it citing a big list of their influences. Everyone takes influence from everything and that just how it is! In reality- nothing is original and everything is a Remix!
You might sometimes find yourself writing a song and then realising that it sounds very similar to a song by your favourite band. This has happened to me on numerous occasions before. If it happens to you when songwriting, my advice would be to ask yourself: “is it different enough?” as you don’t want to be accused of plagiarism and the likes.
Someone once said to me: “there’s only 12 notes, someone’s gonna copy someone eventually”. It’s all very fine lines this songwriting business.
Also- taking influence from contrasting genres is often a good idea because it leads to more interesting music. Blending genres also tends to get people more interested in a band because their sound is so much more unique. Notable examples would be Reggae-Metal band Skindred, and the infamous David Bowie- who seems to have dozens of genres influence his music (hard rock, jazz, funk, prog rock, glam, punk etc).
TIP 2. Draft Everything
If you’re lucky enough to be a perfectionist, then you’re probably not gonna be happy with your song straight away. But rather than being displeased- treat it as a draft and move on. There is nothing to stop you coming back and tweaking a song when you have a clear mind at a later date!
TIP 3. Write In Bits & Pieces
Now obviously you don’t have to do this, but a lot of songwriters write songs in bits and pieces- or song sections just come to them as they jam away. It’s not uncommon to play something and think: “that would make a good pre-chorus”. If this happens then great! Make a note of it, and maybe in the future you’ll find a place for it in a song! There’s no point in throwing away a potentially brilliant piece of music just because it doesn’t fit into a larger arrangement yet. The amount of verses I have written without accompanying choruses is ridiculous.
TIP 4. Know Your Theory
It’s kinda obvious, but knowing your Theory is essential- especially when it comes to songwriting. You don’t need to know if your vocal range is mezzo-soprano or if your Cadence is perfect; but knowing what notes are in a key is kind-of essential to writing a decent song (notes CAN go out of key of course, but not generally).
Want To Learn Theory? The best course for learning theory I believe is ‘Music Theory Made Easy’ by Steve Stine. I highly recommend checking it out.
TIP 5. Music to Lyrics VS Lyrics to Music
I know I say this kinda thing a lot- but this comes down to you and your cognitive reckoning. This is an issue that often baffles amateur songwriters and it is because it doesn’t have an answer. Some people write lyrics and then make them into a melody, whereas other write a melody and find words to fill it in with.
This does partially depend on your music genre and tone of the lyrics though. If you’re going for quite a cliched and poppy feel, then melody is usually your primary concern. If you’re going for a more alternative and heartfelt number- then lyrics should probably be prioritised in the name of self-expression and whatnot. Melody comes second to the words of pain within one’s soul. Et cetera.
TIP 6. Everyone’s A Critic
Not everyone likes the same music. This is just a fact. People disagree on bands, albums get mixed reviews and some of us just cannot understand what others see in an artist. This is the world of music and it will never change.
You must also prepare for this when you show your songs to other people. This includes friends and family! There is nothing more disheartening than when you play your hard-crafted song for someone who appears to not enjoy it. It can be heartbreaking but if it’s a good song then the chances are Joe Bloggs down the road will love it to pieces. Stay strong and don’t let bad reviews get you down! Some of the best bands ever have had atrocious reviews and misunderstood beginnings.
TIP 7. Write What You Know
It seems obvious, but lyrically it’s a good idea to stick to what you know. Love songs are obviously a popular choice, and it might be that you feel the need to express some of the Romance in your life. Or it might be that something has happened to you in life that you feel should be expressed in song.
Although I am saying to: “write what you know”, it can be good to try and branch out a little bit- even if it’s just into conceptual territory (storytelling etc). There are millions of love songs in the world, and unless you can write an exceptionally good one; many people would be more interested to hear something that they haven’t before. The odd bit of controversy never hurt anyone!
TIP 8. Can You Play It Live?
This is more for if you’re a musician/band that is writing material for an album or EP. If you’re going to be sitting down and recording songs one instrument at a time (multi-tracking) then you have to ask yourself if you can ALSO play the song to the same standard live. Sitting in a comfy little recording studio is very different to pacing around on a stage- and if you sing as well as play guitar then you may find it a challenge to do both if your strumming pattern is odd or something.
The risk of Studio Recording is also the massive creative control. By which I mean- you could get carried away with your creative freedom. The Smashing Pumpkins are a good example of this. Singer/ Guitarist Billy Corgan would often overdub dozens of extra guitar parts onto songs in the Studio- and massive changes had to be made to the songs to play them live.
TIP 9. Let It Flow
Song should have a steady flow to them- and all the components should run into each other nicely. Don’t force chords together if they don’t work very well. If your song sounds uneasy on the ear then work out what is wrong and tweak it until it becomes easy listening!
You might even find yourself over-crowding your arrangement in the name of sounding complex. This is often a bad idea, and just makes the song sound complicated and dissonant. If your song would be better without a pre-chorus then skip it, and if your Bridge has 8 bars than are notoriously boring then just cut them out. You might as well trim the fat and leave yourself with a simple and flowing song- rather than something that is just complex for the sake of it.
TIP 10. Always Be Ready To Write
Inspiration for a song can come in the oddest of places. For most people it’s whilst they are in the shower or whilst they’re falling asleep. For me it’s usually on a bus. I don’t know why but some of my greatest work has come to me spontaneously whilst riding notoriously unexciting public transport. The song is usually completely unrelated to anything around me too- but alas I shan’t be one to question a good thing, I just need to get more buses it seems.
My point is- always be ready to take notes. I do it by writing memos on my phone- but if you don’t have a phone handy then have a notepad or a pager or something that you can make a note of your genius on- you might forget it later if you don’t!
And that concludes this article on the basics of Songwriting. I have given you all the information I can without giving you a song itself- that part is up to you! Go forth and good luck!